By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Bennigan's. We have Bennigan's to thank for Christian "Goose" Sorenson, executive chef at Solera. Coming to the Mile High City from his native Wyoming, where he'd been a frat-house cook in Laramie, Sorenson thought that working the line at Bennigan's was the top restaurant job to which he could aspire.
"I did my Animal House thing," Sorenson says of his frat-boy days. "You know, drinking and partying." But when the fraternity house's cook left, Sorenson stepped up to the plate. "Up there, a real treat in terms of food was going with a couple of guys to the country club for some carved prime," he remembers. "I spent my days reading Julia Child and cooking for the guys."
After leaving college and moving to Denver, Sorenson actually applied at Bennigan's but was turned away. "They said I didn't have enough experience," he says, laughing. "My whole life could have changed with that."
5410 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Region: East Denver
Seafood risotto: $10
Duck confit ravioli: $14
Butterleaf salad: $7
Duck breast and leg: $22
Pork tenderloin: $22
Five-spice ahi tuna: $25
Lucky for us, he quickly learned his haute from his merde. Sorenson studied cooking at the Art Institute of Colorado while holding down a gig at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse that he got through a friend. He went on to work under Michael Degenhart at Tante Louise (Degenhart's trained at least two of my favorite chefs in town: Sorenson and Duy Pham), then with Mel Masters at Mel's Bar & Grill. Masters soon put Sorenson in the chef's post at Starfish, a Cherry Creek restaurant that Sorenson eventually bought outright. He ran the place for a year before selling it off to his partner and moving back to Wyoming.
Even if his career had ended right there, he could have gone home a success. Ruth's Chris, Tante Louise, Starfish -- it wasn't a bad run for a guy who got his start slopping out mac 'n' cheese to beer-drunk frat boys up in culinary no-man's-land. But after a few years, Sorenson returned to Denver to open a new restaurant with his buddy, Brian Klinginsmith. "We borrowed money from friends and family," Sorenson says. They found themselves an unlikely little spot on East Colfax, "and we just had to make it work."
That was just over a year ago, and today that unlikely spot is home to Solera -- a bit of foreign adventure along Denver's most sprawling stretch of Americana. I ask Sorenson if he'll be chucking it all anytime soon for that spot on Bennigan's hot line now that he's got the chops for it, and he laughs. "Yeah, you know, sometimes I still feel the pull," he jokes. "But I don't think so." At Bennigan's, he'd never get to make duck confit ravioli.
I've always dreamed of stumbling on a place that can be reviewed on one dish alone, a preparation with such surprising breadth and strength that it's entirely indicative of everything going on in the heat of the kitchen and in the depths of a chef's heart. This is my dream because first, it would be a lot less work -- talk about one plate, get a snappy quote from the owner, wrap things up with a little love for the front of the house, then bam, the review's done and there's more time for yours truly to sit on the couch in my bathrobe and cowboy hat watching Iron Chef reruns. More important, though, finding such a dish also means that I've found a restaurant where the chef and the rest of the kitchen have their acts so totally together, and share such a cohesive vision of the experience they're trying to send out to the dining room, that one plate is capable of speaking clearly for all the rest.
Trouble is, by the time a restaurant becomes capable of such a singular, effective communication of style and taste, it tends to do everything well. The menu transcends a simple listing of available dishes and becomes a poem or love song for favored flavors. Textures develop into a landscape of experience. Preferred combinations -- like lemon with lobster or lardons with lamb -- reappear as motifs at different places on different plates.
So the trick for a critic who wants an easy review is to catch a kitchen on the cusp of really breaking out and reaching its stride; getting there at that point when the chef has settled into his post and all the talent he's gathered around him has come together, but before they go through that first menu change where those skills are realized.
I hit Solera about two months too late to buy myself that cinch week. Sure, I found a perfect dish -- one single shallow bowl of duck confit ravioli -- but even though it was a standout work of gentle, unassuming art, the menu that surrounded it, which Sorenson had introduced in late February, had a lot more to say about the path this kitchen has walked than could be expressed by three ravioli. They came tender, sitting up in the bowl like the stiff, closed petals of a flower, crimped roughly by hand and stuffed with incredibly rich and fatty confit leg meat with Point Reyes blue and Laura Chenel goat cheeses milled to a smooth paste -- almost a pâté, really -- and seasoned with surprising delicacy so that the sea salt, sherry, fresh thyme, cracked black pepper and white-truffle oil never overpowered the melting softness or natural gaminess of the duck. The ravioli lay in a glossy demi-glace cooked down properly from darkened duck stock over long, slow hours of heat until it was "so thick you could spackle your house with it," in Sorenson's words, then mixed in the pan with a hit of sherry. A ragout of wild mushrooms -- fresh morels and black trumpet -- matched their deep pine-forest funk against the earthiness of the confit and the soft muscle of the duck demi, and the plate was finished with a few leeks for lightness and a rough cap of julienned sweet golden beets, sliced fennel and tarragon.