By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
And it's not the only gag in this house. There are crispy duck cigars -- delicious shredded duck meat, bound with Camembert, wrapped in crisp phyllo, then sliced and served with a squiggle of blazing sriracha. There's a tuna "ménage-à-trois" on a single plate: a straight tartare with capers, each tuna chunk a perfect cube; two lozenges of very fresh sashimi in a puddle of citric oil; and a slightly bizarro seared tuna that tastes almost like very good Texas barbecue. (I don't even want to venture a guess as to how the kitchen pulls this one off, because I'd say Liquid Smoke and probably be wrong.) There's even a "Quarter-Pound Crab Cake" on the menu, served with dilled mayo and dressed in red pepper puree -- although the house missed a joke at the expense of Mickey D's by not mounting this on a cheap hamburger bun with a little lettuce and tomato.
240 Union doesn't put all of its energy into the fun stuff, either. For a kitchen to survive this long, it needs more than just a sense of humor. It needs to pay attention to the easy stuff, too -- like pastas.
At a tired restaurant, formerly brilliant pastas become workhorse alfredos and primaveras; cunningly sauced-and-sided mains take on an air of barrel-bottom scraping. But this kitchen lavishes attention on even the lowliest noodle dishes, turning farfalle with tender chicken, smoky bacon, sundried tomatoes and peas into a masterpiece by mounting the sauce with mascarpone; a simple, shallow bowl of pappardelle (almost always the worst of any pasta board, because those damn noodles reject nearly every attempt at saucing) into a Maine picnic with a smart, summery blend of lobster in brown butter, damp tomato ragout, wilted arugula and corn.
240 Union Blvd.
Lakewood, CO 80228
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Lobster corndogs: $14
Tuna ménage-à-trois: $12
Duck cigars: $10
Crab cake: $14
Cioppino: $22< br>Chicken: $15
Lamb chops: $31< br>Duck breast: $22
For the mains, the kitchen depends heavily on its mesquite grills -- grills that were a symbol of the California Cuisine "revolution" of the mid-'80s -- and that's appropriate, because a lot of 240 Union reflects the slow, natural tempering of the Californian ideals of seasonality, center-plate proteins and locals-only bravado. The lamb chops are from Colorado farms and come simply glazed in apricot mustard, the salmon is Canadian (which is just like being American, but with a funny accent), the halibut is Alaskan, the rotisserie-roasted half-chicken that comes with mashed potatoes and a straightforward, natural jus is from Red Bird Farms. The birds used for the duck breast entrée don't have a pedigree, but since the duck is so perfectly cooked -- sliced, fanned and mounted over sautéed greens, ideally paired with a sour cherry and peppercorn sauce -- I wouldn't argue if the house said they were from Mars. And the spear of goat cheese-stuffed French toast that comes tucked along the side of the plate is one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth for money.
Finally, there's that cioppino. I love cioppino. I love bouillabaisse and fisherman's stew and sopa de mariscosand whatever else anyone wants to call a good fish soup. When I see such a thing on a menu, I have to order it, both because of my multiplicitous seafood joneses and because, no matter what it's named, this dish is a bitch to get right. It's perfect critic bait, encompassing a whole range of ingredients -- from seafood to produce to the spice rack and stocks -- and working out all the stations in the kitchen. Here the broth is built up from a wonderful stock, including as a base the mirepoix that started it, then adding layers of tomato sweetness and bright spikes of herbs. The seafood that finishes it -- scallops and shrimp and chunks of fish and clams and mussels and even crawfish meat, which is used nowhere else on the menu -- are poached, boiled and steamed to their ideal doneness, which is no small trick, since each requires a different cooking time, and half of them a totally different cooking method.
But the smell that results is intoxicating -- hot and meaty and ever so barely fishy. And the taste, even after all the other good food I've eaten at 240 Union, is heavenly. That I took most of mine to go -- that I'd barely touched it when I asked my server to have the rest poured out into a tall styro and double-wrapped in plastic -- probably drove the crew nuts. They have to know how good their cioppino is; how, even when held up against the dockside original, it holds its own. And I was damned if I was going to leave a drop behind.
At 3 a.m., just a spoonful gave me a new lease on life.
Longevity. That's one of the most important words in any restaurateur's lexicon. Every house wants to be the one in a hundred, in a thousand, that lives to see its ten-year anniversary in the rearview and its twenty coming Œround the bend. Most never get there. But 240 Union has.
That's because this restaurant has never just settled. It's never decided that it's okay to coast. Food this well-prepared doesn't automatically result when the menu is smart and the location long-lived. It results when the crew comes to the grills fresh every night, and steps up to each shift as though it were the first one. You can watch this crew at work, in one of the most open kitchens I've ever seen -- sixty feet of white jackets, top-broilers and fire, stretching the entire length of the back wall in full view of every table in the Miami Vice-meets-Spago dining room.