By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Which is what chef Huggard has done at Encore. He's recycled cedar-plank salmon and put it to very good use as one of the primary plates on a menu to which it is absolutely suited, surrounded by fried calamari, sweet onion soup and excellent clam chowder (which is actually served in a bowl — unlike at Black Pearl, where the same chowder comes "unassembled" in a game attempt at another done-in food fad: deconstructionism). There's also an assortment of equally rustic flatbread pizzas that eschew the glam, Spago-style caviar and crème fraîche toppings in favor of wild mushrooms and rosemary, prosciutto, fig jam and arugula. The best is the simplest of all: a tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella Margherita, stretched into an ovoid crust on a wooden board. It's a model for any kitchen chasing that aesthetic of a pizza thrown together with bucolic nonchalance, as a casual snack for diners unwilling to commit to the ribeye or loin of sushi-grade tuna.
When I finally look away from the food, I see other problems besides the warped tables. I'm not crazy about the room (recycled from a space that once housed the ticket window, offices and some backstage access at the old Lowenstein Theater), whose low ceilings, drop-sash windows, seafoam-green color scheme and harsh acoustics make it feel rather like my grade-school cafeteria (except for the bar and chandeliers, of course). And when the place gets busy, the sound reverberates like the inside of a bomb shelter during an air-raid drill. Whited and Huggard decided to keep the space's original composite stone flooring, filling in gaps where walls had been taken down with darker stone, which not only adds to the noise problem but makes every trip to the bathroom or out onto the patio for a smoke sound like a Gene Kelly tap-dancing exit. And while the long bar is lovely and the open kitchen at the back a nice installation, I don't know what Huggard was thinking when he put his guys in giant, black muffin-top toques. Granted, a toque is part of the classically accepted chef's uniform, but these make the crew look like the cast of Strawberry Shortcake: The Musical just waiting for their cue to take the stage.
Still, it's easy to ignore such annoyances when the food starts arriving. On a return visit, I got a bowl of mussels in anise broth, sided by frites — another excellent recycling of a classic meal that never really went out of style. The wood-fired pizza oven had also done double-duty for the half-chicken, cooked until the skin was crisp and the flesh tender, served napped with a New Mexican red-chile sauce that was smoky, hot, earthy and sweet all at the same time, and possibly the greatest single trick of reprocessing on the entire menu because it was such a pitch-perfect copy of the authentic New Mexican article. The grilled artichoke was awful, though — soggy, oily, overcooked, with just a couple bare slashes of quadrillage and none of the delicious, nutty flavor of a properly handled artichoke; the kitchen clearly wasn't paying attention to this dish.
2550 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
At brunch, when the crowds tend to skew older, gayer, shriller and occasionally drunker than any brunch crowd in the city (not necessarily a bad thing, depending on what kind of entertainment you're after on a bleary Sunday morning), the kitchen makes a fantastic roasted-chicken-and-bacon breakfast burrito. At lunch, there's a very deliberate and considered board of burgers and sandwiches that run a weird gamut from the fairly standard (and tasty) Gruyère, bacon, blue cheese and arugula burger to one made with tuna and topped with rémoulade and another made of falafel, topped with hummus and tzatziki.
That last burger represents what could be the strangest recycling act at Encore. There's a strain of vaguely Middle Eastern influence running through the menu that seems completely out of place. On the appetizer menu, hummus. Among the sides, couscous with mint and orange vinaigrette. Included in the mains is a mezze platter with falafel, hummus, another grilled artichoke, harissa, couscous and olives, as well as a short-rib entree that's even described as Moroccan, served with still more couscous and golden raisins. To me, the inclusion of Lebanese, Moroccan and Persian classics is more jarring than the dated cedar-plank salmon — because the salmon, at least, seems connected to the grill-heavy and tree-hugging virtue of the recycled cuisine and recycled space that is Encore.
Restaurant recycling is a worthy endeavor when it brings back plates like cedar-plank salmon, real red chile and proper Nor'east clam chowder. But, like anything, it can be taken too far. It's time for Encore to do a little recycling of its own, disposing of the dishes that don't work along with those warped tables. The goofy chef hats can go, too.
But don't touch the fries.