By Jamie Swinnerton
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Almost everyone at Sketch Food and Wine knows me. The above-the-line guys for certain, some of the bartenders. I have acted well and poorly in their establishment, used it for celebrations and decompressions numerous times since it opened in March. And I have experienced the all-too-classic result of blown critical anonymity: the frantic phone call from owner (Jesse Morreale) to chef (Sean Yontz), the screech of tires as a pickup truck comes to a rocking panic-stop in front, disgorging Yontz, who immediately takes up his post behind the slicer and salumi bar as though he was already on his way there and hadn't just been called off the line at one of his other properties to take care of the dimwit local restaurant critic who's brought in his high-tone foodie friends from other cities, other gigs, for a taste of the Yontz & Morreale magic.
There was no way around it. I met Morreale during my first weeks in town, back when he was hustling and unavoidable, and Yontz not long after. I have, at one time or another, reviewed all of their restaurants, opened both separately and together. Some of them I loved (Mezcal, Chama), some I didn't (the original Sketch, which I once likened to a late-night booty call, "a saving grace for the tanked and injudicious"), and some were merely forgettable (Vega, which came onto the scene both too early and too late to survive in a space that has swallowed several restaurants since). I like these two, and I have spent some of the strangest, most memorable nights of my last five years in their company. But that has not affected how I review their restaurants.
This new Sketch, not so much a resurrection of the short-lived Cherry Creek version as a drastic paring down of the original's form, is a very specific place, one meant to cater to highly specialized tastes. It is, first and foremost, a wine bar — stocking lots of juice, of both the low- and high-rent varieties, on the wall that towers above the bartenders, who sometimes have the appearance of tiny peasants laboring at the feet of a powerful (and occasionally vengeful) grape-based god. As such, I have no use for it. Wine bars generally bore me to tears because they act — to stretch an analogy — like the temples of a religion to which I owe no fealty. Give me beers. Give me whiskey or gin or cocktails made of either. Give me a root beer float or an ice-cold Coke, even. I have just never understood the attraction, the ridiculous weight with which some people imbue a simple glass of grape squeezin's.
11 W. 1st Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
I used to think it was me — that I didn't have the taste for it, that there was something magical about wine, some secret I had yet to unlock, and that if I only drank the right bottles in the right order, it would all somehow come clear to me. This was a plan I pursued with some dedication, and while it did get me drunk, it didn't reveal any mysteries. Fairly recently, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't me at all; it was the booze. It wasn't that I didn't have the palate, but that I didn't have the appetite. I've been a happier drinker since, no longer feeling duty-bound to waste my time with something I didn't love the way I do a good whiskey, a cheap whiskey, a good whiskey and then a shouting match at the bar. So while, yes, Sketch has wine, it also has bottles of Stranahan's, of Leopold Brothers gin and some weird Swedish or Finnish juniper consommé that tastes like eating an alcoholic lemon straight out of the bottle. It also has a sangria that tastes like crap — like sour white sucked through a fruit salad — and balances that with cans of PBR (cliché, sure, but still damn good served cold on a hot day) and several microbrews of mixed provenance. The bar is friendly and welcoming and long, and those treading the boards behind it know their stuff. More important, they treat the popped cans of PBR and bottles of Belgica Belgian IPA with the same sort of reverence reserved for those balloon glasses of Infinite Monkey Theorem Riesling.
I was several whiskeys to the good on a recent school night when I found myself propped up against Sketch's salumi bar, canting sharply like a ship taking on water. I asked for the menu, gave it a cursory glance, then pushed it back across the dark, polished wood, slapped a palm on top and pronounced, "I'll take everything."
Everything on the menu does not amount to a lot at Sketch. Theoretically. After all, it has no kitchen. No ovens, no flat-tops, no grill-scarred hard boys humping the eight-burner or waiters putting their thumbs in my soup. It serves snacks, more or less, which — if ordered in great volume — can be assembled into a meal that is absolutely perfect for someone like me, probably much less perfect for someone else. Someone, for example, who demands the standard setup of protein/starch/veg and wrap. Someone who likes sauces or garnishes or anything other than impeccably sourced meats, well-chosen and well-kept cheeses, highline bar nibbles and sharp little hits of sweetness at premium prices.