By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
We order appetizers: prosciutto crespelle, the blanket of unctuous cheese over the prosciutto pricked to liveliness by a garnish of shaved fennel and apple; hand-rolled gnocchi with surprising little chunks of shrimp popping up on the ends of our forks; plump mussels in a belly-warming curry-chili sauce. Matheson may be keeping the food at the Kitchen simple according to his own lights, but it goes many long steps beyond home cooking.
By the time the entrees — or as the menu has it, mains — arrive, we're in a happy, talkative haze, helped along by glasses of Juan Gil. The Kitchen boasts a first-rate wine list. Divvying up our three plates — mushroom risotto filled with the dark, humus-y murmur of Hazel Dell's mushrooms; a plate of sweet, fresh-seared Maine scallops topped with vibrant salsa verde and grounded by an earthy bean ragout; and that winter lifesaver cassoulet, here with duck, pork (yes, it is John Long's) and house-made garlic sausage — we talk about Governor Bill Ritter's surprising decision not to run for a second term; the website faddiet.com; tenants' rights; my grandson's amazement at the wonderful tower of LEGOs my architect husband built for him; and why we can't stop emptying the basket of strong-crusted, brown Udi's bread that the servers keep attentively refilling. I contemplate the perfectly cooked piece of scallop on my fork and think about what Matheson said about his seafood supplier in Maine: "In halibut season, she sent a photograph of a guy on a boat holding up three fish and asked me, 'Which one do you want?' She's trying to keep her community alive and thriving." If he used a Denver outfit, he added, no one would notice whether he ordered or didn't, "but if I stopped buying from her, she'd call, asking what we can work out. These people's livelihood depends on it."
There's another connection pushing insistently at the edge of my consciousness. The dusty, crowded front room of a secondhand bookstore called Stagehouse II once occupied this very space, and I feel it bleeding through the brilliance of the contemporary dining room like a palimpsest. Except that calling Stagehouse II a bookstore is a bit like calling Albert Schweitzer a dentist or Nelson Mandela a politico. Walking through the front door and along the narrow corridors between tables of prints and objets d'art and tall shelves of books, I always felt like Alice in Wonderland entering the shop that was staffed by a sheep and "seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty; though the others around it were crowded as full as they could hold. 'Things flow about so here!' she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at."
Dick Schwartz was the creator of this legendary and magical place, a man of tremendous energy and intellect. For several years he was sick with some disease I never quite understood that was withering his heart, he told me; he attributed its cause to either his Irish-Eastern European heritage or to having drunk too much tequila for too many years. Or perhaps both together. He desperately wanted to live, and he fought for his life with every fiber of his being. He told me once about the terror-filled nights that he could get through only by listening to opera, and ever since, I have held the image of him sitting up in bed, so thin and so browned by the sun that he seemed a skeleton already, shining old bones, hardened and indestructible, while great washes of sound, the human voice at its most transcendent, buoyed his spirits. A dedicated antiquarian and haunter of estate sales, Dick found one of his most persistent pleasures in linking past and present, in bringing to those of us still on earth the breathing culture of those who had departed. We were standing in his shop — near the very table where I'm sitting with Rob and Dan — when he told me that he'd recently acquired a manuscript annotated by Galileo himself. When you get to hold something like this, he told me, the ground trembles underneath you.
Dick's grief at having to give up his bookstore was mitigated by what he knew of the new tenants. He believed in Matheson and Musk's mission. He loved the Kitchen, frequented the dining room, recommended it to everyone he knew. One of the farmers with whom Matheson now works, Paul Cure, assisted Schwartz in his book collecting for many years. Today he and his wife, Anne, provide the Kitchen with produce and the occasional lamb, pig or goat carcass.
We are brought the dessert menu. The pastry chef is Nathan Miller, who worked at Danube, Aureole and Jean Georges. True to the spirit of the Kitchen, he has refrained from creating hugely elaborate or experimental desserts here. The menu offers sticky toffee pudding, pot au chocolat, a housemade chocolate bar studded with additions that vary nightly from cardomom pods to hot peppers, a cheese plate and — somewhat surprisingly — that demotic treat churros, baked both tender and crisp, and served with a little pot of chocolate anglaise on the side. By the time we've sampled a few of these treats and had our coffee, we're so full we can hardly move. The beautiful waitress brings boxes for the food we haven't been able to finish.