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The chef doesn't stop at putting a fresh twist on cultural throwbacks. He also plays with notions of seasonality, creating dishes that aren't exactly what they appear to be from ingredients grown in the Bean's own garden, located in an alley just steps from the restaurant, and supplemented with produce from farms such as Aspen Moon, which supplies a farm stand at the Bean on Thursdays during these warm months. I was surprised to find shepherd's pie on a summer menu, but the braised lamb, served in a tomato broth, was so tender that you could cut it with your tongue, and the pie had been left crustless, with potato mousse rather than chunks of starchy vegetable making it light enough for even a hot June night.
While MacKissock's experimentation results in some great dishes, the kind that make me want to clap my hands and squeal like a five-year-old duped by a trick candle on a birthday cake, he also turns out plates that simply feature good technique and flavor combinations. A delicate seared hiramasa comes with artichoke salad and a couple of thin, crisp slices of guanciale, the cured pig cheek. The Malachi Crunch is named for another Happy Days shtick; it's a classically indulgent chocolate brownie topped with bits of chocolate streusel and foamed milk. Occasionally these combinations don't work, and there are other culinary kinks. The tuna conserva, a fancy tuna salad sandwich served open-faced with fried capers and pine nuts, was underseasoned and dry both times I had it. And while the presentation of the strawberry rhubarb dessert — layers of pink and white in a beaker — was delightful, the execution bordered on terrible. This vat of soft, sweet mush exhibited none of MacKissock's strengths with texture complements and flavor balance.
3301 Tejon St.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
But when he's on — and he usually is — MacKissock does big things in that little kitchen. With food this impressive, it's easy to forget that the Squeaky Bean is essentially a cafe, with the service you'd expect at a cafe: warm and friendly and surprisingly knowledgeable, but definitely not doting, leaving you to a long, ambling meal without disturbance — even when you need disturbance, for a refill or a clear plate. Forget that, and you might find yourself occasionally feeling like the butt of a joke.
Otherwise, though, Ballen has created a restaurant that seriously lives up to its goal of making a meal fun. Regulars gather here for breakfast, lunch, dinner, meetings, reunions, dates and nail-biter championships, lazily letting afternoon turn into evening with a laissez-faire attitude more common to dining on the other side of the Atlantic. But the Squeaky Bean also exhibits a fervent reverence for American culture and a respect for place so deep, it seems like it's been serving diners for decades. This is a quintessential neighborhood joint, contemporary and timeless, both breaking the rules and playing by them — all while managing to look pretty cool.
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