By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
Any cook can call himself a chef — and often does — these days. Historically, though, the term was reserved for those culinary professionals who'd actually mastered the craft of preparing food, which involved everything from running the kitchen to adding the perfect finishing garnish to a brilliantly constructed plate. And even today, no matter what title a cook might claim, not everyone donning whites, headlining a menu or commanding a pass is a chef.
When a cook is truly a chef, definitions become insignificant: You'll recognize the chef's stature as soon as you taste the food, which will be more than merely good. In fact, if you taste careful construction, flawless technique or painstaking attention to detail, you're probably dealing with a cook. A chef's dishes, by contrast, feature all of those characteristics — and so much more that your palate won't focus on the details. Instead, you'll be tasting the equivalent of someone stealing Dad's keys and taking a joyride in the little red turbocharged sports car, then parking safely back in the garage without anyone ever being the wiser. When a chef has mastered his craft, the food coming out of the kitchen is joyful, exhilarating. And it no longer tastes like hard work; instead, it tastes like delicious play.
That's what Patrik Landberg's seafood dishes at Charcoal are like: a fun, fast ride.
I'd seen brief glimmers of Landberg's potential when he was running the kitchen at Satchel's Market. The Swedish-born chef, who'd trained in some formidable kitchens in New York City, was cooking in a tiny hallway of space, and though some dishes needed editing — I have a particularly bad memory of oyster shells filled with guacamole — his skill was apparent, especially at special dinners where he had the chance to get creative. When Satchel's closed in the fall of 2010 with plans to relocate to Sixth Avenue, Landberg didn't wait around. Instead, he joined up with Gary Sumihiro and started creating a menu that pulled from his roots without seeming overtly Scandinavian. And in September, they opened Charcoal.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Charcoal
On my first visit, my brother and I took a table in the middle of the boxy, sleek dining room, where we had a good view of both the exhibition kitchen in the back and the bar to the side, separated from the tables by a glass wine case. After studying my surroundings — I couldn't see any vestiges of the space's previous tenant, Apple Spice Junction — I looked over the dinner menu and decided to tour through some of the meatier items. I liked the flavor of the braised oxtail, which balanced slightly bitter Brussels sprouts against a savory, parmesan-rich broth and fluffy potato gnocchi; it reminded me a little of traditional osso buco. But the meat was gummy and tough instead of velvety, and the same problem plagued the pig on the pork-belly-and-waffle special — which was baffling, because pork belly is a particularly fatty piece of meat. Still, the crispy waffle, rich gravy and sweet pear garnish were a pleasant combination. And while my brother had asked that his lamb T-bone be cooked to the chef's recommendation, I have a hard time believing any chef would recommend grilling lamb to medium-well. The bed of kale and cannellini beans underneath the tough meat was soul-warming, though, especially when mixed with some of the gamey jus.
Those sides showed such promise that I was eager to return, and soon did for lunch, when the offerings include bincho boxes, a midday deal that includes soup or salad, a seasonal vegetable, mashed potatoes or rice, an extra side and one of a handful of entrees for under $15. It took me a minute to wrap my head around the idea of a bincho box — which conjured up visions of Japanese restaurants — at a spot firmly rooted in European cooking. But the explanation soon became clear: Landberg's team is doing a lot of cooking on a charcoal-powered, custom-designed bincho grill (indeed, an Asian innovation) because the chef likes intense heat — and that grill can reach 2,400 degrees. (The grill also explains the name of the restaurant, which seems better suited to a barbecue joint.) So I decided to try the trout bincho box.
One bite into the fish, I decided to quit worrying about odd names. Many kitchens serve trout skin-on but allow an eater to opt out by plating the filet skin-side down, which makes it easy to scrape the body away. Not at Charcoal: The trout was presented silver side up on a wooden plate, and the skin was clearly meant to be part of the dish. Grilled crispy, it not only provided a delightful textural contrast to the supple flakes of pink fish, but had a subtle flavor of char that worked well with the pool of tart, dill-infused remoulade. I ate every morsel, then used the fluffy brown rice to sop up the last of the sauce. Even though the side of bacon-wrapped dates was disappointing — the bacon was slightly scorched — that bincho box was so simple and playful, I couldn't wait to see what else Landberg could do.
I have dined at Charcoal a number of times and the restaurant is best described as solid with room for improvement on both sides not just the front of the house. It isn't frasca or fruition for sure, but I don't think it's trying to be. I agree that a series of small mistakes can ruin an otherwise perfectly executed meal. Being ignored is unforgivable and it blows me away to see how bad some restaurants are at timing. Really most of the issues seemed to be related to timing or mismanagement of time, I have a feeling they can improve those issues though and look forward to more meals at Charcoal.
Just had lunch there and was blown away by the food especially at such a reasonable price. FWIW our service was spot on.
I would love to have read more about the actual grills and the type of charcoal used since this is one of the features that makes this restaurant unique in Denver. In just a few minutes of googling, I found lots of interesting info that could help explain the cooking techniques and flavors created. Like the fact that true bincho-tan charcoal does not produce smoke, so the subtle flavors of seafood are not overwhelmed. I also noticed that the temperature mentioned in the arcticle - 2400F - is the temperature needed to create the charcoal in the kilns used to make it, not the temperature that the grill achieves in the restaurant. If this were true, it's no wonder others are complaining about being seated at the kitchen bar (that's almost 3x the temp of the interior of a pizza oven like at Marco's).
Charcoal Restaurant rocks. The service is outstanding. The atmosphere is perfect for dates, celebrations and casual dinners. And the food? The best in Denver.
Well, I'm not going to quibble with Laura's experiences at Charcoal other than to say that our experience was much different. We had the tasting menu and every morsel was more delicious than the last. Additionally, our service was spot on which can be a tough slog for a server bringing all those courses.
I completely disagree about the service complaints. I've been to Charcoal a number of times and both the food and service have been excellent every visit.
Hey Charcoal - yeah, you're supposedly one of the best new restaurants in town. And yeah, your food's supposedly "to die for". Blah, blah, blah. Why don't you try and treat your customers a little better? And pleeeeease tell people - up front, when they make a reservation WEEKS in advance, that they have a choice of seating! We refused our reserved "table" because we were seated at the hot-blast-of-the-grill, counter seating and were told that most people LOVE those seats because it's like getting a show with dinner. Sure, watching the kitchen is entertaining (but not really comfortable) if you're not sweating buckets during your meal! We were made to feel like fools for turning down our reservation at such a trendy, chic, hard-to-get-in restaurant. Our hostess did not offer another table, again pointing out that it was a Friday night and tables were very hard to come by. But of course, we were welcome to wait in the bar until a table opened up (we were unsure as to how long this would take). I'm sure we missed your wonderful food but on principal, we won't return to get treated so shabbily.
I've never been turned off by the service at Charcoal. I find the staff personable and friendly. Have some perspective -- Most of the entrees are under $20. I'd be pissed if I was spending $40 per entree at Barolo or Mizuna and they botched my silverware. However, what makes Charcoal great is their food is the same caliber as Barolo and Mizuna but half the price and without white table cloths and overbearing servers.
Wait a second. You can't disagree that Laura didn't have silverware for one of her courses or that her server knew the menu so poorly that he kept having to ask the chef questions. You weren't there, so how can you disagree. You can say that you haven't encountered the issues that Laura documents in the review, but to day that you disagree sounds like you are saying that she is lying about the service she received. Sorry, I know that's uptight, but really, we have gotten into this Yelp zone that where EVERYTHING is an opinion that people agree or disagree with and it drives me nuts. Ok, rant over.
I was disagreeing with Laura's overall assessment that the front of the house at Charcoal is poor and detracts from the experience, not implying that she is lying. Perhaps I could have worded it better, but didn't realize an intern from the Weiner & Cox law firm was going to pick apart my positive statement sticking up for hard working people who have been nothing but good to me.
Furthermore, if you don't like people expressing their opinions online, then lead by example and don't express your opinions online.
If LuvTo's account of what happened is close to the truth they should be bitter. People in this profession need to realize they are in the hospitality business. This means taking each individuals wants, needs, likes and dislike into consideration. A guest should NEVER be told that one particular thing is good because most people like it. No one is most people, they are, thankfully, themselves. There is a right way and wrong way to deal with unhappy, justified or not, patrons. Furthermore, and I don't believe Charcoal does this, not a single reservation should be sat at a 'kitchen bar', lounge or other nontraditional seating area unless they are told this upon making their reservation. The person in question should have not said a word about what others love. I believe this should have been said. "I am sorry for the misunderstanding/inconvenience and would like to offer that you feel free to have a seat in the lounge area while enjoying a free round of 'whatever is appropriate' until we can get you seated at a more comfortable table." I hope Mklerkman you are not in the same industry I love and plan to spend the majority of my life in, or that you are just young and ignorant enough to believe that people come into your job just to experience what you do. We make a living off from people's happiness not our owbn smug attitudes and egos.