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Matt Selby didn't set out to operate a cafeteria-cum-pantry for the RiverClay condominiums rising five stories above Corner House. But since he and his two partners unveiled this 1,250-square-foot eatery in January, that's precisely what it's become. "People would come down in their pajamas," marvels Selby. Hugging the corner of the building, with views of Jefferson Park across the street, the wide-windowed restaurant has become a place for residents to grab a bite after a trip to the fitness room, to put down one last drink before heading upstairs for the night, even to bum oregano when they're making pasta. "I asked if they needed a loaf of bread to go along with it," he chuckles.
Corner House isn't a cafeteria, of course. Selby spent fifteen years with Vesta Dipping Grill, Steuben's and Ace, first as executive chef at Vesta and ultimately as company chef, and the Colorado-born, self-described "ingredient dork" has higher aspirations than that. But if Corner House isn't really a cafeteria, it's not quite a bistro, as both he and the restaurant's website describe it, either.
In France, bistros are known for hearty, homestyle food served quickly and without fuss. "They're the kind of place you'd eat at if you were at a train station and wanted good food," explains a friend of mine who's lived off and on in France for the past forty years. Lacking both the polished service and sophisticated fare of bona fide restaurants, bistros are where you go for filling dishes such as soupe a l'oignon, pot-au-feu and tête de veau (calf's head), all of which you could've had today if you were in Paris (I pulled up menus as I was writing), with a glass of wine.
In atmosphere, Corner House fits the description of a bistro. The airy interior boasts reclaimed wood paneling, a wood-slat drop ceiling, and more high-perch counter seats — at the bar and various community counters — than tables. A wall-sized black-and-white photo of an aspen grove enhances the rustic, treehouse-like effect. Service is also more bistro than haute. Servers might inform you of specials or last-minute menu changes, or they might wait until you order the mahi ceviche with orange and castelvetrano olives to tell you, unapologetically, that they don't have it tonight. They might succeed in describing ingredients, or they might tell you that the lollo rossa on the house salad is a type of arugula. And if my experience is any indication, they definitely won't tell you how to craft a meal from a menu that doesn't start small and build as you go down the page, as menus typically do, but jumbles small and (slightly) larger plates across three sections.
Some of the food counts as bistro fare, such as the bowl of PEI mussels, with a rich broth of tomatoes, butter and wine so heady you could dip day-old baguettes into it and go home happy. (The only reason for discontent would be if you had a tomato allergy; the menu lists other ingredients but not that one, and servers don't correct the omission.) Rillettes fit right in, too, with a small jar of shredded pork shoulder swimming in duck fat.
But in a true bistro, these would be paired with a nourishing main course, and the menu is shy on those. When I ate at Corner House, two-thirds of the offerings were light and cold (think shrimp cocktail and a ham-and-cheese plate), and only three dishes were large enough to count as entrees. Of them, tuna poke — listed in what seems to be the appetizer section, down from Sean Kelly's almonds and seasonal soup — was gingery and refreshing, though not anything to drive across town for. Neither was the disappointingly ungrilled grilled polenta, which would have been satisfying with more fennel and a bigger dollop of black-olive yogurt; as it was, we were left picking at a wide perimeter of plain cornmeal. And after several rounds of deceptively small dishes at another meal, it took a fruit-spiked avocado salad with a generous helping of arugula to finally convince us there would be enough to eat, and so relinquish our menus to the server.
Although portions can be small, some dishes are big on flavor, like the chili-braised short rib, which was the envy of the table. The slow-cooked meat shredded easily, turning into a deliciously edible mop with which to soak up every last bit of salsa roja, a deeply flavored sauce made from charred Fresno chiles, tomatoes, onions and lime. The sauce also stars over more short ribs and crisp tortillas in the standout chilaquiles, served daily at brunch. Brunch is also the time for French-toast bread pudding, panini and a mean green chile.
Does it really matter if Corner House is a bistro or not? Yes, because so far the restaurant is trying to be too many things at once, and as a result, it's spreading itself too thin. Does it truly want to be a bistro? Heartier plates of halibut and chicken panzanella, added after my visits, and bread pudding made with liberal amounts of semi-sweet chocolate and heavy cream point in that direction. Does it want to be a Denver-style fine-dining destination, with (mostly cushion-less) stools, not chairs, and T-shirts, not ties? The bone in my under-filled curry chicken panini and the shockingly poor house salad — with chèvre coating the watery greens like spit-out toothpaste — suggest not. But the elegant, truffle-salt-cured foie gras, served on coin-sized pieces of toasted brioche with pear gastrique, begs to differ, as does the decadent but diminutive chai panna cotta.
The confusion doesn't end there. Does Corner House really want to honor all things local and seasonal, as its "seasonally inspired" menu says it does in a lengthy paragraph praising "our bountiful state and the men and women cultivating" its products? This month, the jack-of-all-seasons menu is rife with watermelon, butternut squash and cauliflower, more in keeping with summer or fall than spring, and twice when I inquired about the seasonal soup, I was told it was seafood, not made with the asparagus, peas, greens or ramps I would've expected. Or does Corner House want to be known for small plates, sharing a niche that the Populist has carved out for itself? If so, the balance between hot and cold, small and sufficient needs to be more carefully addressed.
Still, in all this ambiguity, one thing remains clear: Selby is a sophisticated chef with the skills to make Corner House a place we'd want to call home, even if home is far from Jefferson Park. Right now, however, it's just not clear what kind of home it would like to be.