Sometimes a restaurant completely fails to find its niche; sometimes everything just falls into place. More often, though, adjustments are made here and there, a few things get changed along the way and, with any luck, an eatery eventually finds a modicum of success.
Or much more, in the case of Vesta Dipping Grill.
When this hip, happenin' spot opened in LoDo, it was one of those concepts that had people shaking their heads. Upscale shish kebabs? More dipping sauces than come with the average Chicken McNugget? Not only did youthful owner Josh Wolkon have to educate his eaters, he also had to make sure they got out of the place alive: The original chairs had a tendency to reach out and trip diners on their way to the restrooms ("Have a Nice Trip," October 30, 1997). And even some of those diners who understood the concept complained about the prices and the excessive trendiness; production problems with the grills lost the place a few more customers. But nearly three years, a new set of chairs and an overhauled menu later, Vesta is packed most nights, and the bar is always standing room only.
That's because Vesta has grown into that rare restaurant that combines good service, good food and an eye-catching space. Spacious but cozy booths, interesting lighting -- hell, interesting everything, from a confident mix of rustic flooring and modern furniture to funky serving dishes -- along with the ever-present buzz of groovy people make it one of the hotter see-and-be-seen scenes around. The kitchen does a commendable job of timing the courses, and while the waitstaffers may be oddballs, they're always on the ball.
But if the food coming out of the kitchen weren't as visually appealing and darn tasty as it is, Vesta would be as dead as all those other trendy restaurants that have vanished in the past few years. Chef Matt Selby -- who came on board right after the opening chef left, which was not too long after the opening -- has tried to keep the menu as up-to-date as the atmosphere, and it pays off. A little bit Asian, a little bit Mediterranean, a little bit worldbeat, the menu offers a wide range of flavors in its innovative dishes as well as in those 29 dipping sauces. For starters, there's a tempting array of grazing items. The sesame-crusted Vesta roll ($10) was filled with drop-dead fresh rare tuna, accessorized with a wonderful wasabi cream sauce (although not enough of it) and sided by a well-balanced Asian salad of cucumbers and pickled ginger; the grilled duck and herbed goat cheese quesadilla ($8) didn't have enough cheese, but there was plenty of tender duck, which was nicely complemented by the accompanying mango and poblano salsa dipper.
The duck, though, had nothing on the brown-sugar-smoked roasted duck breast entree ($21). The brown sugar was a brilliant touch, caramelizing into a crispy skin with a beautifully fatty layer beneath; the result was almost a duck bacon wrapped around the juicy, succulent flesh inside. The sides of mashed potatoes filled with caramelized shallots and a pile of curried onions were also inspired. Another main course, the bone-in pork loin ($17), offered the same yin-yang of tastes: The meat was coated in a garlic-kissed soy glaze that played nicely off the sweet-potato "stir fry" that was like a pile of sweet French fries.
Most of the entrees come with your choice of three dipping sauces, and the menu offers suggestions for each. With the duck, we went with Vesta's recommended sweet-and-sour-tasting dried-berry chutney, which worked best with the sweet meat, as well as an onion-heavy mango poblano and Doc's mandarin sauce, which added another sweet element to the mix. For the pork, the Blake St. BBQ was the winner, an excellent sauce by any standards, and we wished we had a big pile of ribs to slather with the sweet, spicy concoction. The roasted Anaheim pico de gallo was too mild, but the sweet chile-ginger sauce played well with the pork.
With such an eclectic main menu, it's no surprise that Vesta's dessert menu is a bit off the wall, too. We couldn't pass up anything called "gingerbread and curry-grilled pear sandwich" ($6), which turned out to be a palate-pleasing mixture of sweet and savory: The spice-filled gingerbread was enhanced by a whipped cream that contained fresh basil; the sharp tang of the pears made the combo even more unusual. We could have done without the accompanying orange panna cotta, though, because it had the texture of old, dried-up flan -- and tasted like it, too. But the dark-chocolate boca negra ($6) was perfect all the way through, an unusually dense wad of chocolate buoyed by a white chocolate, bourbon-spiked ganache.
It was just like Vesta: weird and wonderful.
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.
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