When I first visited Great Northern Tavern, the place was a virtual train wreck, with some ill-conceived dishes colliding with poor timing ("Train in Vain," December 10, 1998). But today it's the best brewpub in Denver.
So how did Great Northern get back on track? First and foremost, the restaurant hired a new executive chef, Peter Braidman, a former corporate chef for Landry's. Braidman altered a few of the recipes -- that's wild rice instead of cornmeal dusting the walleye, for example -- and coaxed the kitchen into both better execution and tighter course scheduling. The result is streamlined fare that works, especially with the brews the tavern makes at its original site, also called Great Northern Tavern, in Keystone.
Both train-themed eateries are owned by Bill Ferguson, who's well-known in these parts for his popular Avenue Grill on 17th Avenue. Although the Denver GNT even looks a bit like the Avenue Grill, with a lot of well-polished wood and gleaming trim, it's meant to be more reminiscent of an old dining car. But while the Great Northern Railway was famous for its fabulous food, GNT's initial attempts to live up to that reputation failed miserably. Its first chef, the estimable Tim Anderson, moved back East not long after the place opened, and then the kitchen suffered though a subsequent series of chefs unable to fill his toque. Until Braidman, that is. Braidman understands the GNT customers -- a lot of out-of-towners in for DTC business, and the DTC business folks themselves -- and he caters to them by offering a balance of heartier fare fit for those who are supplementing airline food and lighter dishes that keep the big merger from causing indigestion.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of GNT's clientele visits during the noon meal. Among the heftier lunch items is a massive rotisserie-grilled prime-rib sandwich ($9), in which the thinly shaved meat is mixed with caramelized onions, peppers and mushrooms that have been sautéed until buttery and translucent. Then everything's piled onto a big, thick, chewy baguette along with enough mozzarella to ensure that each bite trails a gloriously long string of cheese. A Creole rémoulade comes with the sandwich, and although the word "Creole" warns of a certain spiciness, the cayenne bite nicely complements the condiment's rich creaminess. Such attention to detail was sadly lacking under the kitchen's earlier regime, and it's much appreciated now. A lunch entree of applewood grilled Alaskan halibut ($12), a lighter item sporting a sharply tart lemongrass essence as its sauce, offers more proof that this kitchen takes care; a pile of wide, thin udon noodles (called kishimen), perfectly cooked to a soft and supple texture, as well as some quickly sautéed snow peas and bamboo shoots, makes the whole delicious dish seem very healthy.
The dinner lineup is similar to that at lunch, although the prices are higher and a few of the sandwiches are dropped in favor of more sophisticated fare. The maple-cured salmon fillet ($17), for example, is a succulent piece of fish flesh with a sweet edge, sided by a rich and tangy wild-mushroom-and-leek compote and a twice-baked Yukon gold potato, all sitting atop a thin pool of aged balsamic syrup. The beautifully seared sea scallops ($20) come all dressed up in a lemon-tarragon-Riesling sauce that isn't necessary on the scallops -- they're just fine on their own, tender and moist inside, with a faintly crisp exterior -- but goes well with the fennel-packed mashed potatoes and just-done haricots verts.
But the real proof that GNT has finally arrived is its signature dish: the rotisserie-chicken pot pie ($9). For a long time, this item was a topic of ridicule: The kitchen couldn't seem to get one out on the table that wasn't raw inside -- ever bitten into a big wad of uncooked dough? -- or burned on the outside. But now the pot pie boasts a consistently golden topper; underneath are steamy, creamy root vegetables and soft chicken chunks held together by a chicken-rich country gravy. Add a frosty mug of GNT's hoppy Western Star Wheat and two timbales of its gooey-centered warm chocolate truffle cake ($7), and it's full speed ahead.
Can't you hear that whistle blowing?
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