A Brush With Greatness
It was like an episode of This Old House: The Restaurant Version.
When brothers Bill and Steve Rohs decided to open an eatery in a building across from Benedict Fountain Park on 20th Avenue, they first had to undo the damage done by the space's previous restaurant tenant. "We knew it was going to be a lot of work, most of which we were doing ourselves," says Steve, who now handles the kitchen. "And a lot of the stuff we had to take care of was apparent from the start, like the fact that the grill was literally right next to the bathroom. The joke was that you could go to the bathroom without ever taking a break from cooking. And there was no hood, so all the smells and everything from the cooking had just lingered in every nook and cranny of the place."
Especially the flooring, which the Rohs brothers initially thought was kind of cool. "It was so soft and squishy, it was like walking on the moon or something," Steve explains. "And then we found out why, when we pulled up seven -- yeah, seven -- layers of linoleum, then a layer of carpeting, then two more layers of linoleum, another layer of carpet, and one more layer of linoleum. And it all stunk so bad, we thought we were going to die." Before they were done, they'd made 35 trips to the dump, restored every inch of the kitchen, pulled down the rafters and moved and replaced the bathroom. "The john was so warped, it was about to fall through the floorboards, and every now and then as we were working, sparks would start flying up from out of nowhere," Steve adds. "And there was one wall that Bill kept telling me, 'Don't try to do that yourself. Call me when you want to knock it down.' But one day I was leaning on it, and it started to give. So I started pushing on it, and it just fell right over. It turned out to be a wall made of corkboard and two-by-twos."
Once they'd nearly torn the place down, though, the brothers could start putting it back together much better than before. "You know, we leased this old building because we loved it for its architecture, and we loved the location, with the park across the street and the interesting neighborhood that we think is just going to keep improving," Steve says. "So we think it's going to be worth it in the long run."
Their restaurant, The Painted Bench, has already proved a worthy addition to the restaurant scene. From its appealing interior -- filled with unique pieces of furniture (including a brightly painted bench done by kids at the Children's Hospital), eye-catching artwork and a very cool bar area -- you'd never guess what the brothers had to go through to get the place to this point. (Being one of about ten people on the planet to eat at Carter's Bar-B-Que, the space's previous occupant, I realize the extent of the transformation: There's not so much as a whiff of the dead-animal-and-urine scent that dogged Carter's.) "We still have a lot of work to do," Steve admits. "Every week we add something new, change the art around. It's a work in progress."
But at least they now have time to concentrate on the food, which is why the brothers wanted to open a restaurant in the first place. The Rohs boys grew up in Springfield, Illinois, with a doctor dad and nurse mom, along with two more brothers and two sisters. "The story in the family is that my cooking career started at the age of nine," Steve says. "I told my mom that the pizza in our town sucked, and so she got me all the stuff to make my own from scratch. I was pretty into it." The family as a whole was into anything outdoors-related and came to Colorado every year to ski, fish and golf. "In the summers, we went to a dude ranch in Durango," Steve says. "Bill and I always knew we wanted to come back here to live."
After dabbling in pre-med, architecture and art studies, the affable Bill -- who handles the front of the house at the Painted Bench -- eventually moved to Winter Park to do the ski-bum thing. Steve, meanwhile, was working in sales -- and hating it. "I'd say I was going to be out on calls for three or four hours, and I'd end up at the Tattered Cover, reading cookbooks and scribbling out dream menus," he says. "And Bill had moved to Boulder and bought a house here in Denver as an investment, and he was fixing it up. He kept driving past this building and thinking it would make a great restaurant. But we were both busy doing other things at the time."
One of the things Bill was doing was parking cars at the Flagstaff House, where one day he met Brett Davy, a local restaurateur planning to open the Coos Bay Bistro in the University of Denver area. "They hit it off, and Bill became a partner in Coos Bay," Steve explains. "And not long after they opened, I quit my job in sales and went to cook there for them." That was enough to hook Steve on cooking for good, so he put himself through the program at Denver's Culinary Institute of the Arts before heading to California to get more experience. He found it working at Domaine Chandon, Pinot Blanc and Auberge du Soleil and studied pastry at a satellite branch of the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley.
When Bill told him that a perfect restaurant space was available at 20th Avenue and Logan Street, Steve quickly returned to Denver. "I came back in January of 1998, and after permit hell and renovating hell, we opened last June, just for breakfast and lunch," Steve says. "And now we're locked in here for the next eleven years, so I hope we can make it work."
I'd say they're well on their way.
Steve's signature dish, the duck tamale appetizer ($7), boasted a stunning combination of flavors that showed how well his brash cooking style can work. The tamale offered a little chile heat, a lot of soft, moist masa harina, and large shreds of tender, sweet duck meat that played off the sweet-and-spicy roasted corn and black bean relish; a spunky chipotle sauce tied it all together. Another well-crafted starter, the trio of Mediterranean dips ($5), brought a concentrated sweet roasted red bell pepper blend, a garlic-pungent baba ghanouj and an olive-heavy tapenade (the choices depend on what's fresh) that we polished off in record time.
Many of the Painted Bench's dishes have evolved since the restaurant first opened; the cool lobster salad ($16) is a case in point. Available as a salad course or an entree -- it sounded so good that we opted for the latter -- the assemblage involved an eight-ounce tail torn into bite-sized pieces and tossed with Israeli couscous, roasted corn and super-sweet, very ripe cherry tomatoes, with a textbook-perfect lobster aioli as the finishing touch. "That started out as a crab salad with tomato confit and amaranth, with a garlic-and-basil aioli," Steve says. "And then one day I had these lobster tails..."
Successful innovation is a hallmark of a good chef -- and Steve is clearly not afraid to experiment. The West Coast salmon with carrot raviolis ($15) was another of his bold creations. For anyone who thinks of carrots as a steamed afterthought, these raviolis are bound to be a revelation: big, round packages filled with intensely sweet carrot purée, with a sauce of carrot juice done à la nage, the results of carrots cooked in a court bouillon. The only thing keeping this dish from perfection was the undercooked pasta, which left the raviolis dry and chewy around the edges; the exquisite salmon, however, was impeccably roasted. A lemon-saturated salad rounded out the plate, balancing the overall sweetness of the fish-carrot combination.
After a series of such striking dishes, we shouldn't have been surprised to find dessert remarkable, too. Although Steve makes all of the desserts -- he says he couldn't do it without the help of his trusty sous chef, Joe Holliman, who cooked with him at Coos Bay -- the standout would have to be the warm chocolate truffle cake ($5). It had a gooey chocolate center and was topped by a ball of espresso ice cream that melted into the spongy cake. Heaven.
But Steve's ambitious reach sometimes exceeds his grasp -- as well as the often shorthanded staff and the always limited kitchen space, which lacks a walk-in. On a second visit, the asparagus plate appetizer ($6) was marred by bitter marinated kalamatas and a mushroom vinaigrette that had been made with truffle oil, which permeates everything. As a result, the dish turned into a big plate of truffle-oil-scented stuff with bitter kalamatas and some caper berries. And that was a shame, since the few chilled, crisply cooked asparagus spears that had not been touched by the oil were peak-fresh, and the unadvertised accompaniment of ricotta salata, which soaks up truffle oil like tiny sponges, is a sadly underused -- and, in this case, abused -- cheese.
Our only complaint about the Prince Edward mussels ($7) was that eight smallish bivalves were too few for the price -- but the mussels were swimming in such a sublime, red-wine-spiked tomato sauce that we quickly forgot that quibble. The foie gras ($8) was also to die for, although the hard, buttery croutons beneath the quivery organ meat were nearly impossible to cut. Once I managed to saw off a bite, I could taste the deliciously sour sorrel gastrique, with the lemony plant replacing the usual fruit in the classic caramelized sugar sauce.
The dressing on the Caesar salad ($3.50) was another canny combination, but there wasn't enough to coat all of the romaine. And the roasted beef tenderloin ($20) came as two medallions rather than one big hunk, both of which missed the mark on my medium-rare stipulation and had edges that were a bit dry. The meat itself was good, though, and the side of Calypso beans, wet down with a rich Stilton sauce, had been augmented with oven-dried tomatoes. And the swordfish ($17) was right on the mark: ideally roasted so that the center was still juicy, and served with a mint-infused green lentil cake and golden beet slices well-slicked with a slightly sweet tomato vinaigrette, a dousing of chive oil and a wisely tiny splash of truffle oil.
In addition to that splendid chocolate truffle cake, we also took on two delightful tarts: a lemon custard and an apple ($5 each). The lemon was smooth and creamy (see Mouthing Off for the recipe) and well-paired with raspberry sherbet. The soft, sugary apple bits came in a cinnamon-dusted pastry shell so delectable it could have stood alone as dessert.
Since adding dinner this past spring, the Rohs have dumped breakfast, but they still offer lunch. I stopped by for an Italiano sandwich ($6.75) that layered prosciutto and salami with fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers, all stuck to a French baguette by a glue of roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato aioli. Like the rest of the Painted Bench's fare, it was a strong union of flavors and colors. And like the restaurant itself, it had been put together well.
"With parents in the medical field, I think we have a good perspective on where food fits into the scheme of things," Steve says. "I always say that the meals I cook last only as long as you're in my restaurant and that they won't change your life. But, boy, opening this place sure has changed mine."
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