On an unusually quiet evening on South Pearl, the patio at Session Kitchen announced itself from blocks away. While patrons of the district's other establishments restricted themselves to muted chatting, this restaurant was booming with music and the laughs of happy customers. From its graphic design sensibility to its menu design, Session appealed to me instantly. But no happy hour can coast on good looks and charm — is the value of Session more than skin deep?
Since the doors swung open in 2013, Session Kitchen has seen a number of menu changes, re-arrangements and streamlines over its brief history, rarely a sign of fabulous success. But through it all, Session and its travails have never been less than interesting. That includes its happy hour menu, offered from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 3 to 6 p.m. on weekends. The eats are culled right from the small bites menu, and the cocktails are specially, simply made just for for happy hour drinkers. With a bit of heat and a bit of cloud cover, it was perfect weather for a whiskey smash ($6) with McAfee's Benchmark No. 8 bourbon, blackberry and lemon. Session is known for it's complex, cutely-named cocktails, so I was surprised that this stripped-down concoction was truly delightful, letting all three flavors have their say.
Through steely force of will, I resisted the lusty smell of Kennebec fries all over the patio and avoided the easy happy hour choice, the burger "of the moment," ($10) which changes its toppings regularly. Instead I got a bit of artisan cheese ($4 per selection or $14 for four), a pair of pork belly buns ($8) and a bowl of healthy-looking Brussels sprouts ($6). Cheese and charcuterie plates are some of the most tempting and risky choices at happy hour — often a clearinghouse for bottom-of-the-shelf goods. A board of Californian Toma cheese must have a profit margin as thin as the accompanying citrus marmalade, with piles of dried apricots, sweet pecans and a couple pieces of grilled bread. Ultimately, this bounty was just as mild as the farmer's cheese.
No big deal, because the pork belly buns provided the right kind of substance to the meal. The two slabs of belly were nicely marbled and messy, though the oyster BBQ sauce was a bit sweet for my taste. One of the few things Session Kitchen doesn't claim to be is a Asian fusion joint, but this digression was a successful one. Along with pork belly, you can find crispy Brussels sprouts on half the menus in Denver, but Session's take on these leafy greens is a Charlton Heston-style message from the heavens. Dusted with Parmesan and ideally in-between soggy and dry, these sprouts flirted with umami bliss, with the tang of preserved lemon ringing though like a rifle shot. This dish alone leads me to believe that Session has strength as well as style.
Because these happy hour dishes only knock a few bucks off the menu price, the bill at the end was fairly heavy. I didn't feel ripped off, but I did feel like a lab rat in an ever-changing culinary experiment, and I mean that in the best way possible. Session Kitchen will either find its footing or fall on its face soon enough, but no matter what happens, its happy hour passes the test.
Perfect For: Dude, Sushi Den is full. Don't even bother to ask the hostess, it's packed. Meanwhile, the mind-boggling square footage of Session Kitchen can well accommodate any kind of party. And the slightly rowdy atmosphere is a great respite from the stroller-clogged sidewalks of South Pearl.
Don't Miss: There's often a fun event going on at Session — from Monday family feasts to parties showing love for the service industry. Plus, weekend brunch is a tasty way to try out the patio.