After my first bite at Argyll, I was ready to eat my words
It worried me that Argyll, the new restaurant from Robert Thompson, called itself a "gastropub," a word I hate with a rare and white-hot passion that only a true word geek can muster for the hating of a bunch of letters.
It worried me that the very first word on Argyll's website was misspelled. "Faitle," it said. "Welcome to Argyll, a gastropub..." While failte is a Gaelic word that essentially means "welcome," faitle just means that someone wasn't being very careful when the site was designed and hadn't looked at it since.
It worried me that Thompson had put a largely unknown chef, Sergio Romero, in charge of the kitchen at this gastropub, where he'd be cooking a razor's-edge menu full of gastriques, purées, aiolis, pickles and quotation marks.
It worried me that Argyll was located in a subterranean space, which seems to almost always doom any restaurant to a slow, lingering death. It worried me that this particular subterranean space was previously the home of the Squealing Pig, a terrible excuse for an Irish pub that survived for years longer than it should have because apparently there was a big call in Cherry Creek for a place where bitter, drunk yuppies could eat potatoes in a basement.
And it worried me that Thompson once owned (along with his then-wife, Leigh Jones, who went on to open Jonesy's EatBar, the city's first gastropub) Brasserie Rouge, the best restaurant in Denver back in 2004, with one of the city's best chefs, John Broening, but then went bat-shit crazy, fucked it up and disappeared from Denver for years before coming back this year as an impassioned (read: double bat-shit crazy) defender of gastropubbery and Scottish cuisine. It all screamed meltdown, and I wanted nothing more than to stay clear of the blast radius.
"What's the matter with you?" Laura asked as we drove toward Argyll for our first, inevitable, meal there. "You look worried."
"Nothing," I said, hunching down in my seat.
"Then what's with the face?" she asked. "Do you know something about this place?"
I'd tried to talk her out of coming with me, given her every opportunity to bail, because that's the sort of sensitive motherfucker I am.
"No," I snapped. "Never been here. I don't know anything about it at all."
We parked the car, got out and walked beneath the canopies of lights already strung for the holidays all across the Creek. It had been snowing for days. Everything was slick with ice, and Laura held my hand — partly to keep from falling, partly to make sure I didn't bolt. She knows me pretty well, and there were good bars, taquerías and sushi restaurants within sprinting distance.
From the sidewalk, Argyll looked dark and abandoned, with no lights showing. We walked down the stairs and across the broad patio, with its ash buckets and dartboards and a battered propane grill left out in the snow. "If I say so, we just leave, okay?" I told Laura. "If I give you the sign?"
She looked me up and down, nodded, and then we warily stepped in out of the cold.
Three hours later, we stepped out again — and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.
Argyll isn't just a good restaurant; it borders on being a great one — the kind of restaurant where you eat and drink and finish and walk out and immediately want to turn around and do the whole thing over again. The kind of restaurant where, once you're inside, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the best possible place you can be at the moment, and so you linger. One more pint of Murphy's, another bite of this or plate of that.
Rather than being close and claustrophobic, the low-ceilinged space is cozy, with its chalkboards and polished wood, deliberately distressed tables, booth-back banquettes and high-set windows that don't really look out on anything but make the two small dining rooms seem more open than they are. The service is friendly and attentive, turning even first-timers into regulars as the staff welcomes their children, their weird requests, their desire for long conversations about beer lists and the provenance of the kitchen's salmon. And at the end of the evening, the servers hand out fresh-baked cookies, tiny little orange-peel-and-anise cookies that are so delicious they taste like Thompson has kidnapped someone's grandmother and is forcing her to make treats in the back.
The deliberate design of space and sentiment is all evidence of Thompson's skill set. He's exorcised the worst demons from this location, made most of its deficits into strengths (the weird double bar and left-hand snug in particular, but also the intrusion of a stairwell into the main dining room and the unusual kitchen placement) and given Argyll the feel of a spot that was already your grandfather's favorite escape fifty years ago and has only improved — slowly, with cautious steps — since then. That's a fantastic trick for a place that's only about six months old. And it's not Thompson's best trick, either.
Because the best thing about Argyll is its food, which is not only fantastic, but offered in generous abundance. In fact, two of the very best items coming out of this kitchen are just given away. One of them, the kidnapped-grandma cookies, is the perfect cap to any meal. The other, a wire basket full of housemade pub chips, served with a tiny jug of sugar-shot malt vinegar gastrique, is the perfect way to ruin your appetite before the real food begins arriving.
I've said before that there will never be a housemade restaurant potato chip as good as a simple, plain Lay's potato chip out of the bag. And now I've been proven wrong — completely and totally ass-backward and deluded. Because the free pub chips at Argyll — paper-thin, gently salted, fried golden-brown and slightly greasy in an ideal way — are not just the best restaurant chips I've ever had, but possibly the best chips, period. I would eat them all day, every day if I could. I would keep baskets of them at my house with jugs of the malt gastrique squirreled away in the pantry. I would pay ridiculous sums of money for these chips — and yet Argyll just gives them away, putting them on the bar instead of peanuts, on the tables as the greatest welcome imaginable. And after you've eaten them all and, surreptitiously, drunk the last of the gastrique out of the little pitcher, and even run your finger around the bottom of the basket in order to capture the last of the potato chip crumbs, they'll just give you more. The reason Laura and I spent three hours at Argyll rather than, say, a more reasonable two? Every time we asked, they brought us more chips. And then, with more chips in front of us, we decided we needed more beer. And then, with more beer in us, we knew we were going to need more chips all over again. And so forth.
This alone — chips and cookies and good beer served in twenty-ounce imperial pints — would've been enough. I could've comfortably said that Argyll, the beautifully designed potato-chip-and-free-cookie bar brought to us by Robert Thompson, was awesome — and then gotten on with my life, dropping by every few days to feed my potato jones and pour some stout down my neck. But Argyll doesn't stop there. Actually, that's just where it starts and finishes.
In between the chips and the cookies, I ate the only good Scotch egg I've had in decades of running across them on the occasional menu, thinking to myself, man, a soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and deep fried sure sounds good...and then spending the next several days either disappointed or sick. But Argyll served me a beautiful Scotch egg, perfectly cooked so that the yolk was still miraculously runny and the sausage jacket fried stiff and savory, split in half and presented on a small black cutting board with a bit of fried thyme on top and a gentle horseradish aioli beneath. Honestly, this Scotch egg wasn't so much a rarity as it was miraculous.
In between was James, one of the servers, explaining, "Come on! You can eat five animals at once! See, you order the burger, which is made out of beef and lamb, so that's two. Then you add bacon. Three. Top it with a fried egg. That's four. And then add a little goat cheese? Five animals on one plate, man!" Who could resist?
In between was a long conversation about the Scottish salmon in which (also miraculous) another server had all her information right and discussed it in an intelligent way. And then there was the salmon itself, which was delicious — strongly flavored and very fresh, beautifully seared, with just the barest crust on top, then topped with an onion-shot beurre blanc and mounted atop a ring of Swiss chard and citrus risotto that sounded ridiculous but somehow came together on the plate to offer a perfect balance to the excellent fish that crowned it.
Time and time again, Romero proved his ability as a rigorously classical saucier — a guy who lives by the old line-cook wisdom that, when the sauce is perfect, the only thing they'll remember is the goose. The gastrique that went with the chips was genius, the horseradish aioli with the Scotch egg delicate, the beurre blanc atop the salmon a restrained and ideal rendition smartly touched with some onion brunoise because, without it, the plate would've been wanting for a little acid. His plates were tiny symphonies, not a cluster of solos, and each bite was improved by every ideally wedded element.
I have never seen Laura eat faster or with more relish than she did when Romero's plate of pork tenderloin, apple-celery root purée and honey-fig sauce was put down in front of her. The pork was gone faster than I could track, and because she has a much better memory than mine, Laura was able to compare it only with the other best pork she'd ever had — six years ago, at Indigo — and say without reservation that nothing between had compared.
I had to take her word for it, since I managed to snag all of one bite before it was gone.
We spent three hours at Argyll on that first night, and when we were done, we didn't really want to leave. I managed to get back there two times over the next four days, and each time left wanting nothing more than to come back again and try the next thing on Romero's menu, or the next. The duck two ways (breast roasted and thighs seared hard and, I think, fried) was brilliant, cored by a center-plate fennel purée and bolstered by a velvet-smooth pan sauce that tasted of wine and fruit, both of which matched perfectly with the duck meat and elevated every bite. The pork-belly app over carrot purée with an apple cider and sage reduction showed the same cool balancing act, each element good alone, fantastic together.
The only dishes that failed to truly move me were one soup (a potato, leek, carrot and garlic version that came off as only blandly warming) and one dessert (a butterscotch crème brûlée with homemade caramel popcorn that screamed overkill) — but that was forgivable, because in the end, there were always the free cookies and there was always another dish to test the next time I returned.
Soon enough, I'll run out of dishes to try. Soon enough, I'll wind up repeating my orders while I wait for the season to change and bring around new flavors. But I'm okay with that, because at Argyll, much of the attraction is the sense that the space, the kitchen and its crew have been around forever, just waiting for you to discover them and a menu so solid and controlled and comforting that to imagine it changing is to imagine all those years of imaginary history being overturned and thrown by the wayside.
Which might be just fine, of course. After all, Argyll has only been open six months. Imagine what Thompson, Romero and their crew might be able to do after they've had the chance to really grow into the space.
See more of Argyll at westword.com/slidshow.
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