All Things to All People
Andouille gumbo and tortilla soup, fried mushrooms with truffled dipping sauce, enchiladas con queso and steak frites, crabcakes with chipotle coulis, pierogi, Asian pot stickers with ginger sauce, chicken piccata, cheeseburgers served with a bottle of Chimay Red, miso soup and Hawaiian tuna salad. And sushi (on request) from the sushi bar next door.
Magnolia -- the three-year-old brainchild of Peter and Mara Soutiere, partner Tim Ackerman and chef Chris Pierce -- is a restaurant with a serious identity crisis. It's everyone's favorite Cajun-Creole-Belgian-Mexican-Asian-Polish-fusion-steak-and-seafood restaurant with a sushi bar attached. A culinary gangbang, like Ecstasy Night at the U.N. commissary, like a primer on world cuisine written by Mark Bittman off his ADD meds.
And that's just tonight. Tomorrow or next week or next month, it'll be Indo-Asian-French-Italian fusion with English bangers and tacos, then Bulgarian-Lyonnaise-Argentine with handmade Piedmontese pastas, pho and Kansas City barbecue. Plus edamame. Plus California rolls. With a wine list featuring producing regions as varied as the cuisine, and a custom cocktail lineup that torpedoes all the chocolate martinis and tortured cosmos and sugar-rum weirdness out there with something as simple as a Cherry Coke: cola and cherry-infused vodka, served tall, with a straw.
For the menu alone, I might have mocked this place mercilessly had my meals gone just a little differently -- taken the lineup apart piece by piece, then veered off on some ill-considered food-history jag about Escoffier and H.L. Mencken on a coach tour of the best Asian restaurants in the Pyrenees, or Anthony Bourdain smuggling pierogi out of Warsaw in his underpants. But once I tried a few things, I knew I couldn't. Pierce's housemade andouille sausages were really very good -- stiff, smoky, precisely grill-marked but not overdone at all, served split lengthwise and in a skin with just the right amount of snap. No, they weren't brats (which would be the historically and regionally appropriate sausage to serve with a pierogi), but I don't like brats all that much and I do like andouille, and I love a nice pierogi, so, oddly, this plate worked for me. The skin on the pierogi was pan-seared an ideal golden-brown, and it was stuffed with a lovely, smooth potato-and-onion filling cooled out with a big dollop of crème fraîche off to the side -- because if a big serving of sausage and dumplings aren't enough to blue-light you straight into the nearest cardiac emergency unit, then eating sour cream by the spoonful should certainly put you over the edge.
At Magnolia, I found myself eating steak frites, a plate of New Orleans-style beer-BBQ'd shrimp with a spicy red-pepper broth and really tasty sweet potatoes, and vegetable risotto topped with a lace of pepita oil. And I barely flinched at the Disneyland-food-court, Parade-of-Nations, It's-a-Small-World-After-All weirdness of it. Or the fact that I was eating all of it in the middle of Lafayette, where Taco Bell is a reasonable choice for Mexican and Olive Garden is haute-fucking-cuisine.
The strip mall where Magnolia sits is one of those prefab retail outposts that get dropped into some farmer's front forty just ahead of the condo complexes going in -- larval sprawl, on a street that didn't even exist five years ago, vanguard of the developers' advancing horde. Magnolia's front door (and I am not making this up) looks out over a dog bakery -- where they sell dog treats, I assume, not baked goods made from dogs -- and a franchised tutoring outlet called Mathnasium. Around the corner was a deli called Blue Sky that didn't make it -- the "For Lease" signs up in the windows, the equipment under wraps -- and already there's anotherdeli squatting in one of the strip mall's other units. And next door, Sushi Mara (which shares the same building, the same owners, the same front door and the same hostess stand as Magnolia) is Lafayette's only sushi restaurant, which is on par with being the only Algerian restaurant in Toledo or the only hamburger stand on Mars.
The Soutieres and Ackerman are restaurant veterans. Q's in Boulder, the long-gone Two Bitts Bistro -- they've been around. But Magnolia is their first shot at ownership, the first time they've had a place of their own. Peter Soutiere is a manager and a sommelier, Mara a trained chef (a former sous in Q's kitchen) who now mostly handles the books, Ackerman a manager and waiter. Pierce came with a fine-dining background and even did a few months at Q's himself before he was poached by the partners. They decided to make their stand in Lafayette because they knew the town had no upscale eateries that could compare to their vision of Magnolia.
In order to get out of the radius of chain restaurants crowding the Lafayette landscape -- and because the deal on the space vacated by the Platinum Grill was too good to pass up -- they put Magnolia in this out-of-the-way location. They added Sushi Mara about a year later, putting the sushi bar in an unused section of the originally even more massive dining room. And they kept adding more dishes. Crabcakes and sausage, pierogi and pot stickers. The groundless menu offers all things to all people -- because without Magnolia, there'd be nothing for nobody.
And Magnolia's loyal customers appreciate that. They appreciate that they can have a sushi restaurant. That they can have a restaurant that doesn't feature as its main draw unlimited salad or free balloons or Riblets. That there's a place that offers everything they could possibly want -- if not right now, then next week -- in comfortable surroundings. There's a fun bar and patio seating and rooftop seating and acres of dining room, not even counting the private rooms. The tables are made of brushed stainless or polished wood, depending on where you sit, and the walls are done in a marzipan palette of pastel shades that defy pigeonholing as Mexican or American or contemporary or classic. Pieces of suitably abstract art are hung on some of them. There are steel railings and accents that bring to mind an urban Chipotle, as well as little wood sculptures of ducks and other knickknackery that give Magnolia a down-homey, Squat-n-Gobble kind of feel. It's multiple specificity -- using many different defining styles of decor to make a room as comfortable as possible to as many different people as possible without ever committing to a single, over-arching theme.
And the menu is the same way, of course, which would drive me crazy if not for the fact that everything I tried on it was done so surprisingly well. Pierce is taking chances in a way that I can't help but respect because of the skill he and his crew bring to the table, and even if this kitchen has no grounding in anything even approaching a singular cuisine, what it does have is a thrust -- an aggressive reaching for interesting combinations that provide customers with a tour d'appétit to keep them coming back again and again.
The whole roast beef tender was deceiving because it wasn't tenderloin and it wasn't really a roast. It was ten ounces of tournedos, cut from the chuck (a good cut -- bloody and flavorful and tender, as promised) and fanned as though it were tenderloin over a mound of creamy mushroom risotto that anywhere else might have been a button-mushroom throwaway but here was intelligently constructed of chanterelles and oysters fully giving up their flavor to the rice. On the side, there was grilled asparagus that looked awful and tasted beautiful -- smoky, green and earthy -- and horseradish freshly shaved off the root. At every step, intelligent choices and inarguable technique.
The Flatiron steak was similar in butcher's gimmickry to the tender: a top blade cut, like a ribeye but not a ribeye. Magnolia proudly serves hanger instead of sirloin just because hanger is better -- not as sexy, but twice as tasty. The burgers are made with Coleman Natural beef, and that housemade andouille sausage showed up again in a bowl of sausage and rock-shrimp linguine.
I asked for the seafood presentation du jour, but the server said it was sold out. The last of the crabcakes went as I sat there as well, sign of a house that's turning tables at a rapid clip, serving maybe everyone in Lafayette two or three times a week. So instead, I ordered the salmon, which was squeezed on the menu between the oven-roasted chicken, the enchilada plate and the Caesar salad.
I don't really like salmon. In the culinary world, salmon is the girl with self-esteem issues, the one who'll go home with anyone and try anything once just to get a little love. Salmon can be pickled, poached, grilled, baked or seared. It can be turned into a mousse, a puff, a paste. It can be cured or smoked and paired with just about anything under the sun. You can do things to salmon that no one would consider doing with any other fish in the world, and the next day, salmon will always be there waiting for you, just hoping to be used again, altogether too eager to please.
But when salmon is handled with even the tiniest amount of respect, it can be great. It takes to flavors like a drunk to cheap bourbon and holds them like a dream, a quality that Pierce wisely exploited with the salmon filet on the dinner menu, infusing it with smoke (cedar, maybe, or applewood) and pairing it with artichokes, swiss chard, smoked bacon and a red verjus -- "green juice," as in the juice of unripe wine grapes, which is used to make a sauce taken from some obscure page of the French canon that most chefs probably haven't ever read. And with the exception of the Swiss chard -- which is hard to like under the best circumstances, being all fibrous and tough, but flat-out impossible to enjoy when a little past its peak, as it was here -- all of these disparate elements labored beneath one perfectly cooked piece of salmon to elevate the dish to excellence. The verjus was like a red-wine-vinegar broth but gentler, though still bitter and astringent enough to cut through the smoke and oiliness of the fish like a razor. The brunoise of smoked bacon lent an earthy base to the broth, the artichoke hearts (cut into sticks, but with less precision than I would have liked) a pleasant nuttiness.
And though I was fully stuffed by this point, I'd luckily saved some room for dessert. Magnolia has its own pastry chef, Gina Scott, and she'd made a warm apple bread pudding topped with burnt-sugar ice cream and a smooth, thick caramel-whiskey sauce that I would've kicked myself for missing had I staggered to the door without a final course. Sure, she also offered the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake, as well as fresh-baked chocolate-chip-cookie ice-cream sandwiches with handmade whipped cream and chocolate sauce. But burnt-sugar ice cream? That's just brilliant.
As a matter of fact, that's a good way to describe Magnolia in general. It's brilliant because it is all things to all people, all under one roof, and all at the right time and place. And it's all good.
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