If you have a modernist aesthetic, you might feel an overwhelming urge to pare down the decor at Arcana, a high-aspiring restaurant that opened in Boulder last year. Black art-deco wallpaper graces one wall; diagonal planks on another recall an A-frame chalet. Art ranges from a three-dimensional collage of vintage hardbacks to a mauve-and-coral painting straight out of Palm Beach. Chairs are both contemporary, made of mint-green metal, and old-world European, with sturdy backs of heavy, curved wood.
I’d like to pare down something else: the restaurant’s mission. Overburdened from the beginning with a long-winded philosophy to “join the emerging national conversation about the true identity of American cuisine,” the kitchen has been playing catch-up from the start. “When I got there, nobody understood what the quotes on the website meant,” acknowledges chef/partner Kyle Mendenhall, who came on board last summer and faced the difficult task of giving people the food they wanted while honoring the Arcana website’s promise to explore regionality, historical ingredients and West African, South American and Native American influences.
From the start, that mission seemed slightly tone-deaf; the national conversations we were — and still are — having dealt with far weightier issues, such as race, politics and how our country got to this point. Any well-meaning attempts to be inclusive only served to exclude a vast number of immigrants who shaped our nation, from early waves of Irish and Italians to Chinese, Vietnamese and more recent Iraqis and Syrians. A restaurant that truly meant to advance a conversation about identity, culinary or otherwise, would have had to put forth a menu far more encompassing than this, and after a year of trying, the powers-that-be seem to have come to this conclusion. “Rather than being this broad thing of what have people in America been cooking forever,” founder Elliott Toan told me recently, the focus is now more on Colorado, with an emphasis on “regionality and seasonality and relationships.”
Thank goodness, because Mendenhall has some refreshingly creative thoughts on this subject, not to mention the background to pull it off. An acolyte of the farm-to-table movement, he spent nearly a decade as executive chef at the Kitchen, and those local/seasonal/organic instincts are ingrained to the point that even now, as head of one kitchen rather than a network, Mendenhall had the foresight to sit down with farmers to discuss what would be coming out of their fields this season. Those ingredients are already making their way to his Arcana menu, which changes nearly every day. Grilled pea shoots, those tender symbols of spring, cut through the richness of lamb T-bone, coils of crisped lamb breast and belly, and scratch farmer’s cheese. Radishes show up in a tart with blue cheese and pickled mustard. Slivers of watermelon radish add just the right crunch to his now-iconic masa dumplings bathed in an earthy two-chile sauce with fried Brussels sprouts.
But to pigeonhole Mendenhall as a farm-to-table chef, delivering carrots plucked from the ground with only the barest breeze of salt, would be to do him and his kitchen a disservice. Under his guidance, Arcana is endeavoring to put out fare with the reach and complexity of the highest-end restaurants, taking on projects it could easily leave to others. Breads, whether the seeded pull-apart crown (aka pain d’epi) or chewy country loaf, are made in-house. So is honey butter, made from local cream and honey with morsels of golden bee pollen.
Rhubarb, canned in-house at the height of last season, is added to a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce for Southern-style chicken, with quivery blue-corn pudding in place of cornbread, anasazi beans instead of baked ones, and lemony kale in place of long-simmered collards. Although the plate could have used more sauce, it hit the right chord, thoughtful without being overwrought, every ingredient there for a reason. Mendenhall even goes so far as to thicken the dark-red brine from pickled beets with agar agar, a vegan gelatin, and grate it into beetlike shreds over an open-faced sandwich with egg salad and cured trout. Besides being arrestingly colorful, the garnet topping adds a brininess that this incredibly rich dish needs.
Mendenhall is adept at balance, which is important in any dish but especially so in ones as multi-layered as these. Curly endive adds welcome bitterness to sugar steak, which gets a double dose of sweetness not only from its brown-sugar rub, but from its terikayi-style sauce. Without a touch of savory on the black and blue Colorado elk — named for its hard sear and raw interior — the carpaccio-style plate with fruity juniper custard would crumble under its own smooth sweetness, like a movie with overly nice characters and no dramatic arc. Instead, pickled cherries, fried garlic, shallots and benne seeds (a forerunner of modern sesame seeds) make every bite bracingly different. Take away the slippery fennel ribbons and blood oranges, dipped in simple syrup and dehydrated, and a fillet of fluke on a bed of silky potatoes would come crashing down like a Jenga tower. Some dishes aren’t as balanced as they should be, however, owing to heavy-handedness with salt and/or dressing, skimpy portions of headline ingredients, and garlic taken to the bitter edge of burnt.
The menu continues to delve into regional and historic roots, but in an understated way. Other restaurants around the country have taken a more overt approach, going so far as to compile an encyclopedia to illuminate the menu. Here, though, if you want to understand what kitchen pepper is (an eighteenth-century spice blend) or where sugar steak originated (Bastien’s, the legendary Denver restaurant), you’ll have to ask your server. But I wonder how many questions go unasked, either because patrons don’t want to look uninformed (the old wine-list phenomenon) or they have more pressing concerns, such as which dishes are paleo or gluten-free, which I heard on numerous occasions. The setup can break down in other ways, too. My own food-related queries elicited pat answers, such as when a server rattled off the technique for making troutchovies but seemed genuinely stumped when asked how close to anchovies the fish actually tasted.
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Arcana has evolved quite a bit over the past year and a half in terms of mission, price and degree of preciousness. “A restaurant is going to always be in the process of finding itself,” says Toan. As part of the evolution, it might be worthwhile to reconsider the menu’s policy against so-called foreign-language words such as “ricotta” and “vinaigrette.” A word like “carpaccio” is now fully Americanized, and besides, it sounds better than black and blue elk, with its connotations of a bruised beast.
It’s hard to get to the root of anything, much less something as slippery and multi-faceted as identity, without a convincing grasp of what’s on the table. The bigger conversation — whatever level it’s going to take — can’t really begin until the restaurant finds answers to its own questions. Arcana’s early mission backed this promising restaurant into a corner; Mendenhall’s the guy to lead it forward.
909 Walnut Street, Boulder
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Select Menu Items
Pull-apart bread $4
Black and blue elk $12
Carrot and corncous $11
Masa dumplings $13
Troutchovy toast $8
Rhubarbbq chicken $27
Sugar steak $24
Lamb T-bone $28