At Olivea, John Broening shows that he has all the right tools -- and knows how to use them
Jesus...," I said to no one in particular, dopey smile aimed down 17th Avenue, waddling a little as I cleared the doors of Olivea. "He is just so fucking good."
"So you liked dinner?" Laura asked, squeezing my hand.
John Broening has had a dodgy run. Good times and bad, not always in equal measure. He also has a resumé that I envy the way the moon must the sun, and a dedicated talent so far beyond my own that were I to take up cooking again today and, like a monk to silence, devote myself completely to the kitchen, I would be a hundred before I got to where Broening is likely to be next year. Some of that is training, but most of it is Broening himself.
719 East 17th Avenue
Hours: Dinner nightly, weekend brunch
Boudin blanc $7
Fried chickpeas $6
Patatas bravas $4
The son of an AP foreign correspondent, Broening grew up scattered across continents — in France, in Moscow, in Portugal and NYC. He enrolled in college like a normal person (degree in English Lit, Haverford College), then went wrong somewhere in the '80s (just like so many of us...) and found his way into kitchens late, at the age of 25. He worked at China Grill and Metro under Patrick Clark, moved to San Francisco and put six more restaurants behind him in a year or so, then bounced across the ocean again for Paris, where he become a poissonier under Guy Savoy.
Yeah, that Guy Savoy.
Broening came to Colorado in '99, running the kitchen at Primitivo in Colorado Springs before heading north. When no one in Denver really knew his name, he was appointed exec chef at Brasserie Rouge — which, for a brief moment and almost wholly because of Broening, the devoted craftsman chef, was the best restaurant in the city. Right up until it suddenly became one of the city's most high-profile disasters, not at all because of him. Even as that particular ship was sinking, Broening was turning out gorgeous French charcuterie, straight-up farmhouse and brasserie cuisine of a refinement and rustic confidence that hadn't been seen anywhere in Denver. I think he probably bailed out of this particular Titanic with a coq au vin still simmering on the stove.
After Rouge, Broening did time at Udi's, where he met his future wife, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom. It was Lozada-Hissom who put his name in front of Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin back in 2005, when that couple was in the process of opening Duo in the then-not-nearly-so-hot Highland neighborhood. Arnold and Bonin ended up hiring both of them: Broening the consummate craftsman wearing the big hat on the hot line, Lozada-Hissom in the cool and calm of the pastry department.
From the start, Duo was a fantastic little neighborhood place, doing incredibly smart American cuisine with a depth of technique like a thousand-foot well. Brasserie Rouge had been an unapologetically French restaurant and, as with any good chef, French cooking was Broening's first passion. It was where he was grounded, the base upon which everything else was built. At Duo, he rigorously applied that French technique to a farm-to-table menu that was American to its bones, full of fried chicken and grits, Colorado lamb and Hoppin' John. Years after my first meal there, I still recall a side of hash browns he made — the best I've ever eaten.
Still, all of this was before Olivea, before my most recent run-in with Broening's cuisine. With Duo running smoothly, this year Arnold and Bonin snapped up the 17th Avenue space that had been occupied by Aix — and invited Broening and Lozada-Hissom to join them as partners. Olivea, which opened in May, claims to be an Italian, Southern French and Spanish restaurant all in one, but that's a small lie of convenience. The fact that Duo has a rémoulade on its board doesn't make it French. And even though Olivea serves a duck-liver mousse and a plate of gnocchi, it's really a Spanish restaurant that happens to offer a few international departures — like colorful stamps on a well-traveled passport.
I first visited Olivea on a Saturday night, watching as strangers at the bar made their own small parties — groups of three or four forming, splitting, then re-forming in a kind of Brownian dance. They shared food. They told stories. Everyone, it seemed, had one drink more than was probably prudent. The floor surged and cooled, flooded and drained. The waitstaff moved through the tide like sea birds accustomed to the drag of crashing waves, and when they traveled between the main room and the patio, they always seemed to come back flushed.
Sitting at the bar — at the far end, back by the wall — I couldn't see into the kitchen, so I didn't know if Broening was even in attendance. He brought on a hand-picked crew to back him up at Olivea and bounces between the two restaurants, each located in what have become two of the city's hottest restaurant neighborhoods. But in the end, his actual physical presence didn't much matter. I ate fried chickpeas, served in a paper cone like something from a county fair in a county I very badly want to live in, with a side of pink harissa aioli that burned my tongue the way the chickpeas burned my fingertips. I drank Spanish lager from a beer list that has no Corona, no PBR, nothing childish or retro, and watched my flatbread come from the kitchen's pass window. It was small, served on a wooden board, topped with delicate curls of prosciutto, green olive tapenade and manchego. For just a minute, I could not think of anything else in the world I'd rather be eating.
That moment passed, of course. Because there were small plates of boudin blanc on the menu — grilled and sliced and served with a dab of French mustard — and lamb sausage with minted yogurt and polenta with toasted pine nuts. And for dessert, one of Yasmin's chocolate and fleur de sel caramel tarts with chocolate gelato and nougatine crunch. None of these dishes were Spanish, really; they were all French and Italian and vaguely Middle Eastern. But that didn't matter. Something about the feel of the place, the plating, the arrangement of the menu, convinced me that Olivea was not only a Spanish restaurant, but already the best Spanish restaurant in town. A tapas bar that didn't need to call itself that. A perfectly casual, perfectly joyous little neighborhood place with a goodness that belied its size — and a mood to match. To clinch my conclusion, I ate some baby octopus with fennel and went home without having touched the entree menu.
Then on a recent Sunday, I returned to Olivea with Laura. I was feeling a little strange in the head, rootless and drifty, sad and happy at the same time. Melancholy. I wanted a place as unfocused and borderless as I was feeling. I wanted to range a bit. Olivea was perfect.
Olivea was also empty. Every other place in the area looked busy, but Laura and I were alone in the dining room. Usually, I hate empty dining rooms. But this time, I barely even slowed down enough to wait for the host, almost racing him to the four-top by the windows and ordering immediately: Estrella Damm (Spanish beer that I'd never had before trying it at Olivea and which I now love), a plate of the kitchen's unbelievably good prosciutto (dry and salty and perfectly sliced) with just a touch of oil, a bit of shaved Pecorino Romano and slivered almonds, another plate of boudin blanc, and some sliced duck breast, smoked and glazed in savory-sweet sherry honey, topped with crushed pistachios.
Honest to God, that barely took the edge off. Still the room's only occupants, we flagged down our server and ordered a second round of beers, patatas bravas (fried, cubed potatoes in a spicy tomato and paprika sauce, topped with a delicately lemon-touched aioli and shards of green onion), and finished the amuse bouche of crackers and marinated olives. We still hadn't gotten to the entrees — but fortunately, we were still hungry.
Slowly, tables began to filter in. The bar got a few customers and, with them, emanated the same vibe it had had when I'd sat there: strangers immediately becoming friends, finding things in common, ordering and eating as sudden, thrown-together parties of three and four and five. The kitchen began ramping up. Still, I couldn't understand why Olivea wasn't busy earlier. This restaurant should be full every night of the week. There should be a line out the door. For the prosciutto alone, I'd come back six nights running. Ten, if you threw in the boudin blanc.
The gnocchi in lamb sugo was heavy, comforting — but light on the sugo (juice). The lamb was cooked to an ideal tenderness and pulled into shreds that bedded down the gnocchi, which tasted strongly of potato. The flavors were wedded, the notion (hearty potato dumplings and lamb as a filling, consoling mix of rustic weight and simplicity) was powerful, but the plate wanted a splash of lamb jus, a bath of wetness to counter the stolid weight of the ingredients. It wasn't a failure, though, just a minor stumble. We'd also ordered the night's special — chicken marinated in red wine, spiked with split green olives and served in a mushroom broth — that was one of the ugliest plates I'd seen in months. The chicken, served on the bone and hacked into chunks, was purple from the wine, its skin limp. The broth was an ugly, murky brown, and the olives look mangled. But while the dish was artless in appearance, the flavors worked: The chicken was tender and juicy, the unsightly broth powerful with mushrooms, standing up well to the tang of the wine. A work in progress, I decided. That's why it was a Sunday special: something more than a theory, much less than a finished thought.
Then came the duck meatballs, set on a bed of soft polenta, topped with a chunky red sauce and shaved pecorino. Here was a beautifully conceived plate, intelligently designed, uncomplicated, not showy, only delicious, with a perfect balance of flavors, of the rustic and the fine. Halfway through, I realized these meatballs were a benchmark of Broening's style, a showcase for how his every competing influence can be brought together.
For a craftsman chef, influences are like tools. They are neither good nor bad, except in their use, their application. Browning has some of the best in town — and he proves it at Olivea.
To see more of Olivea, go to westword.com/slideshow.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.