Brett Shaheen brings stunning food to the Wooden Table
Brett Shaheen in the kitchen at The Wooden Table in Greenwood Village. Slide show: In the kitchen at The Wooden Table.
The restaurant would soon fill up with middle-aged ladies who lunch, but when Rob and I first stepped into The Wooden Table, we were the ones on early-bird-special time. The dining room was empty at 11:15 a.m., and after the server manning the host stand gave us the "Sit anywhere you like" line, we stood there for a few awkward seconds, overwhelmed by the choices.
The server finally came to our rescue. "How about an ocean view?" he said, and we laughed. The Wooden Table has a wall of massive windows — all looking out on a bleak parking lot surrounded by an animal hospital, a TJ Maxx and an off-brand organic grocery store. There's a quilt shop next door, and the green sign of the requisite Starbucks nearby. If there was a textbook example of a suburban strip mall, this could be it — and that doesn't exactly make for stunning scenery.
We did take a table by the window but faced inward, so that we could watch the suburban regulars begin to fill the space, air-kissing and complimenting each other's blazers and necklaces as they pretended to study their menus before ordering rounds of iced tea and salmon salad. ("And make sure the salmon is cooked all the way through this time!" one woman called to the waiter as he scurried off.) We clearly weren't in urban Denver anymore. But my surroundings faded as I took my first bite of agnolotti, the housemade pasta pockets packed with tart, airy goat cheese mixed with earthy-sweet red peppers and pungent, velvety braised lamb, doused with a deeply savory but still light broth.
The view through the Wooden Table's windows might not be much, but Brett Shaheen's food is stunning.
The chef, who'd most recently helmed the kitchen at Osteria Marco after a stint at Luca d'Italia, opened the Wooden Table last September with business partner Jane Duncan Knauf. The two had met years earlier, when they were both working at Sambuca Cafe, which once held down a prime LoDo address on 15th Street that's now occupied by a sports bar. But instead of inking a deal on a central spot, the pair decided on Greenwood Village, aiming to bring the feel of a downtown dining experience to a suburban strip mall.
Slide show: In the kitchen at The Wooden Table
To capture the cosmopolitan feel they were after, they gave the boxy space an elegant, modern makeover, with a black-and-white color scheme and wooden tables — as well as a wooden bar on the back wall — to add warmth. The result feels like it could be in the heart of Highland — as long as you don't look out the windows. It's definitely a setting suitable for Shaheen's menu, a list of refined dishes that are Italian without being slavishly so and display some savvy New American influences.
While I savored the agnolotti, Rob tackled a grinder that piled a stack of silky prosciutto, salty capicola, spicy salami and provolone cheese topped with a giardiniera of spicy peppers and a drizzle of red-wine vinaigrette on a crusty baguette; an ideal bread-to-filling ratio made every flavor pop. The sandwich came with a pile of fingerling potatoes that had been sliced paper-thin, fried and lightly dusted with rosemary and parmesan. They might have been the best potato chips I've ever tasted.
We finished our lunch with a trio of housemade gelati: a scoop each of spicy cinnamon, pistachio and rich chocolate, served side by side in a cup. The harmonious flavors were the perfect way to end our meal, and I couldn't wait to return for dinner.
I got my chance a few nights later, when some friends and I decided to take advantage of the Wooden Table's Monday-night half-price wine special — a deal that can net you some occasion-worthy bottles for under fifty bucks, and others that are totally drinkable for just $15. At dinner, the crowd didn't look significantly different than it had at noon, though there were a few more men in the room. But we had an 8 p.m. reservation, and the restaurant began to empty out almost before we ordered. Perhaps that was why our server was so enthusiastic; she practically bounded to our table wearing a 100-watt smile, ready to divulge her favorite dishes and guide us through the menu.
Our starters were superb. The mozzarella was Shaheen's take on a panzanella salad: crispy cubes of bread mixed with sliced tomatoes and arugula in a sheen of basil pesto, with three pieces of fresh mozzarella on the side. The eggplant parmesan rolotini was another winner: Thin slices of eggplant had been wrapped around mozzarella and battered and fried — à la eggplant parmesan — until the cheese melted and the shell crisped, then smothered in a chunky, tangy tomato sauce. We inhaled the eggplant, then used the crusty bread that had been delivered with a side of olive oil to wipe up the sauce. Since I'd liked the pasta so much at lunch, we'd also opted for a half order of gnocchi. The pillowy potato dumplings, caramelized just slightly from the pan, had been mixed with chunks of lobster and halved grape tomatoes, then covered with a thick lobster broth that was only subtly perfumed with the scent of seafood. That was rare, and welcome: Most dishes made with lobster broth smack your nose and palate with overpowering fishiness. Although the description on the menu also listed truffle oil, I could catch only a whiff; just enough had been used to deepen the complexity of the dish without stealing the show.
We sipped our wine while the server whisked away the remnants of the first course and reset the table for our entrees, which arrived just a few minutes later. My favorite was the scallops: three fat mollusks, seared around the edges, on top of what the menu termed "baccala chowder" — really a thick, salt-cod-stuffed stew — and served with "celery root and potato roesti." No matter what you called them, the components worked well together; the hash browns provided a nice crunch, and the chowder's salty base was a good complement to the sweet scallops.
Our other mains were almost too balanced, if that's possible. The black cod, which flaked away from the skin into moist chunks, came atop an earthy cauliflower purée and sided with a "crispy shrimp and scallop quenelle" that was reminiscent of the filling in shrimp dumplings at a dim sum joint. The duck breast was roasted a juicy medium-rare and served on a sweet-potato purée with butter-poached Brussels sprouts. While I appreciated the immaculate care that Shaheen had put into these plates, no single flavor stood out. Nor did the dishes themselves.
We finished dinner with coffee and the seasonal dessert, that night a crusty apple tart topped with a scoop of cinnamon gelato, another exemplary exhibition of refined technique and deeply nuanced — and balanced — flavor. "Is the coffee hot enough?" our server asked as she delivered complimentary drams of housemade limoncello with our check. "We normally don't have people ordering regular at this time of night. You're kind of the young crowd."
But old enough to recognize that the ladies who lunch (and dinner) are on to something at the Wooden Table.
Slide show: In the kitchen at The Wooden Table
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