Saturday nights at Duo are loud and boisterous, a cacophony of sensualism that washes like crazy rogue waves back and forth across the floor and bar. The front door never stops swinging, releasing a blast of piano jazz out into the evening every time it opens, and the bar is standing-room only, with customers waiting for tables and slouching against every vertical surface, glasses of wine and menus in their hands.
On these nights, the busy ones, service is a machine with a dozen hands and twice as many legs: efficient, quick, and committed in every sense of the word. The crew is in the weeds, turning and burning, rocking and rolling, slammed -- in the hinky patois of the service industry -- but keeps things together by will and constant motion, working beyond the factory pre-sets and above safe maximums, redlining a neighborhood restaurant that was already tuned high before it became one of the hottest addresses in town. Now the rough brick walls in the dining room sweat money, and the small, open kitchen at the back is a box of fire.
In the middle of it is chef John Broening, standing at the pass in white jacket and black cap, watching the room, assembling plates, calling checks, coordinating the twenty-table-plus-bar-plus-breeze dance of continuous service. And though you'd think he'd be happy -- his food is excellent, the service smooth, the floor crowded, the fiercely intelligent seasonal menu falling into that narrow, incredibly lucrative space between neighborhood-bistro simplicity and chef-driven, high-end swank -- he never seems to smile. He is calm, focused. Ten plates go to the rail, one after the other, and he sweeps them with his eyes. The service machine comes to collect, and those ten are followed by ten more. Then ten more.
Broening is a chef with a history. He was the guy behind the line at Brasserie Rouge when that place was young and brilliant and my favorite restaurant in the city. Unfortunately, Rouge never got the chance to grow old. It collapsed under the weight of a huge dining room and even heavier troubles behind the scenes, and when it did, Broening jumped out to work with Udi the Bread Man at his eponymous bakery. That ended when Udi brought his daughter in to run his kitchens, and Broening went sideways again, this time falling into the company of Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin, husband-and-wife owners of Duo.
Arnold and Bonin are restaurateurs with much less history. Several years ago they bought the fully formed and functioning Cafe Colore from the Momo family, and they've been running it quietly ever since. But Duo is the first place that's theirs from top to bottom; their first buildout, their first opening. When they took on the space, it was nowhere -- a completely gutted former video store with a location on the lower edge of Highland. It was high-risk, probably a little unwise, certainly one of the scariest things they'd ever done. They meant it to be a little neighborhood spot in a neighborhood that needed one -- which they knew because they live in the neighborhood themselves -- but then their quiet little neighborhood (a liminal area stuck between LoDo and the yuppie ground zero of 32nd Avenue and Lowell) started sprouting cafes, liquor-license applications and then Z Cuisine just a couple of blocks away. Along the way, they picked up one of the best chefs in the business almost by accident. An ad on Craigslist brought in Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, a pastry chef who'd worked at Udi's, and she mentioned that she had the perfect chef for Duo: her boyfriend, John Broening. Arnold and Bonin hired both of them.
And suddenly they were looking super-smart and almost prescient with their one-off rookie outing. When they opened the doors in mid-October, Duo became one of those near-miraculous collisions of location, talent and timing that everyone dreams of but almost never realizes. The customers came -- first a few, then a lot -- and because Arnold and Bonin wanted to keep the feel of the neighborhood restaurant they'd originally envisioned, they decided not to take reservations. Which means that on Thursdays and on weekends, the bar is as crowded as the dining room.
Two Saturdays ago -- which also happened to be the start of Denver Restaurant Week -- customers were lining up outside Duo's front door at 4:55 p.m. When I showed up at 5:30, I got one of the last two seats at the bar. The dining room was already full, with servers doing the extra-chair ballet: lifting unused seats from parties of three at four-top tables, moving them to give the fives and sevens of odd-numbered groups somewhere to sit.
The bartender was pouring pomegranate martinis three at a time. I ordered wine off a decent by-the-glass list (Oregon pinots and Aussie cab-shirazes that matched Broening's menu nicely), and before the glass had even left the tender's hand, I was overwhelmed by sensory information, my night fractured into snapshots, intense and rich with detail, into punctuation bereft of sentences. I heard corks popping and carbonated laughter bouncing around the vaulted ceiling, the shushing scrape of ice in a martini shaker and the sharp tick of silverware hitting plates. I smelled onions, saffron and leeks mixed with cologne and the astringency of whiskey, heard paper menus crinkle, smelled gorgonzola, tasted iron and old, dead fruits in my first sip of wine. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the open kitchen distorted through the panes of glass in the windows that had been hung in lieu of a wall to separate the bar from the dining room -- a flare of swirled flame, three cooks with their heads down, pinpoints of light from the antique heat lamps picked out in starbursts on the gleaming pass rail.
I ordered at the bar and ate at the bar because by 6 p.m., there was almost an entire turn waiting for tables. I had duck confit, crisp-skinned, greasy, so full of dark, smooth flavor that I was surprised the boned-out pieces weren't shaking on the plate, ready to burst. Broening had mounted the duck over the best hash browns ever -- haystack potato cakes, perfectly browned and cut into triangles -- and covered them with a fall of bitter greens. There was one fig on the plate, split in half, its sweetness and weird crunch the perfect counterpoint to the meat, and three precise dots of sauce that tasted like jellied sunshine. I ate leek salad, the leeks split lengthwise and stacked like Lincoln Logs. The woman beside me had ordered the leek salad, too, and when she took her first bite, her eyes fluttered closed, lips pursing, fork stuck in her mouth as if frozen there. Her plate looked just like mine -- a perfect copy, with each element in the same place, the hallmark of a chef who's a professional under fire, turning out layered flavors and ideal presentations exactly the same way every single time.
My entree was the escolar in vegetable ragout, only Duo had run out of escolar the night before and no more was forthcoming. The bartender told me that the kitchen had replaced it with Chilean sea bass (of which there is never a shortage anywhere, and won't be until diners have eaten every last one in the sea), which is different in taste and texture (not as oily, but not as deeply fishy, either). I said that was fine, and the sea bass -- which came in a shallow white bowl, sitting in a composed tomato broth, with another smaller white bowl of saffron rice on the side -- was one of the best pieces of fish I've ever had. Topped with a ragout of peppers and onions, capers, tomatoes and God only knows what else, each bite offered a different edge of flavor: sweet and salty and acidic and oily, sometimes spicy, sometimes mild. Poached shrimp had been tucked into the ragout, which I mixed with the rice and the broth that had both flavored the fish and been flavored by it. The dish was simply amazing, pretty as a jewel and tender as a dream. I drank in the mingled odors of everything good in the world, finished the wine, the fish, mopped up the last of the broth with bread (it now occurs to me) from the basket of the woman sitting beside me.
She didn't seem to notice. She was having the fish, too.
When I got up to leave, I had to fight my way to the door. The breezeway/waiting area was like a mosh pit, only better-smelling, and I later learned that this was Duo's biggest night to date: 160 covers in a sixty-seat dining room, three turns in a place set up for maybe one and a half. And they pulled it off without a hitch. Bonin had to tell several parties that the waits for a table were getting well past an hour, but most of them decided to stay, anyway.
On Monday I arrived early again and found the floor quiet. There were a few tables seated, some couples in the bar, but the flood had yet to hit. I took a seat in the dining room this time, and with the help of a friend, worked my way through nearly the same meal. The leek salad looked identical, tasted identical, with not an atom out of place. I also had cod fritters, heavily salted almost like a bacalao, but soft and pillowy inside the breadcrumb crust, gentler than I'd expected when dragged through a smear of garlic aioli and speckled with a few tiny capers. A cheese plate brought small portions of six different cheeses arranged like a color wheel, working from mildest to funkiest -- the aged goat cheese was amazing, the powerful gorgonzola mellowed by a milky sweetness -- as well as wedges of excellent raisin nut bread from (where else?) Udi's bakery.
Without an overwhelming press of other customers around me, the food became the warm, soft center of this small culinary universe. The venison arrived crowned with a couple of poached dried cherries and delicately peppered -- two loin cuts done a perfect mid-rare, bloody and beautiful in their tarn of black cherry jus. The plate was finished off with sautéed mustard greens and three ovals of buttermilk mashed potatoes made interesting by the inclusion of celeriac purée and the fact that each of them had been plated by hand, shaped by the hollow of a spoon. My companion had the escolar; for the entire time she was eating it, I wasn't even there.
Lozada-Hissom made our desserts: a sticky toffee pudding with toasted walnuts and a butter-rum sauce, as well as a frozen pistachio nougat wrapped in a cookie tuille the shape of a potato chip, scattered with fresh berries. The nougat was unusual and delicious, studded with candied bits of something, sweet slivers of something else and only whispers of pistachio as an afterthought. The toffee pudding was like a caramel-flavored punch in the stomach, so rich and heavy that we had to leave half behind.
We spent more than two hours over dinner, and although the dining room slowly filled to near capacity, no one rushed us. The servers were doting, but not overwhelmingly so, the cooks in the galley tranquil as the orders went in and out. At last, while I waited for my receipt, there was a lull in the back-and-forth, and Broening stepped away from the rail. He passed a few quiet words with his cooks, with the servers clustered up around their station at the end of the pass. He stretched, looked out across the dining room and, finally, smiled. It was quick but huge, his whole face opening up.
And then, quick as it came, it was gone. Another check came in, and all the heads in the kitchen went down. There was an hour of service left yet this night, and although I was done working, Broening never seems to stop.
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