Cafe Review: Smart, Sophisticated Dining Makes a Welcome Return at Avelina
Creative plating ups the short rib’s visual appeal at Avelina.
Is Avelina where the pendulum begins to swing in the other direction? At some point in the future, maybe in three years, maybe in five, will we look back on the opening of this quiet downtown restaurant and trace the return of the soft-spoken, the sophisticated, the beautiful to the summer of 2016? Amid the flood of new openings over the past few years, Avelina has quickly distinguished itself for its ability to defy current wisdom and still attract a crowd.
Instead of industrial chic and an edgy black palette, Avelina soothes with earth-toned touches that are as lovely to behold as they are to settle into: brown chenille banquettes, camel-colored Italian leather stools, throw pillows in shades of citron, wintergreen and lamb’s wool. Lighting is gentle, cascading from drum chandeliers and flickering candles. Tables are crafted from dark walnut and set far enough apart that conversations remain yours alone, and the only elbows you rub are those of the special someone you came in with. There’s no loud music to shout over, no band setting up in the corner. Even the bar is separated by a gauzy curtain, so patrons drinking and waiting for a seat don’t become dining-room distractions. The restaurant itself, on the ground floor of a LoDo office building, isn’t crammed into a hip anything: not a historic train station or a refurbished warehouse or a shipping container.
Indeed, for some millennials who have come of age in this era of King Casual, Avelina might be the first restaurant to reveal these simple pleasures of quiet and comfort and space, pleasures that became casualties of the same movement that took down white tablecloths and tableside preparations. But pleasures alone don’t reverse pendulums. A mighty force is required to do that, and Avelina has not one, but two, in chef/partner John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, the pastry chef whose talents have been richly rewarded with repeat James Beard nominations and who happens to be Broening’s spouse.
Throughout his career, Broening has meandered through culinary traditions. In the early 2000s, he introduced himself at Brasserie Rouge as the French chef he seemed destined to be — thanks to his classic culinary degree, a childhood spent partly in France, and a stint as a poissonnier in Paris under renowned chef Guy Savoy. He went on to specialize in other cuisines, including farm-to-table at Duo, Mediterranean at Olivea, Italian at Spuntino, and British at Argyll Whisky Beer. Avelina was very nearly another stop on this line; if not for the recent microburst of Italian concepts, Broening told me, Avelina would’ve been incarnated as Italian. Though he has received his share of popular and critical acclaim over the years, Broening’s varied roles have prevented him from becoming the household name he deserves to be, more of a character actor than the lead.
To eat at Avelina is to finally see what these veterans can do, unfettered by the thematic constraints of their previous gigs. For those who prefer the neat-and-tidy comfort of categories, Avelina’s highly shareable menu can be described as seasonal New American. But I encourage you to instead think of it as essential Broening: deceptively simple, intriguing, wisely sauced, surprisingly light.
The food, plated on colored dishware from a pottery studio in North Carolina, is as beautiful as the space. Golden raisins in a vegetarian tagine are placed like a string of jewels around purple, yellow and orange carrots, the fruit’s sweetness complementing the sauce’s subtle heat from harissa, the earthiness of dried mushrooms, the mellow tartness of preserved lemons. When no one is looking, tip the tiny cast-iron pot of saffron-scented Israeli couscous onto the plate to scoop up the last bit of this multi-dimensional sauce, made with the love traditionally reserved for carnivorous fare.
Dulce de leche stack.
Warm artichokes, quartered and fully cleaned, form striking silhouettes, their slender stems tucked against roasted shiitakes. Charcuterie, which Broening made in-house long before it was the thing to do, arrives on a wooden board handcrafted in Maine, with an artful assemblage of accoutrements: fig jam, pickled onions and mustard seeds, slices of crusty bread and a pot of Irish butter swirled with Aleppo peppers. Orange salad, a dish Broening introduced to much fanfare at Argyll and slightly retooled here, glows with the intensity of a setting sun, the orange slices glistening against a backdrop of blood-orange dressing, with accents of mint and Niçoise olives. Like many items on the menu, the refreshing salad is anchored in Europe — in this case, Sicily — but feels like contemporary Colorado thanks to a sprinkling of fennel pollen, an ingredient over which chefs are currently swooning.
Broening has described himself as cerebral, and this quality is evident in his food. To lamb sausage crumbled on wood-fired Moroccan flatbread, he adds cumin, coriander, paprika and the sweet-tartness of little-known tomato powder. To ensure layers of acid in an updated — and spectacular — bistro-like salad of Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, eggs and lardons, he taps two vinegars, champagne and cider. To up the short rib’s visual appeal, he plates it in three smaller paves rather than one central mound, thus increasing the rib’s surface area. With more yuzu-sweet chile glaze in every bite, the dish is a stunner, the boldly flavored ribs complemented by carrot purée and gingery sautéed vegetables. To rein in the richness of pork belly, which is seasoned with Chinese five-spice powder and brown sugar, confited and finally pan-roasted, he adds a bracing dash of Indian mustard oil.
But nowhere does he add too much butter or cream. “When I first met my wife, I was a French chef who finished everything with butter,” he told Westword years ago. But after their long partnership, the opposite is true. “I’m always saying less butter and no cream,” he said recently, “just enough to fix the flavor.” Thus there’s no cream in the butternut-squash soup, so the vegetable’s sweetness shines through. (The soup is not vegan, despite the server’s assurances to the contrary, which explains why garnishes of crème fraîche and chorizo-apple compote seemed so much like, well, crème fraîche and chorizo, not any kind of coconut- or soy-based imitation.) Cheese is kept to a minimum on the flatbreads, and in a carrot purée that seems glossy with butter, the richness comes instead from coconut milk.
The dining room at Avelina.
Such lightness turns Avelina into the special category of restaurant that you could eat at when friends or parents are in town, when there’s a birthday to celebrate or when there’s no reason at all, save the desire for a good meal. But even if you don’t have a celebratory excuse for indulging, you’ll want to order dessert, which in Lozada-Hissom’s hands becomes as obligatory as the courses that came before.
Longtime fans will swoon over the reappearance of her signature olive-oil cake, but the rustic millefeuille, listed on the menu as a dulce de leche stack, is generating its own legends. This free-form creation, which she designed for Avelina, delights with dulce de leche, dulce de leche cremeux and vanilla pastry cream between flat pastry sheets that crackle like all the butter and sugar in the world were folded into them. Her plates are finished with the same thoughtfulness as everything else coming out of the kitchen: tart slices of candied kumquats, quenelles of gelato rich with Sicilian pistachio paste. Beautiful, yes, but not too beautiful to enjoy.
Dessert is like the entirety of Avelina: This is food to be appreciated, laughed over, wholeheartedly relished.
Swing, pendulum, swing.
1550 17th Street
Warm Brussels sprouts $6
Warm artichokes $9
Pork belly $15
Orange salad $8
Moroccan flatbread $14
Charcuterie 3 for $18
Vegetable tagine $18
Short rib $28
Citrus olive-oil cake $10
Dulce de leche stack $10
Avelina is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at avelinadenver.com.
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.