Colin Mallet brings Southern cooking to northwest Denver
After my first child was born, a friend brought over the best spaghetti Bolognese I'd ever eaten. When I asked for the recipe, she shyly admitted it contained Vegemite, the salty, dark-brown yeast paste that Australians adore. "Try it on toast," she later urged, presenting me with a small, yellow-lidded jar. A tablespoon in Bolognese is one thing, but Vegemite on toast? Some flavors, I decided, you just have to grow up with.
See also: Slide show: Sassafras American Eatery
Though it's been years, this exchange recently came to mind over lunch at Sassafras American Eatery, a Southern-style breakfast and lunch spot that opened in northwest Denver in May. Housed in a 123-year-old red-brick Victorian listed on the National Register of Historic Places (it was the original home of La Loma), the charming bungalow features stained-glass windows, a wraparound porch and wallpaper reminiscent of a great-aunt's parlor. And with Louisiana-bred executive chef Colin Mallet at the helm, it serves a few dishes that fall into the Vegemite category.
Collard greens, for one, which are traditionally boiled into oblivion with a ham hock and sprinkled with vinegar. Order the fried chicken, and that's just what you'll get alongside the crispy bird: vinegary, not-so-green greens, their color dulled by a multi-hour braise. Gumbo is another, as black as black-bean soup from the dark roux it's thickened with and sporting a deep, earthy kick from filé powder. Both dishes are authentic — they probably scream "home!" to a Southerner — but if you're no belle and never had filé in your pantry, you might find it hard to fully embrace them.
Biscuits, on the other hand, have a more universal appeal. Mallet baked a batch and presented them, along with pulled pork, homemade sausage, cornbread and peanut-butter fudge, to Sassafras co-owner Julia Grother at his job interview. Take one bite of these golden creations, several inches tall and with a buttery crust, and you'll see why he got the position. They come as a side to a handful of breakfast entrees and are yummy when slathered with one of the restaurant's scratch-made seasonal jellies. (If wild plum isn't at your table, swap when no one's looking.)
As good as they are with jelly, the biscuits are even better with gravy as a stand-alone starter. Mushroom is one gravy option, but unless you have an aversion to meat, get the sausage version: The rich, creamy sauce is loaded with crumbled, house-made sausage. (Take note: You may need to ask for extra gravy if you want your three biscuits really drenched.) Breakfast sliders with sausage, cheddar and scrambled organic eggs are another delicious choice, though at one for $4 or three for $10, they seem a tad overpriced.
Banana bread (aka chunky monkey bread) is also easy to love, regardless of which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you grew up on. It's gussied up with white and dark chocolate chips, pecans and orange zest, and served hot; add an order of grit fries for a balance of savory and sweet, and settle in as you chat and sip coffee inside or on the sunny, flower-dotted patio. The menu is long, and both breakfast and lunch are served until Sassafras's mid-afternoon closing, so you might need some time to decide what to eat next.
While there are a few lighter selections, such as honey yogurt with fruit, cinnamon steel-cut oatmeal and an arugula salad, most of the entrees are rich enough to make you consider skipping your next meal. Try the French toast, puffy yet crisp under a cascade of sliced strawberries and walnuts, or the buttermilk pecan griddle cakes, with cinnamon butter melting down the enormous, tangy discs. Kids might find them too sour, though, due to the all-buttermilk batter. (Most recipes call for milk to be mixed in.)
Since Sassafras is a Southern place, many items are fried and Hollandaise is poured with a heavy hand. The fried chicken, moist inside its thick, crispy breading, rises far above those dull, vinegary greens, thanks to a 24-hour dip in buttermilk to tenderize the meat. Green tomatoes are given a similar treatment: marinated in buttermilk for twelve hours, then coated with cornmeal and fried. These Southern treats serve as a bed for poached eggs in the fried green tomato Benedict, which comes blanketed with Hollandaise, and as the stuffing of a sandwich on toasted wheat with a side of fries or potato salad. Fresh oysters are also fried and placed atop spicy, if somewhat dry, jambalaya. Even soft-boiled eggs get a crispy cornmeal crust. Listed as chicken-fried eggs and accompanied by potato-studded buffalo hash, this unusual dish is one you'll either love or leave untouched.
Given the menu's overall richness, you might expect the grits to be finished with cream. They're actually made with water, but don't let that deter you from the excellent shrimp and grits, with sautéed shrimp, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and bits of serrano peppers and bacon. The barbecue plate is another standout, with smoky, fork-tender pulled pork and North Carolina-style barbecue sauce, made with vinegar and chiles and nary a tomato (or tomato product, such as ketchup) in sight. Too bad the plate can't be ordered with an extra portion of pork and no Andouille, which is oddly tough and has a hard-to-chew casing.
If you've left room for dessert — and that's a big if — you'll have a hard time choosing between a thick milkshake (there are twenty flavors, including Twinkie, salted chocolate pretzel and gingersnap) and one of the flaky-crusted pies, perhaps peach, sweet potato or coconut cream. Just don't get your heart set on a particular one, as the pie selection changes daily.
While the menu is impressive, the execution often is not. Prior to working at Sassafras, Mallet served as executive chef at Breakfast on Broadway and sous chef at Beatrice & Woodsley; co-owner Julia Grother is also no stranger to the restaurant industry, with nearly fifteen years under her belt, nine of those as manager. So it's surprising that the kitchen is so inconsistent. Pancakes, French toast and cornbread come out burned on one side, blackened surface hidden plate-down. Gumbo lacks protein, and the ubiquitous Hollandaise cries out for salt and lemon. Service can be slow, making it hard to eat and get back to the office. And even the takeout menu shows signs of distraction, with typos such as "Frech toast" and "counrty breakfast." Such mistakes are unfortunate, because there's much about Sassafras (biscuits! fried green tomatoes! fried chicken!) that should appeal to belles and non-belles alike. Even if collards and filé powder don't.
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