Last winter, when it was dark by 5 p.m. and I really missed summer, I longed for two things: panzanella, which I make every Sunday during tomato season with red, yellow and green tomatoes from the farmers' market, and the gloriously simple burrata-peach bruschetta from the Kitchen Denver. Both epitomize the nuanced sweetness of local, seasonal produce; to attempt them in February with fruit from the grocery store would result in food with all the appeal of stale coffee. This year, when I'm ready to swap my sunscreen for an ice scraper, I'll long for a third dish: peach crepes from Devil's Food Bakery & Cookery.
Made fresh to order, two rolled crepes arrive just warm enough to melt the outer layer of cool mascarpone filling, rich with brandied peaches and slightly crunchy from marcona almonds. White chocolate sauce is drizzled over the top, smudging sweetness over more diced peaches. To some, the crepes might sound like dessert; to Devil's Food chef de cuisine Brian Crow, they're an ode to late summer. "We really try to accentuate the ingredients for each season," he says, which is why you, too, are likely to spend the winter longing for these crepes. And the rest of the fall, too: With Palisade peach season now over, Crow's already taken them off the menu.
Devil's Food Bakery vre sandwich $11
Grilled shrimp and grits $16
Chicken and waffles $15
Chicken pot pie $12
That's a downside to seasonal menus: Just when you find a new favorite, it's nixed in the name of the harvest. This happened to another dish I recently enjoyed at Devil's Food, a salad with arugula, goat cheese, pistachios and watermelon in place of the typical strawberries or dried cranberries. The last time I ordered the salad, fall had already officially started, but even with pale-pink melon pushing past the boundaries of its season, the dish was so well-balanced it still dazzled.
Not all of Devil's Food dishes change, of course. The breakfast menu is particularly firm: "You can only do so much with eggs," admits Crow, a 26-year-old with the resignation of a much older person coming through in his gentle Southern drawl. Staples include quiche (albeit with seasonal add-ins), sandwiches, and French toast made with thick, house-baked challah that gets such a quick egg bath, it comes out crisp on the edges and as pillowy as a fresh loaf inside. Another breakfast standard is the chile relleno, earthy from the roasted poblano and smoky from plenty of crisp Tender Belly bacon in the eggs stuffed inside. Too bad the fresh tomato sauce that it came with didn't have more kick; mine seemed better suited to a plate of penne with basil. Eggs Benedict will also remain — a good thing, since this version nabbed top honors in our Best of Denver Benedict category.
One item that may never be taken off the menu — not at breakfast, not at supper ("My head might be chopped off if I did," jokes Crow) — is chicken and waffles. As the dish has grown in popularity, it's gotten sweeter, too, as if sugar overload were necessary to make it in the mainstream. The Devil's Food variation, made with thinly pounded chicken breasts cooked in a cast-iron skillet, balances sweet, savory and spicy, with well-seasoned breading, chipotle-honey syrup and gravy thickened as much with roux as with loads of crumbled sausage to counter the waffle's sweetness. Many think of chicken and waffles as a Southern dish, and while its roots aren't necessarily in the South, the rest of the Devil's Food menu does have a Southern tilt (think cheese grits and blackened catfish) thanks to Crow, who grew up in North Carolina.
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With its emphasis on seasonality, you might expect Devil's Food to be a high-concept restaurant, because chefs at those places often talk in such terms. But Devil's Food is nothing if not homespun. A '60s-era kitchen sink and refrigerator (white, not stainless) flank one side of the deep, narrow dining room, with a wooden armoire on the other. Graters and old doors hang on the walls; eclectic chandeliers and strings of white lights are suspended from the ceiling. While the red walls may have a few chips and the chairs may wobble a bit, rather than feeling disheveled, Devil's Food feels welcoming. You get the sense that life happens here, which is why you're equally likely to find college kids, tots eating Cheerios from a baggie and friends out for lunch around the tables — not to mention folks dropping in for a bracing cup of coffee and a palmier or magic bar to go.
Such a laid-back atmosphere is to be expected at bakeries, which is how Devil's Food got its start in 1999. It's also par for the course at breakfast, lunch and brunch spots, which is what Devil's Food grew into after five years. But Crow, who started here in 2011 and is keen on attracting a larger evening crowd, wants to preserve that feeling at night, too. Just don't make the mistake of calling that last meal dinner. "We call it supper," he says, "because that's the kind of vibe we're going for." So rather than deconstructed banh mi, look for hearty fare like that chicken-and-waffles dish, or pot pie, a heaping bowl of shredded chicken, carrots, celery and peas with a blanket of white sauce made with stock from leftover roasted chicken bones. My only disappointment was the lack of a puff-pastry crust to pop with my fork; this pot pie featured a square of pie crust that didn't cover the entire dish. Shrimp and grits, with grilled shrimp and a smoky, bacon-laden cheddar-cream sauce poured over the grits, was also a heaping bowl of comfort. Lighter options include salads, sandwiches such as a fine lemon-parsley chicken with chèvre on toasted challah, and daily soups.
Given Crow's down-home bent, it's understandable that Devil's Food focuses on taste over presentation. Still, the kitchen should pay a little more attention to execution, since it sends out the occasional bowl of shrimp and grits with enough sauce for three plates and barely enough grits for one, and hot food isn't always served hot.
Speaking of hot, next summer when I'm tired of the heat and cursing my old house and its lack of air conditioning, I know just what I'll miss from fall — besides, of course, cool days and even cooler nights: a bowl of Devil's Food's earthy beet soup, and, if they taste as good as they sound, the pumpkin crepes that replaced those standout peach ones.