"Are you open?" "When are you opening?" "I can't wait until you open!" I lost count of how many eager people passed through the doors of Olive & Finch earlier this morning, their hopes high that Mary Nguyen's new Uptown restaurant, a casual European-style cafe, was actually selling the muffins, cookies, tarts, banana bread and vibrant salads that greet you when you swing open the door. "Please come back Friday," they were all told. And while you won't need any incentive to spend the day at Olive & Finch, which is utterly enamoring, each and every person who was graciously turned away left with a $5 gift card that they can use when they return. But they'll have to wait until Friday at 8 a.m., which is when Nguyen, who also owns Parallel Seventeen, just a block away, and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, in Englewood, will unlock the doors of her new restaurant, bakery and market.
Mason jars, growing fresh rosemary, oregano and basil, perch on the marbled window counter, which overlooks the patio (it, too, will be flush with fresh herbs and vegetables next spring) that, once the weather turns balmy, will be exposed through the garage door that also peers over the weathered tables and chairs that now occupy it. Reclaimed oak benches fringe the perimeter of the room, each of them graced with hand-sewn napkins that display the Olive & Finch name. A live-edge, twelve-seat community table, hand-crafted from sassafras trees, poses in the middle; antique light fixtures, including a pair of lustrous chandeliers and a crystal-beaded pearl display, beam down below; an opaque mirror, shipped from France, graces one wall; and the floors, which are porcelain, mimic aged wood. Circular shadowboxes nesting with birds -- finches, of course, and owls -- and tin, weathered letters that spell everything from "food" to "Olive and Finch" squat on the shelves.
And that's just the dining room, a respite, says Nguyen, that encourages prolonged relaxation. "This is a cafe" -- not an upscale restaurant -- she stresses. "I want people to come in, get a cup of coffee and plug in their computers, and if they want to camp out for three or four hours, that's perfectly okay. This is a community-driven cafe, and we want people to feel like they're a part of that community," she adds.
But good luck coming in here and just ordering a coffee, because there are just way too many temptations to make your eyes bulge and your stomach grumble. And the food -- salads, soups, sandwiches, pastries and breakfast dishes -- is the kind of sustenance that your body hungers for. Nguyen, who has food allergies, opened Olive & Finch to cater to others with food allergies, a niche, she says, that's underserved. "There are some amazing restaurants in Denver, but it's expensive to eat out, especially for those of us with dietary restrictions, and there aren't a lot of casual places where you can get great, healthy and fresh food -- that segment is missing -- and that's what I'm offering here: "quick, fresh, whimsical, healthy, good and affordable food in a chef-driven cafe."
All but one her sandwiches can be ordered on a gluten-free baguette; salads are heaped with vegetables and grains; fresh herbs appear in just about everything; and she's even curing her own pastrami and braising her own beef tongue. Speaking of that beef tongue: If there's one sandwich that you absolutely, positively must try, it's that one. Nguyen braises the tongue for six hours, slips the shards of meat onto a baguette smeared with roasted garlic puree and tarragon aioli and then tops it with arugula leaves, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers. It's the one sandwich that isn't gluten-free (she uses teriyaki sauce), but it's a sandwich that will undoubtedly cultivate a brigade of smitten loyalists.
Her prepared salads, which hold center court in the display case near the front door, currently include, among others, a pasta salad with goat cheese, a kale salad and a black bean-and-corn salad, all of which are bright with bold flavors and made daily. "We'll rotate them out depending upon what's in season and what I feel like doing that day," says Nguyen. "What I love about Olive & Finch," she adds, is that "I have the freedom to do whatever I want to do, and I get to have a lot of fun -- I'm not committed to doing Asian food, which is what my other restaurants are all about."
And unlike her other restaurants, Olive & Finch is also a market. A floor-to-ceiling, artfully arranged rack exhibits olive oils, chutneys, bags of locally-grown grains, pickles from the Real Dill, jarred preserved fruits from MM Local, picnic wrapping sets, organic spices, the same hand-sewn napkins that grace the tables, potholders and kitchen towels. "They're all my favorite products from Colorado and everywhere else," says Nguyen. And they're all for sale.
Here, too, you can order fresh-squeezed juices, and to coincide with her commitment to offering good-for-you options, Nguyen's menu even features a juicing guide, which outlines the health attributes of the vegetables or fruits that she juices. The juices, says Nguyen, who's been juicing for years, "are offered to help you cleanse, refresh, revive, rejuvenate and detoxify." My recommendation is to go with the "All in One," a blend of beets, apples, carrots, watermelon, cucumbers and ginger. I got one; I could have easily downed too.
And that's not all I drank (Nguyen also offers a small, but well-chosen -- and inexpensive -- beer and wine list)...or ate. In fact, I sampled quite a few things this morning while Nguyen and I talked. The photos of those dishes, along with a first peek at the space, are on the following pages.