Dakota Soifer's chicharrones, seasoned with a dash of chile oil and salt, are crispy puffs that crack between the teeth and dissolve on the tongue almost instantly, leaving behind nothing more than the sweet smokiness of pork. They're not on the menu at Cafe Aion, but they're sent, along with other scraps-turned-tapas, to diners as thanks for their business, and as a way to use every part, even the skin, of the pig the chef buys to make sausage and ribs and pancetta.
In this economy, nothing should go to waste — and no diner should be taken for granted. Even the most established restaurants have adjusted, proffering bargains in the form of extended happy hours and fixed-price menus while working with leaner staffs and lower food costs. The ones that don't do it well go out of business, leaving vacant spots that were once culinary landmarks. In times like these, opening a restaurant isn't just risky; it's more like a death wish.
Even if this were a fertile financial climate, the four adventurous alums from the Kitchen who decided to open Cafe Aion didn't make it easy on themselves. They're trying to bring upscale dining to the Hill, the epicenter of Boulder's college scene, an area inhabited almost exclusively by cheap sandwich shops, pizza joints and bars hawking pitchers of PBR and avoided entirely by the adult crowd that Aion aims to attract. They took on a spot that needed a complete gutting and renovation, and gave themselves just $100,000 to get the place open — a meager figure meant to cover everything from the daunting remodel to the stocked refrigerator required for their first night of business.
1235 Pennsylvania Avenue, Boulder
Hours: 4-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
But even without a recession, Soifer and his partners — Jason Hein, Jake Kirkpatrick and Eric Lee — probably wouldn't have done much differently in opening the restaurant they dreamed up while on a chairlift in January 2009. They're an energetic, DIY crew, in this industry because it lets them lead an active lifestyle. "We're like dogs," says front-of-the-house manager Hein. "If you leave us cooped up in the house too long, we'll start chewing the rug." A fixer-upper was right up their alley.
Last December, the crew saw a chance to make their dream reality when Burnt Toast, a restaurant where Soifer had occasionally helped in the kitchen, fell empty. They took over the location on January 1 and sprang into action, debating how to blur the line between dining out and home entertainment in everything from the space design to the menu. By February, they'd all quit their jobs to concentrate on the project full-time.
"Everything in this restaurant has a story," Kirkpatrick says, sitting at a table in front of one of Cafe Aion's large windows, sipping from a glass bottle of soda. "We built this place, we made every decision together, we got a lot of help from our friends and neighbors, and now we're having a constant dinner party."
It helps that the building feels like an old house, with a long front patio and a wrap-around veranda that begs you to sit on a sunny Saturday morning with French press coffee and a crossword puzzle, a physical factor that convinced the foursome to offer brunch on weekends. Up the steps, the dining room is cozy, with good lighting and well-sectioned space, but it's also completely open to the kitchen, allowing everyone to socialize, even the chefs.
The goal was to create a spot where friends would want to hang out. "We want it to be a place where climbers and bikers and skiers can feel comfortable mingling with people who like fine dining," Hein explains. "Basically, it's Gore-Tex meets Gucci."
Kirkpatrick, who manages the bar and beverage program, is a skilled carpenter, and he crafted almost everything in the room. He scavenged beetle-killed wood for the massive bar and then covered it in reclaimed industrial metal, creating a focal piece that facilitates social gatherings without obstructing the flow. He cut the tables to a precise height, hoping to encourage guests to linger for hours. He even laid the pine wainscoting along the vibrant, Mediterranean blue wall, lightening up the room and giving it dimension.
What the partners didn't build, they foraged from sales and restaurant closures and secondhand suppliers, fussing over details until they all agreed that they had it exactly right. As a result, the space feels well-loved and efficient. Everything inside has a story, another origin — even the name, which was etched into the brick outside back when the building was the home of Aion Bookstore.
Soifer's a DIY-er when it comes to food, too. While the others worked in the gutted space that would become the restaurant, he was curing the meat, preserving the lemons and making the marmalades that would make up the menu on opening night. Now, new creations are worked into the rotation when he determines they're ready.
Whether an accoutrement or the main event, Soifer's salumi is a standout. Sweet and spicy chorizo sausage adds depth to manila clams bathed in white wine. Salty coppa, the cured neck and shoulder of a pig, is balanced by aioli and a crisp bite of arugula, all served on a hearty chunk of baguette. And the silky lomo, pork loin that melts on the teeth and tongue, needs nothing more than a spoonful of fruit compote to cut its richness.
The dinner-party vibe carries through to the menu, with small plates meant for sharing among friends. Tables might start with some of those meats and a plate of almonds, made delicate through pan-frying and dusted with paprika, before moving into supple, seared diver scallops, crispy with toasted breadcrumbs. Or they'll create their own mini steak frites, pairing thin wisps of shoestring potatoes with slices of juicy, grilled hanger steak, swimming in a rich porcini mushroom sauce. Or they'll indulge in a soft, creamy foie gras torchon paired with apple honey and balance it with a vegetable, like the cauliflower, lightly breaded and fried and accompanied by zingy saffron yogurt.
"When we're out for dinner," says sous chef Lee, "we like bites of everything, not too much of anything, and no regrets for not picking the right thing."
"There's flexibility in informality," adds Soifer. "We're trying to expand palates by making things approachable. When you don't have to commit to an entree-sized portion, you're more inclined to take a risk. And when you're not locked into courses, you're more likely to revisit something you like." That's how they can coax diners into ordering bacalao, dried and salted cod drizzled with olive oil. Or a server might suggest a backtrack, following fried chicken wings with a little dish of olives marinated with preserved lemon.
And then there are the dishes Soifer creates on the spot, using leftovers. The chicharrones, for instance. This tactic is a recipe for keeping food costs down while still using unique, top-notch ingredients. To obtain those, Soifer has worked his connections, forged through several years of cooking at the Kitchen and running the Meadowlark Farm Dinners, which take diners to local farms to meet the growers and enjoy meals made from ingredients harvested that day. Because he's a friend of the farmers, he's able to execute little deals with Cure Farms, which supplies a variety of produce throughout the growing season, and John Long, whose heirloom pork is in such high demand that he rarely takes on new customers. And since Soifer doesn't discount purveyors that might give him even a tiny bit of something great, he works with suppliers ignored by most restaurants. One of those is the Flatirons Neighborhood Farm, an urban Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) outlet that offers produce from the gardens of local homeowners.
Soifer tries to keep things as local as he can. "You're getting picky when you're complaining that farms only deliver three times a week," he says, "but you can taste the difference between the warm tomato straight from the vine and the one that's been in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. There's no comparison."
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By carefully scrutinizing costs, the chef has actually elevated his food. Soifer uses his pennies to pack a punch, serving up a delicious spicy scallion with just a pinch of fleur de sel, or a perfect radish accompanied by tapenade. "We're lucky," he says. "We're working with local growers who don't have a minimum order. We can get three bunches of onions and nothing more. That lets us expand our offerings because we're not slaves to a distribution center, which keeps our food costs lower." Lucky, but also smart.
The same deliberate thought goes into the beverage program, with Kirkpatrick carefully considering the menu, tasting food with the wine and beer reps to help them better understand his needs, and sending samples back to the kitchen to see what the crew thinks before he buys. He looks locally to build his bar inventory, working relationships with brewers and distillers, and also making bitters and infusing spirits in-house. And for anything to make the list, there has to be a compelling reason. "We bought a rum because it made a specific cocktail exactly right," he explains. "We had a connection to several of the beers. And we bought the grappa because the little Italian lady who made it was so cool."
All of this attention to detail provides conversational fodder during dinner. When a guest asks about a wine pairing, he hears the tale of the producer. When a new diner asks about his sopressata, Soifer describes how he started curing meat. When a drinker mentions the bar, Kirkpatrick gets to tell him how he rounded off the corners right after Lee smacked into one of them.
But a meal at Cafe Aion does its own talking, telling the story of how four first-time restaurant owners have managed to create something special from nothing.