Cafe Society

Fruition continues to set the course for Denver dining

My last week in Denver was not really my last, since I have friends and family here who will draw me back to the Mile High City. But after three years of living off the local restaurant scene — first waiting tables and then writing about food — eating in Denver will never be quite the same for me. So this last week was still full of "lasts."

My last trip to Frasca for a glass of wine and a plate of pasta. My last trip to Colt & Gray, where I've been a regular at the bar. My last trip to Chubby's for a plate of fries smothered in hot, hot green chile and molten orange cheese. Just as my last week in Denver wasn't really the last time I'll be here, it's very likely that I'll return to those establishments whenever I'm back. But still, I wanted one last memory of the way things were to take along to New York.

And I also wanted a very different kind of last: a special meal with my parents, preferably somewhere that no one we knew would interrupt the last few hours we'd spend together in Denver, the town where they'd raised me. I suspected my parents would be dropping life advice. Moving across the country, again, I wanted to hear every bit of it.

We settled on Fruition, a restaurant I'd been to just a few times and was hungering to experience again before I left.

Slide show: In the kitchen at Fruition

In the winter of 2007, chef Alex Seidel and maître d' Paul Attardi opened their place in two tiny rooms on Sixth Avenue (the former home of Sean Kelly's Something Else) and immediately hit it big, easily snagging our Best New Restaurant award a few months later. Then, as now, Fruition served a seasonal, New American menu built on local ingredients. But in case that sounds like every other farm-to-table spot that's opened over the last five years, know that Seidel's obsession with quality runs so deep that he actually bought a farm where he now raises many of the ingredients used in his kitchen. And he also happens to do a great job behind the burners of that kitchen, turning out food that's still some of the city's best. Pair that with quiet, unobtrusive service, and Fruition is an ideal restaurant for any special occasion, not just a last night with parents when you don't want to be disturbed.

Which is good, because from the very start of the evening, it was clear that things weren't going to pan out quite the way I'd intended. Unbeknownst to me, a friend was working at Fruition — a fact he'd never dropped into our conversation over the past two years. But now he greeted me warmly the second I walked through the door, and after I'd been seated and left to study the menu while waiting for my parents in a nearly empty restaurant (it was early), I could hear him telling the kitchen and the rest of the staff who I was and what I did.

That resulted in a little awkwardness over the wine list. Fruition has never had a good list: The collection of bottles doesn't match the food, the list isn't challenging, and it's not priced appropriately. Although it's nice to see a list of familiar labels almost all priced below $100, most people are going to Fruition to celebrate something — which means they're willing to drop some cash and take a risk on a bottle, particularly if an adept staff guides them to a good choice. But every time I've examined the list at this restaurant, I've felt like there was nothing to drink.

Thanks to my friend, our server knew this. And after my parents arrived and we began discussing what wine to order, he apologized profusely on behalf of the restaurant, promising that the list was changing. Even though this vow may have been just for my benefit, it's not what a diner wants to hear...not when she has to order off that list for that meal. A subtle hint to check out the beer list would have sufficed, since Fruition has excellent beer offerings.

After that, though, things went much more smoothly. Our server had a full command of the food menu, and he reeled off a few of his favorite dishes while answering our questions about preparations and ingredients. And then he and the rest of the staff left us to our evening, reappearing only to top off wine glasses, deliver another piece of sourdough bread and, soon, drop off our appetizers with barely a word. But then, the food at Fruition speaks for itself.

The fact that the carbonara is the only dish that's been on Fruition's menu from the start says volumes. It's one of my favorite pasta presentations, and it was no less perfect this night. As my fork broke into the poached egg, it released a river of yolk over a generous slice of crispy, decadent pork belly, which ran down into soft cavatelli swimming in a creamy broth infused with cacio pecora — a sheep's-milk cheese that comes directly from Seidel's farm — and sweet, fat peas. It's always amazed me that this starter can be so rich without ever becoming heavy, making it as appropriate for a warm, late-spring day as it was on one of the first cold days last fall.

But I was equally delighted with the salmon tartare, a very summery dish. Velvety, fat-laced salmon had been chopped and mixed with buttery avocado and sided with thinly sliced pickled cucumber; a golden beet vinaigrette tied the combination together, adding earth and picking up the subtle acidity of the pickle.

By the time we finished our appetizers, the restaurant was very close to full, and I'd learned that there is a big difference between the two dining rooms. Prior to this night, I'd always sat in the main room, the one with the host stand, which can sometimes seem like a library, with people whispering over their plates so as not to be heard by other tables. But this time we were seated in the smaller, secondary room, which I found I liked better. The tables are just as close together, and the lower ceilings and faint din of the tiny, unseen kitchen combine to create an ideal level of background noise, giving each table just enough privacy so that you can carry on a conversation without worrying about being overheard. At restaurants that achieve that elusive combination of activity and intimacy, I always feel like I'm dining at the center of the universe — and that's when dinner can stretch on for hours before I've realized that any time has passed at all.

And it felt like scarcely a second had ticked by when our entrees showed up — though the half-empty bottle of wine we'd intended to savor with dinner was proof that it had been a little longer than that.

On my server's glowing recommendation — "It's pork loin rolled in pork belly!" — I'd ordered the porchetta. Peppery and pungent with rosemary, the meat drooled juice into the roasted fingerling potatoes beneath it. The dish was saved from being oppressively heavy by fennel — which added a nice, anise-y bite — as well as fresh arugula and a subtly tart lemon vinaigrette. But much as I love pork, I could have done without the superfluous ribbons of salty prosciutto that garnished the dish; they upset the delicate balance created by the greens and acid. Then again, I might have been more excited about all that pig if I hadn't just consumed a quivering slice of pork belly with the carbonara.

I had no quibbles about the grouper. Pan-seared until caramelized on the outside and voluptuous within, it was paired with lentils, which added earth and depth to the delicate white fish without overpowering it. The plate also held crisped and tenderized cauliflower, plus house-made lobster-imbued tagliatelle and strips of sweet, luxurious lobster meat. The entire dish had been finished with a light butter-based sauce, redolent with lemon and dill, that brightened all the other flavors.

By the time we were digging into dessert — a light, tart lemon meringue in a graham-cracker pie crust sided by sweet blueberry compote — three hours had passed. I'd consumed a delicious meal as well as lots of advice, and we were all sighing contentedly.

I'll be back in Denver again. But I can't imagine that I'll ever have as good of a last meal.

Slide show: In the kitchen at Fruition

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk

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