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Girl Talk: The Village Cork, girly as it might be, will win over the most reluctant diner

As much as I'd like to be a better representative of womankind, I am not girly. I'd rather smoke a cigar over Scotch than comment on cute brunch tartlettes filling some silver platter. I'd rather yell obscenities at a baseball game than teeter around on high heels during a girls' night out. And I'd rather slash my veins than get roped into hours of scrapbooking, dress-fitting or color-choosing for a wedding. In fact, when my own special day comes, I'm going to hire someone — hopefully a fabulously dressed gay man with a tiny, adorable dog — to do everything. I know I'll pay handsomely, but at least I won't stick my head in the oven before I get a chance to march down the aisle.

I admire women who embody the ideal feminine qualities, but I'm always a little out of my comfort zone when social groups start dividing along gender lines and I find myself on the side making small talk about puppies and home care and expensive jewelry and babies. So when I first set foot in The Village Cork, which definitely falls on the female side of the gender line, I couldn't help but feel like a gruff, lumbering Amazon about to trample a field of delicate flowers.

This place was clearly designed by a woman for women; it's a spot where you can easily envision yourself divulging a juicy secret to a gasping girlfriend or charming the pants off a suitor while flipping your hair in good light. (Men, read between the lines: This also means the Village Cork is a good choice for impressing a date and so possibly getting laid later.) I wish my home had the same appeal. I stood in the entrance for a minute, coveting the exposed brick, the sexy glow emitted by antique glass lamps, the sultry voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday on a scratchy stereo, the mismatched floral-patterned plates straight out of a magazine spread, even the old cash register, as obsolete as an eight-track player, a dinosaur of a machine that still uses ink ribbons. Not exactly practical, but I still coveted it.

As I took my spot at the bar, I locked eyes with Lisa Lapp, and I knew instantly that she was the woman behind the magic. She was perfect: thin, with easy confidence and a well-tailored dress. And her staff was just as perfect, cute and smiley, wearing their clothes effortlessly, emitting musical tinkles of laughter as their customers made jokes. The proverbial bull in a china shop, I got off to a prickly start with Lapp, who opened the Village Cork nine years ago. Perhaps my head was fogged by the cloud of estrogen, but the layout of the wine list seemed confusing. Attempting to navigate it under Lapp's stare, I made the classic mistake of talking through it instead of waving her off — and her irritation was evident. I can't say I blamed her; when I was a server and people did that to me, I'd plaster on a fake smile, then go to the back and rant about how idiotic my diners were. My, how the tables had turned. Lapp tried to regain control by suggesting the flight, a modest pour of any three wines by the glass. I loved that idea — but when I asked if I could taste the syrah before committing to it, she got short with me. That was the point of the flight, she insisted. To let me taste a lot of things.

This annoyed me. The bottle was open, and a splash of a taster was very much within my diner's bill of rights — particularly when you consider that I was at a wine bar. Sighing, I made my choices without sampling, and was relieved to find them all interesting. In fact, every glass of wine I had at the Village Cork — from a crisp, bubbling Prosecco to a tart, apple-y chablis to a New Zealand pinot noir that was equal parts the earth of Burgundy and the juicy cherries of California — was excellent. Halfway through my first pour and deep into the complimentary slices of baguette spread thick with chunky tapenade, my annoyance was erased and my respect for Lapp rising. I relaxed, smiled. The femininity of the spot was rubbing off on me; I even allowed my pinkie to stick out as I fondled the stem of my glass.

The menu, scrawled whimsically in pastel cursive on a chalkboard, comprised delicate things, too. Which was interesting, because you wouldn't exactly call the restaurant's chef of nine months, Samir Mohammad, dainty. His cherubic curls surround a round, boyish face, and he commands attention, both for his large frame and his location: He does all of his cooking from a patched-together kitchen in the center of the restaurant, surrounded by the high counters that make up the bar. If I saw Mohammad on the street, I might imagine that he'd do wonderful things hacking up sides of animals as a butcher, but his background is actually in seafood. When he arrived at the Village Cork, he was fresh off two years at Pesce Fresco, where he'd amassed a legion of fans before he was suddenly fired after the restaurant changed ownership. He found a new home with Lapp, who hired him to elevate a menu of basic wine-bar snacks to a full list of seasonal dinner offerings. And now, from a convection oven and a couple of butane burners, he turns out a roster of light, intricate, bistro-inspired dishes: cheese plates, seasonal salads, a roasted half chicken and meatier entries.

But the best dishes I tried were his finger-food appetizers, the sorts of tidbits I'd put out on trays for a gaggle of gals at a shower — except that my renditions wouldn't look, much less taste, anything like what Mohammad makes. I scalded my mouth stuffing my face with pommes frites: sweet, flawlessly roasted fingerling potatoes dusted with tarragon and a hint of truffle salt, served with tangy garlic aioli and a squeeze of lemon in a little baking dish. And I practically needed a cigarette after the beef carpaccio, silky, paper-thin slices of beef served with a tart, salty caper salad and a nest of field greens cradling a quivering golden egg yolk. Foodgasm. Seriously.

The vegetarian Wellingtons, a puffed-pastry duo, were also standouts. With one, aged balsamic had been drizzled on the flaky, buttery dough that enclosed steaming, soft sweet potato and turnip; with the other, that same pastry enveloped wild mushrooms, and the whole thing was covered with creamy corn coulis. I could have eaten a dozen. The Village Cork should open for brunch — it's currently just a dinner spot — just so that I could eat these on a Sunday morning, preferably while I'm sitting on the patio and wearing a girly sundress. And as the smiling staff kept bringing me these delicious morsels, I realized I liked the place. A lot.

My salad course was a well-dressed display of the harvest season: field greens mixed with sweet, juicy peaches, the sharp bite of Humboldt Fog goat cheese and the pleasant crunch of a barely cooked zucchini, tossed with a light peach vinaigrette. Ripe peaches also featured prominently in a shrimp entree, where they were sautéed with the prawns. But sadly, the dish was thrown off-kilter by a bed of flash-seared field greens sprinkled with tasteless ricotta. Field greens should never be cooked like that — certainly not when they're in season. The wilted leaves were a cruel taunt, offering just enough taste to make me lament what I was missing.

At a later dinner, I went for the duck carnitas tacos — despite the fact that the conundrum of a name addled my brain. Carnitas are a pork dish, so saying "duck carnitas" is like saying "duck braised pork." Perhaps the title was meant to call attention to the happy fact that the poultry had been slow-cooked in its own fat until it fell apart, but that technique has a name, and I'm sure Mohammad knows it: confit. The meat was juicy and savory, and the tomatoes served as a topping were at the peak of ripeness — but since those ingredients were placed carefully on bland corn tortillas with no more garnish than a smattering of greens, the dish seemed perplexingly unfinished. A sauce might have helped; I fantasized dousing my tacos with a liberal dose of messy (and very un-dainty) Tapatío.

My biggest disappointment at Village Cork came during my first meal there: a flatiron steak, rubbed with red chile and served atop a mix of posole, corn and pico de gallo, that was so salty a farm animal would have licked the plate compulsively. But I couldn't stomach it, and sent the terrible entree back. Still, the way the Village Cork handled this won me over completely, turning like into love: Mohammad promptly prepared a replacement that was a vast, non-salty improvement, allowing me to enjoy how the tender slices of beef interacted with the fresh, light blend of the ingredients beneath. That, friends, is how you make steak work in the warm Indian summer.

By the time I requested my check (the steak had been removed), I was hooked: sipping French-press coffee from a tiny cup, giggling and gossiping with Lapp and her servers as they polished glasses.

In that moment, in that restaurant, I was, quite happily, one of the girls.

I felt like a new woman.

Julie Delahunt is one of the girls at the Village Cork. See a full slideshow: In the kitchen at the Village Cork.
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The Village Cork

1300 S. Pearl St.
Denver, CO 80210

303-282-8399

www.villagecork.com


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