Ready or not, here they come.
When husband-and-wife team Tim Elenteny and Janice Henning decided to open a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Diced Onions, the San Francisco transplants didn't know a lot about Denver's dining scene. "We thought we'd come in and get all set up, have everything running smoothly, and then we'd tell everyone we were here," says Elenteny. "On the West Coast, yeah, you sort of expect things to be crazy from the start. But, wow -- we weren't prepared for the way the people in this town really get off on new places."
And the Beehive has been buzzing since the day it opened. On the surface, this five-month-old eatery has all the goods to attract local diners. The space is trendy and centrally located. The menu and wine list are refreshingly eclectic. The food focus is on fresh ingredients, most of them organic. Henning, the chef, follows the time-tested San Francisco philosophy of using what's fresh that day -- something Denver's just started doing since discovering this area actually has native produce and meats -- and she combines those components in a thoughtful, sensible way.
The Beehive, 609 Corona Street, 303-832-5766. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
That way comes straight out of Henning's background, which most recently included stints with Madeline Kamman and work as a sous chef for Jeremiah Tower, the incredibly egomaniacal celebrity chef whose Stars restaurant in San Francisco is good because of people like Henning. Elenteny says it best: "Jeremiah may not have made the best food, but he could make twenty bucks out of a turnip. You can learn a few things from a guy like that." Henning also learned a few things from Stars star Emily Luchetti (the Beehive features a few of her recipes, Elenteny admits); Elenteny's wine choices reflect his days as a Kermit Lynch employee.
Elenteny and Henning met at Stars; she took over the sous-chef job when Elenteny vacated it to become a buyer for the restaurant. "It was kind of weird," says Elenteny. "We started dating almost as soon as she started working my job, and the rest is history." Henning had graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder a decade before, and she'd always wanted to get back to Colorado. "She kept trying to sell me on moving here," Elenteny adds. "So this past winter, we were here on a business trip, and we were wandering around and saw the Diced Onions space. And we both kind of looked at each other and said, 'That's it. That's our restaurant.'"
Before it truly became theirs, though, they first had to strip the place down to its skeleton and redecorate from scratch. The couple did most of the work themselves, building an open kitchen that takes up a good third of the eatery, adding copper accents and an exposed-brick wall, creating a private red room, and throwing in some whimsical touches, including light fixtures made by an employee who stuck marbles into the honeycomb-like covers. Overall, the atmosphere is as rich as the inside of a real hive, and the noise from all the bustle can get pretty overwhelming, too. ("This isn't where you go for romance; it's where you go to break up," observed one dining companion.) Still, the busy hum has a certain appeal.
The wait to get into the Beehive, however, does not. The restaurant does not take reservations, and the line of would-be diners sometimes stretches out the door. One Saturday night we sat at a teeny table in the front for an hour, hoping someone would remember that we wanted to have a drink while we waited and praying for people to stop lingering over their meals. While we waited and prayed, we watched one group walk out because no one in the super-busy Beehive had bothered to acknowledge their existence.
"When we first opened, because it got busy so fast, we did take reservations," Elenteny explains. "Then some weekend nights, we would think we were going to have a full house, and people would just not show up -- or they would show up a half-hour late and expect us to accommodate them. And since we had just opened, we had to do that. But one night we had ten no-shows, and that was it for me. I had never experienced anything like that before."
But then, Elenteny also admits he'd never worked a dining-room before -- as anyone in the restaurant biz knows, couples cooking together spells disaster, so Elenteny opted to take on the front-of-the-house duties -- and says it's been a huge learning process that was amplified by the Beehive's early success. (While Elenteny says he's had to move some people around and currently has a hostess who's not adept at juggling crowds, on two occasions I spotted him schmoozing customers when he should have been helping her out.) "We don't like doing it this way, either," he says of the impatient crowds. "I can't say how yet, because the deal isn't done, but I promise we're going to make it better."
In the meantime, is Henning's food worth the wait? Almost without exception, the answer is yes. The dishes that she and her staff prepare are creative, well-cooked, generously portioned and carefully assembled from quality ingredients. Our hour-long wait for a table was forgotten with the first bite of goat-cheese crostini ($8), an ample hunk of the Niwot-based Haystack Mountain's light, fresh cheese. The Haystack version isn't aged like most French goat cheeses we get in this country (for some reason, the menu calls it "French," but even our server knew the cheese was Haystack), but it's remarkable nonetheless, with a faint tang and a creamy texture. We paired it with the jumbo sea scallop ($8), a flawlessly grilled specimen swimming in a sweet red bell pepper coulis. Both starters were simple, but refreshingly so.
The potato-leek soup ($6) was more complicated and also less successful. Although the individual components were fine, they didn't quite add up. A potato base studded with underdone leeks had been capped by a crouton covered with black lumpfish caviar; the soup's texture was like papier-mâché paste, and the caviar's saltiness didn't enhance the flavors. The Caesar ($7.50) better showcased Henning's skill at subtlety: This nontraditional, understated take on the classic salad included refrigerator-crisp whole leaves sparsely showered with Asiago and lightly coated in a faintly garlic, barely anchovy-infused dressing.
The entrees were more obviously striking. The grilled North Atlantic salmon ($18) was stunning, a sizable fillet grilled until the outside edges had just begun to firm, with a center still smooth, supple and juicy. For a sweet-and-sour finish, the fish sat on a bed of sunburst squash pieces that had been cooked into a ragout with tomatoes; a side of preserved-lemon couscous had been drizzled with parsley pesto. Almost as impressive was the roast quail ($22), two tender little birds stuffed with a homey mixture of mild sausage and cornbread and sporting skins that had been cooked crisp. The accompanying spinach had been sautéed with a tiny amount of sour cherry essence, which brought out the sausage flavor.
Since our meal had been nicely loaded with flavor, not bulk, we didn't groan when the dessert course came around. The Beehive serves "adult desserts," as a customer once told Elenteny, and he wasn't talking about cakes in the shape of genitals but light, sophisticated finales. Henning's panna cotta ($5) was so drop-dead fabulous that I begged for the recipe (see Mouthing Off): She used fresh, fresh blackberries to set off the rich, sensuously textured Italian custard, and a tasty chocolate shortbread cookie served as a modest garnish. The beautifully crusted lemon custard tart ($5) suffered only by comparison, although a true lemonhead might be disappointed by the relatively dainty flavoring.
For a repeat visit, we stopped by on a Tuesday, hoping for a shorter wait. It was, but not by much. Even on a school night, the Beehive was packed, and we were once again relegated to the corner to wait. At least this time our bottle of wine was brought promptly. But once we were seated, it turned out the kitchen's timing was off, and the courses came out sporadically.
Fortunately, we'd hung on to the remains of the antipasto platter ($12) and so could continue to pick at its bounteous collection: San Joaquin Valley Teleme -- a cow's milk California version of the Greek or Romanian brine-pickled cheese made from goat or ewe's milk, it was soft enough to spread -- as well as roasted eggplant rolls oozing with mascarpone, roasted red peppers, crunchy green beans and oven-softened olives. We also tried the brandade ($8), an old-fashioned French dish that I hadn't seen since a trip to Boston, the only other region I know of that's as obsessed with cod as Provence is. Usually a purée of salted cod that's been mixed with olive oil and milk, Henning's brandade used potatoes and stuffed everything inside a tomato. And while there were none of the traditional black-truffle shavings, copious garlic added extra oomph, and the dish was a stomach-warming comfort food. So was the minestrone ($5), which made it clear that Henning likes to do her soups with undercooked vegetables. Although I hadn't appreciated that in the potato-leek, here it worked just fine. Tomatoes, carrots, summer squashes, onions and Arborio rice shared space in the concentrated broth; the crunch of the veggies made the soup more of a summer-style than a traditional minestrone.
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Although I was disappointed that the kitchen was out of the organic lettuces -- one obstacle to the "what's fresh that day" approach is that there's often a limited supply of what's fresh that day -- I was delighted with the spinach salad ($5). Fresh, oil-coated spinach leaves served as the ideal backdrop for the sweet, heady flavor of grilled Valencia oranges, the richness of French feta and the raw, bitter edge of Moroccan olives. Morocco was also the surprise accent in the tender duck confit ($18). The fat-preserved fowl had been rubbed with a cumin-heavy mixture of Middle Eastern spices; it arrived atop another lemon couscous salad, this one cold and accessoried with grilled Black Mission figs. The combination worked, although heated couscous would have gone better with the spice-warmed duck. Our other entree didn't work at all, however. The properly cooked penne ($15) had been tossed with way too much shredded Pecorino Romano cheese and Swiss chard and not enough Kabocha squash or caramelized onions; the overall effect was very dry.
But the panna cotta was on the menu again, and that dessert has the ability to make everything seem better.
Even an hour-long wait.