I wasn't expecting to find one of the year's most memorable dishes when I walked into Harman's eat & drink. My mind was on the location's earlier misfires, thinking about how this summer, the restaurant had morphed in the blink of an eye from Mark Fischer's misunderstood Phat Thai to a spinoff of his acclaimed Pullman in Glenwood Springs. Even as I buttered my bread (levain from a wood breadbasket) and listened to the server's hesitant spiel (the fall menu had recently been introduced), one part of my brain kept wondering if a new chef and a newish concept, not to mention bright-red paint and a more open floor plan, could overcome the flaws of the space, namely its cavernous size, awkward loft and Cherry Creek address. (Even Harman's website recognizes the location's challenges, calling the neighborhood "soon to be hip and fashionable, again.")
See also: A closer look at Harman's eat and drink
All this was going through my head — a hum of thoughts compounded by the hum of an increasingly noisy space, as tables and then community counters quickly filled — when the server arrived with a trio of plates. The dish that was going to outshine so many others was in the house — or, rather, on the table — but I started my meal with the agnolotti, which was placed closest to me. Executive chef John Little, who at 27 has the skills and experience of someone twice his age and spent five years with Fischer at the Pullman and Six89, loves making this pasta — he calls it "therapeutic" — and it shows, with tender flaps folded over a dollop of smooth butternut-squash purée. Tossed with cubes of sautéed squash, fried sage, apples and three kinds of fennel — raw, seeds and fronds whipped into their own bubbly purée — the agnolotti is a gentle reminder that Thanksgiving will be here soon.
Next I turned to the herb burrata, which over-promised in name (the ricotta-like cheese was faint in flavor, with a uniformly soft texture and a very thin skin) and execution, with a few strips of fruit playing hide and seek in a mound of arugula. Bread that had been grilled to black didn't help matters, and I soon pushed the plate aside — at which point I realized that my husband had never pushed his first plate aside (so much for sharing). So I did what anyone who's been married as long as we have would do: I took it away without asking. And that's when I met one of the year's best dishes.
If the burrata and pickled peaches had overplayed its hand, the roasted-beet salad did the opposite. Even if you paid attention to the fine print (and who does that?), it would have been hard to predict from the menu's description that beets, chickpeas, oranges and feta could create such a mesmerizing combination. Little isn't the first to toss chickpeas with oil and put them in the oven, but they would come as a revelation to anyone who knows these legumes as either rock-hard pellets or soggy beans from a can. Roasted until crunchy, they — along with fried beet shavings —offered the textural contrast that's the backbone of every great salad. Little also isn't the first to think in terms of these bright, exotic flavors — cumin and oranges can be found flirting in many chefs' shadows, and cumin and beets are a Moroccan standard — but he was smart to toss them together in a bowl, and in just the right combination with the other ingredients.
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I wished I could have ignored the rest of the meal and just concentrated on that salad and the bustling souks and colorful tile mosaics from the North African country it reminded me of. But more food was coming, and some of it was good enough to deserve my undivided attention. One such dish was the hanger steak, with classic flavors of red wine, mushrooms and potatoes sparkling with the addition of a strand of blue-cheese butter that melted over the perfectly cooked meat. Braised pork, so fork-tender even a baby could've gummed it, was another attention-getter, with pan-crisped spaetzle and a standout pear barbecue sauce that was a welcome change from the rampant overly smoky or sweet variations. If Little were so inclined, he could probably bottle the stuff and make a fortune — or at least enough to make up for any lost business the construction on Second Avenue might be causing.
More than half the lengthy menu is made up of dishes that could fill the role of small plates, perfect for a nibble after work with a cocktail or as a commitment-free way to build a meal. Including the menu's official small plates, snacks, half-orders of pastas, small salads and sides, twenty-some dishes call out for sharing. One night, we so enjoyed the duck confit tacos (not spicy as advertised, but tasty all the same), fried Brussels sprouts and sunchoke salad with slices of crunchy raw tuber, artichokes, feta and preserved lemon that we largely ignored our entrees. My friend wasn't thrilled about being too full for dinner; he'd ordered the pan-roasted chicken with mustard sauce, chèvre gnocchi and tarragon-horseradish crème fraîche, and knew the dish would be better hot than reheated from a takeout box. I didn't mind so much, though, considering how bland my Colorado striped bass seemed after so many bold flavors (it needed more salsa verde) or how jumbled the flavors were in the cake-batter ice cream — with cinnamon-sugar pork rinds, bacon caramel, crispy pork belly and, of all things, blueberries — that followed it. With this and other desserts, the kitchen seems to be overthinking, cooking more from the head than the heart.
Named for Edwin Harman, a nineteenth-century developer who set his sights on the area north of Cherry Creek, Harman's offers ample portions, which seems downright generous considering that entrees hover around $20, not the increasingly common $30. "We're trying to be a great neighborhood spot, one that cooks on a slightly higher level," says Little. "We want to be somewhere you can go with family in town, a place to bring Mom and Dad."
While Harman's is not the fine-dining destination that some guests off these ritzy streets might expect, it's also nothing like T.G.I. Friday's or Applebee's. With a vibrant red-and-charcoal space, a welcoming (though currently heater-less) patio and an imaginative yet comfortable menu, the restaurant has the potential to do what Phat Thai could not: overcome its loft, location and large seating capacity to continue the revitalization of Cherry Creek North that True Food Kitchen has already sparked. More than a place for out-of-town parents, Harman's deserves to settle in as a go-to spot for happy hour, for friends catching up over dinner, and for neighborhood families hoping to unwind over a glass of wine and a burger without worrying that the kids are making too much noise. It's already off to a good start by producing one of the year's most memorable dishes.