An ode, a lament: That's what it says on the menu, on the wall, on the chalkboards and on the website that City, O' City shares with WaterCourse Foods, the restaurant that used to be in this Capitol Hill space. An ode, a lament — to Denver and its people, to the architecture and the artifice of a city, to a neighborhood, a street, an address that has gone through shattering changes in the last year or two or three. It sounds like the first line of a poem and might be, but I am too lazy to look it up, to Google it for some clue as to what was going through the minds of owners Dan and Michelle Landes when they foisted such a clunky and strange moniker on this new place that used to be their old place before WaterCourse fled the changing neighborhood late last year for more respectable, much larger digs on 17th Avenue.
An ode, a lament. It sounds pretentious, affected, and it is. But oddly, the restaurant itself is not, and if there is some sort of sly social comment here — some secret, Da Vinci Code-style veiled critique hidden in the tangents of the walls, the bumps on the cement floor, the twining backs of the cafe chairs — I'm simply too dumb to catch it. When I walked through the door of City, O' City for the first time, late on a Saturday when the joint was in full hipster-utopian swing, I thought only of how comfortable I found its spare decor, with the widely spaced tables, high-backed booths and long bar, how buzzing and vital it felt, how much more I liked it than I had the old WaterCourse, with its anarchic vegan/ hippie militancy, fluttering handbills, perpetually wan and humorless staff and stink of wheat germ and patchouli.
This was, of course, before I'd tried to settle in behind a cold beer and my well-thumbed copy of World War Z and found myself too distracted by the crowd and their endlessly looping conversations about meatless nutrition, art, films I'd never heard of and what-the-fuck-is-seitan to appreciate Max Brooks's brilliant depiction of an underwater zombie attack on a Chinese submarine. Everything was laptops and nose rings, hummus and leg hair and Lou Reed on the stereo (which I loved) and twig-and-berry ascetics popping little gastro-chubbies over the fig pizzas and falafel.
It wasn't a full house, but it was a big crowd for a vegetarian restaurant. For a vegetarian restaurant and wine bar. For a vegetarian restaurant, wine bar and pizzeria. And coffeehouse. And bar. For a post-post-modern fusion of half a dozen business models that looked like what would result if a fast-moving coffeehouse and an airborne bistro collided in midair, dropped through the roof of a hippie pizza joint and tofu warehouse, and landed on top of a wine salesman.
I drank my beer, read my zombie book as best I could, nibbled a bit of brie with apricot jam, roasted garlic, sliced apples and flatbread, then got out. The bar at City, O' City is open until ten, but I couldn't imagine what last call among the gentle herbivores might look like and, frankly, didn't want to find out.
An ode, a lament. How appropriate, since I, too, have both praise and grief for City, O' City, an elegy of mixed feelings, bitterness, love and loathing.
Dan Landes is a successful restaurateur, having survived for better than ten years while shaping the palates of the leaf-eating elite, innovating a little, creating a little and finally rising to almost singularly define a not-insignificant swath of Denver's cuisine. What kills me is that the swath he chose is vegetarian food — not because he is a vegetarian (he's not; the man makes a mean rillette du porc), but because at the time that he was thinking of opening the first WaterCourse, he felt that vegetarians were a massively underserved part of the market just crying out for someone to take their money in trade for spelt, wheat flour and texturized vegetable protein.
He was right. For a decade, WaterCourse was a better-than-average vegetarian/vegan outpost that made a measurable attempt at improving on the insipid and flaccid grub most vegetarians are forced to tolerate day after day. And then, when he moved WaterCourse and opened City, O' City early this year, he stuck with the same plan, only now offering the meatless throngs a place for pizza, beer and seitan Buffalo wings. But while I applaud the man's business acumen and devotion to my herbivorous brethren, I can't help but imagine what Landes could've done if he was working on my side of the fence, what he and his crews (which are staffed by plenty of carnivores) could still do with a couple rashers of bacon in one hand and a ladle full of veal stock in the other. Lament, lament...
The menu at City is short and, at turns, either inspired or laughable. Tempeh bacon for breakfast? That just makes me sad. The very sight of the words "Carolina-style BBQ" tofu causes my barbecue-lovin' heart to stutter and jump in what I can only assume is an effort at panicked self-preservation — that passionate organ attempting to leap free of my body through the throat and run like hell for more rational climes.
The bulk of the board is taken up by pizzas — organic crust, vegan on request, gluten-free on request. But even the least compromised crust is nasty, with a dusty cardboard flavor, grainy texture and a dry-mouth aftertaste that's like chewing a mouthful of ground wheat or licking the bottom of one of the bulk barrels at a health-food store. There are five faux-standard pizzas, including a simple white with tomato, fresh basil and mozzarella that really lets the coarse, dry flavor of that crust shine through, and one with seitan sausage, caramelized onion, bell peppers, mushrooms, fresh sage leaves and mozzarella that, even when taken all together, is not enough to disguise the fact that seitan sausage is not, in fact, sausage at all, but a cruel joke — a mockery of sausage, a bad copy of a bad copy, flavor distorted to pointlessness. The fake-pepperoni and cheese with red-sauce pizza is the most disappointing version, though, if only because the fake pepperoni does taste vaguely of real pepperoni — of the spices used to make real pepperoni — but has the texture of baked Play-Doh: hard, crunchy where it has been burned, disturbingly soft where it hasn't.
Still, while a person with warm and cuddly feelings toward all of God's most delicious critters might be forced to live without barbecue, without bacon, without veal stock and demi, he can still enjoy a perfectly serviceable pizza. There are vegetables that can be delicious even without a steak grilled alongside, dishes that are naturally animal-friendly and require no substitution, no trickery, no flim-flam artistry in the galley to make them palatable. And here, then, is where the ode begins, because while there is much for a carnivorous young man like me to be disappointed by at City, O' City, there is more that is actually kinda good.
My Saturday-night brie plate was perfect. A beer, some nice cheese and apricot jam, a little bread — who could complain about that? The kitchen also does an admirable pesto, serves good hummus (that classic standby of vegetarian sustenance) sprinkled with strong feta, relies heavily on the fryers because second only to things made of pork, things out of the Friolator make people happy. There are onion rings, french fries (unfortunately and inexcusably done poorly most of the time), fried mushrooms, falafel.
Forgoing the fake pizzas, the specialty pies are surprisingly good — strange and original and actually taking advantage of vegetarian restrictions rather than struggling against them. La Michelle comes smeared with a thick fig paste, fresh rosemary, parmesan, mozzarella, gorgonzola, a few sweet sundried tomatoes, and capers — which I immediately picked off because the flavor was better without that last, astringent top note. The Florentine is touched with garlic-shot oil that helps pull together the flavors of spinach and tomatoes. La Chagall is probably my favorite — less a pizza than a wonderful savory pastry, the sweet apricot sauce cutting through the woody dustiness of the wheat crust and rising above the soft garlic flavor, the melted brie, the tarragon and green olives.
Early on a Sunday morning, I returned for a couple cups of strong black coffee and an excellent breakfast burrito, one of the best I've had in the specific genus of non-Mexican, yuppied-up, nouvelle, wheat-tortilla-wrapped breakfast burritos. It was fat, stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese, french fries in lieu of hash browns, beans and a good spicy-sweet and porkless green chile, and ahead of the crowd on a quiet morning, I found City, O' City itself a cozy, spare and affably sluggish place to ease into the day. With drifty jazz and gentle soul on the radio, sunlight streaming in through the windows, hot coffee and a cool space, it was a pleasant refuge. Against all odds, I relaxed here among what I consider to be the enemies of all that is good and right in the food world, and had a very nice breakfast.
So, an ode and a lament for City, O' City — triumphs and disappointments, good ideas and bad. This is a place that, in attempting once again to redefine Denver's sense of what a vegetarian restaurant should be, has redefined what a vegetarian restaurant can be. Part this, part that, a fusion of French, Mediterranean, Italian and goofy American herbivore tastes all hung on the bare bones of what WaterCourse — the old experiment — once was. City has transcended the narrow stricture of a vegetarian restaurant and become a simple hangout for the smart set, a hippie-friendly hipster bistro and restaurant-slash-pizza-joint-cum-wine-bar-and-coffeehouse that, among other things, happens to serve vegetarian food.
And while City is far from the last step in the evolution of what American vegetarian cuisine might, at its best, become, it is certainly one step in the right direction.
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