Hold Your Horses
A cowboy walked into the bar and ordered a Bud. "Sorry, we don't have Bud," the bartender said. "Well, what do you have?" the cowboy asked, adjusting his hat and hitching one Wrangler-clad leg up on the stool. The bartender threw out a few microbrew names, none of which seemed familiar to the cowboy, who finally said, "I'll try that Pilsner. It's good, you say?" The bartender nodded and set the bottle out on the bar. "You want a glass?" he asked. The cowboy shook his head. "That'll be $3.75," the bartender said, and turned back to the cash register. He couldn't see the cowboy's jaw drop and his eyebrows shoot up about a foot.
The cowboy grimaced and pulled out a fiver, then took a big swig from the bottle. "Huh, not bad," he mouthed, and then kicked back, tucking in his wranglin' shirt, which sported a silhouette of a roping cowboy, and dropping his camouflage-covered duffel bag on the floor.
"You're the first bar I've ever seen that uses a computer," the cowboy said, trying to draw the bartender into a conversation that did not interest the bartender in the slightest, not even enough to ask the cowboy the obvious question: "You're not from around here, are you?"
It's easy to see how a cowboy just off the bus from, say, La Junta, might stroll into this particular spot on the 16th Street Mall. If you were feeling homesick for the range and found yourself thirsty in the big city, wouldn't the Appaloosa Grill catch your eye?
And the Appaloosa doesn't just attract cowboys. Because of its location on the mall, this three-month-old restaurant entertains a wider variety of folks than its upscale attitude and atmosphere would normally dictate. Before my first visit, I'd asked a co-worker who'd already eaten there if the Appaloosa was an appropriate place for children. "I wouldn't take kids there," she answered. "It's more of a business-lunch or after-work place." That was apparent by the time I'd gotten two feet through the door, but the upscale ambience didn't discourage a family with yelping toddlers from eating a (very long) meal there, while a businessman attempted to unwind in the next booth and, across the way, three groups of drinking adults partied on despite the pint-sized distractions.
The Appaloosa's setting is both hip and businesslike. When he and some partners took over the corner previously occupied by Cafe Galileo, John Hickenlooper -- the man also responsible for the Wynkoop Brewing Company, the Goosetown Tavern, the Wazee Supper Club, the Cherry Cricket and the coming-soon Red Room -- gave the space a chic, streamlined facelift, with burgundy walls, a private dining room and burgundy-upholstered booths alongside the bar. At night the place is dark and moody in a classy way; during the day it feels just right for a casual business lunch. Just right, that is, as long as you don't mind those skateboarders flush with cash drinking microbrews and loudly trying to figure out the most amount of food they can consume for the least amount of money. You might even see the odd cowboy.
Like the clientele, the kitchen's offerings are an odd mix. Chef Rhonda Banks was formerly sous chef at the Fourth Story, but her menu here lacks focus. Moroccan stew shares space with calamari tacos, veggie nori rolls, mac and cheese, and veal medallions in a pan sauce made of crimini mushrooms and marsala. The intention may be to appeal to a broad range of appetites, but the Appaloosa isn't going to satisfy those appetites until it works out some production problems. Because of heavy-handed preparations and unsophisticated seasonings, several dishes stumbled before they even got out of the kitchen.
An appetizer order of crabcakes, for example, brought two well-grilled, if not particularly flavorful cakes -- nicely browned and crispy on the outside, filled with crab on the inside. But the side of allegedly spicy pepper aioli sauce boasted no discernible spice and was much too oily. Far better was the sharp, slightly sweet dressing on the mess of greens that sat beneath the crabcakes. Another salad's worth of greens came with the veggie nori rolls, four smooshy but tasty rolls filled with too-wet sushi rice, red peppers, avocado and carrots, with daikon sprouts for garnish and a pungent ginger-sweetened wasabe dipping sauce.
It would have been useful if our server, who went on and on about the wine of the day (he said it was "obtainable to the palate"), had mentioned that both appetizers came with enough salad to make ordering one redundant. But he didn't, so we wound up with a very good Caesar, complete with white anchovies and a good garlic punch (take the excessive amount of shredded red cabbage off the top, and this Caesar's a winner). Also noteworthy was the Appaloosa bean soup, a hearty, rich concoction whose unusual miso stock had been augmented with soft beans and pieces of slow-cooked vegetables.
Appaloosa's signature entree seems to be the hand-cut steak, available in three cuts -- New York, ribeye and filet -- with a choice of three toppings. We tried the Black & Blue & Bleu ribeye, which might have been fine had the dish arrived hot, but by the time a backup server had taken our plates to another table, then returned to the kitchen to haggle with the chef, then finally brought them to us with nary an "oops" (this was 45 minutes after we'd finished the first course), the cheese had cooled enough to harden again. The too-heavy mashed potatoes (they needed cream, milk, butter -- something -- to lighten them up) had a nice horseradish flavor, but only the spuds sitting under the steak were still warm. The veal medallions hadn't been improved by the wait, either: Less than lukewarm, they'd been overcooked in the first place and were so chewy they were almost inedible. The mildly crimini-flavored marsala sauce was pleasant, though, as was the herbed risotto, which had a good texture but did not taste like any one herb, despite the generous number of green dots scattered throughout.
Dessert was the biggest disappointment. The chocolate cake was so cold that all we could taste was the refrigerator; the only other finales offered were a dish of vanilla ice cream and a sorbet that was not made in-house. A delicious-sounding strawberry torte had been mentioned, but then the server informed us that "the chef has decided that the torte is not up to his qualifications, and it has been thrown in the garbage." Good for the chef, bad for our sweet tooths.
On a return visit, we tried the yummy-sounding mac & cheese -- four cheeses, topped with tomatoes and basil -- but the smoked cheese had turned the dish so smoky that it lost all of its comfort-food appeal, and even a blob of fresh mozzarella couldn't save it. The "spicy shrimp" came coated in panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs, which gave the not-spicy shrimp a nice, crunchy exterior. But the accompanying cucumber-mango salsa was old, with tired and squishy vegetables, and the mango habanero sauce had too little bite and too much sugary sweetness. The Moroccan stew contained so much cinnamon I thought I was eating a breakfast roll; the gummy couscous didn't help. The cowboy had taken one look at this dish and screwed up his face like a kid asked to eat spinach.
His surprises for the day weren't over, either. Soon a few employees, including the chef, came out to the bar to smoke, grab a drink and place a few food orders on a cell phone. They also conducted an impromptu fig-based balsamic-vinegar tasting, which caught the cowboy's attention. "What is that?" he asked, his eyebrows soaring again. "You wanna try it?" Banks asked. "Naw, thanks," he replied, then added to no one in particular, "I just do not know what to think about that."
Neither do I, pardner. Neither do I.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.