I loved Olav Peterson's food at 1515. Now, with Bistro One, we need to talk.
Talk to me about your fish."
And chef Olav Peterson of Bistro One starts talking. He talks about the beautiful lobster sauce, silky and rich and classically prepared. He talks about the mushroom risotto on which the curled fillet sat, and how, ideally, the fish ought to be presented: a layer-cake effect, sauce in the well, risotto on top of the sauce, fish on top of the risotto, its essential verticality defied by the rising lip of the plate. Together we talk about how, when he revamps the menu, he'll probably change out the monkfish — replacing it with ruby trout, perhaps, or skate wing if he can find a dependable supplier in a city that hasn't really taken to skate. Looks are important. Prep is important. Technique is most important of all. "Technique is where flavor comes from," he says.
Olav is a talented chef, a veteran. He spent years at 1515 — Gene Tang's downtown restaurant, which is where he was working when I reviewed it. He left, then resurfaced at Euro, a now-defunct Cherry Creek restaurant that, when described by anyone who was on the inside, plays like some kind of kitchen-specific Hollywood disaster movie full of fire and rage and exhaustion. When he left Euro, it was for Bistro One. Olav has been here from the start, through the buildout and the design of the first menu. He knows the place inside and out. He knows every dish like he knows his own bones, knows the differences between the idealized version in his head and the ones that sometimes make their way out onto the floor.
"Salt," I tell him. "The crust on the fish was just murderously salty, man. And it made it really difficult to eat." I wince a little even as I say this, hold the phone tight to my ear. I'm waiting for the explosion: Well, fuck you, man! You don't like my fish, then you can go fuck yourself! Ten years ago, that's what I might've said. I always hated restaurant critics. For the most part, I still do.
But Olav doesn't say this. He takes a breath, then says, "I would get on Travis about this." He's talking about Travis Lorton, the sous who was with him when he opened Bistro One, gone now since December — the guy who helped train about half the staff that's still in the galley. Travis always salted heavily, Olav says, spiced everything heavily. And some in the kitchen have found the habit hard to break. The grillman will say he has to go heavy on the salt because it will fall off when it hits the grill as the fish is being turned. Olav will tell him, "No, you can't be salting the shit out of it." It's a battle, back and forth, and Olav knows exactly what went wrong. "The sauce, you know? The lobster sauce? That already has some heavy sodium elements to it, and if there's too much salt, you almost get a sulfurous taste," he tells me.
"Yeah, but the sauce was perfect. I mean, it was a fucking beautiful sauce. Definitely not too much salt. So you can tell your grillman that there's no salt 'falling off' the fish or whatever. It all stayed right on there — right on the crust."
"Right, I know."
"It was bad, man."
Under the crust, the fish was cooked perfectly — pearlescent white in the center, not dry, not cold. The sauce was beautiful. The risotto worked like a charm. But the spice crust? It was like I'd said something nasty about that grillman's mom — an angry amount of salt. Vengeful. The salt was the difference between a great dish and an almost inedible one, and for ten minutes, Olav and I talk about it, tracking it all the way back to day one. To Olav's decision to hire fairly green line cooks and train them himself (because he believes this makes for a tighter crew with better camaraderie than if he were to bring in a bunch of ringers from other top-end restaurants), to Lorton's love of spice, even to the way the kitchen is arranged, station by station. It's fascinating, this almost forensic deconstruction of the nine months leading up to the preparation of my fish: a kitchen Butterfly Effect.
"It's a young crew, mostly," he tells me. "Some of these guys have never worked in a scratch kitchen before" — a kitchen that bakes its own bread, cures its own bacon, makes its own everything. "So it's like, when a Caesar salad gets sent back because there's not enough dressing on it, I'm like, 'What? You couldn't taste this? You couldn't pick up one leaf of lettuce?'"
We move on, continuing our step-by-step breakdown of the two dinners I ate in Bistro One's lovely, comfortable dining room as I worked through about half of Olav's winter menu. We dispose of the steak frites quickly: flatiron-cut beef, well trimmed and well handled by the same grillman who'd murdered my fish, drooling tarragon butter like a food-porn magazine centerfold and sided by excellent, house-cut frites, blanched, double-dropped, touched with sugar. Steak frites isn't easy; it might look that way on paper, but in execution, it's as complicated as everything else when you need to get it perfect. The short rib and celeriac purée and pan jus was another simple, satisfying plate operating with no trickery, no cover. That the house had done it well — executed as directed, prepped like pros — is why I'm talking with Olav, trying to tease out the tiny missteps that separate bad from good and good from great.
"The escargot," I say. "Ideally, tell me how that plate should work."
And he does. Bordeaux snails, poached in court bouillion in France and then canned and shipped to South Broadway. He puts them in potato cups in lieu of stuffing them back in the shell, then doodles the plate with tarragon aioli.
And they are terrible. The night I tried them, I was at dinner with the archetypal Man Who Eats Everything — a big fella and a serious gourmand of the old school, just as likely to lick clean a plate of chicken-fried steak as a plate of snails. He declared these inedible, the worst he'd ever had, and pushed the dish away, unfinished. I'd never seen that before.
"The first bite should have that hot, sour pop," Olav explains. Then the smoothness of garlic and butter, the savor of something delicious drenched in a luxurious veil of fat and flavor. But these had none of that; the escargot were rubbery from the can and from over-baking. The red bliss potatoes were of varying sizes, not turned evenly, and their blandness overwhelmed any little licks of flavor to be gained from the aioli. There was no butter, no garlic.
"Attention to detail," Olav says, after hearing this. "That's what it's about. Shit."
Then back into more successful territory: duck leg, fried, sticking bone-up from a heady cherry and rosemary stew with confit shreds of rib and leg meat. "It was my take on fried chicken," Olav says. "Did you get that?"
I did. The duck leg — star of the plate — was good in and of itself (fried whole in a thin, crisp batter, preserving all the fat and flavor), but I loved the stew for completely different reasons. For the perfect brunoise, mostly, and the meticulous attention to one of the most fundamental details of French technique. Brunoise is like meditation for cooks — nothing but a man, his knife and some veg. It is a rigorous cut, a challenge to make every one of the thousands of pieces the exact same size, the same perfect little cube, the process of it carving out a huge, blank and silent space in a cook's head, sending him into a pure communion with his stock.
There were potatoes, too, cut in the same style, so well handled and nicely cooked that I'd originally thought they were broken French lentils. The sauce, built up from duck stock and red wine, that brunoise, rosemary and cherry juice, was delicious; the shreds of confit lent a heft, the complicated play of sour and sweet and woody and savory making it like a well I kept needing to return to over and over again.
The fried-duck app is just the start of a nose-to-tail (or beak-to-tail) cycle with the ducks in Olav's kitchen. In the app, the bones are used for stock, the fat for frying, the leg at center plate and the dark meat as ancillary protein. Further up the chain on the entree menu is another duck dish, similar but different: a breast, seared in the pan, served over wild rice with mascarpone and cremini mushrooms in a tarn of cherry reduction. One duck, two plates — and both of them excellent.
My entree came missing the promised mushrooms, but I didn't miss them — in fact, I liked the plate better without them, I tell Olav — and this sends us on a long, looping tangent about the chef's temptation to always shoehorn one more ingredient onto a plate, one more element into the routine. "The duck?" he says. "That was like an homage to when I was living in France. A classic dish. But there's always this thing, isn't there? This temptation for a chef to use one too many ingredients. Maybe the mushrooms were that one thing too many, I don't know."
The mistake might have made the dish better, but it was still a mistake, an error of execution. "We're 70 percent," Olav tells me. "We're most of the way there. But there's still that 30 percent, or sometimes 20 percent, that needs improvement. Being a young restaurant, there's some stuff we're still working on."
And they'll keep working. "There's never been that moment of cool, you know?," Olav says. "Where we can say, 'Okay, we're done.' There's always a next step. There's always improvements to be made." He talks about his relationship with Alex Waters, Bistro One's owner, whom he has nothing but love for, nothing but respect. Waters is a rarity in this business: a patient man. The two of them sit down over coffee every morning, every afternoon, to discuss the previous night's successes, its disasters. They talk constantly.
"If I was writing this," Olav tells me, "I'd call it A Tale of Two Restaurants. Because we have some nights that are just so fucking fantastic, where we know everything is going right. And then there are nights that are just fucked up. We sit down, and Alex asks, 'What went wrong?' and I can say, 'Well, it was this and this and this.' You know, at 1515, it took over a year before we really started humming, but we're starting to get there now. Starting to get organized. We're a better restaurant today than we were. And we're going to be a much better restaurant. You'll see."
We have one last dish to talk about — the last one I ate, the one that showed the true potential of Olav's kitchen. "The poussin," I say. "Brilliant."
He tells me that's weird, because no one orders the poussin. It's too simple, too classical. His big sellers are the monkfish, the steak frites, the mussels on the appetizer menu with white-wine broth. The poussin barely moves at all.
Which is a shame, because this dish could be the soul of the menu — so classical, so borderless. Chicken and vegetables. Nothing but a bird stuffed with cornbread, its little legs crossed, roasted to a perfect golden brown. The plate was scattered with winter vegetables — tournée carrots and turnips (I think) — and sauced with a delicious, deep and complex golden raisin sauce unlike anything I'd ever had before. Of all the plates I tried at Bistro One, this was the best, the most fully formed and skillfully executed. It was proof to me that there were good hands at this restaurant, good eyes looking out. Proof that any problems (except maybe for the escargot) were aberrations, small errors standing between this kitchen and real excellence.
Small, simple dishes like this show the true reach of a kitchen — what it is capable of doing when there's nothing but technique to fall back on. I tell Olav my most basic rule as it applies to his crew: A good kitchen could have easily served a bad piece of fish, but a bad kitchen could never have served this chicken.
"I agree," he says. "That's exactly where we are."
But what matters is where they go tomorrow. "What it comes down to," he says, "is everything is the chef's fault. He's in charge. So it's me. And when you make mistakes, you deserve to have them aired."
But I'm confident that Olav and his crew will improve, pull it together, put down the salt shaker. I know they will, because Olav won't let it go any other way.
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