Eat it quick, right after it comes out," instructs chef Ian Kleinman, "and then you can get some real smoke to come out of your nose." He spoons an amorphous white puff that he calls Kettle Corn Space Foam from the liquid nitrogen, and I raise the frozen, seemingly meringue-like ball to my lips. One chilling bite — my tongue remains numb for a few minutes — and it shatters, exposing a mousse-like inside as steam shoots out of my nose and the remainder of the ball crumbles onto my plate. It tastes more like kettle corn than kettle corn itself.
As I savor the taste, I recall what Kleinman had told me the day before, as he discussed his menu for hushDenver. "Although it's just another venue to cook at," he said, "I kind of like the idea of the mystery, like the guests not knowing what they'll have. It will be a similar experience to that of a restaurant because the meal will be good, the food will be hot. But the mystery of it is kind of cool."
I'd also caught up with founder Phil Armstrong as he was cleaning, on his own, the serviceware needed to feed 72 people at the second monthly installment of Denver's "intimate supper club," this one featuring Kleinman of the Inventing Room catering company (and formerly the exec of O's Steakhouse, where he first started serving molecular gastronomy for public consumption) and mixologist Kevin Burke of Colt & Gray. "I was shocked to find out there wasn't something like this in Denver," he said, as he stacked plates and reorganized the Studio Como showroom, which has hosted both events.
Armstrong began his career chasing the typical restaurant dream, bouncing from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Martha's Vineyard. He noticed that some of the "celebrity chefs" he worked for were in it more for the "celebrity" than the "chef." He watched line cooks work hard to fulfill the visions of a person who was never there, never getting a chance to develop their own style. "There are underground dining spots all around the country," Armstrong continued. "I'm not trying to jump on a bandwagon; I've just watched so many passionate cooks, the lifeblood of the restaurant, work so hard and they don't know their own cuisine. So I'm trying to give them a forum."
And so far, diners have been hungry to experience that forum: "Maybe people are just craving something different."
That craving can be satisfied if they're willing to pay the $85 "donation": So-called underground dining locales cannot legally charge, but the "proceeds go to covering the costs of the event and to help advance participating chefs," according to the all-important confirmation e-mail that went to those lucky diners who made the cut for the February 20 dinner.
As we enter the showroom, dusting the snow off our jackets, we encounter an unlikely centerpiece: a massive, six-foot-high container of liquid nitrogen in the middle of the room, surrounded by ultra-modern shelves, tables and chairs. We're all handed a shot called "Whiskey Caviar and Cream," which consists of cream and little pearls of sweetened whiskey that burst when chewed. The drink is accompanied by a chopped shrimp-and-almond mélange wrapped in phyllo and served to me by Kleinman's half-sister, Kaylee. The chef has brought the Kleinman crew, including his wife, Melissa, who's the baker at the Inventing Room, his sister, Rachel, and his father, Steve, himself a semi-retired chef.
We take our seats, and a "Martini (circa 1910)" appears in front of every diner. Apparently, martinis in 1910 had a 50/50 ratio of gin and vermouth. My dining partners and I begin wondering how many people will actually walk out of this place if we're going to get full cocktails for each of the six planned courses. The drink is accompanied by a plate of buttermilk fried chicken covered with coconut gravy, beside corn flan and sous-vide "ranch" potatoes. The chicken is delicious, but under their ranch-dressing crust, the spuds are seriously undercooked. Still, it's a very enjoyable dish — albeit a reserved first shot from Kleinman.
As I'm finishing, I notice some liquid nitrogen shooting across the floor, the individual, steaming droplets looking like diminishing marbles until they disappear. I follow the droplets to a grinning Kleinman, empty bucket in hand. This is a fitting way to announce what will be served next: the Kettle Corn Space Foam. If pairing coconut, ranch dressing and corn on the same plate is in culinary left field, this two-bite frozen foam is way beyond the parking lot where any pre-existing food inhibitions are contained. You will not find this in any restaurant in Colorado, especially if Kleinman doesn't plan on going to a new spot.
Encouraging such invention is part of Armstrong's goal. "HushDenver acts as a creative forum so cooks can develop their cuisine, and through that, who knows?" he says. "Maybe eventually we'll see trends coming out through hush."
The meal continues with a salad containing a faux apple vinaigrette in the exact shape of a Lego and a hibiscus-smoked Colorado trout. A yogurt meringue piped into a six-inch stick sits on top, along with two perfect triangles of compressed Granny Smith apples; watercress and sliced red onions round out the plate. The dish is powerful, possibly too powerful. The red onions are overpowering; the apple Lego tastes more like membrillo, the Spanish quince paste, than a vinaigrette; and the trout — smoked by Kleinman himself — is too smoky. But these flaws are balanced by the meringue, which has a stunning, sour tang that hits the back of my mouth about three bites in. Kleinman promises that the compressed apples — made by putting the Granny Smiths, apple juice and cloves in a vacuum bag and sealing it tight — will be "the best apple you've ever tasted." And while I'm not sure about that, it adds an extremely dense, flavorful few bites to the plate.
Kleinman then calls the diners over to the liquid nitrogen canister, where he opens the valve and an ominous, controlled vapor shoots out. "Anyone for a free meal?" he asks, smiling. He then shows us how to make a sorbet from a fruit purée, an egg white and liquid nitrogen (which you can eat; it's just a matter of degrees). We are each served our own strawberry yuzu sorbets with olive-oil dust, an intense, impossibly smooth palate cleanser.
The impromptu lesson illustrates what Armstrong wants to see with hushDenver. "While this is still on the formal side," he says, "it's a non-traditional experience, and you don't get this in a restaurant. I just want the setting to be more communal and more interactive."
The entree comes next, a sous-vide pork belly with a pliable mustard paper, pastrami hash and an egg cooked at 148°, making for a unique soft poach. The belly, from a pig that had been slaughtered a few days before at Long Family Farms, has an appealing ratio of fat to meat — meaning mostly fat and a little meat, just the way pork belly should be. The mustard paper perfumes the whole dish. The little pieces that break off, combined with the egg and the jus from the pork, create a bread-worthy after-mop. Verso Cellars from Grand Junction provides the wine for this course, a welcome respite from the cocktail barrage that's continued for the past three hours.
A blender starts up, and the now-ubiquitous liquid nitrogen fogs a table full of bowls. Big squares of chocolate bread pudding are plated next to bananas foster ice cream and topped with blended, frozen caramel powder. The ice cream is stunning, but the dish lacks balance (that ubiquitous sprig of mint would have been the tiny breath of fresh air needed). No sooner have we consumed this than Kleinman starts handing out paper cones that each contain a single, magenta-colored tablet. "So this is the miracle fruit," he explains. "And it's kinda a cool thing. I want you to leave it on your tongue until it totally dissolves."
Bewildered but willing, people begin to follow Kleinman's directions. "And I usually don't do this," he admits, "but I'm going to go ahead and let you know what this does. The miracle fruit will make anything sour or bitter taste sweet."
We are then led to a buffet of Tabasco sauce, pickles, honeydew, lemons, limes, grapefruits and, of course, tequila. After consuming the miracle fruit, I find the Tabasco at first numbingly sweet, then subtly hot. The pickles taste the same, as does the honeydew. But possibly the most memorable bite in a night stuffed full of them is the small, unassuming lemon slice that's the most miraculous lemonade I've ever had.
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"I'm just trying to expose and pay homage to the cooks around Denver. Where does this go? What happens with this?" Armstrong asks, then pauses. "Well, I've booked a child-prodigy chef in Los Angeles on April 17, so I have two months to figure that out."
He continues riffing on ideas. "We've thought about on-the-farm concepts, or maybe different cities. Maybe we'll make Denver a home and do a James Beard House concept. I don't know where it's going," he finally admits.
But getting there is definitely going to be delicious.
See more of the February 20 hushDenver dinner at westword.com/slideshow. The March 13 installment will feature Erin Boyle, former sous at Root Down. To try for a seat, go to www.hushdenver.com/. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.