Sean Kelly first made a name for himself in Denver when he helped open Blair Taylor's Barolo Grill in 1991, and he manned the kitchen there until he could cook in his own place: the well-respected Aubergine Cafe, a Mediterranean small-plates restaurant he established on Seventh Avenue in 1995. After closing Aubergine in 2001 (its former home now belongs to Mizuna), Kelly opened Clair de Lune in a tiny space on Sixth Avenue, which he later turned into the slightly larger Somethin' Else. (That address now belongs to Fruition.) After over a decade of restaurant ownership, though, Kelly got out of the kitchen and took a job working behind the scenes at the Little Pub Company, which owns and operates nineteen spots in Denver.
But by last year, Kelly was looking for another restaurant — and Larimer Associates was looking for a chef. The partners came together to open LoHi SteakBar in June 2009. For six months, Kelly manned the line at LoHi, turning out perfectly medium-rare cuts of beef, hefty sandwiches and upscale twists on bar-food classics, building up a loyal neighborhood following in the process. When Ernie's Bar & Pizza opened last December, though, the chef suddenly had his finger in a lot of pots, directing operations at both restaurants and consulting on the menu for the next Larimer Associates neighborhood spot, slated to open on Madison Street in September.
According to Joe Vostrejs, COO of Larimer Associates, Kelly still spends a couple of hours a day at both LoHi and Ernie's, making sure things are running smoothly. But during my recent meals at LoHi, I encountered a few bumps. It's still a great neighborhood joint, filled with regulars who come in and chat at the bar, watch baseball over appetizers or meet friends for dinner. It's clear, however, that Kelly is no longer focused solely on this kitchen, and it slacks slightly when the boss isn't there. One night, the rock shrimp po' boy was so coated in mustard sauce that it was difficult to eat — but at least the sauce was tasty. The housemade ranch with the chicken wings was runny verging on watery, and the shallot steak sauce with the SteakBar steak, once the best steak frites deal in town, was a dull disappointment. The meat was a tough, chewy flatiron cut, and while I can accept an inferior hunk of beef when I'm paying less than what I'd pay for a filet, I expect the accompanying sauce to lift my perception of the dish. This shallot sauce wasn't capable of lifting anything, much less justifying the $17 price of this dish.
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Still, most of the food coming out of the LoHi kitchen was as delicious as ever. The pot of sharp blue-cheese fondue, for example, served hot and fresh, with a pile of golden brown, housemade potato chips. And the burgers, cooked precisely to the requested temperature, were savory and filling, especially when topped with crisp brown bacon, more blue cheese and sweet caramelized onions.
So I'll keep returning to LoHi, confident that Kelly will work out the kinks — and enjoying cocktails, appetizers, burgers and the streetside patio in the meantime. But Ernie's has been open over nine months now, and it's high time for him to command a firm grasp of both restaurants.