The empty space in the promenade that connects Larimer Street with the brick courtyard that currently serves as an entrance and front patio for Bistro Vendome isn't very obvious. Apart from a couple of papered-over windows and an empty sunken patio, there's not much evidence that Lime Cantina was once there, or that chef and restaurateur Michael Shiell is almost ready to open Milk & Honey, his 150-seat underground bar and restaurant that will mark his first Denver eatery since Michael's closed in Cherry Creek over a decade ago.
Since then he's spent time as executive chef at Baldoria (opened by the famous Pellegrino family who also own Rao's) in New York City and enjoyed the travel and lifestyle of a consultant, opening restaurants on both coasts and places in between. But the call of the kitchen lured Shiell back to Denver and the underground Larimer Square spot was not without promise, despite what seemed like an ever-present grease trap smell and an interior that hadn't been renovated in over forty years.
"It was like peeling the layers of an onion," says Shiell. Each part of the demolition uncovered new issues -- not surprising for a building with a history going back to the 19th century. Rather than take chances, Shiell and building owners, Larimer Associates, decided to take their time and get things right with everything: plumbing, electrical wiring, HVAC and even that grease trap, which was completely excavated and replaced. Complying with standard city regulations as well as restrictions based on the building's historic status added obstacles, as did having to move almost everything in and out of the below-ground space by hand. When it was discovered that the original concrete floors would need to be ripped out and re-poured, all of the detritus had to be loaded into barrels and toted up the stairs. After digging down five feet below the original floor, workers discovered a rock studded with 10-karat gold and beer bottles dating back over 150 years.
The final bar and dining room, which could open before year-end, will still have exposed brick and a burnished concrete floor to remind guests of the age of the space. "It's natural, but not restored," Shiell says of the design, which will include slatted wood ceilings, a mix of blown-glass and LED lighting, fabric light panels, honey-tone tile and both black and white textiles and leather for banquettes, booths and chairs. The bar itself, topped with black granite, is table width to give customers seated there a full dinner experience without crowding. The whole space will be dark, but punctuated with white accents and lighting placed to accent the decor. "We're subterranean and we like it," he notes.
The main entrance has been moved from the east side back to the south patio door, where it was in the years before Lime -- back when Denver diners knew the place as Cafe Promenade. There were other restaurants that came and went between then and now; Shiell says Milk & Honey will be "a locals bar and restaurant," but that its tough for restaurateurs to predict or manipulate the kind of customers they'll get. "If people want to stay late, they'll stay late." But he also explains that his favorite restaurants are the kind where you sit and enjoy an entire evening, with food, drinks and friends.
Shiell's vision for his restaurant involves a big kitchen too. "Happy food needs happy chefs," he explains," and happy chefs need space." The new kitchen -- almost completed -- will have four prep stations, including separate areas for hot and cold prep and a final plating area to avoid cross-contamination from raw foods. It's several times the size of the previous kitchen space and even has a glass display window into a wine room where 6-8 guests can enjoy the action while surrounded by Milk & Honey's wine collection.
The menu will be modern American; Shiell says he loves to play with flavors, acids and different types of oils. But when it comes to proteins, "it's salt and pepper," he states. "I keep the food the way God intended it." Along with a concise wine list of 75 or so bottles (which as a wine fanatic, he admits having trouble keeping in check) and a modern cocktail program, Milk & Honey will also be making its own sodas and tonics, with savory and herbal flavors in addition to more traditional ingredients.
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There's still work to be done (the concrete floors need to be redone because the first attempt came out too glossy), but Shiell says they are in the final stretch. We'll keep you posted with the opening date, hours and menu.