Not So Hot
The Denver Tech Center is so hungry for decent restaurants (any restaurant, really) that people get weepy every time a new Taco Bell opens. Still, it's a crying shame that the hot-hot Cool River Cafe serves such so-so meals.
By placing his $5 million venture in the heart of the DTC, owner Ed Toles virtually assured its success. Cool River bills itself as a steakhouse and Southwestern grill, but mostly it's an enormous, expensive, noisy restaurant that serves food we've already seen -- although perhaps not in as sophisticated and self-important a setting. Since Cool River opened in April, visitors have been so wowed by its quasi-cool clientele, its massive size (everyone who enters comments on just how big the 400-seat space really is) and over-the-top interior filled with fireplaces, overstuffed couches (for the wait you'll likely encounter, since Cool River only takes reservations for parties of six or more), etched glass, dark woods and impressive chandeliers, all beneath a forty-foot copper dome, that apparently they haven't yet focused on the food. But sooner or later they'll get over how the place looks and realize it's serving nothing new.
This is Toles's second Cool River Cafe; the first is just outside of Dallas, and he plans to open another soon in Austin. Maybe Texas hasn't seen crabcakes, calamari, quesadillas, Caesar salads, lamb chops, venison and steak before, but we sure have, and it's a testament to Denver's chefs that for every dish I tried at Cool River, I could name at least a dozen local places where I'd had it before -- and had it better. And those few items on the menu that sounded unique also boasted such odd combinations that I doubted any kitchen could pull them off -- and so I avoided them entirely. All in all, over the course of two Cool River meals, I found only three dishes that had anything to recommend them -- and originality wasn't it.
The crabcakes were undeniably fine: two phat patties of good-quality crabmeat very lightly coated with a breading that had turned buttery and golden after a solid sauté. Roasted red peppers strewn over the top were a sweet touch, and the rich rémoulade on the side had a nice kick. The other dipping medium, a supposedly spicy Southwestern cocktail sauce, wasn't really spicy, but maybe they have different standards in Texas. They certainly take their barbecue seriously there, so it was no surprise that another starter, the "Devil's advocate," boasted a devilishly good sauce, a chipotle-fired, hickory-smoky slick that coated four jumbo shrimp stuffed with pepper Jack cheese and wrapped in smoked bacon. But since all we could taste was the barbecue sauce, who knew if the cheese -- which was difficult to find in the first place -- was really pepper Jack? The bacon, too, was a waste, its smokiness overwhelmed by the hickory in the sauce. Although this dish seemed intended to offer a multi-layering of smokiness and chile heat, the sauce was such a star that even the shrimp seemed pointless.
We would have been better off simply ordering a vat of that sauce and skipping the rest of the meal. We never did get the ciabatta rolls we were promised, and we had to flag down our server to get drink refills, but the poor, perky thing seemed overwhelmed by the big lunch crowd. Clearly, the kitchen was, too. The entree-sized salmon salad featured romaine lettuce that was cut way too big and drowning in a dressing that was such an unappetizing brown color it made the lettuce look like it had gone bad. The dressing hadn't emulsified properly, either, so there were big pools of oil all over the bottom of the plate, soaking the huge, fried-dough shell that held the salad. The rest of the dressing -- a vinegar substance -- was so tart we decided to use it for entertainment, taking a bite and then talking like a bunch of kids who've just sucked on some helium. The only thing not drenched in this awful stuff was the salmon, but it was so overcooked that it wasn't worth our attention. Almost as inedible was the Del Mar pasta, which weighs in at a hefty $19.95 at lunch or dinner, since Cool River offers only one menu. The pasta was angel hair tossed in what tasted like clam juice punctuated with raw garlic; the Del Mar portion was a lot of small shrimp and a few calamari rings, all overcooked.
Our third entree, however, was an unexpected treat. The menu's spelling of "tournedos Rosinni" had made me wonder if the restaurant was misspelling the nineteenth-century Italian composer's name intentionally, to indicate that it would not be entirely faithful to his namesake dish -- a fried steak connected in some way to foie gras, truffles and a demi-glace. And, in fact, this preparation involved two four-ounce tenderloin medallions sitting atop mushrooms "duxel" (more misspellings). But it was indeed topped with thin (very thin) slivers of goose liver pâté, there was indeed a delicious demi-glace. The thin but serviceable béarnaise was an added bonus, and though we couldn't detect any truffles, the dish was a winner.
After that, the desserts were an inevitable letdown. Still, they were decent, with the chocolate-mousse cake a bit more decadent and interesting than the Amaretto cheesecake.
On our second stop, this time for dinner, a jazzy-type band was playing, and while the music was enjoyable, it was also loud. Not as loud as the diners, though, who competed with the band all night for attention. (By the end of the evening, our heads were ringing so much that we checked out the lobby for one of those machines that dispense pain relievers. No such luck.) Even our server would roll her eyes every time the noise swelled so much she had to lean in over the table in order to catch a request -- at one point, her ponytail fell into one of our water glasses. Yum!
We tried to block out all the distractions and instead concentrate on the food, but the kitchen wasn't giving us much help. The calamari carried such a heavy breading that it was like eating squid-flavored muffins. The Southwestern roasted-red-pepper coulis was simply puréed red peppers. (Does Cool River think that using a nonstop supply of red peppers makes it a Southwestern grill? ) The smoked chicken inside our quesadilla was dry and chewy, and there wasn't enough of either the cheddar or pepper Jack cheeses to help moisten the cardboard. But at least the quesadilla came with a decent guac -- freshly mashed avocado and garlic -- and a fair salsa, although it was so lacking in liquid that it was hard to get a taste.
In contrast, there was enough wild-mushroom gravy on the chicken-fried venison to drown a deer. The gravy was so strong and beefy that it did, in fact, drown out the flavor of the venison medallions, which were tender but tasted as though the original animal had been kept in a pen all its life. (In this state of abundant game, it's odd that Cool River would brag that the meat came from New Zealand.) And both our eight-ounce filet mignon and our fourteen-ounce Fat Tire-marinated ribeye had to be sent back because they weren't cooked to our specifications. Any time a server says, "Our medium-rare is more like everyone else's rare," don't believe him -- what he's really saying is that the grill guy doesn't know what he's doing. And the sharing-sized side of smashed potatoes contained so much raw garlic that we all agreed to taste it; that way, we could each contribute an equal share of immensely offensive breath on the drive home.
Cool River may think it's hot, but it's not. Denver's been there, done that -- and done it better, too.
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