Butcher's Bistro 2233 Larimer Street 303-296-2750
Journalists are taught not to "bury the lede," which is newspaper-speak for remembering to put the most important information first. If you're writing about a fire, for example, you don't want to wait until the tenth paragraph to tell people when and where the blaze occurred and that two people were injured. I was thinking about this reporter's rule over dinner recently at Butcher's Bistro, a meat-centric eatery that opened last fall in the former home of twelve, because its owners seem to have done just that. Rather than play up what makes this restaurant newsworthy -- whole-animal butchery, nose-to-tail offerings and a butcher case by the door -- they've buried the lede, to the point that you might as well be eating at Any Name Bistro.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Butcher's Bistro
If you were handed five menus with details blacked out like redacted testimony and were asked to match each menu to its rightful establishment, you'd have a hard time pairing the Butcher's Bistro board with the place itself. The menu has a French slant, with cassoulet, pommes frites and beef bourguignon suggesting one of the town's many new European bistros. Meatloaf, smoked chicken and a burger point to a casual neighborhood joint. Even the house charcuterie platter doesn't identify the place, given the popularity of house-cured meats in spots ranging from pizzerias to downtown destinations.
At other eateries with whole-animal concepts, servers often begin with a spiel about how you're dining at a nose-to-tail restaurant. But instead of talking about the local half-cows and hogs that Butcher's Bistro brings in weekly, servers here tend to start with, "Hi, how's it going? Can I get you a drink?" and leave the greeting at that. So it's not until you get to the very end of the menu that you see a marker that's unmistakably Butcher's Bistro: the cut du jour. "Feel free to take a look at our butcher case and pick a steak, sausage or pork chop," the description says. "Our kitchen is excited to prepare it for you."
I was excited, too, since I've picked my share of seafood out of tanks, but never a steak from a case -- at least not in a restaurant. But the experience of walking through the narrow, farm-implement-clad dining room up to the brightly lit butcher case was nowhere near as dramatic as hand-selecting a lobster that's crawling one minute and on your plate the next. And when our London broil arrived, it looked like the meaty equivalent of a special-request vegetarian dish from a chef who'd rather not be bothered. Where was the sauce that should have accented this cut? Where were thoughtfully plated vegetables and sides? Where was anything to suggest that the kitchen viewed this as an opportunity to let creativity fly, to take that freedom and run with it, dazzling us along the way?
Instead, the kitchen, under the direction of chef-owner Tyson Holzheimer, formerly of Snooze, played it safe -- so safe, in fact, that I was never tempted to order the cut du jour again. To perk up the steak, we asked for sauce, a special request that sent the server running to the kitchen. We ended up with the only one on offer -- a thin leek coulis that could have passed for soup -- and went home with leftovers, which would have been unlikely with a more enticing bordelaise or peppercorn sauce. To accompany the otherwise unadorned cut, the dish includes your choice of "to share" items, such as wilted greens or a butter-lettuce salad. The salad we chose -- with candied walnuts, grapes and blue cheese -- was good, but it lacked anything to justify the $15 surcharge on the market price for the cut, which wasn't, incidentally, 100 percent grass-fed.
Another item that should be in the spotlight but feels like an afterthought is offal. Confusingly, beef-heart crostini and pig-head torchon are listed in the "amuse" section of the menu, even though they're not complimentary, as amuse-bouche would be. Moreover, they appear on the flip side, alongside beverages rather than the rest of the food, so if you're not drinking, or if someone else orders a bottle for the table, you might not see them. And when I asked about that beef heart, our server seemed as uncertain as many diners might be. "It's only two dollars," she said unconvincingly. "If you don't like it, you're not out that much."
But we did like it, given the crunch of the crostini, the ribbons of cured, thinly sliced heart and the brightness of the green-olive tapenade. In fact, far from being awful, that offal crostini overshadowed much of the fare I ate that night and at other meals. Other noteworthy dishes included fat croquettes stuffed with spinach and goat cheese and rolled in panko, then perfectly fried: crispy, with no hint of oil. Meatloaf, of all things, was a highlight, with the surprise addition of beef liver to the beef-pork blend and a crunchy layer of parmesan on top. And a charcuterie plate was generous enough to be a meal, with smooth duck rillettes, chicken-liver pâté, pork-liver pâté and smoked ham -- though the platter would have benefited from seasonal jam, not to mention dry-cured sausages for a change of texture.
But our order of crispy smoked chicken arrived boneless, skinless and batterless, smooth and dried out rather than crispy, as if a plain, boneless breast had been left too long in the oven. (It had actually come straight from the fryer.) A grilled pork chop was also dry, sent out without the leek coulis listed on the menu and with only a few scattered sunchokes and beech mushrooms edging the plate. Beans in the cassoulet spoke of long hours mingling with rich stock, but the dish was light on promised sausage, duck confit and pork, and the beans themselves were so dry, there was no need for a spoon. Heavily smoked deviled eggs were topped with a jarring citrus aioli. Many elements -- from that cassoulet to wilted greens under the chicken -- were so over-salted, they tasted like that gargling water you're not supposed to swallow.
The problems spilled over from the food itself to the service. We were warned that the apple cobbler was very hot -- and it was, as I learned when I brushed against the dish. The apples inside, however, were straight-from-the-fridge cold. And once, while setting down an entree, a server unappetizingly squashed a chunk of pâté she'd neglected to wipe away earlier.
These are oversights you'd expect from novices. But Butcher's Bistro is helmed by a trio with years of experience. Holzheimer worked with owner-manager Scott Bauer at Snooze; owner-manager Bryce Norblom worked there, too. Bauer and Holzheimer, who grew up in Montana and learned the ins and outs of whole-animal butchery at an early age, have known each other for years, and took their time hammering out the business plan. Unfortunately, they've buried the very elements that make Butcher's Bistro unique.
Time might smooth some of these issues; already, the kitchen has changed its approach to the cut du jour, which now comes with sauce. That's a promising start to moving up the lede. When Butcher's Bistro makes a few other fixes, it could be real news.
Select menu items at Butcher's Bistro: Smoked deviled egg $3 Beef-heart crostini $2 Spinach croquettes $7 Charcuterie platter $14 Butter-lettuce salad $8 Cassoulet $8 Crispy smoked chicken $14 Grilled pork chop $18 Parmesan-crusted meatloaf $16 Cut du jour $15 plus market Apple cobbler $7
Butcher's Bistro is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Learn more at thebutchersbistro.com.
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