Argyll Whisky Beer 1035 East 17th Avenue 303-847-0850
Whiskey isn't my drink of choice, but it was the night I walked into Argyll Whisky Beer. Sure, it had been that kind of day. But I was also in that kind of place, with lights resembling gas lanterns, plaid carpeting and gray walls that took on a bluish tinge as night fell.
Across the sprawling restaurant, past the open kitchen and communal table with its sturdy, upholstered-back stools, a crowd filled the bar, drinking beer, watching games and celebrating the start of the weekend with the gusto of Thursday-night revelers. Beyond them, in the wraparound atrium with views of 17th Avenue and Downing Street, people laughed and ate charcuterie against a blurry backdrop of red brake lights and white headlights. Those rooms, gutted and redone to remove any resemblance to Las Margaritas, which had previously occupied the space, felt lively and fun and very much like Denver. But in the back dining room, the quietest and most well-appointed of Argyll's spaces, I felt a world away -- which is where you sometimes want restaurants to take you.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Argyll Whisky Beer
And so I drank whiskey. I ate duck-liver mousse, fish and chips, and even that most British of desserts, a trifle. The server did his part, appearing and disappearing at all the right times, leaving my husband and me to talk until the troubles of the day slipped away. By the end of the meal, I'd all but forgotten what had driven me to drink. And if that's not the purpose of a pub, I don't know what is.
Then again, Argyll isn't just any pub. It's a gastropub, one near and dear to owner Robert Thompson's heart. He'd launched the original Argyll in 2008 in Cherry Creek North, weathering the recession there only to close the restaurant in 2011 with the promise of reopening in a larger, livelier location. But after years of watching him open first one Punch Bowl -- Social Food & Drink, then another and another around the country, I was beginning to wonder if he'd made the promise with his fingers crossed behind his back.
When Argyll finally opened in June, I began to wonder something else: Would his gastropub feel passé? After all, hundreds and hundreds of restaurants have opened since Argyll 1.0 fell prey to Cherry Creek's cramped, subterranean location and quiet nighttime scene. Was it too late? Had the city moved on -- even if the owner hadn't, as evidenced by the words "non oblitus" (Latin for "not forgotten") written in the bar, referring both to the Thompson family's Scottish clan motto and to his sentimental eatery?
Judging from what I saw on my recent visits, the timing for this restaurant was just fine. That's in large part because Thompson and culinary director John Broening (best known for Spuntino, Duo and the long-lost Brasserie Rouge, where he was Thompson's opening chef in 2003) have re-created Argyll without re-creating Argyll. "Robert didn't say, 'I want this done exactly like it was,'" says Broening, who joined Thompson's Seasoned Development Group last year. Given the liberty to interpret not just Argyll but gastropubs in general, Broening has delivered a menu that's every bit as comfortable as pub fare should be, with the requisite seasonal, high-end touches expected of a gastropub -- and a bit of British cheekiness, too.
Meals start with one of the few original Argyll recipes not touched by Broening: housemade potato chips with malt-vinegar gastrique. Where they go from there depends on what kind of mood you're in, what kind of appetite you've brought, and whether you've come mostly to eat or mostly to drink, which is entirely possible given Argyll's 51 beers and 251 whiskeys, one of the largest selections in the state.
That night with my husband, I came to do both. And whether it was the whiskey or the cooler weather, I stayed true to the gastropub's roots, ordering heartier, traditional dishes that showcased the kitchen's finesse. (Nearly the entire kitchen crew moved over to Argyll from Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, the ill-fated French restaurant Thompson closed just before opening this Argyll.) Bangers and mash came with a choice of two housemade sausages, but the server, sensing our difficulty in choosing which to eliminate, said we could order all three for an upcharge. I'm glad we did, because their differences complemented each other well: smoked cranberry kielbasa with a snappy casing; lamb merguez loaded with spices such as cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg; and finely textured boudin blanc, smooth from the addition of bread soaked in cream.
We also loved the fish and chips, a bestseller for a reason, with fat, flakey cod crackling in beer batter with a touch of cornstarch for added crispness. Just as crisp were the chips, aka thick steak fries that, as much as anything on the menu, put the gastro in gastropub. Boiled, dehydrated in the freezer, fried at a low temperature, refrozen and fried to order, they took 24 hours to make and only minutes to eat. A side of minty mashed peas added freshness that took the plate's deep-fried edge down a notch. At dessert, lemon curd similarly brightened the crème-fraîche-and-caramel trifle. Unfortunately, the layered masala milk-chocolate mousse proved too a bit too bright, though it would've been charming with the proportions reversed, with more milk chocolate and less masala.
Another day, over lunch in the sunny atrium, a friend and I were glad to find a lighter, more extemporaneous side to the menu. Still, we couldn't resist the Scotch egg, because it's nearly impossible to go to Argyll and not start with this sausage-and-breadcrumb-crusted classic, which Broening complements with a tangle of fennel and slivered Granny Smith apples and a dab of orange-spiked mustard aioli. Citrus appeared in another starter, listed as an orange salad. But this dish, comprising ingredients that could double as drink garnishes, had as much in common with a bowl of greens as Denver's Downing Street has with London's famous Number 10. Served with no greens at all -- not watercress or spinach or endive -- the oranges were cut into rounds, then snuggled side by side, each refreshing slice decorated with Niçoise olives, mint leaves and blood-orange vinaigrette. Surprising? Yes. Just what we wanted, though we hadn't known it in advance? Also yes.
The entrees that followed weren't as light as that salad, but they offered a welcome diversion from stereotypical pub fare. Vegetarian curry tipped a hat to Britain's history, with housemade chutneys and basmati rice flecked with toasted almonds and fennel seeds. So did the humorous Spot of Tea, essentially ramen in a pork-chicken-and-tea broth fragrant with Chinese five-spice powder poured from a teapot. "I thought if we just stuck to the British it would become a little monotonous," says Broening. "I wanted some variety and some lightness."
Or, as Thompson says, "We wanted to create a gastropub that...reflects the way Brits eat today."
At Argyll, the pair has done more than that; they've re-created a fine gastropub that reflects the way we eat -- and drink -- in Denver. Not in 2008, not in Cherry Creek, but in 2014 on this stretch of Downing Street.
Select menu items at Argyll Whisky Beer: Duck-liver mousse $9
Scotch egg $8
Orange salad $8
Spot of Tea $16
Cauliflower curry $18
Bangers and mash $21
Fish and chips $16
Masala milk-chocolate mousse $8
Argyll Whisky Beer is open 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at argylldenver.com.
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