When he was younger, Joshua Bitz hung out in the local music scene and even played a few gigs at the Meadowlark. I never heard him perform, so I don’t know if his punk bands were “pretty crappy,” as he says, or if he’s just being modest. But I’ve eaten plenty of the food he’s cooked, and I do know this: Bitz’s current show at Meadowlark Kitchen is one to catch.
Bitz has had high-profile restaurant gigs before. He served as sous at the original Squeaky Bean in Highland and came back after intermission when the restaurant moved to LoDo. Prior to that, he worked with the Bean’s opening chef, Max MacKissock, at Vita. But not until Meadowlark Kitchen, which Bitz opened in November with childhood friend and partner/general manager Casey Karns, did this 35-year-old chef take center stage.
The restaurant that he and Karns have created is edgy and eclectic, like the well-known and similarly named music venue just steps away on Larimer. From the street, it doesn’t look like much — just a narrow, big-windowed space with exposed brick walls and a bar. A pot shop sits nearby; confused guys clenching brown bags often wander into the dining room. Since the only visible signage is the logo for the nearby Meadowlark Bar, it’s easy to get the impression that Meadowlark Kitchen exists as an appendage, a place to grab grub when you’re listening to music. But aside from a small stake in the restaurant held by the landlord, the two are separate entities, destinations in their own right.
When I first walked up to the restaurant, I paused, not sure if I was at the right place. While we checked the address, an employee bounded down the steps to join us on the sidewalk. “We’ve got a really good menu,” he said. “Why don’t you come on in?” We did, and soon found that this 33-seater had an equally forward — and unpredictable — personality, reminding me very much of the early Bean.
The menu is short, just a dozen or so dishes, with an emphasis on reimagined American classics. Chicken nuggets, soaked in buttermilk for three days until the thighs were juicy and plump, came with sinus-clearing hot mustard, creamy dill sauce (the kitchen’s nod to ranch), and scratch dill and sweet pickles. Chips and dip was a take on seven-layer dip, with flatbread crisps that we dipped into a bowl of white-bean purée, fried leeks, pale-green chive sauce and pickled jalapeños; beer-braised black-eyed peas took the place of charro beans, with a concentrated sweetness from the beer sugars that wouldn’t work in a burrito but did wonders here.
The kitchen’s bestseller, the Meadowlark burger, was designed for folks out on the town and, as the commercial says, up for whatever. Made with chuck, heart and neck, it was an icon of indulgence, piled with spicy candied bacon, an onion ring, a poached egg and creamy Irish cheddar sauce, all on a puffy brioche. One bite in, the yolk popped and dripped to the plate, pooling with the viscous cheese in a less-than-lovely mess. Eating it felt like accepting a dare — which is fine, if you’re up for whatever. But to me, the egg was simply excess for the sake of it, adding little to the overriding flavors of bacon and cheese.
Dishes such as these play to Meadowlark Kitchen’s casual, experimental vibe, with loud music — sometimes ’70s funk, sometimes dance beats — and colorful paintings of horn-playing musicians. Servers in baseball caps and untucked T-shirts have a way of ambling to the table, acting more like laid-back hosts of a college party than front-of-house professionals. But a cool vibe and friendly finger food aren’t all that Meadowlark Kitchen has to offer: Other plates would have been right at home in restaurants on the tonier end of Larimer Street.
Sunshine-hued saffron noodles came entwined with slivered Brussels sprouts, whole parsley leaves and droplets of date purée. (The seasonal house pasta has since been updated to parsley noodles with mint and peas.) Smoked brisket was accented with a buttery slice of cornbread and merlot-marrow sauce. And a crispy catfish arrived nestled amid marble potatoes, dots of housemade hot sauce and strands of red-pepper-cucumber slaw; half the fillet was propped vertically on the plate, a telltale sign of the fine-dining backgrounds in the kitchen. (Executive sous-chef Alan Youngerman, also a Bean veteran, spent time at Joe’s, a Michelin-starred restaurant in L.A.) Catfish isn’t my favorite, but this dish was more about the breading than the fish — and the shell was spectacular, a panko-like mix of parmesan and dried mashed potatoes.
Roughly half the menu is vegetarian, a testament to Bitz’s desire to cater to non-meat-eaters. “I love vegetables and think they should be featured like proteins,” he says, adding that he learned a lot from his years with MacKissock, “seeing the way he treated and plated vegetables.” Indeed, the plant-focused portion of the menu revealed the kitchen at its most creative.
A salad of slender asparagus spears and arugula was adorned in an offbeat manner with grilled avocado and pumpkin seeds. Spring-onion soup, more like beer-cheese than French onion, was speckled with heirloom tomatoes and tempura-battered avocado. And potato soup from a previous menu gained crunch not from croutons, but from tempura-battered cheese nuggets and waffle fries. Did the unwieldy hunks work? Not quite; they were slightly too large and slippery to fit on the spoon, leading to splashes and a stained shirt. But the instinct was good.
Not everything deserves a second refrain. Paper napkins and plastic water cups are too casual for this kind of fare, not to mention bad for the environment. A smoked margarita came out with a rim of salt, supposedly smoked in-house, that had no detectable smoke. A dish called wild mushrooms that was the kitchen’s interpretation of eggs Benedict — with curry Hollandaise, a soft-boiled egg and deep-fried kale sprouts on an English muffin — was shy on mushrooms, which it needed to counterbalance all the richness and make it seem like more than the equivalent of a cupcake that’s all frosting and no cake.
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Actual desserts are handled by pastry chef Maya Tull-Thompson, former assistant pastry chef at Euclid Hall. Although she’d done well with the burger’s brioche, the sweets were less successful. Red-velvet cupcakes proved disappointing, with dry cake and a diminutive size that didn’t warrant the price, especially given the savory menu’s generous precedent (for just two dollars more, you could have a lovely plate of pasta). One night, our server raved about the coffee toffee pie, calling it “an old family recipe.” In fact, it tasted like a frozen Cool Whip concoction my grandmother used to make, with hardly any coffee flavor and only a few pieces of toffee hidden in the crust.
In some ways, Bitz’s efforts here are still those of a kid playing in a band. He’s doing what he wants, with people he likes, and he’s clearly having fun in the process. His idea of fun might be different from yours, especially if you like more polished service, a quieter atmosphere and more restraint with your food. But if you hunger for something new and applaud invention, the creativity of Meadowlark Kitchen worms its way into your brain like a melody you can’t stop singing.
2705 Larimer Street
Select menu items at Meadowlark Kitchen:
Chips and dip $8
Asparagus salad $9
Spring-onion soup $7
Wild mushrooms $12
House pasta $10
Denver nuggets $8
Meadowlark burger $12
Crispy catfish $14
Smoked brisket $15
Coffee toffee pie $8
Red-velvet cupcakes $8
Meadowlark Kitchen is open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily; learn more at meadowlarkkitchen.com.