This summer saw its share of big food stories. The opening of Fire, an elegant restaurant in the Art Hotel, wasn’t one of them. Indeed, the restaurant was so far off the radar that unless you followed the food scene closely — or were a hotel guest who grabbed a bite at check-in — you’re probably thinking, “Fire? Where’s that?”
And that makes Fire one of the boldest new restaurants you’ve never heard of.
Nothing about this place was designed to be second-rate. Not the setting, on the top floor of a shiny glass wing that juts out from the rest of the hotel, bringing to mind Libeskind’s Hamilton building at the Denver Art Museum down the street. Not the resulting views of headlights streaming down Broadway, cityscape and snowcapped mountains, which become part of the art lavished on the hotel’s public spaces.
Certainly not the decor, which makes you feel as though you’re in a modern-art museum. Sleek silvery vases hold single calla lilies. Gray tablecloths tuck into slits at tables’ edges. Glowing rings, custom-designed for the hotel, become discussion-point light fixtures. A Larry Bell sculpture hangs in the vitrine separating the bar from the dining room, its fluid, metallic coils reminiscent of gigantic pencil shavings sparkling in the sun. Even in the most casual areas around the couch-lined fire pits on Fire’s rooftop terrace, you’re treated to views of museum-worthy art, like a cast-bronze horse by Deborah Butterfield. As you sip an orchid-rimmed, Calvados-spiked cocktail named for Cézanne’s “Still Life With Apples,” you can’t forget that you’re someplace special.
Tasked with translating these grand ambitions to the food is executive chef Chris Jakubiec, most recently of Plume, the highly respected restaurant inside Washington, D.C.’s Jefferson Hotel. Having spent thirteen of his last twenty years cooking in hotel restaurants, Jakubiec was a natural for the job, comfortable with the level of food and plating necessitated by the concept, yet not afraid of the beast that is a hotel food program — i.e., everything from breakfast to banquets. So why did Fire open with hardly a spark?
One possible explanation is that so much of the early attention focused on the Art Hotel’s architecture and extensive, expensive art collection. (Check out Frank Gehry’s “Fish Lamp” as you wait for the elevator in the first-floor lobby and the Clyfford Still in the fourth-floor hallway.) And Fire is pricey, too, with a burger going for $18 and other entrees topping out at $36. More than that, though, Fire’s original menu didn’t reflect the way locals eat here, and locals are as much Fire’s target audience as are hotel guests. Originally divided into the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert format that is less and less a part of our city’s script, the menu seemed out of touch. To his credit, Jakubiec has already made adjustments, doing away with separate bar and restaurant menus in September and putting out one combined menu with more of the shared plates and easygoing entrees that Denverites love. “If I’m going to come into this particular restaurant, I wouldn’t expect wings on the menu,” says Jakubiec, who cites Alain Ducasse as one of his mentors. “But if that’s what people are looking for, I’d be stupid to dig my heels in and not serve them.”
The wings he serves aren’t your standard Buffalo variety. Rather than coating them with butter-enriched Frank’s RedHot, Jakubiec uses crème fraîche spiked with gochujang, the fermented chile paste associated with Korean cuisine. To cool things down, he offers not ranch, but Indian-style raita. The same creative approach extends to salads, with lo mein noodles cut from cucumbers tossed in a tahini-sriracha sauce while baby kale is tossed with pumpkin seeds, butternut squash, apples and that oft-overlooked legume, black-eyed peas. Even the bread service stands out, with softened butter and a generous basket of assorted breads from award-winning Grateful Bread. It’s complimentary, too, which bucks the growing trend of charging for bread service.
Dishes that could be pedestrian, such as Rocky Mountain trout and fall’s ubiquitous squash soup, also boast noteworthy touches. Butternut-squash soup is poured tableside, cascading over a Szechuan-spiced marshmallow that melts more and more as you make your way through the bowl, leading to the kind of multi-sensory experience that Jakubiec prizes. Slender fillets of skin-on trout become visual art, dotted with microgreens and placed along the top edge of a narrow, rectangular plate; below them sits a row of Brussels sprouts, meticulously lined up and drizzled with warm sherry vinaigrette. Pickled currants bring a welcome pop of acidity to a luscious bowl of pappardelle rich with wine-braised lamb. At dessert, a chocolate sphere melts under a warm caramel waterfall, the sweetness tempered slightly by chocolate-orange mousse and orange sorbet.
But menu adjustments can only go so far when a kitchen is plagued by uneven execution, and that’s the case at Fire. One night, that skin-on trout came out unappealingly supple, as if the silvery skin had never seen the heat, and minus the vinaigrette that would’ve given it flavor.
Tomato soup needed salt, but there was none on the table. Cucumber noodles released too much liquid, turning their dressing into a watery pink mess. A falafel slider slipped out of the kitchen without a dip in the fryer, making the sandwich a wet glob. Barley risotto was so dried out, the grains hardly held together. A pork chop had visually appealing grill marks, but its green-peppercorn sauce tasted strongly of the barnyard. Delays between courses were extreme, leading us to wonder if the kitchen was located in the basement. (It’s not.)
Service was equally uneven. One night, a hostess unapologetically told us there were no tables, even though a peek into the dining room revealed that it was 85 percent empty. Servers mistakenly assumed we were hotel guests and brought us a check to sign to the room.
Once, when we started at the bar while waiting for an outdoor table to open up, the bartender said she couldn’t answer questions about the menu. “I just make the drinks,” she said, and walked away. Her behavior stood in stark contrast to service at other high-end restaurants in town, where anyone in contact with guests can answer questions on ingredients’ provenance and technique. As with the menu, Jakubiec recognizes these shortcomings, but acknowledges that such problems are harder to fix. “You have this restaurant scene, and your talent pool is this big, and then the restaurant scene grows by ten times,” he says, referring to Denver’s recent culinary explosion. “The talent pool is lagging so far behind; everybody is spread so thin.” Jakubiec is not the first chef to raise the issue — and as diners, we’ve all felt the lack of polish here and there — but he no doubt feels it more acutely, being the new kid in town and without the connections that aid in hiring.
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That an opening of this magnitude could go unheralded says plenty about the restaurant itself and why it’s had such a slow start out of the gate. But its near-irrelevance points to something bigger, something that transcends Fire: our embrace of casual dining at the expense of the fine. Yes, it’s been fun to shake off the tablecloths and staid three-course formats that were part of the script guiding fine dining for the better part of a century. But has the pendulum swung too far? Is something lost when “fine” — be it fine arts or fine dining — is sacrificed at the altar of King Casual? Fire may not be an arts institution, but it’s facing the same dilemma that the symphony, ballet and other cultural organizations have struggled with: how to stay relevant in a culture that’s increasingly informal.
Jakubiec has already created a new menu more in tune with Denver audiences. Now if he can just light a fire under his staffers, Fire could burn slow and steady for a long time.
Chicken wings $14
Falafel slider $3
Kale and apple salad $9
Cucumber lo mein noodles $8
Butternut-squash soup $10
Barley risotto $8
Lamb pappardelle $28
Duroc pork chop $28
Melting chocolate sphere $10
Fire is open 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Learn more at thearthotel.com.