In hindsight, evolution is a cool thing. In real time, however, it’s more awkward than cool. A recent video at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science captured this gangly side, showing whales morphing from land animals to sea creatures. Just imagine how that early whale felt as its strong back legs dwindled to nothing: no longer a landlubber, not yet the sleek marine mammal it would become. Awkward, right?
Evolution isn’t just for science. The process happens in restaurants, too, and Lisa Lapp, owner of The Village Cork, is the first to admit it. “We’re always evolving,” says Lapp, who founded the restaurant as a wine bar fourteen years ago. “I always had it in the back of my mind to move in this direction.” But like the creatures in that museum video, the Village Cork is at an awkward stage — no longer a wine bar, but not quite a restaurant worthy of its high price point, either.
On the surface, this beloved Platt Park eatery looks like a highly evolved product, thanks to a substantial makeover last fall. It can be hard to renovate without losing what made people love a spot in the first place, but Lapp, who oversaw the design changes, managed to enhance the restaurant’s abundant charm. The reconfigured space now boasts a welcoming bar and full liquor license to go along with its far-reaching wine list, as well as a better-equipped kitchen and a wraparound chef’s counter. But it still has corks on the walls and countertops, ones that Lapp laid by hand and covered with epoxy. It still has exposed brick, candles on every table, and that outsized painting of a rooster clutching a wine bottle. Even without the background music straight out of a French film, you know exactly what the Village Cork is trying to evoke: old-world charm. And it does that better than ever, with the heft of the bar and the drama of the open kitchen lending a masculine flair that balances out what used to be a very feminine space.
The dining room, then, has reached its potential. If only the same could be said for the food. On paper, the new kitchen would seem to give Lapp what she was always looking for, a way to keep diners at her restaurant for the entire meal. In the early days, she says, “people would come in and have their glass of wine and cheese plate and antipasto and soup and then say, ‘We’ll run up the street for dinner and be back for dessert.’ It wasn’t unusual that I would see the same people twice in one night.” She began to address the problem by hiring executive chef Samir Mohammad, whose inspired fare became as much an attraction as the wine. But Mohammed parted ways with the Village Cork a few years ago, and it wasn’t until this remodel, which gave the kitchen crew more than two burners and a convection oven to play with, that Lapp’s vision became reality.
Order wisely, and it’s possible to craft a meal that will keep you in your seat, happily eating while you move through whatever wine flight you’ve chosen. Start with the soup of the day, since chef de cuisine Edwin Font, who came on a year ago, has a knack for the stuff. These are rustic creations, served without flourishes such as arancini or spiced yogurt that are so popular elsewhere. The mushroom soup was homey, thick and rich; another night, a bowl of creamy kale dotted with roasted peppers and corn was a sleeper hit, proving there’s more to this trendy green than deep-fried chips and salads.
Follow up with one of the many entrees, paying special attention to the hearty, saucy affairs that pair so well with winter. For one, chicken was sliced and served over lentils plumped in coconut milk; the plate was ringed by a lightly spiced curry flecked with zucchini, almonds and red peppers. A bone-in pork chop — from Niman Ranch, evidence of the kitchen’s attention to sourcing — was pressed with herbs and bathed in a demi-glace spotted with cherries. Grass-fed hanger steak was wisely seasoned and properly cooked, the tender slices accented with peppercorns and a polenta cake.
But the restaurant’s focus on heartier, more complex fare has brought with it a new set of challenges. Where are the creative small plates that are so popular now, the ones that would lend themselves to socializing with friends without the structure of first course, second course?The ones that would play to the restaurant’s roots as a wine bar, letting you pair a new wine with each plate to make the best use of the flight? Of all the appetizers on the list, only a few were shareable, and they felt as vintage as the music: warm brie with roasted garlic, a selection of cheeses, a meat-and-cheese board with most ingredients sourced elsewhere. Another appetizer, sea scallops with cilantro risotto and beet mousse, sounded like a misplaced entree — and was priced like it, too. The kitchen seems to be trying too hard to prove itself as a Restaurant, capital R. A decade ago, guests may have left the Village Cork in search of something more substantial to eat, but today’s diners welcome the flexibility and freedom of small plates, in restaurants both casual and fine.
Not that the Village Cork feels like a fine-dining establishment — until you get the tab. With most entrees priced in the high twenties, it’s easy to spend as much here as you would at a spot in Union Station — but the food isn’t creative or well-executed enough to warrant the prices. Grilled romaine Waldorf salad came out without the apples and with just tiny morsels of goat cheese. Brie showed up not just warm but almost entirely melted, the rind a diving board for the pool of melted cheese. Petrale sole, a fish I fell in love with as a kid in San Francisco, announced itself before it appeared with the funk of baby scallops dotting the plate. The dish — which reminded me of a deconstructed roulade — would have been much better constructed, with the bright kale-citrus salad wrapped inside rather than underneath to flavor what was otherwise an unbearably bland roll of fish. Au gratin potatoes were dry. The curry with the chicken needed salt. Clafoutis, a classic French country dessert, arrived flat and gray, not puffed and golden, with such thin slices of pear that it was hard to taste the fruit. A filled red-velvet bar had the consistency of partially thawed cookie dough, so tough and slick that the top layer slid repeatedly off the bottom.
As a wine bar, the Village Cork charmed regulars with its friendly, down-to-earth service. But at this price point, more finesse is expected. Servers were either uncomfortably familiar, calling everyone at the table “dear” and “honey” regardless of gender, or argumentative, pushing back when we asked to take home an appetizer. (We would’ve gladly eaten it there, if only the entrees hadn’t been right on its heels.) One night, a server did the right thing by asking, “Ladies, how are your meals?” But this gesture came far too late: By that point, we’d been done, utensils down, plates pushed slightly back, wine glasses empty, for more than ten minutes.
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No longer a casual wine bar, not yet a refined restaurant, the Village Cork is caught between stages. “Are we a five-star restaurant?Absolutely not,” Lapp says. “We just want to be a nice, comfortable place to get good food and good wine.” Lapp has proven capable of weathering a dining scene that’s grown increasingly competitive over the years. Here’s hoping she can guide the restaurant through this awkward stage to that nice, comfortable place.
The Village Cork
1300 South Pearl Street
Select menu items:
Soup du jour $6
Warm brie $11
Waldorf salad $11
Hanger steak $28
Pork chop $28
Petrale sole $27
Chicken breast $27
Red-velvet bar $7
The Village Cork is open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday. Learn more at villagecork.com.