I wanted a burger. I wanted a big, fat, meaty burger that would smear condiments and grease across my face as I attempted to stuff it down my gullet. I wanted a protein bomb that would sit like a dead weight in my stomach all afternoon, inducing a food coma.
It's possible that I was deficient in some vital nutrients.
So when I grabbed a seat at the bar at the end of the lunch rush at Row 14, I didn't even look at the rest of the menu before I demanded a burger. It took precisely six minutes to arrive, and about the same amount of time for me to polish it off. The thick beef patty, cooked a perfect medium rare, seasoned with salt and pepper and infused with the tang of iron, oozed juice onto a soft, slightly sweet challah bun ribboned with zippy aioli. Topped with a couple of tomato slices, some greens and a few dabs of ketchup, this burger was exactly what I wanted, definitely one of the best I've tried in town. Row 14 doesn't exactly bill itself as a burger joint; still, this dish spoke volumes about chef-owner Arik Markus's skill. (I later ordered a burger draped with sharp Havarti and topped with thick strips of smoky bacon and chunks of buttery avocado, and that one was even better, if possible.)
891 14th Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday through Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday
Burger $10 (with everything $13)
Five-spice duck crepes $14
Shrimp diavolo $13
Thai curry-braised short ribs $24
Roasted chicken mole $21
Seven minutes after the burger had been delivered, I sat back, licking my fingers and making plans to return to Row 14 for dinner. Soon.
Markus and his front-of-the-house partner, David Schneider, opened Row 14 in the Spire, a hip new condominium high-rise, this past March, immediately attracting not just the building's residents, but theater-goers heading to the Denver Performing Arts Complex and out-of-towners taking a break from meetings at the Colorado Convention Center. Both men brought serious restaurant chops along with them. Markus had worked in such notable spots as New York's Le Bernardin and Daniel, as well as San Francisco's Oliveto, before relocating to Colorado and putting in some time at Frasca Food and Wine (where we met, though I managed to escape recognition at Row 14 until my very last visit). Schneider had founded Chicago's Bin 36, a wine bar and retail concept, before moving to northeastern Ohio, where he opened a wine-centric restaurant called Parallax, then came west to join Markus in this venture.
For Row 14, they drew from all their experience, creating a New American concept suited to the upscale neighborhood. The deep, high-ceilinged dining room isn't ostentatious, but it's richly appointed and luxurious, with dark-wood tables and a massive bar beneath dark-gray walls, gold curtains that divide booths from the bar, and bulbous white lamps that emanate a golden glow. The wine list is massive, and Markus's large board seems all over the place at first glance, with five-spice duck crepes, Italian panzanella, mole and burgers listed side by side. But this is how he interprets New American cuisine, a blend of dishes from many different cultures — even if those cultures don't blend on the plate. "I wanted to preserve the heritage of the dishes," he said when he finally spotted me at the end of that dinner.
I'd been wary of the menu's erratic nature when I'd sat down for dinner, thoroughly examining it while I tried to decide if I was more in the mood for Asian or Mediterranean food or both, internally debating how I was going to build a complementary meal with dishes from around the globe. But I was determined to go for something other than the burger, so my boyfriend and I muddled through our options. Our server was patient — then again, the only other party in the place was a pack of convention-goers on the patio facing 14th Street — and made helpful suggestions that we weren't entirely sure we could trust, since he seemed nervous. (We needn't have worried, as it turned out; his recommendations were spot-on.)
Food choices finally made, we turned to the equally daunting wine list, which features forty selections by the glass. Rob gave up quickly and ordered the Mucho Take It Easy cocktail, a refreshingly sweet and spicy combination of tequila, cucumbers and chiles. I picked convenient half-pours to pair with our meal.
My pinot noir rosé, which the restaurant has on tap, hit the table just before our first dish, and the wine made an ideal pairing with the duck crepes. Thin pancakes infused with coconut had been heaped with shreds of silky, salty duck confit, dabbed with plummy hoisin and sprinkled with a tart Napa cabbage slaw. The crepes reminded me, in the best possible way, of mu shu pork — except that fresh vegetables were involved here and I didn't have any questions about the kitchen's hygiene.
I'd asked for a glass of German Riesling to go with our order of grilled shrimp diavolo, since I'd expected it to be spicy. Lightly charred prawns ringed a pile of tender white beans mixed with pickled onions; while the Calabrian chile oil added a hint of heat, the real flavor punch came from the acidic lemon vinaigrette, which didn't so much impart astringency as enhance all the other flavors. Unfortunately, it also rendered my wine choice too high-acid. So I swung the opposite direction and requested a pour of fat, round garnacha blanca white wine for our next course, sipping it with the last few bites of the shrimp. The wine also paired perfectly with the panzanella, cubed toast — soft around the edges and crunchy within — and tangy diced tomato, mixed liberally with the fresh bite of basil and lifted by a red-wine vinaigrette, the acid making the salad seem lighter and fresher.
None of the entrees had looked as appealing as these starters. But after I'd spent a few seconds nursing a juicy New Zealand pinot noir that could have been served a few degrees colder, our mains showed up — and what looked like predictable flavor combinations on paper proved surprisingly delicious on the plate. Despite my aversion to chicken (I can't help it; it's like eating tofu), I'd gone for the mole. Markus's version was lighter than most — redolent of cocoa, butter, cumin and cinnamon, almost curry-like. It coated the succulent, roasted chicken breast and thigh, which had been dusted with sesame seeds and placed on top of a pile of sofrito rice cooked in a pungent garlic-and-tomato combination that provided savory balance against the rich, sweet sauce.
On the recommendation of our server, we'd also gone with the Thai curry-braised short ribs. A brick of the meat came in a pool of heady, peanut-infused curry sauce, sided by crunchy wedges of hashbrown pancake and topped with pickled carrots and green papaya. Although the sour, salty and sweet flavors were in nearly perfect harmony, the meat was slightly overcooked, making it both dry and a little gummy. Still, this was a terrific dish. We ended dinner with the poached pear, floating in a clear broth made from sweet pear nectar and vanilla, enriched with cocoa salt and nubs of pungent Gorgonzola. I think of pear as a winter fruit, but this was an excellent way to cap a lovely summer night.
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Fat, happy and a little tipsy from the generous half-pours of wine, we paid the check and sashayed out the door, pleased that we'd maneuvered our way through the menu rather than just ordering a burger. The result had been one of our favorite meals as a couple — and one of the best meals I've had in months. Row 14 may be geared to those who stop by before the theater or after another event. But I'd happily spend another long evening in this restaurant with no more entertainment on the docket than dinner.