Colorado is absolutely beautiful in spring. Unlike the East Coast — where spring will come on hot and wet and odorous, the land itself like some live thing waking after a long sleep, desperately in need of a bath — and unlike the North — where the first spring thaws are teasing, flirtatious things and the first real warmth arrives like a mercy just ahead of madness — spring in Colorado turns up like a gift. Down south, spring is fragrant and damp, somewhat too flowery for my taste. In the high desert, it comes slow. In California, it's just another date on the calendar: 72 and sunny rather than 70 and sunny. But in Colorado, it breaks warm and clear and blue and gorgeous. Nighttime rains, high, scudding clouds, breaths of cool air coming down the mountains. It's enough to tempt a man (like me) who cares nothing at all for patios, for rum drinks, for daylight leisure or, in general, the sun, to rouse himself from his usual daylight torpor, shake off the hangover, find a pair of sunglasses and actually get out in the world, to eat well and drink well and to do it all while the sun is high and the day is waxing.
It's enough to make a man even get his wife in on the act.
"See?" I asked Laura as we were seated on the near fringe of the very cool patio at Second Home, on the last full week of a Colorado spring. "Isn't this nice? I told you it would be nice."
150 Clayton Lane at the JW Marriott
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Arrabbiata pizza: $12
Lamb sandwich: $13
Corn fritters: $6
She agreed grudgingly that it was, in fact, very nice — less a patio proper than a shaded and well-appointed courtyard, reminiscent of those places in Vegas that, by dint of enormous sums of money and the aid of armies of designers, fashion themselves after Venetian piazzas or the Sultanic palaces of North Africa. One side wall of the Second Home dining room opens onto this sunny space, set with tables, with a long, low-slung fire pit (which made me think only of what a pig would look and smell like spitted over it), with couches and padded loungers and side tables for those even better at idling a day away than I am. The courtyard is walled in on four sides — by the restaurant interior, the bar that runs along the near side, the bulk of the hotel back buildings and by an even larger, tented area used for outdoor parties and the kind of business meetings best held by the light of tiki torches with cold umbrella drinks firmly in hand. There is a retractable cloth roof, open on the day we showed up, and at midday, the sun just pours in like melted butter.
"I told you it would be nice," I repeated, convinced already but goading myself further into enjoying it just because I could — because the day was lovely and the drinks were arriving, and because while a beautiful restaurant is rare enough, a beautiful patio (in my world) is even rarer still.
We looked at Second Home's beer list — fiercely local, proudly so — and were tipping lagers from Durango's Steamworks Brewery within minutes of sitting down. We ordered corn fritters served in a paper cone and dusted with confectioner's sugar, like dessert. They were delicious, like savory versions of carnival funnel cake — the sweet corn batter studded with corn kernels and diced red peppers, then fried until brown and sticky and hot. We chased the fritters with more fried food: upscaled mozzarella sticks made with fresh buffalo mozz, wrapped in prosciutto, wrapped in basil leaves, breaded and sent for a swim in the Frialator. These didn't work as well; the prosciutto had been cut too thickly, the fat turning rubbery in the heat of the fryer, the meat shriveling. And the sticks had been cooked too long, arriving less golden-brown than dark, muddy brown. We pushed them aside and concentrated on enjoying the sun and an excellent shaved lamb sandwich, served on good bread with a jus for dipping that was oily but flavored lightly with garlic and rosemary.
This wasn't my first time at Second Home. I'd ducked in about a month before for a quick pizza — the arrabbiata, basically a margherita jumped up with the addition of sweet chiles and sprigs of cute but tasteless micro-basil, an innovation that had gotten Second Home's chef, Che Frey, on The View. My simple, cracker-crust rustic pizza was fine, but I didn't see what all the fuss was about. More impressive was the transformation of the space that had been Mirepoix. I'd wanted to eat in the bar, which had once been part of the lobby but is now sealed off; it's loud and modish, with plenty of space for lounging and a few of those Dr. Evil-style egg chairs that look like something rescued from the back lot where they filmed that old show The Prisoner. Instead I wound up in the dining room, which is virtually unrecognizable from the days when chef Bryan Moscatello ruled here, save for the wine wall in the back and the kitchen to the side. The banquettes are gone, as are the cool, pale color scheme and the sense that you've walked into one of those temples of modern gastronomy where the chef is as much on display as the food he's ostensibly cooking. At Mirepoix, the focus was all on the vegetables. At Second Home, the focus seems to be on paneling. There's paneling on the walls. The drop ceiling is made of wood plank. Some of the tables are slatted. Even the art pieces look like they're made of paneling — shiny, glossy, wood-grain planks descending from ceiling and walls by way of silver wire. The place is beautiful, of course, but kept casual by its hotel affiliation (read: golfers in shorts and polos getting sloppy on gin and tonics), Cherry Creek address (read: tables full of old ladies sharing single plates of crabcakes, simple salads with goat cheese) and very friendly servers in black shirts and expensive blue jeans. Still, there was nothing in the space or on its pine-tree-decorated menu filled with upscale, home-away-from-home, Ameri-Mexi-Frenchy-Asian fusion dishes that drew me back — until Colorado's spring made that patio/courtyard such a magnetic draw for me.
Laura and I lingered there for most of an afternoon, picking at our leftovers, lounging in the sun, our conversation flavored by a soundtrack that could've come straight from a Quentin Tarantino movie: obscure '60s surf rock, weird desert music and a soft, jazzy cover of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon."
Before I returned for a third meal, I studied Second Home's menu. According to the Sage Restaurant Group, which took over the Mirepoix space when its hotel group took over the JW Marriott, the home-and-hearth concept behind Second Home is to create a space that's welcoming not just for those living out of their luggage, but for Denver residents, too. Comfort food is the big draw here — steaks presented simply, Colorado chicken and lamb off the kitchen's big rotisserie, a couple of fish dishes, crabcakes, tuna tartare. Nothing particularly daring, certainly nothing groundbreaking. The house does specials every day (fried chicken with red beans and rice and braised collards on Monday, meatloaf on Tuesday, fish fry on Friday) that read like something the cook's mother might've put together on an austerity kick: a lot of American classics with no innovation to balance them out. And that's surprising, because chef Frey comes with a decent resumé: Gotham, Le Cirque, Fish Cafe in Seattle (where he worked under Scott Staples, whose dad is a partner at Racines and Dixons — Frey's Colorado connection) and then Sacre Bleu, where he was C-de-C, leading directly into a gig as a hotel exec, and then on to Second Home when it opened in March.
My third visit to Second Home was a disaster. I hit the place for Monday lunch during a fairly busy turn, but the cooks working behind the open line were doing a lot of chatting, a lot of scampering back and forth, a lot of aimless wandering. They had the air of a kitchen accustomed to a light load, just running out the clock until the next minor pop. Service was once again quick and competent, but this time the food the servers brought me bordered on inedible. The crabcakes tasted like wet, vaguely crab-flavored paste and came with a mess of ugly, non-complimentary flavors — black-bean "salsa" that was really just black beans, guacamole that was so watery it ran in rivulets across the plate, a red-pepper/chipotle purée that was neither smoky, hot, sweet nor particularly attractive — assembled without any care for presentation. I mean, one wilted sprig of cilantro as a garnish?
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And if that was bad, the Colorado trout in lobster Nage over a fava-bean-and-corn succotash was just disgusting — thrown together with no thought, cooked improperly and ugly as hell. It wouldn't have passed muster as a staff meal in any decent restaurant. The "succotash" piled in the center of the plate was a mess of unevenly chopped zucchini, cherry tomatoes, corn kernels, overcooked favas with a texture like papier-mâché, and God only knows what else. Two fillets of trout had been crossed over the top, and a thin puddle of decent (but by no means extraordinary) lobster stock poured into the well. The fish was both undercooked and overcooked — a nice trick — with the flesh dry and fairly tasteless, the skin slack, limp and oily.
I ordered an individual cherry cheesecake with pinot-soaked cherries to get the flavor of fish and zucchini out of my mouth — but the piece I got had been mauled coming out of its ring mold and was curdled within.
I left Second Home as quickly as I could, reminded that a lovely space does not equal a lovely meal. No doubt, this is a beautiful restaurant. But I'm not about to make it my second home.
Maybe by next spring it will look better.