Session Kitchen hits the right notes after some menu rearrangement
Chicken-liver mousse brings disparate notes together at Session Kitchen.
There I was, looking for inspiration (you could also call it procrastinating), with coffee in one hand and Fast Company in the other, and what was the first thing to catch my eye in the magazine? A poll about how people find inspiration when stuck on a challenge. Really? Was it that obvious to the universe that I was stuck? My tactic of choice — magazines and coffee — wasn't on the list. Hanky-panky was, but there was no one around to hank with. So instead I read the article, and a line in it about creativity — "Think about how to fit disparate things together" — crystallized my thoughts about Session Kitchen.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Session Kitchen
This stunning restaurant, with enough art installations and independently designed drinking and dining spaces to make it look like a contemporary museum, is the creative embodiment of "disparate things together." The logo is reminiscent of a Communist star. Black-and-white birds, all indigenous to Colorado, fly on suspended sculptures. Fluorescent tubes pulsate red to white above one of the three bars. Murals are everywhere, and snippets of song lyrics (from the likes of the Offspring, Portishead and the Ramones) are writ large on bathroom ceilings. The menu, buzzing with ingredients from milk jam to black-truffle vinaigrette, is equally adventuresome, incorporating the creative concept director's "East-meets-West vibe" and what chef Scott Parker calls "the way people used to eat...preserving, pickling, fermentation, curing." As if that weren't disparate — i.e., creative — enough, everything at the restaurant, from decor to cuisine, is built around the concept of sessions, explained in Session Kitchen materials with this: "Tapas is tired. Start sessioning."
When the restaurant opened in October, this made for an experience that was one part invigorating, one part unclear, and one part downright irritating. "The original feedback we got was that it was confusing," says Christopher Cina, executive chef of Breckenridge-Wynkoop, the group that transformed the former Izakaya Den after making a property swap with its owners for the old Pearl Street Grill, right next door to Sushi Den. So in late December, the menu underwent a revamp — and not just a shuffle where dishes that aren't selling are exchanged for ones with more potential (although some of the original offers were certainly dropped). This redesign struck at the core of the concept, which was meant to allow guests to up- or downsize a dish based on the number of people who wanted it.
Here's how it was supposed to work: If you were the only one who wanted, say, pork rillettes, you might have ordered a nano-session (half portion), whereas if everyone at the table wanted some, you would have ordered a double or triple session, served family style in a cast-iron pot. The problem was, people ended up ordering so many nano-sessions that it was hard on the kitchen — and just as hard on the servers, who were tasked with translating the concept into a language everyone could understand. Those portion options have since been dropped, and aside from pun-oriented categories, the menu's setup is now fairly standard, with an assortment of small plates (aka jam session), soups and salads (herb session), and large plates (group session), all of which are meant to be shared.
The menu change has made it easier for servers to get down to the business of taking an order, but it's still no easy task, given the similarities between their opening spiel and that tongue-twister about Sally selling seashells. Try saying "Sessions are for sharing" three times quickly, and you'll see what happened to our good-natured server one night. We all laughed, then did as we were told, ordering an assortment of dishes that embodied that line about creativity.
What's more disparate than chicken-liver mousse with orange-scented, oh-so-crisp Belgian waffles made from almond flour? Like any creative endeavor, the plate came a hair's breadth from irrelevance, and yet it was very relevant, with silky mousse to spread on the waffles like butter, and pear-cherry jam acknowledging the sweetness of the iconic breakfast dish and providing the balance that Parker strives for. "Sweet, savory, acidic, salt — all those things try to come into play," says the chef, who left Table 6 for the opportunity to create this kitchen. "I'm not going to hit every bull's-eye all the time."
A few dishes didn't hit the bull's-eye, mainly because of off-target sauces. The black beans, cabbage and romaine in our mahi taco salad had been tossed with so much kombucha hot sauce (not listed on the menu description) that we couldn't taste the white sauce with toasted, puréed kabocha squash seeds that had been listed and had piqued our curiosity. That same hot sauce also drew too much attention away from an otherwise lovely dish of apple-shallot slaw and fried puffs of cornbread oozing with melted Taleggio. A dish that combined pierogi, Brussels sprouts and matchstick fries sounded clever, but Frank's Red Hot butter made every bite taste like wings.
More often than not, though, Parker's uninhibited approach to food was right on point, with pairings that ran to the edge and then soared rather than fell off the cliff. Lightly pickled shrimp would have been fine on their own, given the coy slick of orange butter that accompanied them, but they were even better with Italian arancini (fried balls of rice and popcorn powder) for contrast. Mussels benefited from slices of housemade fennel sausage in their Dijon-wine broth. Griddled kale one-upped the ubiquitous Brussels sprouts, with seldom-seen baby kale hearts dancing with flavor from mint, chiles, house-cured pancetta and lemon. Pho-like chicken noodle soup was another hit, with chicken confit, housemade ramen noodles, jalapeño slices, and a hint of lemon and star anise in the broth. The only downside was that it was tricky to share; the server didn't bring separate bowls, so our only options were to eat from the same bowl or spoon soup into the shallow dishes that had held our salads — and still had remnants of that hot sauce. And while the lamb collar seemed a risk, given the cut's over-the-top fattiness, the plate succeeded because the meat was rubbed with rosemary, garlic and chiles, and slow-roasted "to push the fat out and pull out the weirdness," Parker explains.
Session Kitchen's revamp has certainly simplified things, putting the focus back where it should be: on what's coming out of the kitchen, not on how much of it is coming out, or what it's called when it does. It has also, however, declawed the "portion revolution" that the restaurant was hoping to spark. But rather than a sign of weakness, couldn't this adjustment be seen as yet another sign of creativity? According to that same article in Fast Company, the willingness to "kill ideas they love" is one of the most important qualities in a creative businessperson. Bravo, Breckenridge-Wynkoop, for having the courage to tinker with your idea.
Now if only you'd stop making me say the word "sessioning."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.