On a balmy summer night, Andrew Casalini is standing outside the vibrant, creamsicle-colored building that houses Satchel's Market, chatting with a north Park Hill neighbor out walking his dog. From the sidewalk, the restaurant looks quiet. But inside, a loud mix of '80s hits from the Smiths and Depeche Mode bounce off the mismatched tables and chairs, the deep-red and olive-green walls adorned with the vividly hued work of a local artist.
It's Friday, but the dining room is half empty, and when Casalini comes back inside, he joins a small group sitting at a large wooden table that monopolizes half of the tiny restaurant's space, sipping a glass of wine with people who have convened for a lazy evening in their friend's restaurant.
My party isn't trying to linger. In fact, we want to pay our bill and be on our way, leaving a couple of half-eaten chewy beignets still on the table. But at Satchel's, even time operates the way the staff wants it to, and the servers are busy chatting with each other, leaning over the handcrafted bar in our clear line of vision, as the minutes slowly slip away.
5021 East 28th Avenue
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Gremolata crusted filet mignon $25
Market-made potato gnocchi $19
Fried Skookum oysters $12
Grilled organic Scottish salmon $22
Warm goat-cheese croquette $11
Baked eggs $10
Jum Jum cakes $8
We can almost forgive them for the slow service. After all, the staff at Satchel's is a special breed, lured in by a love of the place even if they've never worked in a restaurant before. Case in point is Harvard-educated Stapleton resident Carl Brotsker, the resident wine guy, called BIC, or Bad Influence Carl, for his propensity to incite nights of heavy drinking. He's a disheveled professor type in round-rimmed glasses, spewing facts about chardonnay and F. Scott Fitzgerald — and anything else you might want to talk about — from the head of your table while he shifts his weight excitedly from one foot to another. He decided to work at Satchel's, he explains, because it helped him connect with people after years of hiding in his house and writing novels. His enthusiasm is fresh and charming, even if the prices on his well-rounded wine list are at least a couple of dollars too high.
Brotsker is just one of the characters this restaurant has picked up over the course of its evolution. Every server has a story, having given up professional skiing or some other business plan to work at Satchel's, and they're drawn in the way diners are, beguiled by the quirkiness of the place and invested in its unlikely success.
Casalini had been in organic foods for years, at Whole Foods and Marczyk Fine Foods, before starting his own company, Gourmet Organics, specializing in organic prepared dinners. But then he and his wife, Jen Dactano, spied this storefront at 28th and Fairfax, and they decided to make a go at restaurant ownership instead, naming the place for their son. When Satchel's Market first opened five years ago, it offered coffee, sandwiches and forty kinds of cheese, focusing on the market aspect until the pair could get a highly coveted liquor license — no small task in a neighborhood with a history of alcohol-related crime that makes officials wary of doling out rights to serve booze. They built a kitchen so that they could start serving breakfast and lunch, and once they finally landed that liquor license a year and a half ago, they added dinner.
Eight months ago, they brought on a new chef, Jens Patrik Landberg, a Swede who'd cooked his way through many of New York City's Scandinavian eateries before transitioning to New American cuisine there, at Brooklyn's Melt, where he ran the show, and then here in Colorado, most recently on the line at the Kitchen in Boulder before moving on to Satchel's.
Some of the dishes he puts out, particularly the simpler ones, are excellent. A hearty cut of filet mignon is a perfect medium rare, fork-tender and swimming in savory English-pea purée and demi-glace. The housemade potato gnocchi are light and fluffy, accompanied by earthy morels and housemade ricotta. But a more complicated dish, the fried Skookum oysters served in shells full of mashed avocado, is terrible. The oyster shells are the real problem, with the essence of briny seawater overpowering all other flavors. It might have looked good in theory – like a glossy photo spread in a Good Housekeeping magazine — but when I encounter a similar setup on a subsequent night, this time with shrimp resting atop guacamole in those baffling oyster shells, I want to write an open letter to the kitchen, begging them to stop.
Many of the offerings here feature good flavor combinations but are thrown off by some detail. The too-low temperature of the fryer oil results in those chewy beignets. The caviar that comes with the grilled salmon and scrambled eggs is an opulent touch, but since it comes in a little pile on the side of the plate with no spoon, it's hard to eat — I have to mash the tines of my fork against it, which ruins the crunchy, in-mouth explosion that's one of the reasons I like caviar. The goat-cheese croquette comes with figs and truffle honey that increases rather than cuts the richness of the dish, sending it so over the top that I can't finish even a small serving. These little details are magnified by the big prices you sometimes pay at Satchel's, prices that might seem more appropriate if this restaurant were located in the center of Larimer Square rather than Park Hill.
But the $45 Saturday-night tasting menus at Satchel's can be a real bargain: Both the menu and the service tighten, and the value ratio shifts heavily in favor of the diner, with five courses made of seasonally available ingredients served at the big table with optional wine pairings and a number of intermezzos. These events are what this restaurant is best suited for, bringing together a cross-section of people who make friends over a burrata amuse bouche and are exchanging contact information for future socializing by the time the chocolate truffle arrives.
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Not every detail in every course works at these dinners, either. Lukewarm ahi tuna served with nori-wrapped jasmine rice is met with skepticism by at least a couple of diners, and the bone marrow that's served with the filet mignon falls flat. But the rest of the well-progressed meal is so good that these flaws are easy to take in stride. This is Landberg's chance to experiment, to stretch, and his off-the-menu courses include a delightful chunk of salmon on hollandaise and an out-of-this-world strawberry shortbread.
As good as the tasting dinner is, Satchel's shines most brightly at brunch, when the slow service is conducive to an ambling start to the day. During these mornings, all-American families and bleary-eyed groups of friends in scruffy clothing convene over gooey baked eggs coated in heart attack-inducing béchamel and fluffy Jum Jum cakes, pancakes loaded with Valhrona chocolate and doused in maple syrup. Hungry groups of four can pay $15 a person for about ten dishes served family style, tasting just about everything on the menu.
Satchel's may have a few kinks to work out, part of the ongoing evolution that characterizes the spot, but Casalini and his crew are determined to get it right. And so chef and owner alike pass through the dining room, asking patrons what works and what doesn't, adjusting and reworking. They're gracious to regulars, and it's easy to imagine becoming friends with them.
And ultimately, that's the charm of Satchel's. You want nothing but the best for your friends, so you'll keep going back, witnessing the changes and tweaks as the restaurant comes ever closer to perfection.