Almost everyone at Sketch Food and Wine knows me. The above-the-line guys for certain, some of the bartenders. I have acted well and poorly in their establishment, used it for celebrations and decompressions numerous times since it opened in March. And I have experienced the all-too-classic result of blown critical anonymity: the frantic phone call from owner (Jesse Morreale) to chef (Sean Yontz), the screech of tires as a pickup truck comes to a rocking panic-stop in front, disgorging Yontz, who immediately takes up his post behind the slicer and salumi bar as though he was already on his way there and hadn't just been called off the line at one of his other properties to take care of the dimwit local restaurant critic who's brought in his high-tone foodie friends from other cities, other gigs, for a taste of the Yontz & Morreale magic.
There was no way around it. I met Morreale during my first weeks in town, back when he was hustling and unavoidable, and Yontz not long after. I have, at one time or another, reviewed all of their restaurants, opened both separately and together. Some of them I loved (Mezcal, Chama), some I didn't (the original Sketch, which I once likened to a late-night booty call, "a saving grace for the tanked and injudicious"), and some were merely forgettable (Vega, which came onto the scene both too early and too late to survive in a space that has swallowed several restaurants since). I like these two, and I have spent some of the strangest, most memorable nights of my last five years in their company. But that has not affected how I review their restaurants.
This new Sketch, not so much a resurrection of the short-lived Cherry Creek version as a drastic paring down of the original's form, is a very specific place, one meant to cater to highly specialized tastes. It is, first and foremost, a wine bar — stocking lots of juice, of both the low- and high-rent varieties, on the wall that towers above the bartenders, who sometimes have the appearance of tiny peasants laboring at the feet of a powerful (and occasionally vengeful) grape-based god. As such, I have no use for it. Wine bars generally bore me to tears because they act — to stretch an analogy — like the temples of a religion to which I owe no fealty. Give me beers. Give me whiskey or gin or cocktails made of either. Give me a root beer float or an ice-cold Coke, even. I have just never understood the attraction, the ridiculous weight with which some people imbue a simple glass of grape squeezin's.
I used to think it was me — that I didn't have the taste for it, that there was something magical about wine, some secret I had yet to unlock, and that if I only drank the right bottles in the right order, it would all somehow come clear to me. This was a plan I pursued with some dedication, and while it did get me drunk, it didn't reveal any mysteries. Fairly recently, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't me at all; it was the booze. It wasn't that I didn't have the palate, but that I didn't have the appetite. I've been a happier drinker since, no longer feeling duty-bound to waste my time with something I didn't love the way I do a good whiskey, a cheap whiskey, a good whiskey and then a shouting match at the bar. So while, yes, Sketch has wine, it also has bottles of Stranahan's, of Leopold Brothers gin and some weird Swedish or Finnish juniper consommé that tastes like eating an alcoholic lemon straight out of the bottle. It also has a sangria that tastes like crap — like sour white sucked through a fruit salad — and balances that with cans of PBR (cliché, sure, but still damn good served cold on a hot day) and several microbrews of mixed provenance. The bar is friendly and welcoming and long, and those treading the boards behind it know their stuff. More important, they treat the popped cans of PBR and bottles of Belgica Belgian IPA with the same sort of reverence reserved for those balloon glasses of Infinite Monkey Theorem Riesling.
I was several whiskeys to the good on a recent school night when I found myself propped up against Sketch's salumi bar, canting sharply like a ship taking on water. I asked for the menu, gave it a cursory glance, then pushed it back across the dark, polished wood, slapped a palm on top and pronounced, "I'll take everything."
Everything on the menu does not amount to a lot at Sketch. Theoretically. After all, it has no kitchen. No ovens, no flat-tops, no grill-scarred hard boys humping the eight-burner or waiters putting their thumbs in my soup. It serves snacks, more or less, which — if ordered in great volume — can be assembled into a meal that is absolutely perfect for someone like me, probably much less perfect for someone else. Someone, for example, who demands the standard setup of protein/starch/veg and wrap. Someone who likes sauces or garnishes or anything other than impeccably sourced meats, well-chosen and well-kept cheeses, highline bar nibbles and sharp little hits of sweetness at premium prices.
But for me, that limited board is part of Sketch's charm. I love the place for its simplicity, for its blessed lack of complication or artifice. The space is spare: plaster walls, ivory upholstered chairs, a dim private room in the back, but otherwise as bright and clean and unadorned as the original Sketch was dark and over-decorated. And while that earlier Sketch tried to serve all things to all people — trying desperately to hang on even after all the people had gone away — this menu is the apex of minimalism, featuring items that are generally uncompromised in their journey from the producer to the restaurant to the table. My "everything" order arrived on flights of white plates, decorated in the best way possible: with pork products and cured meats, nothing more. A plate of jamón serrano from Spain, cut slightly thick, to be tasted against a plate of prosciutto di Parma, laid with dream-thin slices of salt-cured pig leg to be eaten with the fingers or, for those with slightly more class, to be wrapped around the sticks of grissini presented in a vase like a small spray of impressionist bread flowers. There was a carpaccio of beef, sliced raw and ice cold, coming to temp almost like a science experiment the minute it was exposed to the room's temperature — sticking to the plate, yes, but also melting in my mouth. And then there was the chorizo de Soria (my favorite that night, in that moment), which looked like a plate of oversized punctuation marks made out of meat and tasted like the spicy essence of purest hog.
There was cheese, too, everything from the local Haystack Peak goat (gooey and mild, in a thick rind) and Sonoma dry jack (presented just as it sounded — dry, in a wedge, and as salty as licking an ocean), to absolutely delicious, milky French Trou de Cru, Spanish Monte Enebro and the old standby of the West Coast cheese revolution, Humboldt Fog. Each was presented with a name tag attached like the first day at cheese kindergarten, and in a terribly small amount. Granted, I might still have been disappointed by an entire wheel, but these portions were two bites — three, tops — while the meat was presented in truly glorious excess.
Grissini and lavash, sliced apples, figs, an onion escabeche (which went quite nicely with some of the more powerful cheeses), almonds, house-marinated olives accompanied by cloves of raw garlic — these rounded out the spread, and I paid for every single item that came my way. And paid plenty, in some cases. Two dollars for a plate of lavash? I could swallow that. Two dollars for a few sliced apples? That was harder. Five bucks for a plain plate with a few almonds dumped on top? That was simply too much. Sketch ain't cheap if you're making a meal, if you're hungry or intemperate. Hell, it ain't cheap, period.
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And that's a problem when the food isn't perfect. On visits before and after that night I ate my way through the menu, I've found other plates completely blown by carelessness — by inattentive minds or frustrated hands. A month ago, it was a stale wedge of manchego el Toboso, gritty with salt and broken by an incautious server. Two weeks ago, on a dead-quiet Sunday, a forgotten drink (which was eventually comped) and a terrible plate of prosciutto that looked like the tatters of a pork curtain gone after by starving bobcats. In addition to being poorly cut, it was badly trimmed — the inedible rind left mostly intact — which signaled bad presentation on one end, but also bad prep executed perhaps hours before.
With simplicity, there's nowhere to hide, no way to cover up anything. Because everything is offered so plainly, the quality must be exceptional every time. And when it isn't, you'll notice. So while, sure, I can warmly recall the ice-cold gin and generous plate of Venezuelan El Rey chocolate served to me one night; the modernist exemplar of six Amarena cherries in syrup (sometimes called "panty-droppin' cherries" for their rumored effect on ladies' underthings) set on an otherwise empty white plate; the gorgeous, delicious perfection of Yontz's handmade torchon of foie gras speckled with cracked black pepper and sea salt — I also remember that plate of bad prosciutto, and hold it as an example of how the simple things can so easily get away from a person when he's not paying strict, rapt, focused attention.
No matter how well he might know the food critic.