I can hear the noise already, a rising roar of complaint over my decision to spend a thousand-plus words on So Perfect Eats, a two-year-old eatery in Cherry Creek North that feels more like a grab-and-go lunch spot than a restaurant worthy of review. But before you rant — whether online or under your breath while sipping coffee and flipping print — about my choice to cover a place without servers, liquor license or proper (not paper) plates, please hear my defense, which consists of two words: Craig Claiborne.
As the food editor of the New York Times for nearly three decades, Claiborne etched the rules for the nascent industry of restaurant criticism — namely, that critics should be anonymous, should dine at an establishment at least twice before forming an opinion, and should not accept freebies of any kind. These notions, though not literally set in stone, remained firmly in place for critics nationwide until food bloggers blasted them apart a decade ago, often passing judgment after one meal, openly accepting free food, and making no pretense of anonymity. Such behavior would surely have elicited a horrified gasp from the father of restaurant criticism. But my selection of So Perfect Eats? I have every reason to believe that Claiborne would have approved.
After all, in an era when restaurants weren't considered fine unless they were French and reviews were still tainted by the false notion that they were rigged by advertisers, Claiborne shockingly awarded two and three stars to places like Gil Clark's, a Long Island joint serving clams, fries and salad, and Jimmy Greek's American Restaurant, where customers were said to have walked into the kitchen to retrieve their moussaka. If the granddaddy of restaurant criticism didn't think restaurants had to have tablecloths, a maître d' and a mixologist to be considered fair game, then neither do I.
Which brings me back to this week's review.
Located on pedestrian-friendly Fillmore Street, So Perfect Eats is a shopper's dream, with a lengthy menu of soups, salads and sandwiches just right for a much-needed pit stop on these grueling, gift-frenzied days. Even with address in hand, however, weary shoppers are likely to amble past, since the restaurant sits up a flight of stairs, with a small sign overshadowed by flashier ones for the pet boutique below. But if something good is coming out of the oven — as it often is — you just might stumble across this spot anyway, as you follow your nose for the source of those sweet, buttery smells.
In the early morning, the tempting scent is likely to be coming from baguettes and ciabatta, baked fresh by chef-owner Lynda Campbell, a New York transplant who left the fashion industry to open the cafe. (Campbell's husband, Colin Power, is a co-owner.) These breads — which she learned to make in an artisan baking class, her only formal training — serve as the foundation for sandwiches made with real meat, not the nitrate-laden deli kind, and reflect the good taste of someone who might not be a trained chef, but who obviously has a background in entertaining. And creating entertaining combinations.
So instead of a ham and cheese or BLT, there's the Holiday in Capris, with pepper-crusted chicken, fresh mozzarella, marinated grape tomatoes and a coat of tomato aioli to soften the chewy ciabatta. The 5280, with thick slices of beef tenderloin, caramelized onions and creamy horseradish sauce, tastes less like a sandwich than the yummy leftovers from a dinner party, and it's good enough to bear the city's mantle. The I Love Paris, served on a baguette with imported French ham, Brie and a pleasant jolt of hardly-sweet honey mustard, might tempt folks turned off by snooty Parisians to reconsider the City of Light.
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Not all sandwiches succeed. The Southwest turkey sounds good on paper, but the avocado, Cheddar, tomato and smoked turkey slip around like all-weather tires on an icy road, until you're left eating the ingredients one by one after they fall off the bread. And all of the options, even that delicious I Love Paris, could be improved with better bread; the baguettes and ciabatta, while tasty, have more in common with soft rolls than the crusty French and Italian breads they're named for.
The sandwiches can be ordered whole, ranging in price from $7.95 to $10.95, or as a half, with a side of soup or salad in the $8.95 fall lunch special (though some, like the 5280, require a $1 upcharge). Value aside, the lunch combo is the way to go, as it allows you to sample more of the tasty menu. Three salads (minus the chicken that would be standard if you ordered the salads separately) are offered with the lunch special: the Garden Dream, the Caesar, and the Orchard & Vine, a particularly appealing choice. Sprinkled with tart chunks of Granny Smith, Gorgonzola, grapes and sugared pecans, this salad is loaded so full of yummy stuff, you'll have goodies left over after you finish the mixed greens. Similar in profile is the Perfect Pear, with a balance of sweet (pears and dried cherries) and rich (Gorgonzola). Grilled chicken comes on this salad, too, but the toppings are so generous that vegetarians could leave it off and not worry about facing a bowl of plain spinach. More assertive is the Mama Mia, with arugula, grilled chicken, parmesan and artichokes. These are strong flavors, indeed, but they stand up well to the tart lemon dressing. (Though not technically part of the lunch special, the Perfect Pear and Mama Mia can be substituted for an extra $1 — chicken included.)
Soups, especially from fast-casual restaurants, tend to be highly salted imitations of the real thing. But Campbell's soups are — pardon the pun — better than Campbell soups. Seven or eight varieties are offered daily, with nearly twice that in the seasonal rotation. The roasted squash, which features two kinds of squash, carrots and apples, is superb, with smoked paprika and smoked sea salt for a delightful smoky finish. Lemon chicken orzo, with spoonful after spoonful of chopped celery, carrots and chicken, offers a good alternative to Grandma's chicken soup when you need a little something for your soul. White chicken chili, a thinner spin-off of pork green chile, is so good you need to come early or risk hearing these dreaded words: "Sorry, we just ran out."
Should you find yourself facing such a disappointment, perk yourself up with one of the baked goods that might have been the cause of the yummy smell that led you to So Perfect Eats in the first place. Particularly good are the housemade Oreo, the salted caramel bar and the chocolate walnut cookie reminiscent of a flourless chocolate cake. Or find solace in the shelves of brightly colored bowls, cutting boards, bags and bibs for sale along the back wall. Campbell designed the space — with bright-green walls, green chairs and high-gloss white tables — as a "lifestyle cafe," combining her background in retail with her love of food. Personally, I find salted caramel bars more tempting than hostess gifts, but to each her own. Both make life pretty sweet.