Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, Bouchon Bakery, is coming out in a few days. This is old news to food lovers around the country, who pre-ordered months ago to ensure not a second's delay in tackling the purported nine pages of croissant instructions from the perfectionist chef of French Laundry fame. I, however, have not signed up on Amazon, nor have I dropped any holiday-gift hints to loved ones, and here's why: Ever try Keller's recipe for stuffed pig's head, the one that involves shaving hairs off a pig's ears? Neither have I. When I buy a cookbook, I opt for ones I'll actually cook from and leave 41-step recipes to the folks I'm tipping at the end of a meal.
That would change, however, if executive chef Max MacKissock and his team of mad geniuses at the new Squeaky Bean decide to dip their toes into the publishing world. Then I'd not only buy the book, I'd clear my calendar, scour stores for specialty ingredients and invest in any necessary equipment. All because of this: red kuri squash.
Not to be melodramatic (a trait I detest in life as well as in food writing), but this unlikely appetizer has hijacked my thoughts, becoming the thing my brain wanders to, unbidden, while attempting to perform other tasks. One minute I'm chatting with a friend, the next I'm remembering the chewy crescents of roasted squash, the sweet pearls of pear, the salty crunch of granola. In the middle of a meeting, I'll recall the waterfall of warm, sweetened milk tumbling tableside from a pitcher, frothy sauce splashing off the curry-slicked bottom in a riparian zone of flavor. The dish is soothing, engaging and creative. And unless it's recorded in a cookbook, it will soon be something else: a memory.
Many restaurants update their menus quarterly, but MacKissock and right-hand man Blake Edmunds update theirs almost perpetually, swapping out one to three items every two weeks with small and large plates built around whatever's coming out of the ground (their ground, a one-acre garden known as Squeaky Acres) at the time. The implication is that every month, up to six dishes on the one-page menu at Bean 2.0 — my term for this refined yet playful iteration of the Highland spot that owner Johnny Ballen shuttered last year because of lease disputes — will be gone. Soon, it seems, my squash could be history.
Should the folks at Squeaky Bean hear my plea and put out a cookbook, the challenge — aside from the herculean task of translating multi-day procedures and complex techniques into layman's terms — would be how to label the chapters. Cookbooks are typically broken out into sections for appetizers, entrees and sides. Squeaky Bean's holistic approach to food makes such categories nearly moot, as servers, looking spiffy in ties and suspenders, will tell you when you first sit down. Instead, they explain, the menu is divided into three sections: vegetables, fish and meat, with prices and portion sizes increasing as you go down the page. Items at the top are meant to be shared; ones at the bottom are not.
Given the kitchen's knack for treating plants as stars, it's easy to see why some tables opt for a selection of "vegetables" and never venture into "fish" or "meat" territory. A dish called simply "beets" arrives like a fall garden, raw leaves shooting off the plate, with ruby beets and pockets of rich nut butter and Gouda hidden underneath. "Eggplant & plum" blends a wide spectrum of flavors — tart umeboshi dots, smoky eggplant purée, mint-and-basil-spiked bok choy — and balances them, Cirque du Soleil style, on a log of roasted Japanese eggplant. "Carrots," like the red kuri squash, begins with a half-empty bowl, this time dotted with roasted carrots, tart kaffir lime ice cream and crystals of lime roe. A French soup known as potage de Crecy (traditionally thickend with rice but here made with juiced carrots and roasted carrot purée), is then poured in. Where the liquid carrot meets ice cream, lime blends with soup in an echo of Indian flavors.
Such innovative handling makes you wonder if MacKissock is a closet vegetarian. He isn't, but he clearly loves the challenge of taking vegetables that were steamed and shoved to the side by so many generations of chefs and transforming them into masterpieces. Not that MacKissock shirks his responsibility to protein. Poached in tenderizing whey and served in slices, the lamb would no doubt be good with an old-school smidge of mint jelly — but the crackly puffed farro and sweet, tannic pop of Thomcord grapes really make this dish. Cucumber ribbons, fresh dill and loads of fennel (both raw and flavored by a sous-vide stint in lemon oil) elevate the firm, buttery salmon. And it's the warm onion jus, so savory that it resembles French onion soup, that makes you finish the Berkshire pork with embarrassing speed. Dip the meat into the jus, then drag your fork into peaches that have spent four days transforming themselves from fuzzy orange spheres to potently flavored peach sofrito, and you'll rejoice at being an omnivore.
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Like those peaches, Squeaky Bean itself has undergone a marvelous transformation. What was once a neighborhood favorite, with rustic country fare prepared in a kitchen the size of a shoebox, has become a strong contender for the city's best restaurant just a few months after reopening in LoDo. Service is as artful as the plating, with staff so graciously trained that they can approach a table to clear a dish, only to pull up at the last second and unobtrusively walk past when a guest reaches for one last taste. The space is equally refined, with mod dot fabrics, olive-green booths and spoon chandeliers jazzing up historic wood beams and walls of windows. A glimmering horseshoe bar, cocktail menu courtesy of ace bartender (and occasional Westword contributor) Sean Kenyon, offers plenty of room to enjoy both liquid pleasure and the spectacle of chefs in the open kitchen. Yet for all its polish, Squeaky Bean remains as irreverent as always, with bills clipped to seed packets, cocktails grouped by movie title, and a lit-up bingo board hung prominently on the wall.
MacKissock pushes himself, he says, "to have original thoughts and not just reinterpret what restaurants in New York and L.A. are doing." This attitude makes him not just a chef, but an inventor, and as such, he's subject to the perils of invention captured by Thomas Edison, who supposedly remarked, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." While most things work splendidly at this Squeaky Bean, a few things don't. Fried chicken ballontine, a sausage of sorts stuffed in crisp chicken skin, pales in comparison to the Thanksgiving meal it evokes; splashes of beet juice slip past the expediter; garlic knots are oily; cream sometimes curdles in coffee. A dessert described on the menu as "plum & almond" comes out oddly disjointed, the plum wine foam too stark a contrast to the dense cake underneath. And the "fluffer nutter," the only carryover — sweet or savory — from the original menu, calls out for either fruit or chocolate to cut the richness of caramel, peanut butter and brioche.
At Squeaky Bean, a dish might be attempted fifty times before the kitchen gets it right. While fifty tries sounds like a lot, it's fewer than other inventors might need and significantly fewer than it would take home cooks, even ones with an aerolatte, cryovac and plenty of free time. Taste MacKissock's vegetables, though, and you'd probably be game — if only we could get him to write the book.