Summit of the Ate
We were headed into the ladies' room when my six-year-old suddenly backed away from the door with a surprised look on her face. "We can't go in there," she said, pulling the door shut. "Why?" I asked. "Isn't that the bathroom?" She nodded. "But there's someone taking a bath in there," she said, then nonchalantly headed back toward the table. Thinking she was kidding, I opened the door and did a double take. There was someone in the bathtub, someone naked, someone whose bare arms were high in the air and appeared ready to apply shampoo.
The fact that the owners of the Hilltop Café left the bathtub in the bathroom of this old house in Golden tells you a bit about their sense of history. That they then took an extra step and put a mannequin in the bathtub -- a disturbingly lifelike mannequin wrapped in white tulle arranged to resemble bubbles -- tells you something about their sense of humor.
"That's Ginger," explains the Hilltop's J. Allen Adams, who'd longed to put a mannequin in the tub even before he opened this pretty restaurant last July. "When we first moved in here and decided to leave the bathroom alone because it helped retain the homey feel of the place, I immediately thought: 'Wouldn't it be fun to have a mannequin?' But they're ungodly expensive, so I had decided to let that dream die. But then, on my birthday, the staff told me to come running into the bathroom because a pipe had burst, and there she was. Some regulars had her down in their basement just collecting dust. And now she's just so much fun for people."
Adams is all about having fun. That's why he decided to take off on his own after nearly a decade of management stints with Frank Day's Concept Restaurants Inc., including the Table Mountain Inn -- which sits just a few blocks from the Hilltop -- and Denver's Rialto Cafe, which Adams helped to open and still owns a piece of. At the Rialto, Adams had noticed the promising work of an up-and-coming young chef named Ian Kleinman, a Breckenridge native whose chef father is the food and beverage manager for the Winter Park Ski Resort. "Ian had such a natural, raw talent," Adams says. "But what I really liked about him is that he likes to have fun in the kitchen, and he and the other guys we have working here are the same way. We have a tremendous amount of respect for one another, but we all really wanted to get back to the enjoyment aspect of making food, the part where everybody doesn't take themselves so seriously."
So when the 101-year-old Boatwright house became available -- for years it had been the Hamptons Golden Tea Room, filled with dark wood paneling and bad furniture -- Adams jumped on it. He and his crew did most of the remodeling. "We wound up pretty much gutting the place," he says. "We knew we wanted it to match our philosophy: bright, warm, cozy and, of course, fun." Today the Hilltop is all that and more, from the large, welcoming yellow sign on the front lawn to the umbrella-studded deck out back. The other dining options include a charming front room with a view of the Table mountains out the windows, a tiny wine-cabinet-dominated parlor and a foliage-lined "garden room" patio topped with an inviting yellow awning. Each space is decorated with a light touch, from casually placed dried vines to peeling paint, all serving as quaint reminders that this is most certainly not a cookie-cutter eatery. And then there's Ginger, the mannequin who never fails to make an impression. ("I'm not going to tell you why," said one woman, still chuckling as she rejoined four companions after powdering her nose, "but all of you have to go to the bathroom, one at a time.")
While all of this fun elevates the Hilltop -- and really, it seems like it would be impossible to suffer a bad mood in such a cheerful setting -- Kleinman and his partners, Jon Crosby and Ben Alandt, are also busy putting out some seriously impressive food. The fare is New American in theory, but it's much more global in execution. Kleinman, who's 24 years old, is largely responsible for the menu, but as the owner, Adams says gleefully, "I get to stick my face in it." And the kitchen-bound threesome did an admirable job of preparing our meals.
Each dish arrived touched by whimsy as well as by a talented chef. The lump-crabmeat starter (Kleinman calls them "First Flavors") featured a pagodalike structure made of juicy crab morsels layered with grilled wonton sheets, crispy-fresh baby greens, goat cheese and a liberal number of parsley leaves. The dish was simple, but packed with flavors and textures: the sweet crab, the crunchy wontons, the bitter greens, the rich, salty cheese. And, okay, I surrender: It was downright fun to eat.
More amusing to munch were the squash blossoms, lightly coated in a tempura batter and fried until the perfumey flowers had wilted enough to lose their stiff spines. The crispy delights had been paired with a light, almost creamy artichoke mousse that showed off the vegetable's more tart side; a drizzle of smoked tomato sauce provided an ideal sharper edge, while a garnish of taro chips echoed the blossoms' crunch. (As far as I know, no one else in town does squash blossoms -- although they should.) Even the calamari starter was a refreshing novelty. The squid had been covered with masa -- finally, a new preparation! -- and deep fried until the corn-based dough released its sweetness, which was soaked up by the tender flesh inside. Part salad, part appetizer, the calamari dish also starred plush buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes so ripe they nearly burst when bumped by a fork; ginger-studded soy sauce and an aioli made richer with smoked tomatoes tied the tastes together.
While older, more tired chefs might simply offer standard boiled gnocchi or garlic whipped potatoes as a side, Kleinman had the energy to pump these dishes up, too. And so the gnocchi had been seared, which secured the center's moistness but also gave the little dumplings extra flavor, and they'd been matched with big pieces of artichoke, soothingly soft early spring peas and bits of roma, all enhanced by a well-balanced lemon beurre blanc -- not too rich, not too tangy, just right. And the whipped potatoes contained candied garlic, adding a level of sweetness to what I already consider one of the most addictive foods on the planet -- potatoes in any form, especially smashed, mashed or whipped -- and making it a candidate for controlled-substance status. Technically, the spuds played a supporting role to the hoisin-slicked slab of pork tenderloin, charred but still blessedly juicy.
Kleinman's soups, of which he's rumored to have about sixty in constant rotation, were a marvel. A tomato basil dense with both ingredients and a brilliantly spiced creamy pumpkin with curry were much more multilayered than any soup du jour has a right to be. And his grilled cracker-crusted pizza made for some serious snacking. On one visit, we got our thin, crackly, slightly scorched crust smeared with sesame hummus and topped by grilled chicken, feta, olives, red onion and tomato; on another, the pizza came bearing smoked salmon (drier and richer than lox), cream cheese and capers. Even a simple shrimp-salad sandwich seemed inspired: packed with herbs, held together by plenty of creamy mayo, thickly spread on grilled sourdough and topped off with slices of avocado and buffalo mozzarella. And the desserts were just as accomplished. A dense chocolate mousse arrived in a clever chocolate container; a jumble of strawberry shortcake was so laden with fresh fruit and whipped cream that we had to order a second helping.
Considering the Hilltop's tip-top quality, you'd expect high prices, a snooty wine list and an even snootier staff. But there's none of that. The costliest entree checks in at $17; the wines, chosen by Adams, are from small vineyards that do single-grape vino at reasonable prices; and the staff is as fun and friendly as the rest of the Hilltop experience.
"I only want to hire employees who look at the people who eat here as guests, not customers," Adams says. "I'm looking at this for the long haul. I don't want to be the next flash in the pan, the hot spot of the moment. I want to be here ten years from now, and so I want to do smart things like keep the prices down and have happy servers that will make this work."
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