Sweating the Small Stuff
No, no...Jason, you gotta listen. This place, it's going to be great! We've got a chef coming in from Suriname. I don't even know where that is, and the guy doesn't speak a word of English, but he makes this yak-butter soup you won't believe!"
I get calls like that a lot.
"Okay, the menu? Yeah, it's French-Asian, but...;"
But you read the menu description, then pay by the syllable.
But we strangle our own ducks at your table.
But all the sushi is made from poison blowfish liver.
But the chef was deported from Hong Kong for shanking a restaurant critic with a pineapple skewer and was smuggled into the country hidden in a case of microgreens, then spent two weeks in a cargo container on the Port Authority docks in New Jersey, living on baby frisée and a single bottle of Perrier-Jouet he had hidden in his chef coat, before he hitchhiked to Denver carrying only his knives and an antique stock pot that's been passed down through ten generations of his family that he uses to make deer-penis cassoulet from a recipe so secret that we've already had to kill one busboy who accidentally saw him working on it.
Restaurants sometimes seem to delight in making themselves deliberately complicated and difficult to like. They employ staff with all the charm of chain-gang con bosses; make you wait; make you pronounce words like kielbasa, bergoo and galangal in front of your friends; and have menus that read like multicultural SAT tests, requiring knowledge of several foreign languages, esoteric dining traditions and a comprehensive geographic understanding of the various culinary baronies of medieval Europe. So isn't it great when you find a place that makes itself easy to love?
For me, Hanson's Grill & Tavern is one of those places. One of the easy ones. A restaurant I can't help but like.
Hanson's interior, with its dark wood, rough brick, hardwood floors and exposed pipes painted café au lait, made a strong impression during my inaugural visit a year ago. I liked the booths -- deep and comfortable, cozy and widely spaced, seats covered in black leatherette, tables set with heavy silver wrapped in white cloth napkins. Even when Hanson's was in short pants, the entire space had a lived-in vibe, from the bar in the front to the warm-weather patio out back to the second-floor lounge with its couches, boy-toy video games and crooked pool table. For many years this building was home to the Margarita Bay Club and, for many years before that, the legendary Oak Alley Inn, but its newest occupant wears every inch of its inherited character well. This is a place rubbed smooth by age, with no sharp corners. Hanson's feels like a restaurant -- not an art gallery, not a movie set, not a fashion show.
More than that, it's got a boozy crowd of regulars who always seem to be shouting at something on the TV above the bar -- the Broncos, the Avs, C-Span, The Simpsons, doesn't matter -- and a warren of dining rooms that are quieter but still buzz with good energy. No matter who you are or when you stumble in, Hanson's feels like it's filled with your neighbors, good and bad. People you know but haven't met yet.
The service is friendly and competent, not overbearing, not excessively solicitous. The chalkboard menus are full of specials and neighborhood happy-hour deals: four-buck burgers on one day, half-price steaks on another, two-for-one beers from four till seven. Even free beer, if you happen to put away an odd number when the happy-hour twofer is on. Since I keep forgetting to bring in the wooden chips Hanson's hands out -- good for one on the house -- I have the metaphysical equivalent of a free sixer stacked on my desk. It gives me a sense of security, like money in the bank or a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Hanson's offers other pleasant surprises: live music on occasion, boxes of Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition cards always on the table by the bar. But the best surprise, by far, is the kitchen. Hanson's has a good team in back -- a good crew that's put together a good menu and, more important, a careful menu, well-balanced and just ambitious enough. The menu reflects a professionalism, an unspoken understanding of this kitchen's place in the hierarchy of cuisine, and it doesn't overstep those bounds.
So the kitchen serves simple food done well in tiny, tiny ways -- but ways that matter. An order of bruschetta brings fresh buffalo mozzarella and whole cloves of roasted garlic on bias-cut slices of baguette, toasted, then moistened with mild olive oil, all on a bed of field greens. Right there, it's a classic. But Hanson's takes this appetizer one step further by adding a cold, sun-dried-tomato and caper relish -- the tommies soft from steeping in oil, briny with the capers' bitter sting and deeply flavored with garlic because the roasted cloves had been left to marinate in the relish. Allowing agreeable flavors to mingle that way is a nice trick; even better, it's smart. A cook has to know a lot of other things before a gimmick like this occurs to him: how the acidity of the capers will affect the cloves, how the earthy musk of the cloves will bend to the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes, how the tommies will absorb the oil and bloom. Get a handle on the little things, and everything else falls into place.
Little things like fresh, crisp zucchini fries. Like the kitchen's homemade vinaigrettes, including a wonderful, bittersweet Vermont maple vin that's perfect for pairing with peppery field greens and a glass of cheap, pointy red from the modest wine list. Or like roasting and sautéing the peppers before adding them to the crab-cake mix. Raw peppers in a crab cake are like crunchy, discordant exclamation points. They just feel wrong, like having your mispronounced name shouted across a crowded room. But Hanson's speckles its crab cakes with a brunoise of soft, fire-sweetened red, green and yellow bells, whose dull, sugary spice accents the basic bread-crumb crust and soft, warm crabmeat within. To top it off, the kitchen doodles the plate with a spicy lemon-pepper aioli calibrated to complement, not shove aside, the delicate flavor of crab. A simple dish, simply done better.
No sandwich goes on the lunch menu without some wise tinkering, either. The chicken salad is a jumble of chopped mandarin oranges, toasted almonds and whole red grapes that have a tendency to fall out and skitter across the table, all barely held together by a citrus-thinned mayonnaise. The turkey bacon melt comes topped with fresh avocado aioli, which sounds like an awful idea until I try it. And the pulled-chicken sandwich is an extraordinary mess of light and dark meat, soft like ropa vieja, gummed up in a well-balanced barbecue sauce that tastes like half Caribbean jerk and half Cuban sofrito by way of Kansas City's Little Havana. This is what I imagine must be served in every tin-roof, beachside shack down where all the islands are named after French saints. And if it isn't? Well, it certainly will be when I blow this town some frozen night, find myself a nice stretch of sand and open a shack of my own.
Hanson's pork ribs -- not smoked, not roasted, not rotisseried, but marinated and grilled on open flames as the barbecue gods intended -- are slathered in that same sauce. The kitchen also makes great burgers: ten ounces of tender, meaty ground chuck prepared by grillmen who know rare from mid-rare and just how important those ten degrees can be. And Hanson's will put anything on those burgers. Artichoke hearts? No problem. Prosciutto? Absolutely. It may be cut a little thick, and it isn't properly trimmed, but it's available. So are jalapeño cream cheese, lemon aioli, guacamole and grilled pineapple, if that's your thing, and green chiles, which are mine.
So yeah, I have a thing for Hanson's. It's a member of a very exclusive club of restaurants where I'll eat even when I'm not working, which means it's suffered my company maybe ten times more than the average place I review, and it did it without ever serving me a bad meal.
Until last week.
And while one off night in ten isn't a bad record (many places can't get one in ten right) my final, official review dinner there was undeniably awful. It was the perfect storm of meals, a disaster almost mythological in its size and complexity, with a fury of disparate errors, mistakes and unfortunate coincidences coming together all at one time, all at my table.
My appetizer was wrong, and although I never, ever, ever send anything back, this time I did. Why? Because I'd been to Hanson's enough to know what I wanted. And what I wanted -- a forgotten side of sliced prosciutto -- shouldn't have taken more than fifteen seconds to fix. When the entrees arrived ten minutes later, I was still waiting.
Laura's veal and artichoke farfalle was supposed to be veal scaloppine sautéed with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and prosciutto, topped with pesto and served in a lemon-butter sherry sauce. But what she got was veal. Farfalle pasta. Artichoke hearts. Sundried tomatoes. Prosciutto. Pesto. It was a dish so fragmentary, so poorly assembled, that it seemed as though the cook had taken a little of everything (including sun-dried tommies straight out of the vac bag, not even rehydrated), decided he didn't really feel like cooking, and just stacked it all in a bowl and melted some butter over the top. It was an insult.
My dinner was worse. I had the salmon. I like salmon. Roasted salmon, grilled salmon, smoked salmon on bagels with a little cream cheese -- yum. Salmon is an easy fish to work with, very adaptable, and it takes well to almost anything. Almost anything. Here's what salmon doesn't work with: Potatoes. Carrots. Snap peas. Slimy, day-old sautéed onions. So, of course, the kitchen had combined all of these on a lukewarm plate, covered them with a half-gallon of what was supposed to be a leek cream sauce but tasted like buttery chalk, and then mounted a very generous portion of baked, herb-rubbed salmon on top.
But then, the kitchen could afford to be generous because this salmon was old. If Methuselah had been a fish, this salmon probably would have owed him money.
Let this, then, be a cautionary tale. Even the best restaurants, the perennial faves and places that sometimes seem like they can do no wrong, will occasionally go wrong. Everyone gets tired. Anyone can have an off night. So for now, I'm going to follow the law of averages and stick by Hanson's. I'm going to hope I'm never again sitting at table ten, hiding salmon in my napkin and wishing I'd gone to a McDonald's drive-thru instead.
Or taken a chance on that chef from Suriname.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.