Table 6 is a nearly perfect restaurant
I once thought that Table 6 was close to a perfect restaurant.
I came to this conclusion early — before the drama, before the place got tagged by John Mariani as one of the 21 best new restaurants in the country in Esquire; before every other critic out there started lining up and offering blow jobs like last-call skanks at a rodeo bar (I wrote mine in November 2004); before the pullout of the quote/unquote Boys From Adega, so soon after they'd been hailed as the white-horse saviors of the Denver dining scene; before the one-after-another changes in owners, staff and crew that, under normal circumstances, would have spelled death for a restaurant.
Table 6 was under the command of Aaron Whitcomb, fresh from Adega, when Mariani praised it for its small, cozy space and "charm to burn." Other big-timers saw it as an oasis of surprisingly lowbrow refinement in a city they'd been all too happy to assume was filled with nothing but unrefined lowbrow crap. But me? I loved it for the drag queens, the secret pie list, the PBRs on the beer list before they were cool, for the ideal collision of eclectic design (brick and copper and old doors and weathered wood) and the crushing good vibe even before Mariani's name-check. I loved it because on some nights, Table 6's back door seemed to open onto the alleys behind every restaurant in the city, with chefs and line cooks and servers collecting at the communal tables in front or hovering around the bar/line on their nights off, telling stories of back-dock camaraderie like expurgated chapters from Kitchen Confidential. I was a fan of Table 6 because I couldn't help it. The place was so alive that just to bask a moment in its glow was as bracing and fulfilling as a good fight, a good fuck or two fingers of whiskey and a good laugh among friends, depending on your tastes.
But then Whitcomb took off for Chicago, leaving his sous chef, Scott Parker, in command. The Huff family, the long-absentee owners (and ex of Adega and Mirepoix), finally decided they'd had enough of the restaurant business and gave Table 6 up to Parker, bean-counter Dan Ferguson and Aaron Forman, who'd done time as Adega's wine-bar manager before following Whitcomb to Table 6, where he served as general manager, floorman and sommelier at what he once described as the Huffs' "little toss-off restaurant," where he'd acted like the owner long before he actually became one. Under the new ownership, the menu changed (of course). Staff changed (though not everyone). And for a long time, things at 609 Corona Street went kinda quiet. It should've been the calm before the death throes: There just aren't many places — in Denver or anywhere else — that can survive such fundamental upheavals and return to anything more than a shadow of their former glory.
But instead of slowly dying, Table 6 was quietly gathering strength. And today, a restaurant that was once nearly perfect has inched even closer to that impossible event horizon of flawlessness.
I have done my time at Table 6. Under the old owners and old chef and with the new kids in place. I've been there for drinks when, already drunk, I've worn out my fun elsewhere and stopped in for a hit of warmth and comfort. I've seen Forman on the floor — pressing the flesh, wearing his weird plaid jackets and bushy, porn-star mustache — and heard his stories, heard him talk about the business. I've hunkered down at the long tables among chefs and businessmen, neighbors and friends of the house, chafing my elbows on the rough wood and digging into plates of tater tots stuck with Marcona almonds, served with tomato marmalade in lieu of ketchup; of chestnut spaetzle and ham steak, redolent of maple sugar and glazed in coarse mustard. I've celebrated the closures of restaurants I hated and mourned ones I loved here. And every time I turn the corner off of Sixth Avenue and see the light spilling out onto the sidewalk, I feel an almost gravitational pull — that sure knowledge that no matter what has happened that day, I can shake it off just on the other side of the waiting door.
I have learned the secrets of eating at Table 6. Arrive early. Never make reservations. Order more than you think you can possibly eat, and don't believe what you read on the menu. The fish and chips come as goujonettes — long, thin pieces of barramundi sliced from the filet, fried and served with sauce gribiche and shreds of Cajun tasso. And since Parker has a thing for broths, a thing for things served in brodo, you should always order a bowl of something.
On Monday night, it was bone-breaking cold — negative a bazillion, the streets crusted with shitty brown ice. It'd been a long day. A bad day. I was sad because Laura, being smarter than me, had spent the entire day curled up at home, never far from the fire, and had decided that she didn't want to make the drive to join me for dinner. I was alone. Normally, that doesn't bother me — but I love sharing Table 6. I love having an extra body at the table so that I don't look like a fat, gluttonous prick ordering two apps, salad, entrees and dessert all for myself.
But even alone, you're never really alone at Table 6. The room is too close, the service too practiced and casual and welcoming. When I came through the door at 5:30, there were only three other tables on the floor, but already it was loud with the hum of voices, jazz on the radio, sharp, high laughter. I sat against the bricks with my back to the door so I could watch the action in my favorite kitchen in the city — built up behind what used to be the Beehive bar, a half-dozen cooks (on a Monday night!) and all their gear, their knives, their pots and pans and ovens and fryers and mise and stock crammed into a space once occupied by two bartenders and some bottles.
I drank wine. Don't know what kind, just that it was red and big and good and chosen by my server for being weird and fun. Bread arrived: half a boule with a mold of softened butter topped with a sprinkle of fleur de sel. I asked for the confit of fresh bacon (meaning homemade bacon, fast-cured with the confit recipe written on one of the large chalkboards hung above the line, beside the pictures of the butcher's diagrammed cow and pig — meaning, really, just pork belly) in Parker's parmesan broth with bitter greens. I'd had it before, but I'm always stunned by how awesome something so simple can be and how simple something so truly complex can appear: a thick piece of pork belly covered with a snowy drift of shredded parm, in a deep and rich broth built up from stock and mirepoix, its depth and savor ideally set off by the steeping greenery. My server brought me a spoon for the broth. I used torn bits of bread instead, dredging up shards of pig I might've otherwise missed.
The chicken-fried sweetbreads were like God's own Chicken McNuggets, incredibly tender, wrapped in individual jackets of hard-fried batter that cracked almost like a wonton skin under my teeth. They were topped with a salad of Honeycrisp apple batonnets and parsley, dressed in an apple gastrique sharpened with chile, with doodles of sweet-and-sour sauce sketched on the plate. I would've licked it clean had my server not removed it from my reach.
While I ate, I watched the rush come on like a wave: three tables when I arrived, then six, then ten, then a back-up at the door. There were a half-dozen or more servers on the floor. Forman showed up, went to the basement to dress, then swung into action — walking plates, pouring wine, greeting friends who must really be friends if they were filling his restaurant on a Monday night when the weather had come in like a vengeance.
I moved on to lamb meatballs and ricotta dumplings with rapini and pine nuts in another broth: a jamón brodo — ham stock, more or less, lamb in ham soup. It was not my favorite Table 6 dish (that would be the confit bacon, or maybe the duck confit or the ham steak when I'm in the mood), but it was one I'd never had before, and it still warmed me, comforted me, showed me once again what Parker could do with some bones, some water, some salt. The pine nuts were what put me off, I think. Every chef tries to use them; rarely does one do so successfully.
My server cleared the bowl. I looked outside — it was still cold, still ugly and now dark, too. I asked for a dessert menu. On the night I followed Mariani into the dining room, I'd skipped the cross-dressers' secret pie list in favor of the beignets, shelled in a thick dust of confectioner's sugar and filled with hot, bitter chocolate, with a baby's dish of vanilla crème fraîche on the side.
They were just as delicious this time. And as I licked chocolate and powdered sugar from my burned fingers, they bought me another fifteen minutes in the warmth and clamor of one of Denver's most unlikely dining rooms — a reprieve from the cold, a bonus round in an almost perfect restaurant.
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