Brunch is almost always a bad idea. For consumers, it spans the dullest, most grinding hours of the day -- that weird, timeless space between a leisurely late breakfast and the early start of happy hour -- and brings to the table nothing but the worst of two meals that should never be combined. For the kitchen, brunch is where you stick your B team. It's where you temper the new guys, retire your old hands or put a dinner cook when he needs to be punished or exiled.
Brunch does serve a purpose: It gets people through restaurant doors during hours that would normally be a wash, and it lets chefs recover a little food cost by using some of the weekend's leftovers. Still, if it weren't for the mimosas-and-eggs lounge crowd and indolent sluggards like myself who sometimes demand hard liquor and breakfast burritos before even thinking of going out and seizing what's left of the day, it wouldn't exist at all.
There were only two things wrong with my recent brunch at the Fourth Story Restaurant and Bar: the food, and everything else. At 1:30 p.m. on a holiday-shopping Sunday, the joint was jumping; its dining room was packed with the kind of eclectic crowd you're only going to find at a place set atop a bookstore like the Tattered Cover. Because of that location, it's no surprise that the Fourth Story's decor relies heavily on the bookshelves lining the walls and the large windows that look out over the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to the mountains beyond. Although the Fourth Story has only been perched here for seven years, in previous decades the space was home to the '80s-hip Chrysler, and before that, the heavy-duty Stromberg's; the longer I sat, the more the place -- with its curving dark wood and domed art-deco-style light fixtures -- began to feel like the first-class dining room of an elderly ocean liner bound for some wheezing, bloated culinary hell. The room was loud, it was busy and, yes, I'd gotten a late reservation (brunch ends at 2:30 p.m.), but none of that excused this meal.
We started with a plateful of worthy breakfast breads -- a buttery brioche, thick slices of soft, spiced banana bread and some excellent crumb cake -- but they were served with a bitter blueberry jam, made in-house from out-of-season berries. The chorizo breakfast burrito that followed was a mess: burned eggs, a few measly shreds of spicy sausage and enough slimy roasted red pepper strips to top a dozen antipasto plates. Seriously, how tough is it to make a good breakfast burrito? There are guys with pushcarts on the streets whose burritos are ten times better, and they deliver them with a smile and a friendly hello rather than the distracted service I received from no fewer than four different servers -- all apparently fresh off a thorazine drip and in no particular hurry to do anything but slouch limply at the bar.
As bad as that burrito was, the Eggs Fourth Story were worse. They were underdone, poached to about the consistency of gooey egg Jell-O, and served atop a good, crumbly chive scone that had been tragically glopped up with suspiciously lukewarm champagne hollandaise. If I'm sitting in some truck stop paying $4.95 for an artery-clogging plate of glorified eggs Benedict, I deserve what I get. But paying twice that in a swank joint like the Fourth Story, I expected something better. Hell, I at least expected competence. I don't care how busy a place is or how harried the staff, putting out good food under tough conditions is part of the job. As a matter of fact, it's the entire job.
But because I'm not the kind of guy who judges a book by its cover -- or a restaurant by one bad but inexplicably popular brunch -- I returned for dinner with high expectations. Chef Tyler Wiard, who took over the Fourth Story's kitchen this past summer, came with a resumé full of big names and swank addresses like Q's in Boulder, Zenith and Mel's. He's a New American explorer, one of those guys who consider the whole world their pantry, freely sampling this and that from here and there, with little concern for borders. His new winter menu is wordy but ambitious, full of adventurous, interesting juxtapositions that set jacked-up American soul food beside pared-down classics.
When Wiard sticks to those classics, like a simple duck rillette served with cubed beets and cornichons, the results can be beautiful. They say quite plainly that he's a man who knows his history, someone who's made his bones and gotten a good education along the way. But he's also trying to do something new here, putting together simple ingredients in complex architectural constructions of flavor and texture. When he hits on something good -- like a wonderfully subtle and rich winter-squash soup topped with fried chickpeas and swirled with curry crème fraîche -- he's rewriting the book, blazing new culinary trails.
But this can also lead to a dead end so quickly. The braised lamb shank tagliatelle was like a bad party teetering on the edge of disaster. Flavors leapt up, demanded attention, fought with their neighbors and hung out cluttering things up long after I wanted them to go away. The tagliatelle itself -- a northern Italian version of fettuccine -- was fine, and the meaty broth it sat in had legs like a marathon runner and a smooth, hearty depth. Alone, they were strong; together, they worked well. But add to them two types of bittersweet black olives; chunks of lamb that were not braised, but sodden and stringy like limp stew beef; a sprinkling of soft pink pickled onions; and a mint pesto that was too sharp and shrill to be quieted even by the creamy goat cheese, and this dish was little more than an argument between idiots about nothing in particular.
Equally contentious -- but less of an overall failure -- was a grilled double pork chop over black-eyed peas with an andouille vinaigrette and slow-cooked collard greens. Like a fat steak, a double chop is tough to cook right (it's difficult to finish the center without making the surface charred or tough), but the kitchen did a fine job, leaving a good rind of fat around the edge that got nice and crisp on the grill while the meat remained tender and mild straight through. On its own, this was an excellent chop, and the black-eyed peas provided a solid, rational foundation for the meat. But the andouille vinaigrette -- made with an admirable brunoise of hundreds of tiny sausage cubes no more than a millimeter on a side, each one exactly identical to every other -- was spicy, bright, sharp and sour with hints of truffle oil that harshly overpowered the substantial taste of the peas and did absolutely nothing good for the pork chop.
The collard greens served on the side were another story, though. The greens had been cooked down gentle and slow until they were soft and a deep, fragrant green, then seasoned with earthy spices to which the vinaigrette added the perfect high note. This was complexity without fussiness, the distinct flavors crisply outlined against each other but working together smoothly. While there were hints of that same complexity in the lamb tagliatelle, that's all they were: hints. In an odd bite, the dozen flavors would reach an agreement, coming together in much more than the sum of their parts, but that gustatory detente would be gone by the next bite.
And that's the danger of this complicated New American cuisine: It's all so new. There's something to be said for the old school, for those tried-and-true recipes, preparations and techniques that moved cuisine with such aching slowness out of the dark ages of Spam casserole and ham with pineapple rings to a place where someone can experiment with bok choy spring rolls and lobster-tarragon lentils (as this kitchen successfully does) without being laughed out of the industry. Put a cruise-ship favorite like beef Wellington on your menu, and diners know what to expect, because legions of cooks have made the same beef Wellington in the same way for decades. But there are no such rules in this new world, no guideposts, no signs to point the way. With every risk, with each dollop of curry crème fraîche or shot of hand-blended infused oil, a cook is paving a new road through uncharted territory. When it works, the chef is hailed as a genius...and Wiard has his moments. But when it doesn't, the food is disastrous. You know, there's a reason that mint and olives aren't often found together on a menu: because it's an awful combination. Because it tastes bad.
After we'd finished our entrees and the servers in their pressed black shirts and khakis had cleared the plates, replaced the silver and combed down the starched white tablecloth, chasing errant crumbs into their hands, the dessert menu arrived. It was only one page in a stiff, hard-backed folder, but it was a heavy read -- each item long on description and paired with a selection from the well-stocked bar. Maple flan with caramelized Granny Smith apples, Calvados sabayon and vanilla-cider reduction jockeyed for space with a Venezuelan flourless chocolate truffle torte with white-chocolate passion-fruit anglaise. Even the crème brûlée -- the simplest and most straightforward item in the lineup -- was gussied up with Grand Marnier. I went for the carrot cake, a delicious study in basic geometry: two round, thick slices stacked one on the other with an interrupting layer of fine, smooth cream-cheese filling that was also piped around the edges of the cake and smeared thick on top. Far below, a small dollop of coconut-rice-pudding ice cream melted slowly into a splash of warm bourbon raisin sauce, in which swam a single, round, crunchy oatmeal cookie.
I chased the cake with the homemade apricot-tangerine sorbet, three tiny scoops that came to the table in a tall, thin-stemmed martini glass, topped with bright orange slivers of candied apricot. The sorbet was so powerfully flavored and fresh that it sizzled on my tongue like champagne.
Both desserts were wonderful, bold and sure. Pastry chef Syd W.R. Berkowitz has a surprisingly firm and even hand with his ingredients, and while his menu may be a bit cluttered, his flavor palette is sharply defined. When he cooks with vanilla, you taste vanilla. If he mixes chocolate with passion fruit or banana with blackberries, each ingredient has its moment. And while his apricot-tangerine mix is explosive, at least you know exactly what flavor it was at the end of the fuse just before the top of your head blows off.
The rest of the Fourth Story's kitchen would do well to steal a page from Syd's cookbook. And in the meantime, diners may want to remember that life is unpredictable, so eat dessert first. Someone much brighter (and somewhat less verbose) than I came up with that gem, and when you're eating at the Fourth Story, it's good advice.
So is skipping brunch.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.