Since The Hornet opened in 1996, the restaurant has been busier than the proverbial bee--but the food hasn't always gotten good buzz ("The Green Hornet," June 6, 1996).
Initially, the most appealing thing about the place was the cavernous space, which had been cleaned of decades of clutter left by longtime tenant Mary & Lou's and transformed by owners Dave French (Spanky's Roadhouse), Brewster Hanson (Bistro Adde Brewster) and Paul Greaves into a wide-open hub of activity. From the mini-pool hall to the rust-colored dining areas to the chic bar--all of which are flooded with natural light during the day through the ceiling-high windows that reflect the interior lighting at night--everything about the Hornet felt hip and happening. This was a real neighborhood joint, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in town; everyone from cops to construction workers to college kids dropped in for a round of atmosphere and a few brews.
In the past six months, the food has finally caught up with the rest of the Hornet's offerings. Credit chef Karl Rinehart, a veteran of Le Central and Viaggio, among others, who was hired in January to replace Chris Rogers (she's since moved on to Alfalfa's, where she works as a kitchen manager). Rogers is a fine chef who had a hit at Bluepoint at the Icehouse (a space now filled by Sevilla), but the Hornet's kitchen never seemed the right fit for her.
Rinehart, on the other hand, has a good feel for the simple, stylish dishes that appeal to folks who want to pick at their meals and people-watch. But he, too, can suffer from production problems. The sate platter ($6.95), for example, paired a mildly spicy peanut sauce with skewers of chipotle-rubbed beef, marinated portabellos and chicken. But the bird had an odd, unappetizing chemical smell that made it impossible to bring it too near the nose--which is rather crucial to the eating experience. The beef and mushrooms, however, had been grilled just right, both boasting nice charring on the edges and a marinade-inspired sweetness.
One of the most tempting items on Rinehart's menu--an ambitious roster that includes pad Thai, fish and chips and chicken-fried steak--is the make-your-own soft tacos, which come in three types: veggie, Yucatan chicken and carne asada. After our bad sate chicken, we opted for the carne asada--grilled beef that lacked the sate's marinade but was light on fat and just right on char. A pile of the beef arrived on a platter that also held rice, black beans, shredded mild cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, avocado, a freshly made, onion-heavy salsa, fresh lettuce and cilantro and warm tortillas. Although the rice contained many crunchy, uncooked grains, the rest of the ingredients were as they should be, and it was fun to load up my taco with far more cheese than any rational person would attempt.
We picked our other entree for its healthful appeal: an assortment of grilled vegetables--zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers--over polenta ($6.95), all tied together with a thin tomato-basil sauce that wasn't stunning but got the job done. The vegetables were cooked perfectly, but the polenta was a little on the thin side, which meant the edges had dried out a bit when it was reheated.
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On a later solo stop, I took on the chicken-fried steak ($7.95), a bargain-priced meal of heavily battered flank steak smothered in a whoa-mama peppery cream gravy that also covered the old-fashioned, garlic-infused smashed mashed potatoes and a side of steamed broccoli. After that, there was nowhere to go but the apple crisp ($3.95), whose crunchy pastry barely held in all the soft, steamy fruit. This confection, too, had been smothered--with copious amounts of fresh whipped cream.
It was a honey of a way to end another worthy meal at the Hornet.
The Hornet. 76 Broadway, 303-777-7676. Hours: 11 a.m.-around 1 a.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. - 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.