If Denver were a starving Third World country, Noel Cunningham would be its Mother Teresa.
At Strings, his eleven-year-old restaurant, he does his bit to feed the masses--at least, the relatively upscale masses. But Noel Cunningham's generosity extends far beyond that. The longtime restaurateur helped create the decade-old Share Our Strength/Taste of the Nation charitable event that this June expects to raise $5 million across the country to help people who can't afford to feed themselves and their children. On a less public level, Noel holds an annual Christmas Eve dinner for Denver kids who otherwise wouldn't eat much around the holidays, and he has donated untold amounts of time and money to worthwhile projects that perform such good works as building homes for the needy. On top of all that, tales abound from employees who claim Noel's more like a benevolent father than a boss.
But Cunningham is the first to admit that he's not exactly Saint Noel. "Listen," the Irish native says, his voice tinged with the faintest hint of a brogue and as gruff as Papa Bear's, "I just like to do something for people, to give back. I've certainly made my share of mistakes, and I don't always do the right thing, but I try. You know, I don't like to make a big deal about it."
Fortunately, many others do, including the multitude of faithful Strings patrons. Noel's wife, Tammy, whose own reputation for kindness equals her husband's, also sings his praises every chance she gets. In the six years this duo has been married, they've established themselves in the restaurant community as really, really nice people--no small feat in the food industry, where people are notorious for eating each other for lunch.
The Cunninghams have earned the good karma that helps smooth over the rough spots of restaurant ownership. "We've gone through some tough times," Noel admits. "I always say that Strings is like a family, except that I get the bigger paycheck because I have to deal with the headaches."
One nagging pain has been the adolescent identity crisis this self-consciously mod eatery has experienced of late. The dining room, so starkly bright, somehow appears classic and outdated all at once; its linear, geometric design doesn't jibe with the disco palpitating in the background. And the casual ambience seems a little forced. In the past the Strings crowd was often of the younger, hipper variety (nowadays, that group apparently gathers only on weekends); during our weeknight meal there, the clientele was of a certain age, and diners were cranky and demanding. We witnessed several lengthy, nitpicking discourses with waiters, about the last thing this already taxed staff needed.
Noel recognizes that Strings could use some mass appeal. "The thing I hate is that so many people have this image that the joint is this upscale, fancy kind of place," he explains. "I have to tell you, I love to see the prom gowns and the special occasions in peoples' lives, but I also like to see someone who's just here for a glass of wine and a few small plates on the patio. I feel like we lose a lot of customers who have this impression that they have to get all dressed up and come have a big, expensive meal." At the same time, he adds, there are diners disappointed to find that the food at Strings isn't overblown and fancy. "Some come in and they want something more frou-frou than what we're doing here," he says. "I like to offer straightforward food that works. But, of course, not everyone thinks that it does."
During two recent visits, though, I found that the food worked just fine. (And it was an added pleasure to pair dishes with choices from the well-structured wine list, which offers a thorough and very fairly priced roundup of domestic and imported vino.) Nearly everything we sampled from chef Sean Farley's menu--mostly Cal-Ital, with a drop-in visit to Asia here and there--was well-conceived, well-cooked and well-assembled. The service, on the other hand, didn't work--or at least, our waiters weren't working very hard. The interval between dinner courses seemed interminable (when we started discussing the construction of the squares dividing our table from the exposition kitchen, we knew our food had better get there fast), and the timing was off at brunch, too. And at both meals, the staff lacked the warmth and efficiency that Noel Cunningham's restaurants are known for. (Although he's no longer involved with Ciao, Baby!, he's still part owner of 240 Union in Lakewood.)
But the food was worth the long waits. I'd stare at the ceiling for hours again if I knew my patience would be rewarded with an appetizer of molasses-barbecued duck breast ($9.50). In this decadent dish, slices of succulent duck meat were rimmed by a slick of sweet sauce that slowly seeped into a thin vinaigrette of blood-orange juice jazzed up with ginger. The sauces' sweet-and-sourness was an inspired embellishment for the delicate duck, and a pile of slightly bitter field greens kept the combination from becoming too rich. It was tough for our other appetizer, a generous portion of roasted mussels ($8.75), to compete with such a stunning start, but the tender bivalves gave it their best shot. The broth beneath them contained both fresh tomatoes and an oven-dried version, which had the same tartness as sun-dried; the tomatoes imbued the liquid with a homey, Italian quality.
So we were surprised when the ten-vegetable minestrone ($3.75 a cup) lacked the layered complexity usually evident in Italian soups with far fewer ingredients. Despite the excess of vegetables, this blend was bland. But the portobello soup ($3.75 a cup) more than made up for the minestrone's failings: it was extravagantly flavorful--astonishingly so, since it was seemingly made from but one vegetable. If the stock did contain the usual onions, carrots and so forth, the portobello was so powerful that we couldn't tell.
But my favorite dish at Strings, the one that delivered the most flavor and impact, would still have to be the tenderloin of beef ($21) and its side of French fries. "Oh, no," moaned Noel when I told him this later during a phone interview. "Don't tell me we're going to be known for our fries."
Sorry, Noel, but I can't keep this to myself: The fries were out of this world. Interestingly, they started out looking slightly terrible, hardened and crunchy, kind of like the overdone strays you eat at McDonald's after you've devoured all the soft, greasy ones. But after one bite, I realized these spuds were exquisite: thin, with a crisp outer shell that held a narrow strand of spongy, steamy potato flesh. (They were so addictive that, because I wanted to save room for dessert, I had the remains of my huge portion boxed to go and then finished them for breakfast the next day.) Adding to what was already potato perfection was a stream of mushroom-musky cognac sauce that slowly oozed its way over from the hefty filet. The meat was exquisite, too, and cooked to a textbook medium-rare: I've never had a better slice of tenderloin from any of the "big" steakhouses. The beef comes from one of the standard local suppliers, Noel says modestly, but Strings ages it in a walk-in cooler for a minimum of twelve days--and therein lies the secret.
Compared to the superlative steak and fries, any other entree would have been a letdown. But the veal, spinach and ricotta cannelone ($14.50) had its own flaws. The red and white sauces on top of the pasta were adequate, but the ingredients inside the pasta tube were so smooshy that the veal was lost entirely and the spinach almost as tough to find. This was Italian food for the toothless, and it lacked any real bite.
Ah, but good to the very last bite was pastry chef Jaime Lugo's peanut-butter mousse ($5.75), a smooth, luscious concoction that arrived in a chocolate tulip--sort of an upper-class Reese's peanut-butter cup. And the warm chocolate bread pudding ($5), while light on the chocolate, featured a condensed square of silky bread soaked with a caramel sauce spiked with bourbon and sided by a melting ball of vanilla-bean ice cream--which probably would have been firmer had the desserts arrived within a decade of our ordering them.
While we'd waited for them, I'd taken a trip to the ladies' room; when I came around the corner, I surprised our waiter at the end of the hallway, obviously doing something he shouldn't have been, because he jumped about nine feet when he saw me. "We've gone through some staff changes," Noel said when I mentioned this later. "For a while we'd had some people who'd been here for ten years, and they were starting to act like they should just be able to sit around, so we've brought in some new people. I thought they were up to speed, but apparently they're not, and we have to work on that."
More evidence of this was provided at brunch, a meal so busy that even as the waitstaffers rushed around, you could see dishes piling up. (The problem with an exposition kitchen is that you sometimes watch your food languishing there.) To Strings's credit, no heat lamps overcook the food while it awaits a server--but then, when no waiter appears, the food gets cold. That's what happened to our chive-scrambled eggs ($9.75) with smoked salmon, which arrived so not-warm that the eggs had started to form an unappetizing crust on the outside. And that was too bad, because inside was a delectable combination of arugula, tomatoes, fresh basil and rich salmon. (I've also sampled the house-cured salmon, which has a wonderful, softly spicy bite.) And the angel-hair pasta ($8.50) with prosciutto, mushrooms and a poached egg had cooled so much by the time we got it that the pasta was gummy and the hollandaise was coagulating into cement.
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"We're supposed to be known for our service," Noel said sadly when I related the service screwups. "I'm really disappointed, and I can assure you we're going to correct it. I'll just have to give everyone a nice talking-to."
Well, charity does begin at home.
Strings, 1700 Humboldt Street, 831-7310. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.