Train in Vain

Have a successful eatery? Hey, open another one. No matter that you can't clone the location, the chef or the waitstaff, much less yourself. If your concept works in one place, it's bound to work everywhere, right?

Wrong. Very wrong.
The original Great Northern Tavern is in Keystone, where residents and tourists alike rave about the homey, satisfying food and the robust yet snug setting. In a resort area overrun with restaurants serving smarmy, overpriced eats, GNT (as they like to call it) is an outpost of good taste. But so far, the concept hasn't traveled well.

Four months ago a second GNT opened in Marina Square, in the space where Marina Landing floated out a free happy hour--Dam those cheese cubes! Full speed ahead!--for six sodden years. With the help of a designer from San Francisco, GNT transformed the space, removing every trace of a nautical theme and focusing instead on another mode of transportation: the train. The result is an odd composite of a macho chain steakhouse, several Kevin Taylor eateries (is that where we've seen these chandeliers before?), the Avenue Grill on 17th--which just happens to belong to Great Northern owner Bill Ferguson and explains the brashly stocked, stunning mahogany bar--and the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery.

Fortunately, the train theme is stylish and understated. (The greatest resemblance to Amtrak was in the women's restroom, where the garbage pail was so overflowing with detritus that I had to sink a paper towel shot from several feet away.) There are patches of train memorabilia here and there, including a jaunty framed poster of the Empire Builder, one of the famous trains of the Great Northern Railway; the system ran through St. Paul (Ferguson's boyhood home) on its way to the Pacific Northwest from its introduction in 1889 until the Great Northern's merger with three other railroads in 1970.

The Great Northern Railway was renowned for its elegant dining cars and the excellent food served within them (see Mouthing Off). It printed a cookbook of passengers' favorite recipes and made a point of stopping in places like Stryker, Montana, to pick up just-caught trout to serve for dinner the same night. At the Great Northern's namesake tavern, though, the freshness of the ingredients is marred by the torture they endure on their way to your table.

In a recent newsletter, Ferguson and his original chef, Tim Anderson, said their goal at the second GNT, as at the first, is to serve "honest tavern food." Honest tavern food, my arse. When I think of tavern food, I think of thick, meaty sandwiches and hearty Yankee pot roast--not fancy rotisserie pork with honey-cured ham, three-pepper bacon, Creole remoulade and Gruyere on house-baked flatbread, or fussy pan-seared venison loin with a cognac demi-glace over truffled mashed potatoes. (Just when did Denver chefs discover truffle oil, anyway? These days it's more common than ketchup.)

Since coming up with the menu, Anderson has moved back East; in September, his sous chef, Pat McDermott, took over the Denver kitchen. Like general manager Michael Heintz and several other GNT employees, McDermott came from Cherry Creek's Sfuzzi, which just happens to be located next to the last home of the Rattlesnake Grill, where Anderson worked before joining up with Ferguson. McDermott has tinkered with the menu a bit, and a reworked roster should be coming this week. But unless McDermott gets a better handle on production, it won't matter what the menu promises. Most of what comes out of the kitchen will continue to resemble a train wreck.

The ceviche appetizer ($8) sounded simple enough: fresh shrimp, squid and scallops in lime juice, served with an avocado-and-tomato-studded pasilla-tomatillo salsa and corn chips. But while the pieces of seafood had a good texture, they were covered with a mysterious, off-flavored muck. The salsa? If so, it did nothing for the fish. The freshly fried corn chips, however, were fantastic, with just enough salt and a good crunch. Unfortunately, the kitchen didn't apply that same frying expertise to the roast-pork spring rolls ($7.50). The rolls were excessively greasy, and the only way to taste the succulent pork inside was to pull each crispy, oily log apart and fish out the two tiny shreds of meat hidden behind lots of red cabbage. The effort was hardly worth it, so we concentrated on wolfing down the side of fresh mango-habanero salsa instead. A third appetizer, ahi tuna served on Tavern crackers ($8), was a waste of good ahi. Although the too-crisp crackers had been slathered with wasabe cream sauce, they still cracked into shards when you bit down. We peeled the slim slivers of tuna off the top and ate them plain. They were puny but delicious.

The rest of the meal continued in the same direction, with each dish offering some small compensation amid the chaos. The house salad ($3.25) featured thin curls of fresh beet and daikon, but they'd been stored in ice water and hardly drained before being plunked down atop a dressing-drenched batch of mixed greens. The Great Northern bean soup ($3) contained so much pepper it was like licking a hot track; the promised dollop of corn-barbecue relish had apparently missed the train.

Chew-chew! The train theme continued with the fourteen-ounce piece of prime rib ($17). We'd ordered it medium rare, but two-thirds of the slab was rare and almost impossible to chew. The portion of the meat that was cooked properly was wonderful, though, with a seasoned, caramel-crusted edge and lots of beefy flavor. A side of grilled vegetables, mostly zucchini, was blackened in all the right places, and the roasted red potatoes were fine.

More potatoes appeared with the rotisserie-chicken pot pie ($9.50). The spuds were completely unnecessary, since there was already enough dough on top of the little pie to provide starch for three entrees. The menu had described the crust as "flaky," but if that pastry was flaky, so are the insides of couch cushions. Beneath the mound lurked three bites of chicken meat, a few slices of celery, some carrots and onion and a few spoonfuls of "country gravy" that was so floury it tasted like damp country dirt.

And that, as it turned out, was better than the "dust" of cornmeal on the walleye ($14). I once caught a walleye in a Midwest lake, and I've never forgotten the delicate taste and semi-firm flesh that would seem to lend itself to many preparations--but not being barricaded in a bark like this. The fish was supposedly pan-fried in just a dusting of cornmeal, but the exterior had the odd, semi-hard texture of a snow-crab shell, and the fish inside was so watery it was like eating a soft-cooked egg white. This disappointment came with an unappealing cold wild rice studded with teeny bits of what tasted like dried cherries and an okay "cucumber relish" of diced cucumbers, mango and honeydew melon.

Bad as the fish was, the asparagus gratin ($9.50) was worse. Thick, chew-chewy grilled asparagus in a mouth-puckeringly tart sauce made from grilled tomatoes had been topped with about three tablespoons of cheese (who knows if it was the promised combo of Gruyere, white cheddar and parmesan?), then broiled until the cheese had barely begun to melt. The gratin came with an incongruous side of daikon radish curls crisscrossed with what tasted like a tomatillo puree. Digging into this dish was like eating lasagne and sushi doused with green chile. Stop the train--I want to get off!

But then dessert arrived, and it was such a success that I wasn't surprised to later learn that Mary Ludwig, former Rialto Cafe pastry chef, is now on the job at GNT. Her creations here included a marbled chocolate cylinder filled with chocolate mousse ($6), a delectable fresh-fruit-filled custard tart ($4.50) and a caramel-laced pecan pie ($5.50). You go, girl.

Sadly, when we returned for lunch a few days later, our meal got so badly sidetracked that we never made it to dessert. All told, it took two hours to order, get and attempt to consume our GNT burger ($6.75), a dried-out disk ablaze with chipotle-garlic rub; a salmon tamale in banana leaf ($14) that needed about a half-pound more of the fish to justify the price; and dried-out Cuban grilled pork loin ($11) served with dry black beans, dry fried plaintains and rice that contained none of the saffron mentioned on the menu (unless it was that rare kind of saffron that's invisible). The ancho cream sauce was no relief from the dish's aridity; it tasted like nothing but sour cream.

The Denver Tech Center could use a good restaurant--in this area, the expense account is alive and well, and the legitimate dining choices can be counted on one hand. But the GNT isn't it. Not yet, at least. If the kitchen doesn't fix the food and step up the pace, this tavern will be left at the station.

Great Northern Tavern, 8101 East Belleview Avenue, 303-770-4741. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.


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