On the surface, Micole has the makings of one pretentious piffle of a restaurant.
To wit, a prix fixe menu in a town that expects its Bud and bowl of green to come with free chips and salsa; dishes that involve such precious ingredients as "fennel pollen," 25-year-old balsamic and "grapefruit broth"; a Boulderite who graduated from the Culinary Institute of the Arts as its chef/owner; a trendy-sounding name for a trendy-looking space in a definitely trendy neighborhood. And to top it off, a mâitre d' who refuses to look up from his phone conversation with a "very important client" in order to seat people who've been waiting patiently for their reserved table.
But Micole rises above its self-conscious trappings -- far above. And when you look below the surface, you realize that the very things that might have done in the restaurant have proven to be its strengths.
For instance, despite speculation that Denver diners would snub the prix fixe menu, chef/owner Eric Roeder has found the opposite to be true. "I heard from a lot of people who advised me against it," he says. "People in the industry, friends -- you name it. They thought Denver wasn't ready for it. But the truth is, I've been pleasantly surprised, myself, at how people have taken to it. There are a lot of residents here now who moved from places like San Francisco and New York, and they're used to restaurants that do it there. And it makes a difference for me, because I enjoy cooking food that way. There's something about assembling a whole meal for someone that gives you some freedom of movement, some creative license. And I think it's a good way to dine."
Micole's space is a good place in which to dine this way, too. Until late last year, the South Pearl Street storefront was occupied by the popular Hugh's American Bistro; when Roeder and his wife, Tami Micole (ahh -- that's where that name came from), took over four months ago, they wanted to retain the distinctive intensity of Hugh's decor -- but in a very different way. So they brought back the husband-and-wife team that had done Hugh's: artist Tracy Barnes, whose appealing beeswax-based paintings adorn Micole's walls, and Steve Eagleburger, whose faux-technique treatments once again give the walls a simultaneously homey and exotic feel. But they also added more space between the tables and reworked the lounge area, complete with comfy seats, giving Micole further distance from Hugh's. Front-of-the-house manager Kathy Hawkins, one of Café Paradiso's original owners, keeps staffers informal enough to have a casual atmosphere and avoid condescension, but not so laid-back that they can't pull off a pretty serious menu.
Credit Roeder with the recipes, and credit him again with pulling them off. He's done well to trust his instincts with components that would make a lesser chef tremble in his toque. Not everyone can make drop-dead-delicious watercress soup with truffled warm potato salad seem somehow, well, normal. But then, not everyone worked as a pastry apprentice at the Flagstaff House in high school. "I knew that I wanted to do this even then," Roeder admits. "This place has been the dream all along." But he paid his dues along the way, crisscrossing the country after the CIA for jobs at the Painted Table in Seattle, at several of Gray Kunz's eateries in New York -- including the esteemed Lespinasse -- and then in Boulder as chef de cuisine for two years at Q's in the Hotel Boulderado.
Roeder's experiences all contributed to a bold, brave menu that eliminates the need to fuss with finances. You pay either $40 per person for a three-course prix fixe, or $55 per person for a six-item tasting. With the tasting menu, everyone at the table has to go with the flow, and no substitutes are allowed; the prix fixe, on the other hand, includes eight choices for each course. With the first, you choose between soup, salad, a standard starter such as risotto or shrimp, or one of Micole's more gourmet specialties, including foie gras and sweetbreads. Main-course possibilities feature most of the majors -- scallops, tuna, halibut, chicken, duck, lamb -- as well as a vegetarian selection. And the desserts, made by pastry chef Steven Fling, are so unusual and glamorous that crème brûlée and flourless chocolate cake look like Hostess cupcakes in comparison.
Because the foie gras was available only with the prix fixe meal, deciding between the two dinner options was a no-brainer. These days, places daring enough to offer foie gras usually know what to do with it, and Micole was no exception. Roeder gently seared the Hudson Valley goose liver, then paired it with a sliver of caramelized endive -- bitter and sweet --and a tart biscuit tinged with the juice of blood oranges and spiced with cinnamon. Both the biscuit and the foie gras sponged up the sticky-sweet blood-orange syrup pooled beneath them on the plate; each bite was like sinking into a rich, savory dessert.
This wasn't the last time Roeder crossed boundaries and ducked convention to very good effect. Another starter, a risotto, mixed sweet lobster meat with pungent morels and fava beans. (Little-known fact: "fava bean" is Italian slang for penis.) Incorporating the dry, almost pasty but still creamy fava bean into a liquid-sucking rice dish would seem foolhardy, but Roeder used the bean as an emulsion, adding it slo-o-owly. Making the risotto with carnaroli rice rather than the standard arborio also was key; carnaroli is noted for its ability to release starch more uniformly, allowing the chef to better control the absorption of liquid. The resulting risotto was moist, creamy and not too rich.
Simpler, less frou-frou dishes were just as impressive. Although the wild-mushroom strudel was more about mushrooms than the Haystack Mountain chèvre and balsamic meant to dress it up, no one would quibble with the big pieces of fungus fairly bursting from the pastry pocket. And while a salad of baby spinach and frisée might have been boring elsewhere, here bits of candied apple played off a smoky, bacon-rich vinaigrette; walnuts gave the mix extra texture.
Main-course standouts included the grilled venison tenderloin, crispy-edged and buttery-tender inside. The meat was served with a satiny pumpkin flan, puffy, potato-based gnocchi, and a sauce pumped up with enough Pommery mustard to give an edge to the other rich elements, but not so much that the dish tasted like a gourmet hotdog. The aforementioned fennel pollen -- a souvenir of Roeder's time in New York, where chef Mario Batali first popularized the native-Italian, dried, sifted golden powder of fennel blossoms at the infamous Babbo -- made its appearance dusted across big, soft-centered sea scallops, which had been sautéed until still translucent and then set atop a mound of horseradish-kissed potato purée, a spud island in a fennel-enhanced dried-tomato broth so concentrated it tasted as though the tomatoes had been juiced. (If you have a serious pollen problem, steer clear of this dish.)
Even the vegetarian offerings brought wonderful flavor combinations. The salsify soufflé was a gorgeous, feather-light bubble packed with the earthy, parsnip-like taste of the root vegetable (which is pronounced sal-sih-fee, not sal-si-fie); it harmonized nicely with a snappy truffle relish, leeks cooked to translucence and visually intriguing blobs of back-and-white mushrooms that had been puréed and piped around the soufflé.
If our first two courses were remarkable, the last was truly extraordinary. A smooth, tangy Meyer lemon tart came with black pepper ice cream that had been drizzled with black-pepper caramel sauce for a sweet, fiery effect that made the tastebuds salute. The crumbly shortcake had been moistened with rhubarb and strawberries, then wedded to an ice cream made with goat cheese for a sweet, savory finale that wasn't too heavy. Lighter still was a mango flan sided by a blondie studded with macadamias. And while the Hawaiian plantain split was as filling as any banana-based Dairy Queen version, the accompanying chocolate cake and dense peanut butter ice cream deserved to be savored slowly.
So go ahead and scratch beneath Micole's surface. You'll find that the beauty of a meal here goes much more than skin deep -- it satisfies both the stomach and the soul.
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