Josh Wolkon was only 25 when he took out a sizable loan to open an edgy restaurant called Vesta Dipping Grill in an up-and-coming part of downtown that people were just beginning to call LoDo. Just shy of twenty years later, those loan officers are looking pretty smart, as Wolkon has not only turned Vesta into a quintessential Denver restaurant, but has built a popular family of eateries that also includes Steuben's Uptown, Steuben's Arvada and Ace Eat Serve. Vesta is getting ready to celebrate twenty years of success this coming spring by making a few big changes now, including a new executive chef, a new menu and a slight name change.
The restaurant is just Vesta now and the new head chef is Nicholas Kayser, who becomes just the third in Vesta's history, after Matt Selby and Brandon Foster. Kayser grew up in Colorado but has built an international career that includes top restaurants on the East Coast and abroad. Kayser's early Denver career included Rioja and Zengo before he decided to test his skills in New York City, eventually landing the chef de cuisine job at Ouest, a hot Manhattan eatery at the time. His connections to Zengo's owner, Richard Sandoval, also led Kayser to opening roles in several of Sandoval's restaurants in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. And then he signed on with BLT Steak, a job that took him to Hong Kong and Las Vegas.
But earlier this year, Kayser saw an ad for an opening at Vesta (after Foster left to become executive chef for Project Angel Heart), and he connected with Wolkon over the summer. The two kept a low profile while Kayser developed new menu items, but now they're ready to share the changes with Denver.
Wolkon explains that the biggest of the changes is a move toward more shareable plates, both in small and large formats. Vesta's famous bread plate with roasted garlic remains, but it has been expanded to include house-baked porter pumpernickel as well as additional accoutrements: Colorado honeycomb, whipped lardo and compound butter. New small plates include charred baby octopus over white beans and housemade chorizo; artichoke tortellini served on artichoke leaves with saffron ricotta; and roasted bone marrow with short-rib marmalade and candied shallots. In a clever move, Kayser removes the marrow from the bone and cooks it separately, using the hollow bone as a vessel to hold the short-rib marmalade.
Entrees are portioned for sharing too, if customers so desire. A rack of lamb comes as four separate chops that could easily be distributed among friends, and a golden-hued bowl of saffron-drenched cioppino could just as easily be portioned out, though fights might ensue over the lobster tail that balances atop mussels, clams, shrimp, sea bass and calamari. Sauces are still a major focus, but theiy're integrated into the dishes, with only a few — barrel-aged hot sauce, ghost-chile BBQ and sambal aioli — available a la carte.
Desserts and breads come courtesy of pastry chef Nadine Donovan, who oversees the dessert program for the entire restaurant group. In the spirit of sharing, dessert tasting menus are available in two sizes: three choices for $14, or five for $20.
Wolkon explains that one of the keys to Vesta's long-term success has been staff retention; evidence is right behind the bar in bar manager Kari Cummings, who has been with Vesta for fourteen years (and who also serves as the in-house food photographer). Her list of seasonal cocktails gets a boost from barrel-aged booze like a special batch of Leopold Brothers whiskey that was set aside four years ago with the restaurant's twentieth anniversary specifically in mind.
The owner also credits Vesta's location with part of the success, noting that balancing fine dining with come-as-you-are casualness necessary so close to Coors Field has turned the restaurant into something uniquely Denver in its feel. "It's a line Vesta has walked for many years," Wolkon says. "We have regular customers that only come during baseball season."
Not exactly a suit-and-tie guy himself, Wolkon is comfortable with how Vesta has evolved into what it is today. Keep reading for photos of a few new menu items and a look inside the remodeled space, which still retains its LoDo roots — exposed beams and brickwork and a patchwork floor that Wolkon promises is a little more high-heel-friendly than before — along with the subtle nods to Vesta, goddess of the hearth, and her six attendants.