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WaterCourse Foods: Denver's landmark vegetarian restaurant should plot a more creative course

The potstickers at WaterCourse taste fresh and inspired.
The potstickers at WaterCourse taste fresh and inspired.
Danielle Lirette

I knew the day would come when my dining companions would balk at the food set before them, food I'd asked them to order so that I could kick the kitchen's tires and peer under the hood. I just didn't expect it to happen this particular day. Not with an adventurous friend who's eaten camel hoof and sea cucumber (aka sea slugs), and not at WaterCourse Foods, where there's no sign of the nose-to-tail dishes that give many eaters pause. But his country-fried seitan was too thick to disguise its spongy texture, and the breading was too salty to be picked off and nibbled plain, as you might the crust of otherwise dull fried chicken. The mashed potatoes tasted like they were missing a few ingredients, and the vegan green-bean casserole was a little too slick (as in oily) for its own good. My friend put down his fork in defeat.

See also: Behind the scenes at WaterCourse foods

I know people who go to WaterCourse just for the country-fried seitan. Some even drive down from Boulder to eat it. Unlike my friend, they are vegans, so the meat- and dairy-free versions of such Southern classics hold special appeal. But appeal with caveats — as in, "I guess it's good if you're vegan" — isn't what longtime executive chef Rachel Kesley wants for WaterCourse. "I want to be known across the board as a place that has great food, and that maybe doesn't serve meat," she says.

WaterCourse has certainly succeeded at the latter. The sixteen-year-old restaurant is synonymous in Denver with meat-free cooking, and over the years has grown into a community center of sorts — not just for vegetarians and vegans, but for gluten-free diners and others with the kinds of dietary restrictions that make eating out tricky. At other restaurants, servers might ask how you want your steak. Here, servers automatically ask if cheese and nuts are okay and whether you need that salad vegan. The kitchen's willingness to handle special requests — an attitude that's not, how shall I put it, necessarily embraced by all chefs — is legendary, to the point that Kesley quips that she's seen a two-person ticket with 23 lines. "That was a bit of a joke," she adds, "though not too far off the mark." Yet sometimes our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses, and I can't help wondering if this accommodating spirit might be holding WaterCourse back.

As a veteran chef who worked in New York before returning to Colorado to start at WaterCourse in 2008, Kesley is the first to admit that dishes like the country-fried seitan exemplify the old-school approach to vegetarian cooking. But every time she looks at the 52-item menu and tries to pare it down, she realizes that everything — even that seitan — sells. Another chef might take it off anyway to make room for more inventive fare, but not Kesley. And until she does, how great your food will be depends on what you order.

Dishes most likely to further Kesley's goal of greatness can be found on the chef's page, a short list of appetizers and entrees served from 11 a.m. until close every day. Unlike the rest of the lengthy menu, which doesn't change as much as it evolves, these dishes switch seasonally and feel fresh and inspired. The potstickers, for example, were plump with shiitakes and tamari-poached tofu, with wheels of crispy lotus root for texture and peppery mizuna for contrast. Benedict, available with poached eggs or scrambled tofu good enough to make even the tofu-averse reconsider, turned out better than any other version of this dish I've had recently, with fried green tomatoes standing in for English muffins and a vegan corn-chipotle Hollandaise with far more flavor than the often disappointingly bland sauce ladled over so many poached eggs.

Such creativity appears elsewhere on the menu, though you have to look harder. Skip the seitan wings, deep-fried spongy strips soaked in both buffalo sauce and oil. Instead, try the whole-wheat samosas, which are good enough to make a meal around, with carrot-currant slaw, bok choy and a dollop of chimichurri offering the sweetness normally found in tamarind chutney. And while mesquite tofu won't win any awards for presentation, it might for home-style satisfaction, since chewy smoked tofu tossed in barbecue sauce is served over creamed corn and mashed sweet potatoes. Both the samosas and the tofu showed the good that can result when vegetarian cooking is allowed to follow its own path, without trying to be a meatless version of something you already know.

Other dishes were disappointing in execution, not design. Grapefruit salad showcased the creativity Kesley is known for, with ingredients you wouldn't normally put together — grapefruit, pretzels in the form of croutons, and beer-mustard vinaigrette — on a crisp bed of arugula and frisée. But I felt like I was playing a game of dodgeball, trying (and failing) to avoid a barrage of onions at every turn. The enchiladas would have been good had they been stuffed with more than a scant tablespoon of filling, and the spinach-fennel salad was light on everything (fennel, currants, candied walnuts, goat cheese and apples) but spinach. Beet risotto was gummy, coating my tongue like peanut butter. And so much saffron had been added to the roasted cherry-tomato sauce in my polenta Florentine that it tasted metallic, making it hard to appreciate the thick, coarse polenta cakes layered with wilted spinach, seared artichoke hearts and caperberries the size of Bing cherries.

The desserts are all vegan and come from WaterCourse Bakery, next to WaterCourse's sister restaurant, City, O' City, which has more of a bar feeling and serves vegetarian burgers, pizzas and small plates. Other than a homespun carrot cake loaded with walnuts and pineapple, these sweets triggered a new round of "It's good, but...." A chocolate cupcake, called a Ho Ho but more like the Hostess CupCakes I liked in childhood, was rich and chocolatey, with a thick cap of frosting — but instead of the light whipped filling that made those cupcakes worth eating, this cake had a cold, hard, vanilla-flavored center. Banana cream pie also lost points in the texture department, presenting what seemed like banana chips in place of fresh bananas.

I have often wondered why the farm-to-table movement of recent years hasn't spawned more vegetarian restaurants, and why, with the uptick in people forgoing animal products, there hasn't been an increase in restaurants of all kinds — Italian, New American, Vietnamese, etc. — that maybe don't serve meat. Isn't it time for "vegetarian" as an adjective to be dropped, just as we've outgrown the need for "lady" as a modifier for doctor or engineer? After all, meat really isn't necessary to make a restaurant shine. But those perceptions won't change until the level of cooking at places like WaterCourse is high enough to attract diners of all stripes. And right now, there's still some work to do, whether your dining preferences lean toward sea cucumber or seitan.

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