Bennigan's. We have Bennigan's to thank for Christian "Goose" Sorenson, executive chef at Solera. Coming to the Mile High City from his native Wyoming, where he'd been a frat-house cook in Laramie, Sorenson thought that working the line at Bennigan's was the top restaurant job to which he could aspire.
"I did my Animal House thing," Sorenson says of his frat-boy days. "You know, drinking and partying." But when the fraternity house's cook left, Sorenson stepped up to the plate. "Up there, a real treat in terms of food was going with a couple of guys to the country club for some carved prime," he remembers. "I spent my days reading Julia Child and cooking for the guys."
After leaving college and moving to Denver, Sorenson actually applied at Bennigan's but was turned away. "They said I didn't have enough experience," he says, laughing. "My whole life could have changed with that."
5410 East Colfax
Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Seafood risotto: $10
Duck confit ravioli: $14
Butterleaf salad: $7
Duck breast and leg: $22
Pork tenderloin: $22
Five-spice ahi tuna: $25
Lucky for us, he quickly learned his haute from his merde. Sorenson studied cooking at the Art Institute of Colorado while holding down a gig at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse that he got through a friend. He went on to work under Michael Degenhart at Tante Louise (Degenhart's trained at least two of my favorite chefs in town: Sorenson and Duy Pham), then with Mel Masters at Mel's Bar & Grill. Masters soon put Sorenson in the chef's post at Starfish, a Cherry Creek restaurant that Sorenson eventually bought outright. He ran the place for a year before selling it off to his partner and moving back to Wyoming.
Even if his career had ended right there, he could have gone home a success. Ruth's Chris, Tante Louise, Starfish -- it wasn't a bad run for a guy who got his start slopping out mac 'n' cheese to beer-drunk frat boys up in culinary no-man's-land. But after a few years, Sorenson returned to Denver to open a new restaurant with his buddy, Brian Klinginsmith. "We borrowed money from friends and family," Sorenson says. They found themselves an unlikely little spot on East Colfax, "and we just had to make it work."
That was just over a year ago, and today that unlikely spot is home to Solera -- a bit of foreign adventure along Denver's most sprawling stretch of Americana. I ask Sorenson if he'll be chucking it all anytime soon for that spot on Bennigan's hot line now that he's got the chops for it, and he laughs. "Yeah, you know, sometimes I still feel the pull," he jokes. "But I don't think so." At Bennigan's, he'd never get to make duck confit ravioli.
I've always dreamed of stumbling on a place that can be reviewed on one dish alone, a preparation with such surprising breadth and strength that it's entirely indicative of everything going on in the heat of the kitchen and in the depths of a chef's heart. This is my dream because first, it would be a lot less work -- talk about one plate, get a snappy quote from the owner, wrap things up with a little love for the front of the house, then bam, the review's done and there's more time for yours truly to sit on the couch in my bathrobe and cowboy hat watching Iron Chef reruns. More important, though, finding such a dish also means that I've found a restaurant where the chef and the rest of the kitchen have their acts so totally together, and share such a cohesive vision of the experience they're trying to send out to the dining room, that one plate is capable of speaking clearly for all the rest.
Trouble is, by the time a restaurant becomes capable of such a singular, effective communication of style and taste, it tends to do everything well. The menu transcends a simple listing of available dishes and becomes a poem or love song for favored flavors. Textures develop into a landscape of experience. Preferred combinations -- like lemon with lobster or lardons with lamb -- reappear as motifs at different places on different plates.
So the trick for a critic who wants an easy review is to catch a kitchen on the cusp of really breaking out and reaching its stride; getting there at that point when the chef has settled into his post and all the talent he's gathered around him has come together, but before they go through that first menu change where those skills are realized.
I hit Solera about two months too late to buy myself that cinch week. Sure, I found a perfect dish -- one single shallow bowl of duck confit ravioli -- but even though it was a standout work of gentle, unassuming art, the menu that surrounded it, which Sorenson had introduced in late February, had a lot more to say about the path this kitchen has walked than could be expressed by three ravioli. They came tender, sitting up in the bowl like the stiff, closed petals of a flower, crimped roughly by hand and stuffed with incredibly rich and fatty confit leg meat with Point Reyes blue and Laura Chenel goat cheeses milled to a smooth paste -- almost a pâté, really -- and seasoned with surprising delicacy so that the sea salt, sherry, fresh thyme, cracked black pepper and white-truffle oil never overpowered the melting softness or natural gaminess of the duck. The ravioli lay in a glossy demi-glace cooked down properly from darkened duck stock over long, slow hours of heat until it was "so thick you could spackle your house with it," in Sorenson's words, then mixed in the pan with a hit of sherry. A ragout of wild mushrooms -- fresh morels and black trumpet -- matched their deep pine-forest funk against the earthiness of the confit and the soft muscle of the duck demi, and the plate was finished with a few leeks for lightness and a rough cap of julienned sweet golden beets, sliced fennel and tarragon.
In origin, the dish was simple and rustic, a French/Italian farmhouse classic rendered with experienced restraint and unfussy hands, then made into something unique and wonderful with the addition of sugary beet and fennel top notes. This was the work of a pro, a man who loves playing with his food, and executed by a kitchen totally in tune with its executive chef. But Solera's entire menu is now a beautiful expression of exactly this -- of traditional technique and Sorenson's neo-classicism pared down to showcase single, strong flavors heightened by sharp, worldly accents. It's a vast improvement over what came before.
The old menu was all over the place, scattered, with things like oysters with green Tabasco granite, tilapia with Israeli saffron couscous, Spanish anchovies, sushi rice and wild-boar bacon all fighting for space on a roster that was more flash than substance. And while there was nothing really wrong with any of the dishes -- the smoked duck breast and confit leg bathed in a coarse-grain mustard demi was great, as was the seafood risotto with whitefish, salmon, lobster and little black mussels kicked up with a bittersweet squeeze of Meyer lemon (both were held over to the new menu) -- they didn't make sense as a whole. The kitchen wasn't speaking with a unified voice.
"I was just so burned out," Sorenson says. "With the holidays and everything else, I was just tired. We only have this little kitchen, and we didn't come into it with a lot of money, so we don't have a big staff." Which meant that Goose was on the line every night with his guys -- Tico Starr, formerly of the Fourth Story, and now Cory Treadway, from Luca d'Italia -- stretching out the kinks of a restaurant still in its rookie year, hammering away at those foods he knew should work even if they didn't work right together. On the new menu, Sorenson's departures -- which once seemed like long, loping journeys into odd culinary terrain that never went anywhere -- are smaller and more focused, bringing just hints of adventure, exotic tastes and foreign accents to his plates rather than confusing them with a whirlwind tour.
Sitting in Solera's cozy, mustard-yellow dining room, I ordered an excellent butterleaf salad from that menu: whole leaves of butter lettuce carefully laid out on a square glass plate, with a couple curls of shaved red onion in the center, two candied walnuts, and light touches of both Maytag blue cheese and a sharp champagne vinaigrette. I followed the salad with a grilled pork tenderloin that had been brined in tea for a smoothing of flavors. It arrived roughly sliced (less a comment on the grill man's knife skills than a matter of presentation), fanned over fresh-roasted sweet-corn salsa with a browned wedge of white-cheddar potato gratin on the side.
An order of taglatelli came with marvelous housemade sausage (someone in the back has a fine hand with preserved and forced meats), a sweet tomato confit with roasted red peppers and fresh basil, and buffalo mozzarella. Even this, the cheapest entree on the menu, showed an equilibrium of flavor created only through experience, care and forethought. No one taste dominated, none needed another to prop it up, and while all worked separately, they also meshed seamlessly.
The five-spice ahi tuna was Sorenson's only total departure from his theme, and like a cheap package tour of the Far East, it left me with a series of crowded, strange and jarring sensations without ever really getting under my skin. The plate featured medallions of the best ahi loin I've had in town -- crusted with five-spice powder, briefly seared but left beautifully raw in the center -- that were sliced and stacked atop a towering, poorly prepared sushi-rice cake which managed to be both pasty and crunchy at the same time, then crowned with an acrid, soy-soaked chard-and-cabbage salad that did nothing but bad things for the tuna. Then again, the sauce that napped at the edges of the plate -- I think it was the promised miso vinaigrette, although it didn't taste like either miso or vinegar -- was fantastic, the perfect dip for the fatty, butter-soft ahi, even if I did have to shove the salad-and-rice-cake tower off to one side to keep it from dripping bitter soy over everything.
But if you have to take the bitter with the sweet, Solera is the place to do it. The restaurant draws a crowd that runs from smarty-pants local foodies to special-occasion couples tucked comfortably into the corners of the relaxed, sixty-seat dining room. The well-trained servers are educated on both the food in the kitchen and the wine in the cellar and are capable of being either distant and haughty or warm and welcoming, depending on what the situation warrants. And through some lucky trick of the ventilation system, all of the good, powerful smells from the kitchen waft through the dining room every time a server comes through the swinging doors. By the end of a big meal, it's enough to make you want to curl up under your table and take a nap.
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Because Solera is open on Sundays, it attracts not only families -- plenty of big tables -- but also lots of local kitchen folk. When the weather's good, they unwind out on the 45-seat patio, running through Klinginsmith's well-balanced wine list (including seventy choices by the glass) and enjoying having someone else cook for them for a change. Especially someone like Sorenson.
After a full year in business, Solera's settling down -- and settling in. Sorenson, Klinginsmith and crew have hit their stride, won a couple of awards, and just hosted a dinner for the Denver chapter of Les Amis d'Escoffier, where Goose had the honor of being inducted into the club's august ranks. So what's next?
"A vacation," Sorenson says. "I have a date with a turkey and some river trout." He's headed back to Wyoming with Klinginsmith, to fish and cook for the folks. And when he returns to Denver, it'll be time for another menu. Summer is coming, and that means fresh produce, seasonal goodies, new surprises. It means doing all those things that, once upon a time, Bennigan's didn't think Sorenson had it in him to do. "We've got everything where we want it right now with the crew and the food," he says. "It's time for a break."
He's earned it.