When I travel, I plan my days around meals, not sights. Doesn’t a lemon granita, with lemons plucked from a nearby grove and turned into a tart slushie, say as much about the gentle breezes of Sorrento —and the lifestyle of those lucky enough to call it home — as any church? My appreciation of Nashville is surely greater after fried pickles and whiskey than it would be if I’d spent all my time in the Country Music Hall of Fame. There’s simply no better way to understand a city than through its food.
The trips of my retirement-turned-sabbatical now over, I find myself looking around Denver — a city I’ve called home for more than a decade — with a visitor’s eyes. What are the restaurants I’d seek out if I had only a few days here? Which chefs sum up the energy of this incredible town of ours, flush with millennials and entrepreneurs and the headiness of the New West? What spots are most likely to sweep me off my feet with their sheer sense of localness, the ones that are so much a product of time and place that they’d feel like an imposter anywhere else?
Of the 150-plus eateries that opened since I put down my critic’s fork at the end of last year — not to mention the thousands of established kitchens that feed us on a nightly basis — the restaurant that best fills in these blanks is The Preservery. Not everything delivered from its kitchen is flawless, but no other restaurant seems to capture the direction of Denver’s food scene as well as this five-month-old newcomer, the brainchild of wife-husband duo Whitney and Obe Ariss.
To wit: The Preservery is in RiNo, the turbo-thrusted neighborhood that’s the envy of many a city planner. Gratuity is built into the pricing, in line with the owners’ socially minded outlook. Live music happens on a regular basis, including some from Obe himself, sporting a baseball cap and plaid shirt and playing the kind of classical piano that people who are doctors of music play. Pot smoke wafts in through the bar’s wide-open garage door, an amuse-bouche of sorts from the guys down the street. Plates are delivered with a proud exclamation: “Everything here came from the Union Station market today!” Or they’re delivered sheepishly, set to the side with nary a word, as if they’re somehow as embarrassing as the check. Such service extremes say as much about our current scene as any gustatory superlative.
Whitney grew up in California, the child of passionate urban homesteaders. Her upbringing explains the restaurant’s name as well as its seasonal, plant-happy menu — not vegan or vegetarian by any means, but clearly cozy with all kinds of herbs, vegetables and fruits. In a nod to her background, canning jars filled with the likes of ramps, beets and fennel line the market in the corner; they’re not for sale, but for adding depth to many dishes. But there are items for sale here, too; markets are also a thing right now in Denver, especially ones like this, with $11 chocolate bars and pastured eggs. Obe’s roots are Lebanese, which explains the parsley-heavy tabbouleh and hummus sandwiches that can be had at the deli counter for lunch. The Arisses are clearly the heart and soul of the place. But it is chef de cuisine Brendan Russell who translates their vision and lifts the Preservery out of the realm of the super-trendy and into the much narrower category of places you’ll want to return to even after you’ve checked them off your list.
When designing a menu, Russell decides to scatter micro-sproutlets of Swiss chard over a braised chicken leg, not because he’s trying to impress — that wouldn’t be very Denver-ish of him, would it? — but because he can turn a winter dish, with its saucy white beans, artichoke hearts and briny cornichons, into just the right thing for a cool September night. He takes our willingness to experiment and gives us buttermilk panna cotta with cilantro purée. He uses earthy turmeric to temper the sweetness of onion jam on a precipitously tall fried-fish slider and isn’t shy about prettying up plates with edible flowers. Ricotta cheesecake is stunning, hauntingly unsweet thanks to preserved lemon, candied pistachios and a caramelized top that crackles like crème brûlée. Accents such as these are vestiges of his time at Frasca Food and Wine and Foliage, a Michelin two-star establishment in London. But at the Preservery, they are only accents. He’s cooking for Denver, after all, where casual is king and boots and jeans are always appropriate attire.
We like choice in this town, and true to form, the menu is full of it. You can order anything from octopus to wagyu to a vegan salad. But what does it say that sauces — not based on butter or cream, but on the sheer intensity of well-handled produce — often steal the spotlight? Smoked-cherry agrodolce made from little more than impressively reduced cherry juice (as in one gallon to one cup) is reason to keep ordering the pork tenderloin, even if the meat comes overcooked at times. A terrific peach-habanero dipping sauce compels you to eat another crab cake, though the deep-fried discs taste heavily of parsley. Samosas are irresistible with a dunk in cilantro-serrano chutney, a recipe inspired by the sous-chef’s grandmother in Kerala, India. But wade in carefully: The sauce packs a punch, and there’s no sweet tamarind to cool things down.
Sometimes Russell’s chefly tendencies get ahead of him. White foam that should’ve bubbled playfully atop a carrot-farro salad quickly destabilized and dripped in sad puddles. But that’s a rare miss in the salad section, which is where the menu is at its most engaging. Indeed, if there were ever a restaurant where you should skip from salads to dessert, the Preservery is it, which says as much about the strength of its salads as it does about its oh-so-close entrees. What a difference a little less vinegar would’ve made in the chicken-leg sauce, or a few minutes less on the grill for the pork. And why, with all the time and energy that go into the ling cod’s red brodo — the broth includes 45 pounds of hand-juiced tomatoes hit with lemongrass, cayenne and ginger — didn’t someone think to add a bit more salt? Easy fixes, all.
But back to those salads. Fried green tomatoes are plated off-center in a white bowl dotted with aged balsamic and green purée cleverly made with nasturtium leaves, cucumbers and agar. Each bite brings something new: creamy burrata, whole basil leaves, purple bachelor’s buttons and halved strawberries that taste like a hundred days of summer. In another salad, roasted asparagus is topped with bacon, a Scotch egg and a dressing whose sweetness comes purely from reduced housemade apple vinegar. You take a few bites, trying to remember what it reminds you of. Just when you think of it — an old-time spinach salad! — you get a bite of concentrated sweet-tartness from pickled cantaloupe. This isn’t old-time anything. It’s cooking for right now, in this adventurous, booming heart of the New West.
3040 Blake Street, #101
Crab cakes $9
Surf and turf sliders $14
Roasted asparagus salad $11
Farro and carrot salad $11
Fried green tomato salad $12
Wild ling cod $28
Pork tenderloin $24
Braised chicken leg $24
Ricotta cheesecake $9
Buttermilk panna cotta $9
The Preservery is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday. Learn more at thepreservery.com.