Chef/restaurateur Justin Brunson opened Masterpiece Kitchen in Lowry a year ago as a kind of fancy diner, with burgers, wings, chicken fingers, fries and onion rings as the main attractions, along with a few more elaborate but approachable options like trout and ribs. The burgers and fries were the big sellers, according to Brunson, but he was hoping to bring more to the east Denver neighborhood — and it turns out that those neighbors were hoping for something a little different, too.
Masterpiece Kitchen couldn't quite find its stride, and Brunson, after filling in for a no-show on the line on a busy night, realized that he didn't want to be known as a burger slinger — nor did he think his crew had their hearts in going home smelling like fry grease every night. After meeting with a selection of customers and neighbors to find out exactly what people were craving, he discovered that what his guests wanted was more like what he was doing at his flagship restaurant, Old Major.
"People out here are tired of getting in their cars and driving to find good food," he explains. The message from his focus groups was clear: They wanted fun, chef-driven cuisine with seasonal changes and a variety of small plates at reasonable prices.
So a month ago, Brunson moved chef Nohe Weir-Villatoro from the line at Old Major to the chef de cuisine position at Masterpiece Kitchen and began rolling out a new slate of dishes, with nothing priced at more than $15, but without the diner staples that had gotten the restaurant through its first year. "We're not a burger-and-fry place anymore," Brunson states emphatically.
Yes, there's a burger on the lunch menu, but at dinner the menu transforms into an array of just over a dozen shareable plates with seasonal ingredients and creative preparations. Weir-Villatoro moved to Denver from Asheville, North Carolina, last year; he says the long growing season, warm climate and farming traditions in the region mean that most restaurants change up their menus frequently, so he's accustomed to experimenting with seasonal ingredients. And Weir-Villatoro's father is from El Salvador, so he also brings some Latin American influences to the Lowry kitchen.
Southern staples get a modern treatment in dishes like a warm collard green salad with black-eyed peas, bacon and onion served over creamed cornbread. Weir-Villatoro uses cornbread trimmings by drying, powdering and puréeing them with cream and butter to create something akin to grits, but with a smoother, richer texture and a distinct home-baked flavor.
On another plate, glossy roasted beets of different sizes and colors wade in a pool of bittersweet beet mole with rings of fried jalapeño adding a touch of warmth. Another mole — a green sauce brightened with Mexican herbs — underlies a steak dish accented with Salvadoran sides: pickled cabbage, black beans and chicharrones, the last dusted with a powder made from herbs strained from the mole then dried and pulverized.
"I don't believe in throwing away food," says Weir-Villatoro. That philosophy crops up in other dishes, like gnocchi threaded through with sautéed beet tops and showered with cured egg yolk shavings.
Lunch and brunch offer more standard options, including a fried cod sandwich on a Hinman's Bakery roll, and a Cobb salad with Brunson's signature fried chicken thigh, crunchy-fried pastrami subbing in for bacon, and pink-tinged pickled eggs from his chef de cuisine's Southern arsenal. For more Southern influences, you'll also find flaky biscuits and cream gravy for brunch.
The dinner menu is a complete departure from what customers had come to expect. "The first two weeks were rough," Brunson admits, noting that he and managing partner Steve Allee bought guests quite a few dinners just to get them to try something new. But he says the neighborhood has caught on and residents now look forward to new creations.
Some more changes at the restaurant will bring the ambience up to par with the food, Allee notes; new booths will replace some of the tables, and the roof line will be extended to cover about half of what is currently patio space, creating more indoor seating. Most of the work will be completed during off hours, so the team expects to close for only one day to complete the final modifications.
Brunson also recently retooled his second Masterpiece Deli, at 1710 Sherman Street in Uptown, adding rice bowls and quick-service sandwiches to cater to the needs of office workers in need of faster meals on short lunch breaks. That location has been renamed Masterpiece Luncheonette, and the chef says ticket times now average under five minutes.
Over at the original Masterpiece Deli in LoHi, Brunson is sticking with the same menu of more elaborate but always delicious sandwiches.