Long before Jeff Osaka gave us the bustling Denver Central Market, slurp-happy Osaka Ramen, and Sushi-Rama, with its pop-art vibe and nifty conveyor belt of serve-yourself sushi, his name was synonymous with one thing: fine dining. For years, this master of precision and seasonality ran a place called twelve, with a grand mirrored bar and a menu so classic it felt timeless, even though the roster changed every month (twelve = twelve months, get it?). But twelve never caught on like it should have, a victim of both location and shifting dining trends, and it shuttered unexpectedly in 2014.
Now, after a multi-year interlude during which he launched those more casual concepts, Osaka has returned to his roots with 12@MADISON, an exquisite restaurant that corrects the flaws of the first without compromising the artistry and fluidity that put this California native on the Colorado map.
Don’t let the name fool you: 12@MADISON is far from a reboot. The digits in the name refer not to monthly menu changes, but the intersection where the restaurant is located, a small island of eateries and shops in residential Congress Park. Neighbors out for an evening stroll — leashes in one hand, ice cream cones in the other — often stop by, peering in the plate-glass windows and studying the menu. Many of them return to dine at 12@MADISON, giving the restaurant a sense of belonging that twelve, located on a transitioning stretch of Larimer Street, never had.
With gray walls, furnishings that range from Danish tables to a shoji screen, and throw pillows along sunny banquettes, the space evokes a modernist condo that could be situated anywhere from Copenhagen to Tokyo. Art is kept to a minimum — a row of 101 miniature boxes painted by Denver artist Jonathan Saiz — so the focus stays on the meal in front of you and the people with whom you’re sharing it. Unless, that is, you’re seated at the chef’s counter, in which case you’re likely to be mesmerized by chicken sizzling in a hot skillet or, if you’re lucky, talking to Osaka, who occasionally has time to chat while waiting for plates to deliver to tables. As time goes by, though, he’ll turn his attention from the now-four-month-old 12@MADISON to his growing Sushi-Rama empire, which is why the kitchen is managed by chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady, another California transplant who worked at Potager and shares Osaka’s devotion to seasonality.
Even with the better location and warmer space, 12@MADISON still could have gone the way of twelve. This time around, however, Osaka wisely embraced the small-plates style of dining that he had previously shunned, a subtle but seismic shift. Not that small plates are anything new, of course. But just because everyone’s doing them doesn’t mean that everyone is doing them as well as Osaka — which is why as word gets out around town, Congress Park residents are going to have to fight for seats at their neighborhood gem.
The menu feels abundantly large for such a small spot, unfolding in clusters of soups/salads, vegetables, pastas, seafood, lighter proteins and heavier meats, all executed with Osaka’s intensity and fine-dining focus. Still, with prices in the low to mid-teens, everything feels within reach. By going small — though not too small; each plate is easily shared — Osaka has given himself more opportunities to play with flavors, textures, colors and ingredients, and given us more reasons to return.
Maître d’hotel butter, a classic French concoction of parsley, lemon and butter, turns roasted turnips and radishes into the root vegetables you never knew you liked. Congee, a savory Chinese staple, takes on Indian overtones in a porridge cleverly made with quinoa, not rice, with slices of roasted cauliflower and currants to add the jolt of sweetness that pairs so well with curry. Hamachi tilts Japanese, with glistening morsels of raw, citrus-marinated fish plated in a circle with segments of grapefruit and orange. Occasional bites of grilled fish add a surprising layer of smokiness to the notes of sweet, bitter and sea. With so much going on, it’s helpful to consult your servers, reliable guides who can answer questions about any element on a plate and seem genuinely delighted to share what they know.
In traditional entrees, proteins steal the show. But what this kitchen understands so well is that — somewhat counterintuitively — the smaller the plate, the more important the accents. Dill in a cucumber-yogurt salad brightens a spectacular plate of braised lamb and socca, the toothsome chickpea-flour crepe from Provence.
Five-spice powder and tatsoi, tender as baby spinach, add pizzazz to properly cooked skirt steak. Dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend with cumin, coriander, pistachios and almonds, does for rainbow carrots what the fryer did for Brussels sprouts, turning this oft-overlooked vegetable into a star; a smear of tangy, creamy labneh, akin to Greek yogurt, further ensures that the carrots’ sweetness, enhanced by a stint on the grill, doesn’t get out of hand. Pink peppercorns are arresting over a coconut-milk panna cotta that, like other desserts on the menu, looks to ingredients other than sugar for flavor. And if not for the nutty earthiness of celery root, diced and bobbing in brodo, a short rib-pecorino raviolo would’ve had a richness as outsized as its shape. It’s soon to be subbed out for more spring-like fare, but like ice cream, it could easily transcend the seasons — provided that the dough is properly cooked. On one visit, its stiffness suggested a few more minutes in hot H20 were in order.
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Some dishes employ wily chef tricks, like the rectangular poultry terrine, with chicken thighs and skin bound together with meat glue. Though it sounds off-putting, the technique pays off; every bite has the crackle and pop you get and then quickly lose with traditional fried chicken as the skin slips off. Drinks are high-aspiring, too, with ice cubes made of beet juice and a margarita with emulsified avocado. Other plates are decidedly down-home, such as a toad in the hole inspired by one that Osaka makes for his daughter. More than anything else on the menu, it showcases the magnificent alchemy of simple ingredients, thoughtfully prepared: buttery brioche, lardons, sherry-vinegar-sprinkled frisée, an exuberant egg.
The old twelve may have been exciting for cooks — look, a new menu every month! — but it proved frustrating for diners who would find a favorite dish, only to have it disappear from the menu with the turn of the calendar. At 12@MADISON, Osaka has hit upon a formula for the best kind of neighborhood restaurant: a smart roster of small plates that gives you a hundred delicious ways to craft a meal, so you can return as often as you like to continue exploring the kitchen’s range — or simply know that you’re sure to find an old favorite.
1160 Madison Street
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Sunday
SELECT MENU ITEMS:
Rainbow carrots $12
Quinoa congee $11
Short rib raviolo $14
Toad in the hole $11
Skirt steak $14
Lamb shoulder $15
Coconut panna cotta $9