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.
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.
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.
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