Second Helpings

2nd Helping

When Markus Georg opened his Chinook Tavern back in 1995, it looked like the sort of place that would be a hit for a short time -- the baby boomers of Cherry Creek are always willing to try a new watering hole -- but then business would dry up and blow away. Certainly the food wasn't going to be a long-term draw: German fare has never been particularly popular in Denver, and Georg's dishes seemed excessively heavy-handed and haphazardly prepared. And then there was the unappealing below-street-level location and unusually lax service.

But like the wind it's named after, Chinook proved to have staying power, and two recent visits there were far superior to what I experienced five years ago ("Blowing Hot and Cold," August 2, 1995). Now more menu choices accommodate diners who may not want to revisit the sauerbratens of their youth, the cooking style has gone up a few notches in complexity and leans more toward the international, and the enormous sides of starch have been scaled back. Even the atmosphere seems more contemporary, with interesting art and more color to offset the Bavarian country-cutesy wood furniture. Now the only part of Chinook that could use improvement is the service -- but in Denver these days, that's apparently asking the impossible.

Chinook's bar has remained popular through the years, and it's a good spot to test out the appealing appetizer roster. Once cloyingly sweet, the honey mustard sauce has been refined and is now perfect with the house-smoked salmon, a sweet, slightly oily version that comes with the nice texture touch of smoked pecans sprinkled on top. The pork and chicken satay brought skewers of quality broiled meats with a smooth-textured, medium-spicy peanut dipping sauce. The best starter of the batch, though, was the escargot pillows ($7.95): soft, pastry-covered, snail-stuffed cushions blanketed in a sauce flavored with gently sautéed garlic and a healthy portion of chives, and enriched with Boursin, a triple-cream cheese.

On a return visit for dinner, we continued working our way through Chinook's appetizers. The wild-mushroom strudel was particularly stunning: Goat cheese held plenty of shiitake and button mushrooms together inside a beautiful puff-pastry crust, and the Madeira sauce under this luscious package was sinfully rich and somewhat sweet, an ideal foil for the musky 'shrooms. The well-crafted sautéed shrimp cakes boasted another sweet sauce, red bell peppers puréed into a coulis whose vegetal flavors complemented the nutty almond crust on the tender crustaceans.

Remembering previous Chinook entrees, we braced ourselves for mounds of crudely assembled meats and spuds. Instead we found ourselves facing an elegant sautéed pork chop -- and it's not easy making a pork chop appear elegant, much less taste this good. The thick-cut chop had been breaded and stuffed with a sweet-and-sour onion marmalade that played off the meat's own sweetness, and while the port wine sauce beneath it could have clashed with the marmalade, it instead echoed the stuffing's balanced flavors. A side of gratin-style, cheese-coated potatoes and wilted spinach rounded out the filling, but fun, plate.

We'd also ordered the grilled North Atlantic salmon, a beautiful -- and large -- piece of fish brazenly sauced in a red-wine reduction that worked because of its heavy butter content. Even more innovative was one of Chinook's two vegetarian offerings, a spectacular piece of polenta studded with sun-dried tomatoes and topped by a garlic-heavy pesto, a rich blob of house-made mozzarella and sweet strips of roasted red bell pepper mixed with mushrooms.

Like everything else served at Chinook these days, it blew us away.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner