When the Source opened last summer in a redeveloped nineteenth-century foundry not far from the National Western Complex, the space was electric, crackling with the unexpected juxtaposition of food, urban grittiness and vintage architectural bones. It was just the kind of place to throw down a few tacos or grab a beer — but how, I wondered, would the cold, hard aesthetics (metallic grate-like walls, exposed ductwork and graffiti) and marketplace environment suit a place like Acorn, an offshoot of Boulder's highly acclaimed Oak at Fourteenth?
That was one of the questions that owners Bryan Dayton and Steven Redzikowski had to answer when they decided to open a restaurant in the Source, and they knew the answer to this one wasn't to re-create Oak. "That's not the place to...have your soups, salad, entree and dessert," said Redzikowski. "That's not the atmosphere that it lends itself to." Neither was doing a conceptual 180 the solution. Asking the bar program and kitchen — overseen by Dayton and Redzikowski, respectively, with food executed by fellow Cyrus alum Amos Watts — to be anything less than polished would be like telling a violinist to forget about vibrato; by now, the good habits of sourcing, technique and imaginative menu development were ingrained. Instead, they traded the concept of a full meal of courses for a menu of mostly small and a few very large shared plates, delivered whenever they're ready. It wasn't a big leap from what they'd done so successfully at Oak, where more than half the menu is meant to be shared. But it does mean that the pace of a meal at Acorn is different, and if guests want a more traditional entree, they must enter into negotiations with others, since oak-grilled chicken is served for two, ribeye for three, and pork shoulder for four. (You might find different mammoth proteins; the menu changes weekly.)
3350 Brighton Boulevard
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday
Oak-smoked duck breast $15
Squid-ink tagliarini $15
Lamb shawarma $14
Kale salad $12
Smoked-bacon salad $13
Tempura-fried snapper $13
Grilled chicken for two $25
Butterscotch pudding $8
Coconut parfait $9
See also: Behind the Scenes at Acorn
The night I acquiesced to that chicken, I wished I hadn't — but not because there was anything wrong with the bird. The breast of the half-chicken was moist, with the sort of crackly, brownish-gold skin that tempts you to eat things you know you shouldn't, although the roasted baby kale that accompanied it suffered from a few too many shakes of salt and the Gruyère bread pudding resembled croutons. No, the reason for my regret was opportunity lost.
What about the duck breast with bok choy and figs? The lamb shawarma? The seared salmon with lemon-dill gnocchi? By ordering the large plate, we'd missed out on four small ones: Servers suggest two or three small plates per person, with large plates counting as two apiece. With a menu this fluid — roughly 15 percent of it changes each week — there's a very real possibility that something that catches your eye on one visit to Acorn might not be on offer when you return.
I never did get to try the salmon, for example, but I doubt that I could have liked it more than I did the tempura-fried snapper that took its place. With crisp breading and mild, flaky fish, this easily could have become yet another iteration of fish and chips. Here, though, the result was far lighter, not to mention more clever, with farro standing in for fries and a Thai "trinity" sauce with chiles, basil, mint and cilantro providing vinegar's acidic pop. Thai influences also laced the oak-smoked duck breast, with grains of black forbidden rice swirled into a spicy coconut curry made of both Thai green and madras curry. "I'm huge into Thai-style food," explained Redzikowski. "Moving forward, you'll see a lot of those flavors."
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Global flavors also inspired another of my favorites: lamb shawarma with tzatziki and harissa. Everywhere I looked, the dish seemed to be on someone's table or en route to it, and when I later asked Redzikowski about its popularity, he exclaimed, "Jesus! We go through forty pounds of lamb every two days." Modeled after a Middle Eastern classic, this version starts with garlicky, cumin-spiked ground lamb that is shaped into logs, wrapped in plastic wrap and poached, so it cooks, confit-like, in its own fat. The deeply flavored meat is then sliced thin and draped over green shishito peppers, feta and cumin-scented panisse (fried chickpea-flour fingers). Housemade tagliarini has a Mediterranean lilt, blackened with squid ink, tossed with imported Spanish octopus and calamari, and bathed in a tomato-and-red-pepper sauce livened with surprise sprigs of micro-cilantro. Short ribs bring the menu closer to home, with ancho-chile sauce and cheddary polenta.
While over half of Acorn's menu is entirely new, Oak fans will recognize such longtime favorites as tomato-braised meatballs, fried pickles and kale salad. That salad, with parmesan, apples, candied almonds and a lemon dressing, has been king of the mountain for years, but a new one is threatening to take its place: the applewood-smoked-bacon salad, with jagged wisps of napa and red cabbage, bacon, pecans and a panko-crusted poached egg holding court in the center. (The dethroning might be a fait accompli if more kale salads come out overdressed with bitter lemon, as mine did.) For Oak regulars, the shaky nature of the desserts won't come as a surprise, either; as at the original restaurant, they lack the consistency and inspiration of the shared plates. The butterscotch pudding was light on caramel flavor; we focused our attention on the cocoa-nib ice cream that came with it. And a coconut parfait seemed too cerebral for its own good, especially in a kitchen that's trying hard to be casual, with orange marmalade, coconut semifreddo and tiny cubes of chocolate cake.
That's a minor quibble, though. The only real drawback to Acorn is the space itself: I longed for a decor in sync with the restaurant, with lighting, color schemes and artwork reflecting the warmth and personality of the food rather than the industrial vibe of the Source.
But Redzikowski's gamble on what to serve in that space paid off. Entrees? I don't really miss them, given the footloose-and-fancy-free nature of a meal built around small plates. Because from those small plates, a mighty Acorn grows.