Cafe Society

Attention to detail would safeguard the Kitchen's brand in Denver

Long before Anthony Bourdain ranted in Kitchen Confidential about how brunch is for the B-team, a restaurant's last-ditch effort to make money off of marginally fresh food, I did my best to steer clear. Potatoes formerly known as crisp and pancakes the size (and texture) of Frisbees? I'll pass.

Not all brunches are bad, though. When chefs apply their high dinner standards to entrees centered on eggs, the experience can be lovely. The Kitchen Boulder has built a following around the meal, which features hand-rolled chocolate croissants and chèvre-asparagus omelets, not to mention coffee worth waking up for. So the fact that The Kitchen Denver, the fourth restaurant opened by co-founders Hugo Matheson, Kimbal Musk and Jen Lewin, serves lunch and not brunch on the weekends is regrettable, even to a skeptic like me.

See also: Slide show: Behind the scenes at The Kitchen Denver

Musk is fond of saying that the Kitchen's mission is "to create community through food." The Denver restaurant that opened in March at 16th and Wazee streets hums with the lunchtime energy of co-workers sharing shop talk and the dinner cheer of folks out to celebrate and/or impress. But where is the relaxed, familial vibe associated with brunch, the meal closest in connotation to the home kitchen for which Musk and company's growing empire is named? My recent visits to the Kitchen Denver suggest that what's being created in LoDo is not a community, but a scene. (The space itself doesn't help, with sound bouncing off tall windows, columns and exposed brick walls, and enough square footage to fit the three Boulder restaurants — The Kitchen, [Next Door] and [Upstairs] — into this same address.)

True to Kitchen standards, the menu here changes seasonally and features as many local, organic and natural goods as possible. Shout-outs are given to farms and ranches: Cure Farm Carrots! Long Farm Pork Loin! Nearly everything is recycled, composted or reused; leftover bread is even doled out to farmers for pig feed.

Starters occupy more than half of the dinner menu's real estate. If you include the six varieties of oysters, clams and other offerings from the raw bar, the number edges closer to three-quarters. Many are simple and ingredient-driven, making them a showcase for the kind of dishes that foodies around the country have been lauding the mothership in Boulder for since it opened eight years ago. The tomato soup, a Kitchen staple, sings out two harmonious notes of San Marzano tomatoes and cream. Not muddied by herbs or spices, it's as comforting as any your mother might have fed you, though worlds better than what, back then, likely came from a can. Oysters, especially the sweet Kumamoto from California, are best accented by a bright champagne-and-shallot mignonette. The burrata-and-peach bruschetta, with two slices of crusty bread, a chewy layer of mild, salted burrata and peaches as soft as jam and just as sweet, might make you forget all those bad Italian appetizers you've had over the years. Order with a glass of white, followed by one of the more substantial starters, and you — and your wallet — could go home happy.

Hefty enough to pair with that bruschetta is the merguez, a harissa-spiked lamb sausage served over plump lentils redolent of the bacon used to sauté the accompanying bits of carrots, celery and onion. Bouchot mussels (served as a main course at lunch or a starter at dinner) are another success, thanks in equal part to excellent sourcing and chef de cuisine Gabe Godell's treatment. Pluck out the flesh and eat it with the mussel broth fortified with white wine, garlic, thyme, Fresno peppers and cream. When the mussels are gone, dip the crusty slice of bread into the liquid. When the bread's gone, eat the rest with a spoon like soup.

After such a sure hand with the starters, the Kitchen Denver's main courses can be surprisingly uneven. Char-grilled sturgeon, accented with minty pesto and served on a bed of celery, capers and fingerling potatoes, is revelatory. But one night the hanger steak in the steak frites came rarer than ordered and oddly flavorless for a company that buys two Colorado cows a week and shares the cuts among the restaurants. A friend's bowl of housemade tagliatelle, recommended by the server over the popular Bolognese for its "three varieties of squash, the first of the summer," should have been seasonal cooking at its most light and fresh. Instead, the dish had far more chèvre and almonds than vegetables, and what little squash could be found was overcooked. It would have been far better for the kitchen to introduce some Parmigiano-Reggiano, kosher salt and pepper, and give the long strands of chewy pasta the respect they deserve.

The lunch menu overlaps significantly in content and price with dinner's, though with more sandwiches and salads. Don't miss the pulled-pork sandwich, which gets its flavor from a rub of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, and its tenderness from an overnight roast with apples, fennel, mirepoix and white wine. Also excellent is the mushrooms on toast, the roasted creminis rich with sherry vinegar and cream. At either meal, order the pot au chocolat if you don't want to share your dessert, the sticky toffee pudding if you do (it's so sweet, a bite or two will do).

Building community through food is a lot to ask of any kitchen (small "k"). The Denver outpost's staff, under the direction of chef Godell and general manager Kate Kaufman — not to mention Matheson and Musk, who visit regularly — is trying. But a bit more attention from both the front and back of the house — to a fillet that needs trimming, to the doneness preference on steak, to the guests left at the bar for twenty minutes while their eventual table sat empty, to the plates that needed clearing — would safeguard the qualities we've come to associate with the Kitchen brand.

As would those hand-rolled chocolate croissants and a chance to unwind with good friends in the softer morning light.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz