A room inspired by the story of two lovebirds: Beatrice, the life-loving daughter of a French wine-making family who relocated to California in the early 1800s to create a small vineyard. And Woodsley, the handsome and crafty son of a lumberjack family turned coopers to support the fledgling wine industry...
"You've got to be kidding me."
I had the press information for Beatrice & Woodsley in my hand, the pages spread. I was sitting at a bar (doesn't matter which one) with a fairly regular companion, another restaurant guy, drinking and talking about this new place on Broadway. Truth be told, I wasn't exactly receptive to the notion of a concept restaurant based on the imaginary love story of a vintner's daughter and a burly lumberjack. It had the ring of porno — bad porno — or worse, a Harlequin romance. Frankly, it made me want to gag. You know what kind of restaurant comes with a backstory? Casa Bonita. You know what kind doesn't? Every other one in the city.
Oh, wait. Except two: Two-Fisted Mario's and Mario's Double Daughter's Salotto — both opened and operated by restaurant designer Kevin Delk and his partner, John Skogstad, the guys behind Beatrice & Woodsley. Mario's has a Do the Right Thing-era Brooklyn neighborhood pizza-joint theme, but not very good pies; the next-door Double Daughter's is named after the conjoined daughters of a freak-show carnival owner.
"Fuck it, brother. Why do you need a story if the food is good?"
...Upon first sight, Beatrice and Woodsley fell in love and quickly married. Stirred by his new bride, Woodsley built a cabin remote amid the woods of the Colorado mountains...
Actually, Delk built a restaurant in Denver, Colorado, and his inspiration for it came less from the aspens of the high country than from his own life. When Beatrice & Woodsley opened in mid-May (quietly, to friends and family first, then by reservation only, then to the public), he described it as a representation of what he expected to find in Denver when he moved here from Atlanta in 1997. Cute, right? So before I ever set foot inside the place, I had my own expectations. I'd heard all manner of bizarre things: no sign, trees in the main room, chainsaws behind the bar, crowds that were either shoulder-to-shoulder rugby-scrum tight or non-existent, depending on the hour, the day, the season. The strangest sinks in the city. A chef, Pete List, who'd come out of nowhere. And the food? The menu changed sporadically but worked completely within the fantasy that Delk had envisioned. What would a French winemaker's daughter and a clever lumberjack eat in Colorado in the 1800s? What would they cook for each other in order to express their love?
I've known some strange restaurants in my time and have worked under some fairly bizarre constraints myself. But this? Completely over the top. Like the Fort crossed with Alice in Wonderland. Serious through-the-looking-glass shit.
...Built with skilled and loving hands, Woodsley constructed a strong abode complete with the day's amenities and a large wine cellar between the roots of the aspens...
Finally, two Saturdays ago, I walked in.
Every table was full, and there was a wait at the bar. The dining room was so crowded that I could barely see the trees (aspens, no lie) for the forest of people. The ceiling was hung with slatted timber meant to evoke a roof. Camp lanterns depended from wires in lieu of proper lights. The music was from The Wizard of Oz: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It was, I can now admit, temptingly gorgeous. It had a gravity that I felt even from behind the hostess stand. Still, I didn't want to wait.
So instead, I went down the street and around the corner, where I lived out a little of my own imaginary history at an Irish bar with a theme that stopped dead at the bar. No leprechauns serving drinks. No peat fires in the back. No Republican martyrs on the floor.
I returned to Beatrice & Woodsley for Sunday brunch. Laura and I had been fighting most of the morning, and I was no mood for lovebirds in the forest. I walked in strapped and packing like Neo in the first Matrix movie. I was just covered in dislike.
And then, that sensation again — that pull, like falling, of a space that, in design, stays absolutely true to the whacked-out vision of its creator, of a menu that goes even a step further into uncompromising eccentricity. Turtle soup with cream sherry and a whole egg. A roasted pear clafouti with sheep's-milk ricotta and whipped cream served in a cast-iron skillet. When was the last time you even saw a clafouti on a menu? Corned buffalo hash with brunoise potatoes, flakes of roasted pepper, fried eggs and housemade rye bread as dense and heavy as a brick. There were frog's legs on the menu — for breakfast — served with coddled eggs (which I hadn't seen outside of Dan Barber's Blue Hill in forever), the legs breaded and fried and swimming in a fresh vegetable butter sauce with a sting of citrus. It was completely crazy. Completely apt. And completely delicious.
That a kitchen that could handle frog's legs could also pass off a long plate of heady, slightly sour, slightly musky, malted barley flapjacks with homemade fruit conserve and maple syrup and perfect cheese grits with eggs, a biscuit and a smear of the greatest chile-spiked sweet-hot fruit jam I've ever tasted was just amazing. But it would be overdramatic (and untrue) to say that I fell immediately in love.
That didn't happen until the next night.
After dark, Beatrice & Woodsley glows. The windows, tinted gold, show a dreamlike version of the interior. The interior shows a dreamlike version of a restaurant that's supposed to be a cabin in the aspens that is really the fancy of a guy from Atlanta imagining Colorado from afar. The split-log tables and seat backs upholstered to look like aspen bark, the pot-bellied stoves and sinks that drop water down from the ceiling — all of it serves as a frame, like one huge meta-setting for the most innovative and original menu in the city, for a wine list like nothing I've ever seen.
Under the lantern glow, washed in the soft hum of ethereal music and the muted conversations of tables scattered throughout the room, I ate fig "Noonan": a deconstruction, part cheese plate, part dessert, with a single fig inside a sugar shell, two bites of camembert, a dot of honeycomb and a half a homemade fig cookie. Each individual piece was excellent, and the plate was gorgeous.
That was just the start.
Pork, three ways: braised shoulder over a Calasparra rice cake and beneath a hat of stewed peppers; roasted loin, larded with bacon fat, crisp at the edges and tender beneath, over grits as good as the ones I'd had for breakfast 36 hours before; pork belly like I've never had before — so meltingly soft, so deeply flavored and fatty and awe-inspiring that it squeezed a groan out of me at the first bite. The gaufrette potatoes and English pea sauce? Just gravy. The entire plate was breathtaking.
The soup was potato, studded with bacon. I could've made a meal out of four bowls and walked away content. The crawfish beignets sounded strange on paper — essentially a crawfish bisque (actually a thickened pepper aioli with chunks of crawfish meat) crammed inside doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar. But on the plate, they were delicious, deep-fried revelations. They came with a warning from our server to eat them carefully because the filling had a tendency to squirt out, blinding and maiming one's companions. Final revenge of the crawfish.
The kitchen was out of the house-cured sardines with mozzarella, so we went for "Rabbit, back in the saddle" — custom-butchered bits of rabbit saddle with the flank left long, turned and wrapped around a stuffing made of braised leg and herbs: rabbit, stuffed with rabbit, wrapped in rabbit. There was an herbed pistou, an onion purée, a pan jus — a dozen different complicated techniques in evidence on one perfectly presented plate. I was moved by the genius of it all.
The plate of handmade butternut squash ravioli with ricotta, sage-apple butter, fried sage, fried shallots, pumpkin-seed oil and olive oil was like eating a Thanksgiving centerpiece. It was clever, but too busy by half. Other non-meat items were more successful, although I didn't know where Woodsley would've hunted up udon noodles or tofu or baby bok choy or whole daikon radish in nineteenth-century Colorado. Ditto for soba-noodle cakes with sweet soy. And how Beatrice might've laid hands on a mini-tajine for the presentation of the lamb breast over pearl couscous was anyone's guess. But by then, I no longer cared about historic inconsistencies. I had a bellyful of Czech beer from a thousand-year-old growing region and was dizzied by what I'd seen from the kitchen, from the cocktail list (sazerac, absinthe, three kinds of chartreuse, 150-year-old bourbon, ports I've never even heard of), from the floor where I was sorely tempted to tackle every passing server and eat what they were carrying to tables other than mine.
I wasn't just won over; I was in love. Trees in the dining room? Brilliant. Goofy backstory? Bring it on. Chainsaw shelf brackets behind the bar, mounted to crumbling lathe-and-plaster walls? Made perfect sense to me, because my suspension of disbelief was complete. Right now, at this moment, Beatrice & Woodsley is no fantasy. It's simply the most remarkable restaurant in the city of Denver, a point of pure and stubborn wonder.
...And life was lived with appreciation amongst the forest birdsong and the snow-capped peaks, happily ever after.