Boulder Blahs

There are a few things that I like about Boulder and many that I don't. For example, it bothers me that Boulder exists where it does, snugged up tight against the base of the Flatirons, frantically humping the leg of a mountain range that would be that much more splendid if the whole town just buggered off to the plains. But then, I like the view of Boulder as you come up over the big hill on I-36 and see the town all laid out with its predominantly low-slung buildings and tidy landscaping. From a distance, it looks so idyllic -- like a fantasy postcard painted by a landscape artist dosed to the gills on NyQuil and Prozac.

The town is filled with pretty girls, and that's good. It's also filled with pretty boys, all carrying Rollerblades or freshly returned from a thirty-mile hike and a spa visit, and that's not so good. Makes the pretty girls that much less likely to shoot a smile or pass the time of day with a scowling, scrofulous, chain-smoking, perpetual ex-New Yorker with a fatal allergy to any outdoor activity that doesn't involve a barbecue and a wet bar.

Inexplicably, I love the Pearl Street Mall. Probably because of the unrestrained, Aquarian, all-world utopian quality of it, the combination of bustling commerce and grimy street theater, the trust-fund proto-punks grubbing change to gas up the Escalade and the guy out front of Juanita's hustling the gawkers who stop to watch his one trick -- getting his cat to ride on his dog's back while two white mice sit comfortably atop the cat. All things considered, the stunt's a pretty good dodge and very Boulder in its allegorical subtext. But right next door, in the space that used to hold Triana, there's a new restaurant that's got the stupid-pet-trick guy beat hands-down in terms of gimmicks.


The Kitchen

1039 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-544-5973. Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday

Fish stew: $22
Braised pork: $20
Prosciutto and figs: $8
Crab salad: $8
$33 prix fixe every night (Dishes � and prices � change daily)

The Kitchen opened in March under the command of Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson. Musk, a former Internet gazillionaire who made his mint with online restaurant guides and then sold out early, adopted a second career as a chef trained by some of the masters of the trade (André Soltner and Jacques Torres are high on his curriculum vitae) and hit Boulder in 2002. Matheson's a Brit from the Leith school who can claim the dubious honor of having cooked under Jamie Oliver at London's River Cafe before coming to Boulder and working as an exec chef at Trios, Triana and Mateo. And they've done their level best to out-Boulder Boulder with their restaurant's earth-friendly foodie consciousness and think globally/eat locally business practices.

For starters, the Kitchen's kitchen is 100 percent wind-powered -- first time I've ever seen that. Its used cooking oil is recycled as biodiesel fuel for that handful of cars whose owners find some atypical joy in driving a vehicle with a top speed of 40 mph that smells like a plate of french fries even standing still. The menu, which changes daily to one degree or another, strives to be all organic, all natural and all local. It fails in this, of course, because lacking the necessary supply chain, no restaurant's menu can be all three most of the time -- or even any one all of the time. Still, the Kitchen's attempt is valiant. And it also tries to be very low-key about its do-goodery. The wind power, the biodiesel, the close-to-the-land organic purchasing -- all this is writ small, presented in fine print like an afterthought, as if to say, "Right, we're a restaurant, but we're a better kind of restaurant than you expected. Just keep it under your hat, okay?"

Which I would have been happy to do, until I noticed that it's writ small all over the place -- on the menu, the website, the front door and windows. It's presented subtly, but in a way you can't help but notice -- a neat bit of sleight-of-hand. The exception to this modest presentation is a big chalkboard on the wall that boldly pronounces which local farmers, which hometown producers, which good-guy purveyors of everything from hanger steaks to microgreens have provided the raw materials for the day's repast. Colorado Natural Meats, Haystack Mountain, Niman Ranch, Izze Beverages, John's Farm ice cream -- the usual suspects, proudly credited for their artisan products. It's all very nice, very it's-a-small-world-after-all, so, long before I get a chance to order, I already know everything there is to know about the cow, fish or pig I'll be eating save its name and favorite color. This makes me wonder how long it'll be before I sit down in a restaurant and am formally introduced to my main course. Hello, Mr. Sheehan. This is Bessie the veal calf, and she'll be your entree this evening...

Sitting right there in the middle of the Pearl Street Mall, the Kitchen looks as good as its intentions -- an understated yet perfect representation of how a bistro should appear. It's done in white and gray and silver, with exposed brick and the sharp, clean, uncluttered lines of a racing sailboat or an unoccupied luxury apartment. The tables are well-spaced, the ceilings high, the chairs -- silver-gray and injection-molded out of some weird plasticky aluminum stuff like a high-end lawn-furniture set from the Sharper Image catalogue -- precisely as uncomfortable as they look, and the chandeliers that light the dining room are aggressively tacky, the sort of thing you'd find at the estate sale of a former Hollywood starlet who's long forgotten and far gone into doting eccentricity. The moment you sit down, you recognize this place -- and it has nothing to do with having eaten meals in similar spots or having passed by dozens more. No, it's a primordial thing, speaking to some sense of elemental recognition buried deep within us -- tickling a few long-dormant neurons or dangly bits of gene stuff, and reminding us that when our cavemen ancestors built the first bistro out on the veldt, set down the first wobbly cafe tables and served the first mammoth steak tartare, this is the kind of eatery they were thinking of growing into someday. You know, when the real estate market improved and the tourist business really picked up.

But absent the touchy-feely food politics and trendy appearance, at heart the Kitchen is just another bistro, another neighborhood place that isn't really in it entirely for the neighborhood, another classy-casual, fancy-smart boîte du jour presenting a board of reconsidered classics that were tired the moment they were conceived.

Sure, the food looks pretty. It looks rustic when it ought to, arts modernes when it should. The peekytoe crab salad with avocado came dressed with a simple slice of lime, the plate lined with cut rounds of grilled baguette. The fig and prosciutto plate was a mess -- but a careful mess -- of beautiful, pale pink prosciutto cut paper-thin and fatty, black Mission figs quartered and scattered, a lace of fine olive oil, and a tiny jungle of organic (read: spotty) bitter greens mounded up along the back of the plain white plate. A bowl of fish stew looked ready for a Gourmet cover shot, with its bias-cut spears of grill-marked crostini crossed just so.

Unfortunately, that peekytoe salad had abused its star ingredient by burying the shredded crab in a heavy remoulade that pointlessly disguised every flavor but the smeary slickness of fresh avocado, so that spreading it on the toasted baguette was like eating an open-faced mayonnaise sandwich. While the prosciutto was excellent -- cut properly, generously portioned, well-sourced and touched only with that drizzle of oil -- the Mission figs were past their prime, lovely to look at but too soft, too mushy and without that seedy crunch and heavy-sweet clover-honey flavor that makes them, at their best, a prize of surpassing delicacy. And the fish stew? I blame my fawning server, a good guy who gave excellent, thoughtful service, answered every question put to him -- correctly, no less -- and generally did his job with speed and grace. But he was nuts for this stew, mentioned it maybe five times while I was trying to decide what to have, really pushed the stew and probably would have dumped some into a doggie bag and tucked it in my back pocket when I wasn't looking if I didn't order it. So I did, and that was a mistake.

Imagine cold, chunky tomato soup slorked out of the can and into a sauté pan. Imagine the big pieces of tomato solids, the pasty-sweet smell. Now add to that a handful of seafoods (calamari rings, little bay scallops, irregularly sized chunks of flaky white fish), some cayenne pepper, a dollop of last night's leftover pizza sauce, an unbalanced mix of whatever you have in the spice rack. Now heat everything together (guaranteeing that the calamari is going to be overdone and chewy, the scallops perfect, and the fish somewhere in between, depending on the size of the pieces), garnish and serve lukewarm. At the first spoonful, the cold tomato soup image leapt immediately to mind. The rest of the grim comparison came later.

Before knowing anything about the combined pedigrees of Musk and Matheson, I would have said the Kitchen was a brilliant space struggling through course after course of amateurish mistakes. I would've said that there was not much fun in this food, not a lot of depth and that it all seemed overwhelmingly flat. Now that I do know who these guys are, my opinion isn't much changed -- but I'm a lot more puzzled as to why the place isn't any better. The Kitchen's crew is trying, but displays far more heart than talent. The tomato broth was a good example of where this galley goes wrong. It was flavorful, but just not flavored well. This flaw seemed to ameliorate the longer the soup sat -- with time, the spikes and barbs of competing spices mellowed, taking on some of the oiliness of the fish and smoothing over into something decent -- but by then, it didn't much matter. I'd rather have a dish that's perfect at the first taste, then goes to crap, than one that takes ten minutes to find its legs. All the broth needed was a couple more minutes on the heat. All the fish needed was someone who understood the tricky chemistry of slow-cooking seafood. But that someone didn't appear to be in the Kitchen.

If that someone were there, I wouldn't have gotten an asparagus risotto whose most qualifying characteristic was that it was green. The charcuterie and cheese plates would have been less perfunctory. And that someone certainly would have realized that the braised pork with fennel in a sweet bucolic reduction of apples and fried potatoes, topped with a creamed parsley sauce and dressed with candied figs and cherries, would have worked better had there been snow flying outside instead of an air temperature locked solid at 78 degrees. But what the hell: Christmas in July.

The Kitchen's packaging is undeniably wonderful. The space looks perfect, and the smell coming from the open kitchen is a great mishmash of a dozen ethnic stinks that couldn't possibly come from any galley other than one doing Kumomoto oysters with ginger vinaigrette here, simple tarragon chicken there, and who knows, maybe a holiday goose as well. But what's inside all the packaging isn't worth the effort. Not yet. While none of the food creating those smells is terrible, none of it is terribly inspired, either.

Still, I'll be back in the Kitchen one day soon. This place has too much potential, too much ambition, not to give it another try. But the next time I come, I'm bringing a couple extra bucks for the guy with the cat-and-dog act next door.

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