Come on, Jay. Let's just eat."
Laura and I had been arguing the whole way, skidding through icy streets under a gray sky bruised with clouds — a low-intensity border skirmish in the running insurgency of our marriage. We were running late in the sluggish traffic; I'd already called the restaurant once to grovel for some mercy at the host's stand and had been assured they'd wait for us, hold a table for Larry and Laura Garret for as long as it took us to get there. Provided, of course, it didn't take us too long. Provided we didn't, you know, crawl.
We crawled. We sniped at each other from fixed positions hardened over years of similar arguments, trench lines drawn in the early years of our relationship, dug deeper with each passing anniversary. Platte Street was a mess. Parking was a disaster. Finally, Laura threw the car into park and got out — meaning to walk off, I thought, until she came around to my side of the car. "You drive," she said. "Idiot." And I did, slewing the machine around on the ice and punching through a hole in the traffic, slipping it into a parking spot a block away. And then, 45 minutes late for our table, saying no kind things to each other, passing no forgiving looks, we trudged through the slush and discovered, too late, that the restaurant had a parking lot right across from the front doors.
I cursed under my breath, cursed again louder, then took Laura's hand and packed away my bitterness for our oft-repeated bridal moment — stepping over the threshold and into a new place; out of the dark and into the warmth of another experience.
At the door, someone was waiting to welcome us, to take our coats, thank us for braving the weather and move us into the careful embrace of service. A name mentioned at the stand, a book consulted, a table set and waiting. We weren't the only ones who were having trouble with the snow; the dining room was nearly empty, the staff making slow circles from the bar to the kitchen to the dining room to the door like wind-up toys with gimp wheels. With nothing to do, they'd occasionally bump into one another, form small knots of furious conversation, stare longingly out the windows and into the gathering dark, then break and make another circle. Another. There was a fire snapping in the grate that's the centerpiece of the tiny lounge, a television going behind the bar that showed everything in black and white.
At our table, a floorman appeared who was made for the business, silent and quick and with a smile he could flash out faster than any gunslinger could draw. "We're so happy you could make it this evening. Welcome to Colt & Gray."
Colt & Gray has been open just four months, but owner and exec Nelson Perkins had been working on the restaurant for years — in his head, mostly, or on paper. He brought on Brad Rowell, a buddy from C-school, to stand as chef de cuisine, and then the two of them rescued Ryan Leinonen, ex of the Kitchen in Boulder, who was cut adrift from his chef's post at Root Down while Colt & Gray was still going through buildout and menu design. Early on, concept drawings of the space were released that described a spare and cozy room, bar, fireplace and simple furnishings (looking very little like the finished version) and gave the impression of a carefully balanced mix of rustic vibes and polished finery (which was dead-on). And a preview of the menu sent local foodistas into paroxysms of drooling joy. Crispy pig's trotters. Marrow bones. Fried oysters. Country pâté and charcuterie. Somewhere inside Perkins, Rowell or Leinonen, or all three, there lived a very tiny, very accurate archer who knew precisely how to skewer Denver's food-mad straight through their starved and fatty little hearts.
I was no less wounded than anyone else. It was a board that brought to mind visions of the Spotted Pig in Manhattan, inspired a vague longing for butcher's blocks and Amex gold cards with unlimited lines of credit. I read that first menu release like it was porno, with a focused and frankly degrading level of single-minded concentration. Despite the fact that Colt & Gray (which was named after Perkins's two sons, something that the servers make a big deal out of any time anyone brings a child into the dining room) had been labeled a gastropub, I wanted to go there in a real bad way. I wanted to live like a mouse in the pantry, gorging myself nightly on pig's feet and bone marrow.
Still, I waited more than three months before I finally made it for dinner, stalling through the first-month jitters, a couple of menu changes. And now, tucked into a back corner, we ordered drinks — eschewing the carefully assembled wine list for pints and glasses of equally well-chosen beers and Colorado's own Stranahan's whiskey. We studied the actual menu, a single page crammed with dishes in several categories. There were bar snacks and small plates, appetizers, soups and salads, charcuterie, cheeses, mains, sides and items from the grill. Service descended in carefully calculated arcs, always softly, always with a smile, and we ordered in flights, asking for a bowl of the house's tiny blue-cheese-dusted gougères, puffy and hot from the fryer; for a long, narrow plate of sawed bones, packed with marrow and laid with the implements for extracting it, along with grilled bread and a small mound of caramelized onions that added a needed note of acid to counter the overwhelming fattiness and luxurious kick of the perfectly roasted marrow. The big wooden board of charcuterie disdained the common spread of pure Italian cured meats and French cheeses for some welcome Americana and international flavors: country ham from Benton's and goat cheese from Boulder, Serrano ham from Spain, spicy salametto and a house-made, rustic pâté that tasted uniquely of the kitchen from which it had come. We also had gnocchi — thick, dense and pan-seared like a bowl of fried thumbs — served with pine nuts and leaves of fried sage, and bacon-cashew caramel corn, an amusing diversion from the menu's rather serious tone.
It was, to this point, a virtually perfect menu — one that combined the best flavors, impulses and presentations of the big cuisines (French and Italian, American and Mediterranean) and brought them together into a borderless spread that seemed completely organic and natural in the way that only the best menus can, giving you the feeling that, somewhere back in the kitchen, there was just one well-traveled cook, making dinner for friends and offering them nothing but his favorites, the best of his talents and his pantry.
Unfortunately, it also wasn't the entire menu.
Any time a restaurant opens for business, menu design quickly passes from the intellectual to the practical. In almost any traditional (read: high-end, non-ethnic) restaurant, the main courses are a balancing act. A chicken, a fish (or two), a steak (of course), some pork (almost always a chop or loin), a pasta. Maybe duck, perhaps a vegetarian selection. Almost inevitably, the seven or ten entree slots are divided between the primary proteins, because doing anything else has a tendency to freak out the 90 percent of customers who are merely coming in for dinner and not to have their minds blown by some bizarre arrangement of dishes that might break the stranglehold of the chicken/beef/pork/duck/two fish hierarchy. Once the proteins have been determined, the remaining architecture of the plates becomes a narrowing funnel of options. Steaks need sauce, need a heavy starch and some soothing veg. Pork likes fruit. Chicken demands rusticity. In almost any working kitchen — and particularly in one that expects to, someday, make a little money — the apps are where the cooks and chef can stretch a little, take a few chances, and the mains are where conservatism must rule. It's a chef's trick to mask this necessity with either simple brilliance or a carefully calculated show of unusual juxtapositions; to either cook so well that his pork with sour-cherry reduction or steak with bearnaise sauce, whipped potatoes and creamed spinach is the hands-down best ever made, or to instead serve steak with sour-cherry reduction and pork with creamed spinach and be prepared to suffer the consequences.
Colt & Gray takes a middle course with its entrees, and doesn't get far. The salmon salad, though well-prepared, was a bland mix of bitter greens, seared fish, flavorless tomatoes and good green beans topped with a vinaigrette that tasted like something off the shelf from King Soopers. The double-cut pork chops were massive — easily an inch thick — and cooked a perfect mid-rare, but came with a tasteless and over-salted spaetzle threaded with sautéed greens and an unusual sauce that used figs in a way that figs ought never to be used (read: anywhere near a pork chop). And the ravioli? They were just...ravioli, existing without adjectives, stuffed with fog, in a sauce of air and Seconal.
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We spent three hours at dinner, eating our way through the menu. The room eventually filled with tables even later than we'd been. The servers (a large number of them, more than is maybe wise in so tightly packed a place) were unfailingly polite and cheerful, as comforting as the surroundings and as warm as the fire in the hearth even when the kitchen became swamped and orders coming to the floor began to lag. And when we were done, we knew we'd had a good meal, but not a great one.
There is a difference between subtlety and restraint. Subtlety is simplicity for simplicity's sake, a deliberate shrinking of flavor and affect for the point of making a dish seem restrained. Restraint is just as deliberate, but more balanced — a willful use of strong flavors and precise control to craft the entire shape of a dish, from start to finish, presentation to final taste; a way to make it seem that a chef, with all his manifold powers, has just barely contained the excellence of his ingredients to keep them from springing clear off the plate. Colt & Gray's mains are subtle, but not restrained. And in the difference between the two is the difference between a good restaurant and a great one.
I went back and sat at the bar, eating gougères and pinches of prosciutto and mussels in a broth spiked with saffron while the staff stood around tasting new beers off the tap and discussing menu pairings. And then returned again on another cold night, polishing off seven dishes with a friend while we watched Ghostbusters II in black and white on the TV behind the bar, the monotones and rich blacks making this disaster of a movie look like something out of the late canon of Hitchcock even when it was just Egon and Winston dragging themselves out of a sewer covered in goo. The bartenders serve their whiskey with a single large ice cube — a block of ice that (as it was explained to me) presents less of a surface area for melting so that it can chill the whiskey without watering it down too quickly — and that was interesting, but not as interesting as the crispy pork trotters, picked clean of bones and cartilage and made into patties, breaded and fried and served with a smear of sharp, whole-grain mustard. The single-bite wings were like bar food elevated to fine-dining stature, each boneless bite glazed with a spicy sauce and speared on a peg of bamboo. And the oysters (breaded, again, and deep-fried, again), served on the half-shell, were another smart twist of a staple into something new and original by a chef willing to take a few chances at the top of his board.
But there was nothing from the grill, nothing among the mains, nearly as memorable as anything offered among the snacks and small plates and handed across the bar. It is a black-and-white difference — proof, on the one hand, that this is a kitchen capable of daring moves and balancing complicated flavors, of making the most out of a pig's foot or calf's femur. But on the other hand, it's also proof that the kitchen can improve, that it needs to take more risks, not less, if it is to cross the boundary between being just another amusement and a true classic.