Cafe Society

Colt & Gray starts out strong but slows down in the main event

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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