The coldness is shocking, airy and gently sweet, like a kiss stolen when no one’s looking. One minute you’re spooning into a cup of celery root soup, and the next your brain is playing catch-up, trying to match what you thought was happening (soup) with the sensations shimmying in your brain (magic).
Could you have seen it coming? There was that reference to apple-maple foam on the menu. The trompe l’oeil presentation in a latte mug. The shimmer of white effervescence. But nothing could have readied you for the soup’s wondrous physicality, with a cashmere creaminess that softens the root’s edge and those cold, tiny bubbles — a play on cappuccino foam — that melt on your tongue like snowflakes. Such contrasts make you wonder: Did that really just happen?
It’s a question you’ll repeat often at Concourse Restaurant Moderne, an ambitious project from ChoLon Concepts and one of the most exciting restaurants to open in metro Denver in 2017, in the shiny new Eastbridge Town Center development in Stapleton.
The soup seems like vintage Lon Symensma, the mastermind behind ChoLon’s soup dumplings and kaya toast dipped in a frothy egg cloud; both remain icons of the city’s best cooking. But Symensma entrusted Concourse — his first non-Southeast Asian venture — to executive chef Luke Bergman, giving him free rein with menu design. Such footstep-following would be enough to rattle most veterans, but not this guy. “I spent twelve,
thirteen years working for badasses,” explains Bergman, a New York transplant whose résumé rivals any in town (or anywhere else, for that matter), with significant roles at Danny Meyer’s the Modern and Tom Colicchio’s Colicchio & Sons. Craft and seasonality were valuable takeaways from those kitchens, he notes; so was maturity, allowing Bergman to “forge [my] own style: This is me, this is my food, this is what I’m all about.”
Bergman’s resulting style is seasonal, remarkably approachable, ever playful. He excels at taking the familiar and turning it on its head — not in a forced, precious way, but with the deliberate and thoughtful cheekiness of twentieth-century artist Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades pushed the boundaries of convention. “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art,” Duchamp proclaimed, “by the mere choice of an artist.”
At Concourse, Bergman also elevates the ordinary. Celery root, of course, whose ugly, tangled roots are transformed into that marvelous soup. Apples, too — tart green ones cooked down with maple syrup, then strained, hit with gelatin and dispensed from a siphon in slippery bubbles. A whole head of cauliflower brined in basil, sage, jalapeños and honey, then flash-fried and roasted; dressed with lemon, a cascade of capers and butter patiently taken all the way to nutty brown, it makes a strong case for why sole meunière doesn’t require fish. The hulking sphere seems to land on everyone’s table: the couple holding hands across the shadowy banquette, the parents in jeans with a well-behaved youngster, the foursomes who are either new friends, or colleagues set to impress at a work dinner (it’s hard to tell which, between their laughter and the somewhat stiff navigating of so many shared plates).
You might be tempted to skip the beet salad, since you’ve seen this mix of cheese, greens and beets so many times before. But the cheese is a tangy, local pas de chèvre, the beets are bedded on thickened, extra-virgin olive oil, and the arugula metamorphoses into a quenelle of sorbet in the center of the plate, an inspired collision of temperature and texture that leaves you startled once again, and very pleased. Sorbets and ice cream are particularly strong at Concourse, entwined in both sweet and savory dishes, but worthy of their own bowl at the end of your meal, which the kitchen will gladly make happen upon request: chocolate, arugula and a tangy fromage blanc that outshines the cheesecake it normally accompanies. Otherwise, try the caramelized brioche, bright with grapefruit sorbet and citrus anglaise.
Bergman knows his audience. After all those years in New York, he spent two at ChoLon, learning what works in Denver (he points to good value, comfort and dramatic plating) and what doesn’t ($100 truffle add-ons), then using that knowledge to create such Concourse dishes as wagyu tataki. You expect a profile of ginger and soy in this Japanese classic of flash-seared, thinly sliced beef, but discover hints of smoky mayonnaise under the chilled, rosy beef. Rustic potato chips, held upright by twirls of meat, are meant as scoops to be dragged across the bowl to pick up every last sweet pickled mushroom, every strand of onion. “Eat it like nachos,” our server advised, a suggestion that reflects Concourse’s smart blend of casual and fine dining. And what’s more comfortably casual than lasagna? Here it’s more package than casserole, eschewing cheesy, tomatoey layers for butternut squash under a loose shroud of pasta, with bits of cashew brittle. Roasted turnips, sweet potatoes, celery root and more butternut tumble around the edges, cut in diamonds, wedges and halves in a rustic expression of the season.
Like the lighter share plates, entrees are also meant to be shared — but they don’t have to be, priced and portioned for one. One worthy option is the pork loin with Spanish smoked paprika topped with endive and celery root in rich piquillo-pepper fondue. Another is the diver scallops, plated like stepping stones on a long, rectangular plate, with squash purée ablaze with red curry paste, wilted kale and whole-berry cranberry sauce. In any other context, these ingredients would scream Thanksgiving; here they’re exuberantly set loose, another Duchamp readymade. “I want to be known as a cool restaurant that pushes the envelope,” says Bergman.
The space is definitely cool, with its low, wood-slat ceiling that undulates like waves and a light-filled wraparound bar. But while the menu certainly pushes the envelope, much of it could go wrong in a hundred ways. There are so many risks, so many combinations in texture, temperature and profile, such a narrow line between divine and disappointment. Only a few dishes reach the latter point, though, and even then only in small ways. The black rice with the pork was edible mud, wet and under-seasoned; a thick potato pancake — more of a rosti, which Bergman made early in his career at Aureole — was greasy and heavy. And the ambitious back of the house sometimes seems at odds with the front. The dining room is small enough that someone is always walking by your table, but servers at times have an overly casual, even abrupt way of asking for your order before they’ve introduced themselves or the menu, and often stumble when finally doing so. Our server quipped that the cauliflower had “been through the wringer,” which doesn’t sound good, even though the dish itself was terrific.
Such service snafus aside, Concourse has definitely hit its stride, with several hardworking Johnson & Wales grads backing up Bergman, getting their own crash course in badass cooking. “They didn’t really know anything about cooking with a New York chef,” he recalls. “They didn’t know how to set up a station properly; it should be just like a beautiful ballet.” Now it’s their turn to learn from a master, and our turn to go along for the startling, rapturous ride.
Concourse Restaurant Moderne
10195 East 29th Drive
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Select menu items
Celery root soup $10
Roasted cauliflower $12
Roasted beet salad $13
Wagyu tataki $15
Free-form lasagna $19
Diver scallops $28
Caramelized brioche $8
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.