Cafe Society

Coohills is a safe standby for those special-ish occasions

In the final hours before the Christmas-gift exchange, while family members made one last trip to the liquor store and put the finishing bows on their packages, I was at my computer, listlessly clicking through Open Table. I'd done most of my shopping but still had one pair left to buy for, and I didn't want to give them a knickknack, a generic cookbook or a gift card. I wanted to take them out to dinner.

But where? A neighborhood restaurant seemed a little too casual for a gift; this pair had been to most of my special-occasion standbys, and since the plan was for dinner after work one evening, I knew they wouldn't want to go anywhere too formal. I was looking for a place that was affordable, but with an upscale feel. Not quite fine dining — not that there's much of that in Denver these days — but close enough to feel special.

And then it hit me: Coohills.

A few weeks later, it was time to open that present. We met early, valet-parking on Wynkoop and walking along Cherry Creek to Coohills, where we planned to sip a cocktail in the bar while we waited. As it turned out, though, our table was already open, so the hostess told us to hang our coats on the rack near the door and then led us into the main dining room, an opulent, high-ceilinged space paneled in dark wood with big windows along the creek. The room was glowing with good cheer, and nearly full. We settled into one of the corner booths along the back wall and started perusing the menu.

Our server soon stopped by and wasted no time taking our order. Not long after, more servers arrived and delivered our appetizers in graceful, lockstep choreography. They arrived a little too soon, actually; my wine pairing — a glass of Prosecco — had yet to make an appearance. Still, we didn't wait to dig into the housemade pâté plate, smearing mousse-like chicken liver and loading chunky, peppery country pâté on hunks of grilled bread, then chasing that meaty goodness with crisp, sour cornichons. After we'd demolished that dish, we started in on the confit of Brussels sprouts and duck. The sprouts had been cooked in duck fat until soft and slick, then piled alongside a succulent leg of the bird; a finishing hit of sherry vinegar kept the heavy combination from seeming too oppressive. The melted flatbread was another rich starter: With warm Taleggio and sweet ricotta sandwiched between two sheets of focaccia, it was almost an entree-sized sandwich.

Photos: In the kitchen at Coohills

While the kitchen gave us a few minutes to rest before sending out the actual entrees, we caught another clumsy service flub: A back waiter poured flat water on top of the sparkling in our glasses, despite having taken the order in the first place. The rest of dinner arrived as we were still sorting that out. My braised beef short ribs were fork-tender, practically melting into the hearty turnip purée served underneath; a deeply savory pan juice tinged with garlic and deepened by red wine tied the dish together. The diver scallops were even better: The fat, perfectly cooked mollusks had been enhanced with crispy bits of salty prosciutto, tart capers and a sweet-potato purée that gave an earthiness to the sweet seafood. But the bone-in pork ribeye had been overcooked until it resembled shoe leather. Which was too bad, because it had been paired with a cinnamon-dusted baked apple, which could have made for a magical combination.

The kitchen redeemed itself with our shared dessert: a vanilla bean-infused, golden raisin-studded bread pudding doused in caramel that was good to the very last, soul-warming drop, which I let dissipate slowly on my tongue. Aside from the pork chop, I'd been impressed by our meal's execution: The dishes were delicious, if not particularly memorable. And while the beverage missteps were definitely memorable — and a sign that the level of service has not yet risen to the level of the kitchen — Coohills had proven a good choice for a post-holiday meal.

Long before Tom and Diane Coohill opened this spot in early November, Tom ran much-lauded, fine-dining French restaurants in Atlanta — opened when that city's culinary scene resembled what's going on in Denver right now, Diane says. A few years ago, the couple moved to Colorado while Tom was working on the corporate side with a restaurant chain. But soon he decided that he wanted his own kitchen again, and the Coohills began looking for options in LoDo, eventually picking up this new ground-floor space.

Given both the lousy economy and Denver's more casual lifestyle, Tom decided not to attempt fine dining again, choosing instead to go for a broader customer base. "We rely more on the volume and keeping the bar busy," Diane told me when I spoke with her over the phone soon after Coohills opened. They were working hard to become a stop for people heading to the Pepsi Center, she explained, as well as a go-to spot for neighbors and nearby businesses. (That strategy definitely worked; almost every time I've been to Coohills, I've seen groups of people networking over cocktails at some arranged social hour.) She also noted that they'd designed the space to attract many different income levels. More casual diners will feel most comfortable just over the threshold, where the semi-open kitchen is flanked by a chef's counter and fronted by a community table under a chandelier made from an old vine. Guests after a more formal dining experience can go into the main dining room — and a glass partition off that space creates a bright, private dining area ideal for corporate events. And finally, drinkers, snackers and slouchers can head left into the bar, a separate enclave with floor-to-high-ceiling windows, golden lighting, a massive U-shaped counter, and booths along the edges. All in all, it's a smart setup, and one designed for maximum appeal in uncertain times.

The bar was the site of my first meal at Coohills, when I joined friends for a snack and a drink on a lazy Sunday evening. Tended to by a funny and astute bartender eager for our opinions of his whimsical cocktails, we focused on his creations rather than any offerings on the domestic-focused wine list and built a meal out of a few shared plates, which were delivered unceremoniously whenever the kitchen sent them out.

The octopus had been perfectly grilled until it was slightly charred in some places but absolutely tender. Plated with leeks, a shot of acidic Pernod and plenty of garlic butter, it was a great dish. I also liked the salad we'd ordered, which put a crispy, parmesan-crusted egg on top of bitter escarole embedded with bits of crunchy pancetta and drizzled with a Dijon vinaigrette. But the surprise winner was a vegan dish, eggless gnocchi. The soft potato dumplings had been lightly browned in a sauté pan along with bits of carrot, winter squash, broccoli rabe and slices of Brussels sprouts; everything had the sheen of a good, zippy olive oil. Our meal was so good, the setting so comfortable, I could have lingered at Coohills all night long.

The bar will keep keep me coming back to Coohills, where I can sip a new cocktail or try out an appetizer in casual comfort. But the restaurant has also made my list of safe standbys for special-ish occasions, as a place where I can take an out-of-town guest, a business contact or a pair of friends and be guaranteed a nice time. If we're not particularly fussy about our beverages.

Photos: In the kitchen at Coohills

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk