I was not inclined to like Morin. Admittedly, this was emotionally, not rationally, motivated. The last time I had attempted happy hour at the LoDo eatery, I braved crap weather only to discover that it was closed for a private party. This disappointment only fueled my nostalgia for Wazee Supper Club (the old pizza joint that was the building's previous tenant for decades), but I didn't give up. Could a nouvelle French restaurant that only new tech money can afford convert me?
Serving a happy hour that makes the restaurant's haute cuisine accessible to Denver plebes like myself would be a good start; a phone call in advance confirmed that Morin does (and also didn't have any buy-outs on the calendar any time soon), in the form of an “apéro hour,” which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. at the bar every Tuesday through Saturday.
What is apéro hour, you ask? It stems from the French l’heure de l’apéro, a food and alcohol (think aperitifs, drinks meant to stimulate the appetite) social event for wetting the pre-dinner whistle but often turning into dinner in its own right.
Given the early darkness and close proximity to solstice right now, I couldn't help but be drawn in by Morin’s dreamy lighting, high ceilings and lacy woodwork. The space reminds me of my first visit to Beatrice & Woodsley years ago, only with a little less whimsy and bit more Norman mod. An inverted, abstract rendering of Mont Blanc hangs over the oval-shaped bar like the skeleton of a warped Pequod, while a filigreed map of the Normandy coast stretches along one wall. In the mezzanine above, plush cerulean couches front exposed brick, giving off a contrasting late-night-lounge vibe.
When we took our seats at the bar at about 5:45 p.m., the place was still relatively unoccupied and remained so through the end of apéro. Despite our combined excitement for the wine list (designed by wine director Mary Allison Wright) — which my two companions anxiously pored over — I started with an apéro cocktail, in which the pear brandy was intensely fresh and seasonal. While arguing over whether we could possibly bypass anything on the menu, we became absorbed in a man behind the bar sharpening knife after oyster knife over an ever-disintegrating whetstone. The knives, he says, while inexpensive, can be hand-sharpened and are used throughout Canada by oyster shuckers who swear by their sturdiness and longevity. The man is Ben Wolven, among the country's best oyster shuckers (as proved at many national and international competitions). So, yes, we start with a dozen of the $1.50 oysters, half West Coast, half East. Then Wolven let us in on another secret: a special shipment of green oysters, whose vegetal brininess tastes as unique as their phosphorescent glow.
Since it was already turning into a night, we decided to do what we often do: order everything on the apéro menu. I expect a place like Morin to up the ante on an olive and nut plate, and this one did not disappoint. The meaty Castelvetranos, festive hazelnuts and sweet candied pecans felt just right for the holidays. Next, the $3 chickpea fritter called a panisse (and of Provençal origin) arrives as a rectangular tetris piece with three melting blobs of verjus gel along its spine. I wasn't bowled over, but the crisp exterior and soft, smooth interior were warming nonetheless.
What really knocked it out of the park was the cheese plate. At $15, it isn’t cheap, but that’s for three cheeses (a blue, a Gruyère and a ricotta-like fromage blanc) paired with honey, brined golden raisins and peanuts, and a gorgeous pain d’epi (bread baked into the shape of a wheat stalk). We became so absorbed in the various combinations of cheese and goodies that we nearly ignored the freckled lettuce leaves in the happy hour salad. In my mind, a lightly dressed, delicate lettuce salad is an underestimated joy — especially in the dead of winter — and Morin has respect for this.
Meanwhile, my friends acknowledged that the fanciest fried potatoes (something about brining, flash freezing and frying) were worth their salt, though I remained skeptical of the work-to-payoff ratio.
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Then the cheeseburger ($14) arrived, like a double-decker party bus; even split among us, it was probably overboard. Still, thinly sliced pickles added just the right amount of acid, cutting through the fat and earthiness of the burger. Finally, the last dish, foie gras mousse with nectarine jam and pistachio, arrived ($9). Usually I’m a sucker for foie gras, but I found this one to be so light and buttery that the flavor of the liver got lost among the accoutrements. Perhaps that is my, or Morin’s, failing for making it the last dish, especially after the overwhelming burger.
Pushing the dish aside, I let myself get lost in the memory of the perfectly shucked oysters, intriguing natural wines and the din of guests enjoying their eye-catching dinners. I can only imagine how regal a full meal at Morin would feel. Expensive, yes, but a worthy gift as we creep out of these dark winter months toward the sun.
Morin is located at 1600 15th Street. Call 303-623-0534 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.