Past the historic Kettle Arcade off Larimer Square, Bistro Vendôme (which just refreshed its afternoon happy hour) and its patio command the quiet, century-old courtyard. But there's another surprise in this "Secret Garden." Milk & Honey sits belowground, in a space that once held the cantina/club Lime. A swank eatery is more appropriate in this long-lived space, despite the dozen other fancy eateries vying for attention at street level nearby. Physically set apart from those, Milk & Honey requires a trip downstairs into its dark, richly appointed space done up in copper tones, with original brickwork and hidden fixtures illuminating the dining room banquettes. Take note, Hollywood location scouts: It's a room suited for a romantic rendezvous or a tense Mob conference.
Happy hour runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with a menu that picks from the sharable dishes, small plates and drinks found at dinner and brunch. Six-dollar cocktails will be your first stop; one of those, called the Rickey Bobby, bucks the rule of pop-culture pun drinks by making a tasty addition to a dependable tipple. By adding Cherry Heering liqueur to a standard gin/lime/club soda combo and serving it in a champagne glass, M&H improves on a blend that's beloved by incompetent home bartenders everywhere.
There's no particular regional focus for the food lineup, which lumps Milk & Honey in with much of the LoDo "contemporary" dining scene, but many dishes have an irresistible description attached. One simply reads "Pecan. Lardon. Chiles. Honey." That's the description of the Brussels sprouts ($4), which aren't leafed and fried like most happy-hour versions. The named ingredients form a sort of broth where the steamed veggies frolic with a few pinches of salt. The overall result is limp, with not quite enough nuts or spice to float.
The texture and appearance of the pork ribs ($5) expertly match the platter they're served on: a dark ceramic "board" with a faux wood-grain pattern. (This place has some of the best serviceware in the business.) However, the amount of sticky balsamic glaze threatens the purity of my white-leather banquette (sorry about table 23, guys) and becomes a bit much to get through before the bones become cold. They're a heavy load for one but would be a fine appetizer for a couple or trio planning on following up with something lighter for the main course. "Light" is also the right word for the polenta ($5), which is again plated beautifully. Featuring literally deconstructed capers as confetti and a well-constructed turmeric aioli, these disks of fried corn meal are perfectly crisp, with the pleasing turmeric yellow guiding the tongue toward satisfaction.
Certain elements in a restaurant let you know that the dessert is worth sticking around for: design, service, a menu's direction. Milk & Honey has those elements, so a sweet ending was appropriate to the setting. A sweet-tea panna cotta ($7) was just one of the intriguing offerings. The cream itself is gritty, but in an addicting way, flecked as it is with needles of loose tea and orange zest. It's more complex than sugary, though a burnt-sugar-splattered orange slice and an alien-looking toffee crisp provided added sweetness. This is a triumph, and no amount of planning could have told me that dessert would realize the promise of Milk & Honey. Though the execution sometimes falters, it's worth keeping this spot in mind if it has somehow passed you by.
Don't Miss: We've praised the pleasure of indulging in the kitchen's foie gras bonbons; Gretchen Kurtz's review from last fall described it as the "decadence and joy that the restaurant stands for." That dreamy appetizer has been replaced by a more typical but still cool foie gras torchon ($16) with cocoa nibs and saba — sweet grape syrup — if you still need a shot or two of liver.