The stretch of Wazee Street between 16th and 17th streets downtown seemed to be crying out for a new restaurant — a counterpoint to the aging McCormick's Fish House, something a little more glamorous than the other casual eateries on the same stretch. And a cavernous office space in the building at 1550 17th seemed to cry out for a destiny more glorious than a bank lobby or cubicle farm. Enter Avelina, which opened last night, courtesy of the Urban Food Group out of North Carolina. Perhaps the most exciting news, though, is that the opening marks the return of chef John Broening and pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom to the same professional kitchen for the first time in years.
Urban Food Group — headed by Kevin and Stacey Jennings — operates five restaurants in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. Avelina is their first venture outside North Carolina, so they're relying on local talent to help the new concept fit into the Denver dining scene. Along with Broening and Lozada-Hissom, who signed on this past spring, the front of the house will be managed by Karen Pence, who has run restaurants both here in Denver and for Urban Food Group back east. Broening notes that he and Pence are both partners in the new restaurant, too.
The chef explains that the menu, which was initially slated to skew heavily Italian, will feature New American cuisine influenced by his experience cooking Italian, French and other Mediterranean fare both here and in Europe. Central to the culinary theme will be a wood-burning oven and local produce. Broening points out that Avelina is only a block or two from the Union Station Farmers' Market (Denver's only growers-only market), so he's working with several of the farms that sell there, including Black Cat Farm and Oxford Gardens.
So right now you'll find a distinctly Italian agnolotti with sage and brown butter — stuffed with seasonal sweet corn, naturally — on the menu, along with a couple of pizzas and other pasta plates. A house charcuterie program adds preserved meats from a number of regions, from English brawn (head cheese) to French duck-liver mousse. And flavors range further afield on the shared-plates menu, with striped-bass sashimi, a Thai lamb salad and wood-roasted eggplant served with tahini and za'atar flatbread. Opening in late summer means that the initial menu feels almost like a pop-up restaurant, Broening explains, since he'll be transitioning to a fall menu after three weeks or so.
The husband-and-wife duo of Broening and Lozada-Hissom was praised at Spuntino (now owned by former employees Cindhura Reddy and Elliot Strathmann), where the desserts were as big a draw as the entrees. Avelina's opening dessert menu features new creations like a coconut panna cotta with passion-fruit cremeux and a chocolate-hazelnut crunch cake with salted caramel gelato, as well as classics like citrus olive-oil cake, here presented with fennel praline, kumquats and pistachio gelato.
Sommelier Aubrey Baker is handling beverage duties; he says the majority of wines have been selected specifically to pair with Broening's menu. He also has a few surprises on tap, with beers selected for the same reason — so you'll find local and national labels, as well as a rare Le Brun Brut Cidres from Brittany, France.
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Avelina is open for dinner seven nights a week and will soon add lunch and brunch. Keep reading for more photos.