First Look

First Look: Departure Arrives in Cherry Creek North

The Halcyon Hotel opened on Monday in Cherry Creek North, joining the Curtis downtown and the Crawford at Union Station in Sage Hospitality Group's Denver lineup. And last night, Departure Restaurant & Lounge launched dinner service on the ground floor of the Halcyon at 249 Columbine Street. Already a big hit in Portland, Oregon, thanks to culinary director Gregory Gourdet, the runner-up in season twelve of Bravo's Top Chef, Departure puts a Pan-Asian menu in a sleek, ultra-futuristic setting.

Peter Karpinski, co-founder of the restaurant division of Sage, says that menu is inspired by visits by Gourdet and other members of the team to Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea."Departure pays homage to the culture and cooking of the people we encountered," he notes. "It's not Asian fusion."

Gourdet, whose previous work includes time with chef Jean-George Vongerichten in New York City (where he befriended chef Lon Symensma, who now runs ChoLon and Cho77), will be splitting his time between Portland and Denver. He's joined in the kitchen by executive chef Khamla Vongsakoun, who will handle day-to-day operations. Vongsakoun grew up in Littleton but has cooked all over the world.
Gourdet says that Departure's cuisine stays true to the dishes he has experienced in their home countries, but includes modern elements and top-quality ingredients. So a Korean bibimbap comes in a searing-hot stone bowl, which gives the traditional koshihikari rice its signature crunchy crust. Gochujang for the dish comes from the Jookjangyeon sauce company he visited; the sauce is fermented outdoors in rows of enormous clay pots. Other elements include Wagyu beef from Colorado's 7X Ranch, house-fermented kimchi (the kitchen makes three kinds) and a sous-vide egg that gets mixed into the dish tableside.

The dinner menu (lunch will be added beginning this weekend) also includes sushi, dim sum and Japanese kushiyaki grilled over oak charcoal.

Gourdet points out that his menu focuses on healthy eating, so the majority of the dishes are gluten- and dairy-free, and the kitchen uses clean oils for cooking. Compared to Portland, Colorado's menu had some challenges, including sourcing Asian ingredients and seafood, both of which are harder to procure here, but Gourdet says he's found plenty of great local produce and meat.

Brandon Wise, beverage director for the entire Sage restaurant group, has created a drinks roster that he says complements the bold flavors of the food with equally bold ingredients and cocktails designed with current Japanese color theory in mind. "You can have a Departure wing in one hand and a cocktail in the other, and it's a whole social experience," he explains.
Wise designed the bar with efficiency and precision in mind, to capture the spirit of the top bars in Tokyo. Cocktails with names like the Tao of Tanuki, the Art of Shadowboxing and the Eightfold Path combine Asian elements — shochu, Japanese whisky, sake and cardamom, for example — with Colorado spirits and ingredients. "The by-the-glass sake program is really accessible," he adds.

The design of Departure, by Portland's Skylab Architecture, is intended to capture an aviation theme, so the futuristic bar leans toward space travel while the flight-attendant-style outfits of the staff and the swank, loungey ambience of the dining room have a more retro, mod style that conjures up the classic era of air travel. Back-lighting gives much of the space a warm glow, and burnished woods add sophistication.

Departure opens for dinner at 5 p.m. daily and a rooftop bar will soon be added to the Halcyon. Keep reading for more photos.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation