First Look: the highly anticipated Central opens on Wednesday in Highland

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Denver's new restaurants just keep getting better, bolder and more big city. For proof, look at Central Bistro and Bar, the Highland restaurant that will open to the public on Wednesday. "We spent a ton of time researching award-winning restaurant designs, and used those as inspiration for our own design. It's a really cool mash-up of rustic, nostalgic and modern," Lance Barto told me in February, when he first announced that he was tapped as the executive chef of the project, which is overseen by Central Street Capital, Inc., a local private investment management company.

And true to Barto's words, Central is smashing to look at, from the patio overlooking the skyscraping scope of the city skyline, to its interior: a barrage of conversation piece accents (the muraled cow on one wall, the stamped ceiling in the bar); custom-made retro banquettes hued aqua and vanilla; cement floors polished the color of chocolate; cut-out silhouettes; weathered tables created from boxcar flooring; an open kitchen illuminated by an overhead cherry-red neon sign that spells "HOT"; intricate metal work; and a suspended ornate tin ceiling dangling pendent lights with Edison bulbs. In a word: bewitching.

And Barto, whose menu follows suit, had his hands in just about every cookie jar, weighing in on the decor, assisting with the wine list and beverage program, the cocktails of which Barto calls "chef-driven", hiring his kitchen staff, including Gerard Strong, the former chef de cuisine at Z Cuisine and designing the kitchen, a gleaming exhibition stage that flaunts a line of formidable cooks and topnotch equipment. "It was so cool to have my hands in everything," says Barto, adding that Central is "restaurant that embraces hospitality and great seasonal food."

And the front-of-the-house-staff, he notes, have been well-versed in service. "We've had a lot of hospitality conversations with the staff, and we even asked them to read a chapter on service in the Eleven Madison Park cookbook, along with Charlie Trotter's Lessons in Service and Setting the Table, by Danny Meyers -- and we made the staff respond to service questions in essay form," he says, adding that he wants Central to offer the same kind of graciousness in hospitality that you'll find in restaurants like Fruition and Frasca, restaurants that are renowned for their vaulted service.

The menu, explains Barto, is intended to "derive pleasure from delivering pleasure," and it pays homage, as does the cocktail syllabus, to "the nostalgia of American classics intertwined with modern nuances." It's a sharp, focused board that leans toward seasonal offerings -- and there are plenty of playful elements, too, in dishes like the roasted chicken breast, which Barto pairs with heirloom grains -- or "chicken feed" -- and a scotch egg.

"This is a killer opportunity -- the opportunity of a lifetime," admits Barto. "It's everything that a chef could possibly want in a restaurant -- an amazing design, the kitchen I'd want in a perfect world, an incredible staff and the ability to work on everything from service elements to the beverage program. This is the kind of scenario that you dream about and can only hope that it one day comes true. And for me, it has."

I was fortunate enough to get a peek into Barto's culinary kingdom over the weekend, while taking in the breathtaking space, the photos of which are on the following pages.

But before you peruse the gallery, here are the details: Central opens Wednesday night for dinner, and for the next month, the hours are Wednesday through Friday, dinner only. Happy hour runs Wednesday through Sunday from 4:30 to 6 p.m. with 40 percent off all bottles of wine, $5 keg wines by the glass, $3 draft beers and $5 specialty cocktails. Barto says that he'll introduce Sunday brunch and dinner on Tuesday by the end of August, followed by the addition of brunch on Saturday and lunch Monday through Friday within six months. For more info, call 303-477-4582.

And now, an exclusive first look.

The cocktail menu, says barman Kevin Galaba, is a "savory homage to traditional and modern cocktails, with a tip of the hat to traditional bartending methods." This cocktail -- the tarragon cooler -- is concocted with Dancing Pines rum, fresh-squeezed cucumber juice, simple syrup and fresh tarragon. "It's our version of the mojito, but more savory and herbaceous," notes Galaba. My take? A perfect patio pounder. The kitchen with all the tools of the trade. The bar, which emphasizes a strong bourbon list and other American spirits Roasted chicken breast with heirloom grains, including barley, black barley, black quinoa, farrow, wild rice and sunflower seeds -- or "chicken feed" -- and a scotch egg with a yolky center. Executive chef Lance Barto. Seared scallops with corn puree, a roasted corn, pickled onion, tomato, celery, chive and micro-basil salad and a paprika gastrique. Game on! The fantastic macaroni and cheese with Dungeness crab and roasted peppers and an arugula and pickled onion salad. Custom-made '50s-style banquettes that line the length of one wall. A highlight: Central's raw vegetable salad -- fifteen varieties to be exact -- including pickled wax beans, heirloom cherry tomatoes, compressed cucumber, cucumber caviar, blanched green beans, shaved fennel, radishes, pickled carrots and a swipe of basil puree. The smoky boy cocktail, made with tequila, fresh citrus juices and guajillo chile paste. The intimate, sleek lounge at Central. Corn, Wisconsin cheese curd and house-cured bacon risotto. Aviation cocktail: Leopold's gin, Luxardo Maraschino cherries and Crème Yvette, a parma violet petal liqueur that first appeared in Connecticut in 1890 and was re-introduced to the United States in 2009 after it discontinued production in 1969. The decadent peanut butter and chocolate bar layered with peanut butter mousse and plated with house-churned toffee ice cream and cream cheese and marshmallow fluff. The dining room. The bar ceiling exposes the Central stamp, a knife and wine bottle. The back bar boasts 22 bourbons -- with more on the way. Central's menu, which will change with the seasons. The restaurant is full of whimsical elements, including one wall devoted to a cow.

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