It's been nearly two years since Michael Shiell signed the lease on the subterranean Larimer Square space that previously held Lime Mexican Cantina (and Cafe Promenade decades before that), but now Shiell is finally ready to unveil Milk & Honey Bar-Kitchen. The chef/owner will host a series of soft opens beginning this weekend and will hold the restaurant's grand opening party next Thursday, June 11, at 6 p.m. (although the restaurant will be closed on Monday).
The 160-seat space will feature a lively, modern American menu laced with Italian and French influences from Shiell and chef de cuisine Lance Barto, most recently of Brazen. Also on board is sous chef Joey Sabatini, who previously worked for restaurateur Frank Bonanno. The menu is divided into charcuterie, bites, small plates, big plates and "extra stuff," and also has a short list of shellfish priced per clam or oyster. Modernist kitchen techniques like foams, gels and liquid-nitrogen finishes make appearances, but they're not the focus. Instead, individual ingredients — a cube of beetroot, a tangle of pea tendrils, a rectangle of halibut perched on a bed of plump mussels and fava beans — are highlighted on the plate, accented with complementary touches: a shower of grated Italian cheese, a vivid green pistou or a herb-infused oil.
Prices range from $7 for a small plate of spaghetti e bottarga (cured fish roe) up to $38 for an order of black soy beef filet. And unlike at many steakhouses, the entrees here aren't a la carte — that filet comes with Spanish onion, green beans and a Bordelaise sauce. Of course, sides are available (that's the "extra stuff" — at $6 each), including Yukon Gold potato puree, king trumpet mushrooms with a soft egg and rosemary, and shishito peppers with bonito, soy and ginger.
A strong and creative bar program backs the menu, beginning with an extensive wine list picked by Shiell, who admits that he may have gotten carried away. Rhones and Burgundies are the stars, but there's plenty to choose from with well over 100 labels, including a dozen by the glass.
The cocktail program is built around tonics — made in-house — and elixirs, with classic cocktails also available. Shiell notes that many of the ingredients in the mixes have medicinal origins from the early days of tonics and sodas in the 1800s and that others are considered modern superfoods. Rather than relying on bottled bitters, the bar creates flavors with muddled whole ingredients — ruhbarb, goji berries, goose berries and juniper, to name a few — and essential oils. Noticeably absent are draft beers — even in these beer-crazed environs — but there's a baker's dozen of bottled brews ranging from standard light lagers to Trappistes Rochefort to the Quebecois Fin du Monde from Unibroue, with a handful of Colorado-made favorites, too.
A thirty-seat sunken patio forms the entrance to Milk & Honey, with a series of folding glass doors opening onto the host station and dining room (the actual entrance is an inconspicuous side door on the patio that's used in colder weather). The bar area will be open seating (no reservation required) and will offer the full menu for guests who prefer to sit there. There's also a private tasting room with eight seats that features a wall of wine shelves and a window with a view into the kitchen.
Shiell comes from a restaurant family that owns the famous Rao's Italian eatery in New York City. After cutting his teeth in New York's fine dining kitchens, he came to Colorado and worked as a sous chef at Beano's Cabin in Avon and as executive chef at Chanteclair before opening his own restaurant, Michael's of Cherry Creek, in 1994. He left Colorado in 2000 to return to his family's restaurants in New York before working as a restaurant consultant based out of Huntington Beach, California. "The freedom and money were great, but it felt hollow," Shiell says of the consulting gig.
He returned to Colorado with the intention of opening a restaurant where he could be back in the kitchen and found the ideal spot in Larimer Square. He worked with Larimer Associates to overhaul the subterranean space, where almost everything had to be gutted and replaced in a process that was slowed by strict regulations due to the building's historical status and noise considerations. Despite those setbacks, Shiell knew it was the right place for Milk & Honey. "The traffic on Larimer Square, the notoriety of Larimer Square — it just felt natural," he explains.
Denver's restaurant scene has changed drastically since he last cooked in Colorado. "The quality of ingredients, you can get whatever you want," Shiell notes. "And the culinary knowledge of the staff is light years ahead of where it was."
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Of his team, Shiell says, "We just clicked — Lance and I just started to build a dialogue...and when Joey came in, he was just a bubbly personality." The relationship between Shiell and Barto is collaborative: "I have final say obviously, but he learns something, I learn something," Shiell says.
"It's great having a chef for an owner," says Barto. "But I have few excuses," he adds with a laugh. "Finesse and femininity" are what he and Shiell are building into the menu — "finesse from moment to moment in the way we treat ingredients."
After next Thursday's grand opening, Milk & Honey will be open for dinner daily from 4 p.m.; the plan is to soon add lunch and brunch hours.