District Meats, insists Charlie Palmer, is not a steakhouse. It is, however, a meat-centric fortress of flesh, where, says Palmer, a New York-based chef and restaurateur who's unleashed an empire of restaurants across the country, "people can explore different and unusual cuts of meat -- pork, beef and lamb -- and discover all sorts of new cuts that they might be familiar with."
Palmer, who took over the space that, most recently, belonged to Big Game, and prior to that, Il Fornaio, was in Denver last week getting ready to trot out his new restaurant, which officially opens tonight, and he's betting on liberation -- that Denver foodniks will trust his instinct that off-cuts will appeal to those who have an unwavering affinity to fliet mignon.
"People kind of trust me; they tend to think that if Charlie is doing this, it's got to be good, and I'm really happy about that," says Palmer, who rose to the top of the food chain when he opened his first restaurant, Aureole, in New York in 1988. And committing to off-cuts, notes Palmer, also means that customers don't have to worry quite so much about sticker-shock. "Because we're not doing the usual cuts, we can offer great food at a great price because off-cuts aren't nearly as expensive."
And his menu, executed by Jeff Russell, who most recently worked for Palmer in Washington DC, is modestly priced, with most plates hovering around the $20 range -- except for a Kansas City strip designed for two, paired with creamed kale, that's $62, and a ten-ounce filet mignon, priced at $32, which Palmer says he felt obligated to offer -- at least for now. "Yes, we have a filet on the menu, because people like filets, but that's not what we're about, and while you can certainly order it, you may be missing out on a lot of other cuts" -- cuts like his flat iron, teres major, tri-tip and culotte, the top sirloin cap steak. And his board also pimps sweetbreads, short ribs, duck, terrines and pig trotters.
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But Palmer says his new restaurant, which will soon be followed by Wazee Wood Fire Pizza, which will open directly next door to District Meats within the next few months, isn't just about food. "Doing great food is obviously very important to us, but so is the community," stresses Palmer, who particularly wants to reach out to local chefs. "It's important that we embrace the whole community, including industry people, and one of my goals is to have chef mixers every couple of months so that we can all support one another," he says. "A lot of camaraderie evolves from community efforts, and I feel really fortunate that we we've met so many great people in a short amount of time."
Late last week, after Palmer, who employed a construction crew to completely remodel the space (it's beautiful), hosted a VIP party, at which several Denver chefs made an appearance, I was treated to a tasting (more like a feast), the photos of which follow.
Braised brisket- and veal shoulder-stuffed piquillo peppers with arugula, braised leeks and a piquillo pepper puree. Frisee plated with a crisp orb of pig trotters and a poached farm egg. Braised veal shoulder with sweetbreads and trio of leeks: creamed, poached and crisped. Teres major -- an incredibly tender cut of beef that comes from the shoulder of the cow -- with a ragout of shitake, chanterelle and cremini mushrooms. Flat iron steak paired with charred Walla Walla onions. For two: Kansas City strip topped with lardons and pearl onions and sided with creamed kale. Wood mushroom mushroom ragout and Yukon potato puree. Meyer lemon and blueberry trifle with ginger-scented ice cream. Chocolate and hazelnut Napoleon. The beautifully redone dining room at District Meats.