On my first night at Fruition, I splashed an entire glass of water onto my date before I'd even said hello. I was late to table and had stuck out my hand to shake hers just as the steward (for lack of a better term) was trying to set a glass down at my place. The impact was slapstick-perfect -- clipping the steward's fingers like I was trying to karate-chop a pistol out of his hand -- and in the process of disarming him, I managed to baptize my dining companion, two people from another party who had the misfortune of being seated on the banquette next to her, and an innocent busboy caught in the blast radius while shlepping bread between tables.
The glass hit the table without breaking, and there was an instant of shocked silence. I slumped back in my chair, grinned and said, "Well, at least neither of us has to worry about embarrassing ourselves now. You're welcome."
On my second night at Fruition, I lit my menu on fire. It wasn't a big fire -- just the sort that results from the unfortunate proximity of heavy-bond paper to a small candle on the dinner table. And I didn't do it on purpose (though it was an extraordinarily busy night and, concerned for the whereabouts of both my server and my pork belly, I was considering smoke signals to get some attention). But it was nonetheless a shock to be comfortably perusing the entrees, sipping a nice Spanish red the color of blood-dipped rubies, quietly debating the merits of cider-brined pork shoulder over lemon sole over butter-poached salmon, and then suddenly, hey, what's that smell...?
1313 East Sixth Avenue
hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sunday
Chicken noodle soup: $7
Beet carpaccio: $9
Pork confit: $22
Steak and fries: $24
I put out the fire with my hand -- thankful, in the instant that my palm came down on the little tongues of flame, for the years of kitchen work that had given me calluses like cracked leather, but remembering about two seconds later that it'd been five years since I'd been in a kitchen in any professional capacity, and that calluses (like scars, friendships and memories) fade. Burning paper smells thick, heavy, a little bit woody, like paper's recollection of when it used to be a tree. Burning restaurant critic smells, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little like barbecue.
On my third night at Fruition, a friend and I showed up on time for our reservation to a dining room that was completely full. Our table was still occupied, for which partner and floorman Paul Attardi apologized profusely. The short bar was full. My friend and I had already begun our night drinking a few doors down, and Attardi must have seen something in our eyes that told him we were the sort who could be plied with booze. He called for two whiskeys from the bar and installed us, standing, at a small table near the door, like a strange piece of statuary.
Twenty or so minutes later, Attardi returned to show us to our recently vacated table.
"Sorry about that, gentlemen. It was an anniversary dinner," he said as he swept us around the corner and into the dining room that was once the entirety of Clair de Lune and Somethin' Else -- Sean Kelly's restaurants, their memories living on in the cramped space and tricky, immutable geography. "I couldn't just kick them out, right?"
"You could've," said my friend. "They were pretty old. I'm sure you could've taken 'em."
Attardi laughed. Uncomfortably. My friend just smiled.
"Couple more drinks," I said. "Let's switch to wine."
On my first night at Fruition, a flying squad of crisis-management professionals descended on the scene of my accidental assault with such swiftness that it seemed they'd come up right out of the floor. Almost before the last drops of water landed, there was Attardi, the steward, two servers -- all of them bearing clean side towels, fresh plates, menus, silver, napkins. Those who know will tell you that in a street fight, the difference between the guy left standing and the guy with his ass in the dirt is almost always a matter of reaction time. When faced with aggression, most people will freeze up for two or three seconds. And nine times out of ten, the guy on his feet when it's all over is the guy who didn't hesitate, who understood that those first seconds are crucial.
Working the floor at Fruition is something like a street fight -- all knees and elbows, a dangerous, close-quarters scrum. In a place so small and tightly packed, someone is always in someone else's way, and something is always going wrong or on the verge of going wrong. It's a tough room, but Attardi and his floor have learned the street brawler's lesson: a staff that responds quickly and without hesitation will likely be a staff still standing at the end of the night. It would be nicer, more polite, perhaps, to call the melee of service a dance, but it isn't. It's a battle, and it's one that this staff -- though obviously well-trained and intentioned -- does not always win.
Yes, they handled the water-glass episode with speed and cool reassurance. In less than a minute, it was like nothing had happened. Attardi smiled through it all, made jokes, worked his host's magic of getting everything back on track with the élan of a seasoned pro. But after that, there were dashes for forgotten wine lists, wrong apps brought to the table, stumbles with dessert. Had my date been an actual date, this might've been disastrous. But she wasn't; she was another restaurant critic visiting Denver on a working vacation and joining me at Fruition because she'd heard good things. And had Fruition been an established restaurant -- already on its game and comfortable in its skin -- this forgetfulness and miscommunication might've been disastrous as well. But Fruition was brand-new. On my first visit, the place had been open only about three weeks, and given the space it occupies and the kind of numbers it was moving through the two small dining rooms and one tiny kitchen, I'm frankly surprised our meal went as well as it did. Nothing was perfect, but there was the undeniable sense that, given time, Fruition would become a world-beater: a restaurant like Mizuna (former employer of both Attardi and his partner, chef Alex Seidel), like Clair and Somethin' Else, like Frasca now or Adega back in the day -- a kitchen notable for its food, of course, and its chef, but not only for those things. Someday, this place was going to affect the gestalt, alter the scene in which it exists, change the boundaries, shift a paradigm or two. This was food with power in it, not yet fully realized.
On my second night at Fruition, about two months after the February opening, it had drawn much closer to being the best it was going to be. After the fire, after the burns, after the backlog in the kitchen had been worked through and the plates began arriving, it was obvious that Seidel and his sous, Drew Inman, were closing in on something. The beet carpaccio, which had been good but not great the first time I tried it, was now a collision of soulful, green-market comfort and practical modernism, the thin slices of roasted red and gold beets thinner, the golden, fried goat-cheese fritters more golden, more crisp on the outside and meltingly sour within. In appearance, my plate could have been a food-mag centerfold. In flavor, it was a stark representation of ingredients left to their own devices, tasting of themselves and nothing else. And the chicken noodle soup with which I chased bites of beet was like a dream of chicken noodle soup -- like chicken noodle soup made on a rainy afternoon by an OCD mom on psychological leave from Le Cordon Bleu. The broth was almost a consommé, strained and clarified and de-fatted, but redolent of every ingredient involved in its construction, from the tender consolation of roasted chicken and assiduousness of handmade pasta to the precision of a master's brunoise of spring vegetables and a rain of vital salt.
I'd had the carbonara on my first night -- sharing it with the other critic -- and we'd agreed that if it tasted like anything, it was of trying way too hard. The sauce (a yellow-white béchamel, rich and almost cheesy) was too rich, too overpowering. The slabs of cured pork belly that rode nakedly on top were seared hard and too crisp at the skin, too fatty, just too much. We'd both preferred the rabbit cassoulet served in its own little Le Creuset pot. But this time, the carbonara was better. I could taste how the kitchen had tinkered with it, running it through the huge, multi-channel equalizer that exists in every great chef's head -- a little less richness, a little more sting, more strength in the handmade cavatelli to balance texture against texture.
And then the cider-brined pork shoulder arrived, done confit style, mounted over a fennel purée. It was stunning: so peasant-simple, so beautiful, so much more classical and French and controlled than I expected. This was a dish that'd required probably three days' work to prep, to make ready for the table. There were so many techniques in evidence, so many complicated procedures, and each one of them had been executed with the skill and confidence of a Lyonnaise farm wife making the same Sunday dinner for her family that she'd been making for forty years.
Comfort food. That's what Seidel and Attardi say they're serving at Fruition: the comfort of history, of knowledge and practice; the comfort of a chef who at 33 has already spent almost twenty years in kitchens and knows how to do all those things you read about in cookbooks but are afraid to try yourself. This is the comfort of expertise, of generational understanding, of little flickering candles on the table and heavy silver, of salmon poached in butter, crowned in shaved asparagus, perched atop a pile of beet spaetzle and perfect just the way it is. It is the comfort of both intelligence and restraint -- of knowing (if not always stopping) when enough is enough.
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And most amazing, this is comfort food without a single mashed potato anywhere.
By my third night at Fruition, Seidel and Inman had found their balance even as the whiskey and wine were causing my friend and I to lose ours. Now the carbonara had been brought into a meltingly ideal wedding of textures. Now the beet carpaccio was good enough that I considered stabbing my buddy over the last goat-cheese fritter. Now the oysters wrapped in paper-thin fried potato shells and mounted over spinach greens jacked with vinegar and lardons was simply indescribable. We had duck and lemon sole and risotto and, at the end of it all, a cheese plate served with a bit of whole honeycomb with French-press coffee. Everything had been executed with knife-edge precision, hard and pure and brilliant.
Which of course meant that everything would soon change. With a kitchen prone to tinkering, an ever-growing customer base that must be led back by old favorites but also kept entertained by constant, dancing-monkey innovations, no Fruition menu will ever be permanent. Already, seared halibut cheeks with zucchini squash tagliolini, olives and a white wine/caper jus have been added to the app menu; the carbonara has been gifted (arguably) with sweet English peas and cracked black pepper; that cider-brined pork has become a barbecued pork-shoulder confit with a ham hock and baked-bean ragout, celery-root slaw and cornbread toast. The chicken soup remains the same, but the butter-poached salmon now comes over warm German potato salad, the fish topped with a mustard sauce. There's also a culotte steak served with french fries fried in duck fat and topped with a veal jus -- Paris street-corner steak frites, reimagined for Sixth Avenue in Denver.
Clumsy, unlucky and drunk, I've visited Fruition. Three times, and each time it's been a slightly different restaurant -- better, smoother, more in control. Each time, I've seen and tasted what Seidel and Attardi are reaching for -- that perfect marriage of floor and kitchen, of comfort and classicism, their success measured not in trade (because the place has been busy since the minute it opened), but in the dwindling space between their reach and their goal. Each time, Fruition has come closer to being the restaurant it strives to be and will one day certainly become.