Cafe Society

Hippie McHipster

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The menu at City is short and, at turns, either inspired or laughable. Tempeh bacon for breakfast? That just makes me sad. The very sight of the words "Carolina-style BBQ" tofu causes my barbecue-lovin' heart to stutter and jump in what I can only assume is an effort at panicked self-preservation — that passionate organ attempting to leap free of my body through the throat and run like hell for more rational climes.

The bulk of the board is taken up by pizzas — organic crust, vegan on request, gluten-free on request. But even the least compromised crust is nasty, with a dusty cardboard flavor, grainy texture and a dry-mouth aftertaste that's like chewing a mouthful of ground wheat or licking the bottom of one of the bulk barrels at a health-food store. There are five faux-standard pizzas, including a simple white with tomato, fresh basil and mozzarella that really lets the coarse, dry flavor of that crust shine through, and one with seitan sausage, caramelized onion, bell peppers, mushrooms, fresh sage leaves and mozzarella that, even when taken all together, is not enough to disguise the fact that seitan sausage is not, in fact, sausage at all, but a cruel joke — a mockery of sausage, a bad copy of a bad copy, flavor distorted to pointlessness. The fake-pepperoni and cheese with red-sauce pizza is the most disappointing version, though, if only because the fake pepperoni does taste vaguely of real pepperoni — of the spices used to make real pepperoni — but has the texture of baked Play-Doh: hard, crunchy where it has been burned, disturbingly soft where it hasn't.

Still, while a person with warm and cuddly feelings toward all of God's most delicious critters might be forced to live without barbecue, without bacon, without veal stock and demi, he can still enjoy a perfectly serviceable pizza. There are vegetables that can be delicious even without a steak grilled alongside, dishes that are naturally animal-friendly and require no substitution, no trickery, no flim-flam artistry in the galley to make them palatable. And here, then, is where the ode begins, because while there is much for a carnivorous young man like me to be disappointed by at City, O' City, there is more that is actually kinda good.

My Saturday-night brie plate was perfect. A beer, some nice cheese and apricot jam, a little bread — who could complain about that? The kitchen also does an admirable pesto, serves good hummus (that classic standby of vegetarian sustenance) sprinkled with strong feta, relies heavily on the fryers because second only to things made of pork, things out of the Friolator make people happy. There are onion rings, french fries (unfortunately and inexcusably done poorly most of the time), fried mushrooms, falafel.

Forgoing the fake pizzas, the specialty pies are surprisingly good — strange and original and actually taking advantage of vegetarian restrictions rather than struggling against them. La Michelle comes smeared with a thick fig paste, fresh rosemary, parmesan, mozzarella, gorgonzola, a few sweet sundried tomatoes, and capers — which I immediately picked off because the flavor was better without that last, astringent top note. The Florentine is touched with garlic-shot oil that helps pull together the flavors of spinach and tomatoes. La Chagall is probably my favorite — less a pizza than a wonderful savory pastry, the sweet apricot sauce cutting through the woody dustiness of the wheat crust and rising above the soft garlic flavor, the melted brie, the tarragon and green olives.

Early on a Sunday morning, I returned for a couple cups of strong black coffee and an excellent breakfast burrito, one of the best I've had in the specific genus of non-Mexican, yuppied-up, nouvelle, wheat-tortilla-wrapped breakfast burritos. It was fat, stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese, french fries in lieu of hash browns, beans and a good spicy-sweet and porkless green chile, and ahead of the crowd on a quiet morning, I found City, O' City itself a cozy, spare and affably sluggish place to ease into the day. With drifty jazz and gentle soul on the radio, sunlight streaming in through the windows, hot coffee and a cool space, it was a pleasant refuge. Against all odds, I relaxed here among what I consider to be the enemies of all that is good and right in the food world, and had a very nice breakfast.

So, an ode and a lament for City, O' City — triumphs and disappointments, good ideas and bad. This is a place that, in attempting once again to redefine Denver's sense of what a vegetarian restaurant should be, has redefined what a vegetarian restaurant can be. Part this, part that, a fusion of French, Mediterranean, Italian and goofy American herbivore tastes all hung on the bare bones of what WaterCourse — the old experiment — once was. City has transcended the narrow stricture of a vegetarian restaurant and become a simple hangout for the smart set, a hippie-friendly hipster bistro and restaurant-slash-pizza-joint-cum-wine-bar-and-coffeehouse that, among other things, happens to serve vegetarian food.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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