Cafe Society

In Vino Veritas

The wine room at Adega Restaurant + Wine Bar is made of glass and green light. It's a powerful presence, beautiful in the way that cubist art can be, or a '50s-era Hugo Gernsback-inspired Greyhound bus station. There's an undeniably weird majesty in the geometric arrangement of its towering shelves, all diamonds and triangles carefully stacked with thousands of bottles resting on their sides, corks out, arranged by bin number, indexed in a wine list as heavy as a Byzantine codex.

The room stands at the junction of form and function -- at the same time lovely, intimidating, strange, temperature- and humidity-controlled, protected from vibration, stark as a laboratory clean room -- and it makes a statement. It says that wine matters. Wine matters so much that it deserves a showroom, a proscenium stage where it can sit and be seen. Compared to this, those dusty, cobwebbed, subterranean wine cellars are places where grapes go to be punished. If God has a wine cellar, it must look like Adega's.

But God doesn't have to pay the bills, and there's something about Adega that makes me want to line up the restaurant's owners in a row and slap them all, Three Stooges-style, for sticking this behemoth in the middle of the dining room, where it occupies valuable real estate that could easily hold another half-dozen four tops. With people booking prime seatings more than a month in advance at Adega -- and rents in LoDo now running somewhere around $20 to $30 per square foot per year -- what were they thinking?

They were thinking that Denver needed a new darling, a true "event restaurant" that would bring a little West Coast glam and New York chic to the pulsing Saturday-night heart of the Mile High City. They were thinking that Denver was ready for something special, and when they opened Adega's doors at the end of May, it looked like they were right. Crowds flocked to see what a million bucks -- the amount spent breathing new life into the former home of Señorita's Cantina and Sostanza -- can buy these days. The press descended, cooing over the wine room and the bathrooms with their slanted sinks and walls of flowers. Even national magazines -- real heavy-hitters like Gourmet, Esquire and Bon Appétit -- gave Denver some ink, praising Adega and its artisan American cuisine.

But when I first visited Adega this summer, I doubted the place would last. Because I didn't have reservations, I was seated at the bar, even though the dining room was half-empty. That was understandable, because the room may have been fully committed for a later seating -- but what made no sense was my being juggled between four or five different servers, having to ask twice for a menu and then waiting thirty minutes between courses for food that sounded much prettier on the page than it looked on the plate. The confit was dry; the truffled potatoes came to the table bitter with scorched oil. Worse, no one looked happy. Not the staff, not the barman, not the captains -- nobody. Certainly not the customers, who seemed skittish going in and grumpy coming out.

It seemed as though LoDo wasn't ready for a place where all the servers wore jackets and ties. It felt like all Adega would ever be was an L.A.-trendy watering hole for the über-hip and rich, socially crippled fad-watchers more concerned with looking good posing next to the bar than actually eating or drinking anything important.

But Adega hung on. In the months that followed, I kept my eye on the place, waiting for it to either collapse under the weight of its own pretension or turn some kind of corner. Most new restaurants take about three months to get their legs under them. For Adega, I waited four, then five, then six. And after finally returning two weeks ago, I can say I'm glad I waited. The meal was worth the wait -- every single day of it.

If a thing's worth doing, it's worth overdoing -- that's the gestalt driving Adega. White tablecloths and a change of settings and silver with every single course. Bread served not in a basket plunked on your table (how pedestrian...), but by a guy whose only job is to tramp around the dining room with a platter covered in a selection of breads, serving your choice one piece at a time. And, of course, a plain pat of foil-wrapped butter simply won't do at Adega, nor even a fancy one sculpted to look like a seashell. Instead, there's a tiny pyramid of whipped Plugrá butter set atop a chilled cube of the same, decorated with a careful stripe of orange Hawaiian Red salt, presented on its own plate with its own knife that's replaced after every use.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan