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.

Complicated? Yes. Overdone? Yes. But done -- and overdone -- well. Somehow, Adega manages to combine that million-dollar decor, obsessive attention to detail and quasi-French service without getting all stuffy about it and without once slipping over the line into formality, ostentation or pompousness. The floor staff is friendly and welcoming, educated not just about the menu, but about the temper and strengths of the kitchen and the depths of the wine list. When a busboy accidentally dropped a fork on his way back to the kitchen, I watched two servers and a captain silently materialize and catch it on the first bounce; when my wife dripped a dot of wine sauce on her new white blouse, someone was at the table immediately with a tumbler of club soda and a lemon wedge, handling things with honest care and discretion. We didn't have to ask; we didn't have to flag anyone down.

Adega's ownership group includes Ken Frederickson, a master sommelier who created the 800-bottle-deep wine list; he also made an excellent choice when he tapped Bryan Moscatello to run Adega's kitchen. Moscatello's a young chef -- younger than many of Adega's wines -- who submerged himself in the culinary culture of la cuisine de la maitre, the classic cooking style of the old-world French chefs, in houses as diverse as The Bristol in Panama City, Bistro Toujours in Park City and the Little Nell in Aspen, where he studied at the shoulder of George Mahaffey. Now in his mid-thirties, he brings to Adega's table both the solid tradition of a French classicist and the spirit of fresh, modern cuisine. He is well-schooled, grounded and gutsy in his work, putting together plates that range from a simple, rough salad of baby lettuces, crisp herbed wafers and thin-sliced artichoke hearts, to a more fussy, beaux artes presentation of a tiny spoonful of black American-sturgeon caviar snugged up against a dollop of crème fraîche, both set upon a brioche done like a tiny bit of French toast infused with citrus and Grand Marnier.

Placed side by side on the table, the caviar seemed dwarfed by the bulky salad -- as if my dinner companion had done something wrong by ordering it. But Moscatello's experience shows in the evenhandedness with which he balances his plates by flavor, not mass. Each appetizer -- whether two bites, ten or twenty -- was a tease, presenting a flavor, a hint of season and place, but never so much that you didn't want more. The salad was mild, spiked up here and there by a drizzle of mustard vinaigrette, yet still diffuse. The caviar, on the other hand, was intense, and it took a much smaller amount to carry the same weight of flavor. (I'm ignoring -- and not easily, either -- the plate's glassy squiggles that, tragically, tasted like lemon dish soap.) A remarkably rich, delicious pheasant risotto straddled the size gap of the other appetizers, providing a dozen bites of soft rice studded with currants and chunks of pheasant in a creamy, smooth broth without a whisper of gamey tang.

After that course was cleared, there was just enough time for my wife, our guest and me to crack a couple of jokes and have our wineglasses replenished before the entrees arrived in a marvelous display of perfect timing and swooping military precision. South African cèpes mushrooms were the centerpiece of a thick stew that used diced purple Peruvian mountain potatoes for sweetness and texture. Those recalcitrant spuds are tough to cook with -- they're very starchy and will go limp and rubbery if you look at them wrong -- but Adega's kitchen had done an admirable job with this stew; its only drawback was a strange, grainy texture that wasn't altogether bad, just unexpected. For a laugh, the dish was topped with two long sticks of candied leeks, battered and fried, that tasted like a grown-up version of beer-battered onion rings.

We'd also ordered a sweet-glazed chicken breast stacked on a charlotte of sherried wild-mushroom duxelle and chicken-leg confit all bundled up in a shell of oily, grilled brioche. The meaty, earthy crimini, oyster and bluefoot chantarelles were an odd choice to pair with the chicken, which, unfortunately, had been burned, so that the bitter taste of char overpowered the delicate, sweet garlic glaze. On its own, though, the charlotte (generally a dessert pastry) was a rich, delicious example of this kitchen's skill with the classics and Moscatello's ability to redefine them.

More proof was provided by his venison hash and eggs: a tower of purple, bloody-rare venison tenderloin, topped with a single over-easy egg, placed on a foundation of hashbrowns and a winter-fruit compote. The gently seared venison was done perfectly, lacking any of the deep-forest funk with which some game meat is cursed. The golden-brown potatoes had been cooked in a tight ring mold and looked like the sort you get at the Waffle House at two in the morning (an intentional similarity, I think), and the fruit compote was an interesting addition to the huntsman motif. But all of that was just the mechanics of a good meal. The real brilliance came when the egg yolk was broken and yellow egg goo drooled down across the tips of the tenderloin, ran through the compote and mixed with a velvety puddle of pan sauce. In a minor feat of alchemy, the yolk carried with it all the flavors of the layers through which it had passed, so that as it was darkened by the venison's juices and sweetened by the compote, so it darkened and sweetened the unmounted sauce at the bottom of the plate, turning it from a thin reduction to a thick, full, vivid gravy.

Usually, I hate vertical presentations. When food is twisted, tortured and stacked into quivering minarets on a plate, it's often done without reason: That's art, not cooking. The difference here was that Moscatello had stacked his food because it had to be eaten that way. Without the vertical construction, the dish would have been nothing more than a gloppy mess of fruit, eggs, shredded potatoes and steak -- a Denny's Grand Slam venison breakfast.

The Variations of Chocolate, in contrast, was a deconstructionist's delight: three chocolates done six different ways, in a spire that had to be knocked over before it could be eaten but was luscious and decadent once the destruction was complete. Stephanie Cina, who creates all of the desserts, layered flavors in another successful offering: a plate of fresh chunks of strawberry drizzled with aged, sweet balsamic vinegar that was wonderful -- stinging, bitter, sweet and sour, all at the same time. This came paired with smooth chocolate ice cream and caramelized sugar tuilles that lent class and delicacy to a dessert that hit with all the subtlety of a punch in the mouth.

Seven months after it opened, with a new winter menu firmly in place, the kitchen falling nicely into a groove, the jackets off and the staff finally able to relax, Adega is turning into the restaurant it always wanted to be. Yes, there's a part of me that wants to make fun of its pretension and pointless fluffery -- but there's a bigger part of me that loves it, that applauds and appreciates the urge to go all the way. Is it expensive? You bet. But what you're buying is a seat at the table of a restaurant that transcends the Denver scene, and is growing -- meal by meal, night after night -- into its reputation as a world-class restaurant.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan