Cafe Society

Jeff Osaka's talents in the kitchen add up to a sublime experience at twelve

Have you been to twelve?" That was a question I got a lot when I first moved back to Denver, as people I met working in the restaurant industry offered their recommendations for dinner, casually tossing around the vitals of the newest places in town the way my brother throws out sports stats over a beer.

When I said I hadn't, they'd regale me with stories of meals cooked by Jeff Osaka, a chef with a resumé that includes Wolfgang Puck's Chinois, Michelin two-star spot Melisse, and Chloe, the Los Angeles restaurant that gained considerable acclaim before Osaka decided to open a new place in Denver. "Man, that guy can cook," they'd say, eyes closed in blissful remembrance. "And his menu changes every month. There are only 28 seats, though, so make a reservation."

Our first impressions of restaurants are informed by two forces: our expectations and the sensory information we receive when we actually walk through the door. By the time I finally approached twelve's door this past March, I'd heard so much about the restaurant from so many people that I'd been looking forward to my dinner there for weeks. The anticipation was enough to make me ignore the dilapidated storefronts and shelters as I marched up a not-quite-revitalized stretch of Larimer Street.

When love brought Osaka out to Colorado, he'd found a restaurant space on Craigslist, a spot most recently occupied by Kokopelli's, and, before that, a blues joint called Manny's Smokehouse. It appealed to him because it was a turnkey property, a place where he could get the doors open with just a little elbow grease and no extensive renovations, breathing life back into a charming building in a historic area, hoping that others would soon follow his lead. But more than a year after he'd opened twelve in November 2008, the 2200 block of Larimer had not improved much, and we walked right past the restaurant, confused by the old marquee that Osaka had kept above the door.

The confusion continued inside, where the space seemed very odd. The old oak bar that had anchored twelve's predecessor had been scrubbed clean but still commanded considerable focus along the left wall. On the right, a row of pillars divided the bar from the dining room, making table placement challenging and leaving much of the room seem unfinished. I'd expected intimacy; instead, I felt slightly disoriented, and my uneasiness grew as dinner proceeded. The service didn't help: It was inattentive and impersonal, so much so that it became a distraction — and my meal wasn't nearly good enough to overcome that. As I paid my check, I was more than disappointed; I was irritated, and unsure that I'd ever return.

Many months later, I finally went back to twelve — and I'm glad I did. Because sitting alone at the bar a few weeks ago, I had a nearly flawless dinner, a game-changing meal that convinced me to toss aside my initial impression.

The meal began with foie gras, a quivering slice seared until the inside had just begun to melt, velvety juice seeping out over a rich slice of crumbling pumpkin bread. Red currant jam brought tartness to the equation, adding depth and a playful blend of flavors that I wanted to last — so much so that I postponed taking another sip of wine so that I could enjoy a replay of Osaka's remarkable combination.

When the next dish arrived I took a sip of that wine, then speared some springy calamari, each tentacle resisting just slightly against my teeth before surrendering completely. The squid was served with a savory stew of black-eyed peas that derived smokiness from chorizo and texture from soft, sautéed collard greens. It was a balance of land and sea, a mouthful of deep flavor very satisfying on a cold night, but still balanced and light.

Once I'd licked every morsel from that plate, three scallops arrived, plump and tender, with a sweet, delicate flavor — so elusive in Colorado's seafood offerings — that indicated freshness. They were seared until just caramelized, creating a paper-thin crust to bite through and the reward of supple flesh breaking across the tongue. The richness was offset by a bed of buttery braised purple cabbage. A drizzle of ginger cream lent a subtle bite, while fennel purée rooted the dish with a hint of anise and a tinge of lemon, giving it more depth while bringing the other flavors into focus and elevating the fish. Very few dishes have been so exquisite they rendered me speechless; this was one of them. It helped, too, that the bartender chose a perfect pairing: a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that played off the greener elements of the plate while elevating the taste of the scallops.

That bartender even managed to change my mind about twelve's service. At chef-owned restaurants, it's not uncommon for the front-of-the-house staff to lack focus. While the owner is busy in the kitchen, for example, there may be no distinct leader to tell a well-meaning server that while he's performing the technical points of his job perfectly, the entire room can hear him talking loudly about his recent McRib meal while they're forking up delicate morsels of dinner. For a couple enjoying an anniversary dinner, dropping a hefty sum to enjoy each other's company in romantic digs, that commentary is a deviation from expectations and, therefore, abrasive. But at the bar, those things matter less. And although twelve's staff could still use a little polish, it's come a long way — and genuinely cares.

A few nights after my solo meal, I returned with friends. Any lingering concerns were washed away completely by a thick, aromatic French lentil soup laced with piquant cumin, a couple of pecans piercing the surface in the center of the bowl. Then came a comforting vegetarian take on Thanksgiving: a bread pudding stuffed with sage, soft inside and crispy on the edges; green beans in a creamy mushroom base, topped with a crust of crispy shallots; and sweet, vibrant caramelized sweet potatoes. And though the scallops remain my favorite entree on November's menu, the braised beef came in a close second, the tender chunks of meat served over a bed of firm flageolets and silky escarole, doused in a mildly spicy horseradish broth.

A few recent dishes at twelve were less successful. One night in October, I tried a pork tenderloin too overcooked and dry to be revived by the black-eyed pea setup that worked so well with the calamari in November. And I wish the terrine had come with pickles or mustard or both; I liked the play of textures between the meat — a mild, soft pork sausage — and the toasted baguette and frisee on the plate, but I wanted some flavor element to pop.

Still, these slight quibbles did nothing to chip away at my newfound respect for Osaka. He's an utterly talented chef, simultaneously playful and refined, with an evolving menu that improves incrementally each month. After eating my way through November's menu, I'm already hungry for December, excited to see what Osaka will come up with next.

"I call this one 'Call it a truce,'" the affable bartender said the last time I was in, as he placed a drink that blended whiskey and chartreuse before me.

I smiled and melted back into my seat. Game over: a truce, indeed.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk