We've slurped the noodles at Osaka Ramen; we've shoveled down fresh fish plucked from the carousel at Sushi-Rama; we've strolled through Denver Central Market overwhelmed by mouthwatering choices. These are the projects that chef/restaurateur Jeff Osaka has launched in the two years (plus a few months) since he closed twelve on Larimer Street, his Denver debut that presaged the rise of Upper Larimer as a destination restaurant neighborhood when it opened in 2008. Whether you know Osaka's food from his recent ventures or from his thoughtful monthly menus at twelve, you'll be delighted to know that 12@Madison, a reboot of sorts, is opening tonight at 1160 Madison Street in Congress Park.
While Osaka's new eatery (in a space previously occupied by a restaurant/bakery called Glaze) won't have a new menu every month like twelve, the culinary elements that made the original a critical hit will still be there. "This is the next life, the next step for twelve," the chef explains. "We're going from lowercase to all caps." Literally, as it turns out: The sign out front reads 12@MADISON.
Rather than monthly overhauls, the menu will shift with the seasons, offering small plates grouped from light to heavy, with subcategories divided into three of each: soups/salads. vegetables, pasta, seafood, light meats (chicken and friends), heavy meats (think beef) and desserts. The style of food resists easy categorization; Osaka avoids farm-to-table, sustainable, New American or other catchphrases that could lead guests to the wrong conclusion. Instead, he hopes the food will speak for itself. "Whether we get our prosciutto all the way from Italy or our potatoes from Colorado, we just want to feature good food," he concludes.
Some of the local products he's happy to mention include breads from Grateful Bread Company and dough from Izzio Bakery that the kitchen will use to make croissants and puff pastries. And while most of the serviceware comes from standard home-kitchen supply stores — Osaka wants his guests to feel like they're having dinner in his own home — a few pieces, like austere bowls and ramekins, come from ceramics craftsman Jono Pandolfi.
A big difference between twelve and 12@Madison is that Osaka isn't going it alone this time. He's brought on Ashley McBrady as the restaurant's chef de cuisine to share the load and shift the focus from his own cooking. He also has a bar manager, Alexander Kady, and a wine director, Natalie Breaux, to oversee beverages. "I didn't have that before," he points out. "I had to do everything myself."
McBrady has worked with Osaka for the past year as chef at Osaka Ramen and also staged at twelve when she was first getting to know the Denver restaurant scene. A San Diego native who came to Colorado seven years ago by way of Portland, McBrady also put in three years at Potager before joining Osaka's team.
Along with those capital letters, the design of 12@Madison makes it seem a little bigger and bolder than twelve. Danish modern furniture adds lightness to the sunny front dining room, while slabs of cross-cut pine anchor the bar and chef's counter in the back. At forty seats, 12@Madison feels precise and properly proportioned, without extra clutter or interference. Even the art on the walls, a single row of 101 miniatures created by Jonathan Saiz, draw the eye deeper into the restaurant and add interest but not distraction.
With so much going on over the past two years, you might think Osaka would be ready to relax a little. But he's still working on expanding the Sushi-Rama concept and will open a second at Belleview Station near the Denver Tech Center this summer, with others to follow.
12@Madison debuts tonight at 4 p.m. and will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m., with a Sunday brunch beginning at 10 a.m. Closing hours (and the end of brunch service) are still flexible, depending on the flow of customers.