White flour is said to be as addictive as sugar. Fake news, I thought, until I bit into the drop biscuits at Julep, an industrial-chic Southern restaurant that opened in RiNo this winter. The portion was generous, but all I wanted was more. More tender insides that crumbled under a gentle, buttery smear. More crackly edges that hinted at melted butter brushed on both before and after the oven. More fragrant, just-baked goodness you only get when treats are warm. A thought skittered across my mind: Could I order more as an entree? But I’d already eaten too many rich things — not just biscuits, but such happy-hour snacks as the pecan-crusted cheese ball and multi-flour scrapple fries thickened with pig’s head and liver — and realized I couldn’t make room for entrees of any kind.
On my next visit to Julep, I went in with a plan: No biscuits. I had work to do, entrees to eat, miles to go before I sleep, er, slept. I took a seat at the rustic community table rather than the green velvet banquette where I’d had my first encounter, concentrated on the breezes blowing in through the wide-open garage door and the laughter from the bar mingling with strains of sweet “Melissa.” My brain knew that biscuits were in the house, though, and started yammering incessantly. It took all my willpower to look past the first item on the menu listed with these taunting words: “buttermilk biscuits, churned butter, baked to order.”
But I stuck to my plan, and was richly rewarded with a spectacular bowl of beets, earthy and chewy like sun-dried tomatoes after a nifty bit of roasting, dehydrating and reconstituting. Raw watercress lay on top as if swept into a pile, hiding shards of chicory coffee tuile, slightly thicker than what you’d find on crème caramel. Beet greens in minty herb jam anchored the bowl, stopping the impending over-sweetness in its tracks. Radish wedges followed. I’d expected them to be cooked — heat helps blunt radishes’ peppery angles — but these were both raw and mild, a testament to spring. Celery crescents, also raw, shared the plate, their snappy greenness contrasting with sweet lemon curd whipped like cream and a caraway gastrique that added an unexpected twist.
The surprises didn’t end there. Oysters mingled with pork in finely ground sausage, a pairing that chef-owner Kyle Foster found in a nineteenth-century cookbook, one of many sources he tapped to explore the region’s culinary roots. I kept waiting for an identifiable bite of oyster that never came, a lapse that left me both happy and sad. (I had admittedly mixed feelings about oyster chunks in sausage.) What the oysters did add, however, was juicy brininess. The link was accented by slivers of pickled celery, bright and almost limey with hops, and chewy malted barley, a stand-in for baked beans in a thick, reddish sauce. More original accompaniments came on a lovely plate of barbecued quail, the caramelized morsels of meat clinging to tiny bones: a long slice of shallot bread pudding, airy on the inside and seared to a pale golden brown; a layer of charred (aka “kil’t”) greens; and a ring of rhubarb barbecue sauce.
Just when I was congratulating myself on my biscuit-free resolve, I stumbled hard. Strawberry shortcake: I should’ve seen it coming. Given how little restaurant desserts have in common with their home-cooked versions, though, I thought I’d be able to hold it to a bite...particularly since the server said she hadn’t tasted the shortcake or even seen one go out. But I wasn’t able to resist the hot, sweet biscuit that had been sliced in half, lined with pastry cream and sprinkled with strawberries, and put down my fork long after I should have.
Foster may be dismayed to hear about my biscuit fixation. He’s worked hard on Julep’s contemporary Southern fare, which is more polished than the casual digs suggest, and says he wants to distance himself from the classics, even though his takes rival any in town. Not just his biscuits, but saucy, classic macaroni and cheese, and chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, offered only at brunch and lunch, thrice-dredged, with high-quality flatiron and a crispy batter that proved irresistible even cold and straight from the fridge a day later.
“I didn’t want to do a type of Southern greatest hits,” explains Foster, whose restaurant marries both his Southern heritage and stints in tasting-menu kitchens. “I wanted to push more of the mentality of a Southerner, using their traditions and resourcefulness.” Hence that beet dish honoring every bit of the beet, pork scraps turned into scrapple fries, and a commitment to honor seasonal produce, going so far as to temporarily nix the savory tart tatin — transcendent with sorghum-sweetened spring onions in place of traditional apples — when spring onions weren’t consistent.
Food isn’t the only way that Julep channels the mentality of a Southerner. One server was graciousness personified, lingering to share tidbits of culinary history, explaining the merits of White Lily flour, waiting to bring the French press until our cake had arrived so that we could enjoy them together. His thoughtfulness made him one of the best servers I’ve had in a long while. But even with less-experienced staffers — one greeted us with “So, you want some food?” — Julep manages to exude comfort and hospitality. Clad in laid-back jeans and checked shirts, servers inquire about dietary preferences and arrive with an amuse-bouche, then follow up with an intermezzo or meringue and pâte de fruits with the check. And Foster himself takes time to say hello and make sure that your meal is going well.
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And occasionally it’s not, especially if you stray from biscuit-based desserts: dried-out red velvet cake, fried blueberry pie buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. Still, to counter any disappointments, there’s a final touch: a candy dish on the host stand mounded with old-time root beer barrels. Julep’s brand of sophisticated Southern is so good it’s addictive, whether or not you start with biscuits — and I heartily suggest you do.
3258 Larimer Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Select menu items
Buttermilk biscuits $8
Radishes & celery $10
Spring onion tart tatin $13
Pork & oyster sausage $15
Rhubarbeque quail $28
Strawberry shortcake $8