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Look Out Below!

If there's a time and a place for everything, 3rd Ave. Eclectic Burgers and Cuisine is halfway there. The time is certainly right for restaurants: People are eating out more than ever - not just at trendy spots, but at comfortable, casual eateries where you can have a fast dinner...
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If there's a time and a place for everything, 3rd Ave. Eclectic Burgers and Cuisine is halfway there.

The time is certainly right for restaurants: People are eating out more than ever - not just at trendy spots, but at comfortable, casual eateries where you can have a fast dinner without needing to do the dishes. Burger joints, for example. But 3rd Ave. isn't just any burger joint, because its burgers are based on the next big food trend: exotic meats. 3rd Ave. grinds up buffalo, lamb, venison and Kobe beef into one of this country's favorite food forms, then pairs the burgers with other gourmet ingredients such as foie gras, papaya and goat cheese.

Yes, the time was right for this restaurant - but it couldn't be in a worse place.

3rd Ave. owner Lance Ortiz and his partners picked a building that had already been abandoned by two workable concepts, the Mocha Cafe and It's Greek to Me, both of which blamed the lousy location for contributing to their demise. The address may be sought-after Cherry Creek North, but 3rd Ave. actually occupies a below-street-level space in a claustrophobic cluster of concrete and glass. In the winter, this spot is as inviting as sticking your tongue on a frozen piece of sheet metal; in the summer, it feels like a bomb shelter.

For several months after 3rd Ave. opened last April, it seemed like a good idea could override a bad location. "It's amazing," says Ortiz. "Everything was going great until the election, and then, right after that, during a time when in the rest of the restaurant business things were picking up, it just went downhill for us."

And Ortiz has enough experience to recognize what such a slide in business can mean. An eleven-year veteran -- he'd managed 240 Union, Strings and the now-defunct Pub at Nordstrom -- Ortiz had experienced seasonal fluctuations before, but nothing like 3rd Ave.'s abrupt drop. Still, he thinks he knows how to pull out of it. "I'm getting it now, " he says. "We're out of sight, so we're out of mind. I'd heard that downstairs was tough in Denver, but I thought this concept that I've had in my mind for years would be enough to bring people in."

He decorated the space in keeping with his upscale burger concept. The smallish dining area is bordered on three sides by floor-to-ceiling windows and an inviting bar on the fourth. No antiseptic fast-food-style tables with swivel chairs attached or ketchup packets in a plastic bin for 3rd Ave.: The white linens, skinny-backed silver metal chairs and high-tech track lighting are oh-so-chic, while the bright-blue ceiling and lilac wall trim show that 3rd Ave. doesn't take itself too seriously. Still, this is not the spot for kicking back and playing pool over a few brewskis with some loud friends; it has the feel of a more chichi eatery.

And the off-the-wall burgers served at 3rd Ave. go way beyond the Whopper: They're burgers with an attitude. They also have an adult price tag, since most of them ring up in the $8 to $12 range, both at lunch and dinner. But we aren't dealing with ground chuck here. The menu was created by Ortiz and original chef Eric Chiapetta, who has since moved to 1515 Market Grill. Todd Coleman is now 3rd Ave.'s head chef, and while he hasn't made any major changes to the menu yet, he's evened out the inconsistencies that initially plagued this burger bistro.

As a result, the 3rd Ave. burger with seared foie gras, the most expensive item on that menu, arrived as ordered -- and absolutely fabulous. This burger was ridiculously, deliciously over the top, with a beautiful piece of seared duck liver lovingly placed on a half-pound slab of flawlessly grilled beef so juicy it squirted at the first bite, sending juice running out into the accompanying sautéed chanterelles, caramelized grilled onion, beefsteak tomato slice, peppery arugula and red-wine-spiked butter.

The rest of the burger offerings sound almost as outrageous, but to 3rd Ave.'s credit, they work. There's an underlying common sense in the pairing of flavors, and the kitchen executes the food expertly. A buffalo burger doesn't need wilted arugula, pepper Jack cheese or roasted red pepper aioli, but the combination dresses it up nicely: The medium-rare meat (the kitchen knows to edge toward rare so that the buffalo doesn't dry out) was sweet and juicy, presented in a rectangle covered with a faintly spicy Jack that heightened the sweetness of the mild buffalo. The red-pepper aioli was a little on the thin side, but it was gentle on the garlic, and its own sweetness fit right in. The burger sat on a puffy-centered roll cut to order, which kept it fresh, and was topped with a few strands of caramelized onion; a side of 3rd Ave.'s salty, medium-thick, skin-on fries finished the plate.

3rd Ave. gives a lot of thought not just to what's on the burger, but also to what comes with it. The venison burger, for example, sported a side of herb salad, an ever-so-lightly oiled mass of cilantro, basil and arugula that was a welcome change from heart-stopping grease. The venison had benefited from a medium-rare grilling -- it was more heavily charred than the buffalo, but rightly so. This marvelous meat arrived covered with blackberry-juice-soaked wild mushrooms that made it impossible to pick up the burger but were so delicious they justified the use of a knife and fork. And while it was hard to tell from flavor alone that the beef in the Kobe burger came from the famed sake-massaged, beer-fed Japanese cattle, this burger nonetheless ranked as one of the most tender I've tried, with a silky texture that worked well with accoutrements of creamy, velvety polenta and a very mellow green chile.

Non-burger entrees also roamed the globe for their ingredients. A wasabe-flavored piece of ahi was matched with cilantro-heightened smoked pineapple and sweet, sticky rice for a refreshing Asian repast; an Italian dish of creamy-consistency risotto tossed with shrimp and asparagus had deepened its flavors with oven-dried tomatoes. Even the desserts were done well: 3rd Ave. put out such tempting finales as a tummy-soothing warm gingerbread pudding drenched in an addictive vanilla-bean-enhanced coffee-flavored syrup; an amazing strawberry shortcake with fresh, fresh berries; and fluffy buttermilk biscuits with lavender-scented freshly whipped cream.

Unfortunately, we enjoyed all of these goodies in a nearly empty restaurant.

The time may be right for 3rd Ave. to find a different place.

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