More than 100,000 people moved to Colorado last year. Is that good news? Depends on whom you ask. Rapid growth is good for developers, who are turning forgotten pockets of town into hot real estate. It’s good for the economy, with dollars flowing into construction. It’s good for restaurateurs, who are opening up new places with new concepts in response to the spike in demand. But for the ones who should benefit the most, the dollar-spending, dining-out public? The verdict is definitely out.
There are now roughly 200 more bars and restaurants in the metro area than there were a year ago, which means more choices of where to eat tonight. Many of them are interesting spaces in which to dine, with outdoor patios, funky lighting, big windows and welcoming bars. But design alone doesn’t make a good restaurant. Good food, good drinks and good service make a good restaurant. And right now, too many spots are coasting or even falling short — whether from lack of training, overextended chefs, tired concepts or a tight talent pool.
Sadly, Masterpiece Kitchen is one of them.
On the surface, Masterpiece Kitchen has everything going for it, from the brand to the team to the location. When partners Justin Brunson, Steve Allee and Eric Clayman launched Masterpiece Deli in 2008, the spot on the edge of LoHi quickly earned a loyal following. A second Masterpiece Deli followed in 2013, the same year that Brunson launched Old Major, his acclaimed nose-to-tail eatery. After a brief lull, the group’s pace picked up again this year, with Culture Meat & Cheese just joining the Denver Central Market after Masterpiece Kitchen opened in Lowry this past spring. This Masterpiece represents the evolution of the original Masterpiece Deli idea into a full-service restaurant serving salads and sandwiches (many of which will be familiar to longtime Deli fans), plus burgers and entrees such as trout, fried chicken and steak.
Lowry is a neighborhood hungry for independents like this to balance out the chains so prevalent in its Town Center. Masterpiece Kitchen is on the quieter side of the Hangar 2 development, with big picture windows and a patio bounded by native grasses and a container garden. With couches around a fire pit, strings of white lights and a friendly vibe from the indoor-outdoor bar, the patio feels like an extension of home, the back yard you’d have if you had more room, not to mention a decorator and a professional landscaper. Inside, flat-screen TVs flashing baseball and football hang over a long bar that radiates energy to the rest of the room. With a white bar top, gunmetal-gray walls and tables, and no decorations save for the TVs, the place feels as sleek and cool as a sushi bar.
Only that’s not what the partners are after. Contrary to the vibe and the restaurant’s name, which implies a certain level of refinement, they’re going for something more casual. “We are Lowry’s sports bar,” one partner told me via e-mail. The positioning is perplexing, because Lowry already has a sports bar: the long-established Tavern Lowry, with forty TVs to Masterpiece’s six. But whether it’s a sports bar or a restaurant, with a team like this, Masterpiece Kitchen should’ve had me at hello. Instead, numerous flaws had me ready to say goodbye.
Of anything on the menu, steak frites should have been the pièce de résistance, an illustration of what can be accomplished with planning and a full kitchen. Instead, a few thin strips of meat came draped over weak green chile; a horizontal heap of grilled scallions functioned more like a wall between the chile and the fries than anything you’d want to eat. As for those fries, they weren’t hand-cut or even all that hot.
They were plentiful, however, as if a huge mound of fries would atone for other sins.
The Greek pork chop turned out to be two bone-in pork chops cut so thin, they dried out when cooked — a nearly unimaginable disappointment, given the delicious hog-based feats Brunson has pulled off at Old Major. And what were those hunks of deep-fried potatoes on the side? They seemed like a mystery ingredient that the chef-contestant had forgotten, then quickly fried and thrown unceremoniously on the plate because time was up. Thank goodness for the accompanying tzatziki and Greek salad, which I promptly put over the top of the meat like a reimagined veal Milanese. (Another salad, the updated Cobb, was a pleasant surprise, too, tossed with just enough dressing and plenty of goodies.)
The royal rooster sandwich, made with thighs instead of a breast, tasted mostly like fried batter with pickles. A cubano had loads of tender pork but was surprisingly dull; who knows what had happened to the garlic that should’ve been in the mojo brine and roasted-garlic aioli. Also dull was the retro-gourmet house-smoked turkey sandwich on toasted wheat, with an annoyingly mild Brie spread (thinned with cream) and cranberry sauce. The healthy-ish outlier on a heavy menu, it left a slick of grease on my fingers from heavily buttered wheat bread that could’ve passed for white.
Beef patties were over-seasoned to the point that the burgers tasted like nothing but salt — not beef, not the sweet puffy buns the patties rested on, not the cheese, not even the Thousand Island-like special sauce. At one dinner, my pastrami burger was so heavily salted that I had no choice but to ditch the burger and salvage the housemade pastrami, a hit at Masterpiece Deli and still a standout.
Ultimately, appetizers proved the most engaging part of any Masterpiece Kitchen meal: spicy wings ultra-crispy from rice flour, hickory- and peachwood-smoked ribs, and a pulled-pork slider crowned with an onion ring from the happy-hour menu. It was tempting to make a meal of them, as a group of guys near me one night were doing. “Let’s clear these apps to make room for the next round of apps,” said their enthusiastic server. But are appetizers really the next step for the Masterpiece concept? There are plenty of casual spots in Lowry — not just the Tavern, but the Lowry Beer Garden as well — serving appetizers, not to mention a similar roster of burgers, salads and sandwiches. Why not give the east side of town what it really needs: more of the creative, high-aiming restaurants you can easily find in RiNo, Berkeley and Highland, home of Brunson’s other successes?
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If I’d encountered these problems in a chain, I’d have chalked them up to chains being chains. But it’s harder to shake them off at a well-pedigreed independent. And there were other mistakes, too. The mule special that tasted like virgin lemonade. The lost opportunity to show good hospitality when numerous chicken wings came out sprouting unappetizing fibers. The cold pudding our server described as s’mores, with a few graham cracker bits and marshmallows that were neither browned nor warm. (The dish has since been taken off the menu.) Another server wasn’t shy about wanting to turn the table, interrupting our half-eaten entrees to tell us about dessert.
The team members behind Masterpiece Kitchen encouraged the evolution of Denver’s food scene, helping to usher in the sophisticated expectations we now bring to the table. If we know what good food is, it’s in part because they (and a host of other chefs/restaurateurs in town) have served it to us over the years. As diners, we’ve come too far to go back.
84 Rampart Way
Cobb salad $11
Smoked-turkey sandwich $12
Royal rooster sandwich $11
Classic burger $12
Pastrami burger $15
Steak frites $23
Masterpiece Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at masterpiecekitchen.com.