On Monday, the Crafted Concepts restaurant team announced it would be opening a new eatery called Ultreia inside Union Station. While Crafted Concepts isn't exactly a household name, the group's principals are well known in Denver. Chef Jennifer Jasinski won a James Beard Award for Best Chef — Southwest in 2013 for Rioja; partner Beth Gruitch has been instrumental in earning praise for service and wine at the group's restaurants (which also include Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine and Euclid Hall); and Jorel "the Skipper" Pierce has attracted attention for creative cooking, first at the helm of Euclid Hall and currently at S&G — not to mention an appearance on the Food Network's Top Chef.
After Monday's announcement, the three gathered at Rioja to expand on their plans for Ultreia, born from a recent trip to Spain and Portugal by Jasinski and Gruitch. The two have traveled in Spain together before, but they found particular inspiration from the wines, tapas and pintxos (Basque appetizers) uncovered during this journey. Here's more on Ultreia:
The Food and Drinks
Adam Branz, currently the chef at Bistro Vendome, has been tapped to head day-to-day operations at Ultreia once it opens. Pierce says that opening a restaurant is much different from running an already established eatery, so he, Jansinski and Gruitch will provide stability while Branz and his team adapt to a new kitchen and menu.
"San Sebastian is the key to this whole idea," Gruitch notes, referring to the city in Spain's northern Basque region dense with Michelin-starred restaurants and world-class wines. But the food, wine and sherry of the Rias Baixas region (in northwestern Spain) and Portugal will also be strong influences, she adds. Pierce is planning a trip with his wife to San Sebastian and the rest of the Basque region next month for additional research.
With so much to draw from and so many ideas bouncing around, the team says that narrowing down the focus of the food-and-drink program was tough. "I'm not very good at focusing sometimes, so I brain-dump and write everything down," Jasinski explains. After that, Pierce and Gruitch read over the notes and point out the ideas they all like.
The group's goal is to capture the undiluted and traditional ingredients and flavors of the Iberian peninsula while adding their own creative vision. "Let's not dumb things down for Denver," Jasinski states. "The people of Denver deserve better."
As for researching the beverage list, Gruitch had the perfect approach: "I just drank a lot of wine, gin-tonics and sherry," she notes.
Gin-tonics (as they're called in Spain, with no "and") will be a big part of the bar service. "In Spain, they play off the aromatics of each of the gins — peppercorns, grapefruit, lemon, lime,"she adds. Her photos from the trip depict big goblets of iced cocktails afloat with various herbs and flavorings to complement the base spirit. As Gruitch describes the typical Spanish technique, tonic is poured down the spiral handle of a bar spoon into the glass "so as not to bruise the gin."
Boss Architecture, which has done work for other Crafted Concepts restaurants, will be handling the buildout of Ultreia, which will only measure 1,900 square feet (it's smaller than Stoic & Genuine), including a new mezzanine that will be added to the room that previously held Fresh eXpress. "We thought that a pintxos and tapas place should be intimate," Gruitch explains. "It's tiny — really tiny."
A patio on the side of the front of the train station will add a little more space, but the idea is for Ultreia to be lively and interactive, with quieter seating for lingering over dinner on the upper level.
According to Jasinski, the space was selected first and the theme grew from there. She says it's important not to attempt to shoehorn a concept into the wrong location, adding that she first thought she wanted to put a pastor-based Mexican restaurant in the Stoic & Genuine space, but that it just wasn't the right time or locale. "I still really want to do a Mexican al pastor place," she says, adding that a butcher-centered restaurant is also high on her list of ideas. "We're a cautious business group, though," she adds. "We like to keep things tasty and well executed."
The initial announcement of Ultreia explained that the name came from a Latin word that was shouted as encouragement to religious pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, a journey that takes months on foot. That seems an unlikely name for a restaurant in the heart of Denver, but "it's our journey, too," Gruitch says. They first came across the word while tasting wines from Spanish vintner Raul Perez, who named one of his creations Ultreia. The word translates roughly as "onward," and Gruitch and Jasinski see it as an appropriate moniker, given the restaurant's setting inside a train station.
While some of the staff — those who are interested — from the group's other restaurants will join the opening crew at Ultreia, Jasinski doesn't want to disrupt the chemistry in her existing kitchens and dining rooms, so hiring the right people will be critical. Fortunately, she says, Denver is fast becoming a magnet for talent from across the country. And Pierce agrees. "I'm seeing more applicants from larger markets — that's my experience from the last six months," he says.
"We hope they [our other employees] have friends in the business and spread the word that we're a great company to work for," Jasinski adds. That's probably not a hard message to sell, considering the longevity of many of her current employees. Pierce himself got his start at Rioja in his early twenties before getting the Euclid Hall nod at only 26.
But all three acknowledge that there will be no room for trial and error, given the group's reputation and the prominent location of the new project. "We know we're going to be judged the day we open," Jasinski admits. "We have only the highest expectations of ourselves."
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