If you're looking for housemade honey-chamomile bitters, ice chipped off a block or a community counter where you can sit and grab a bite, don't go to Potager. The place doesn't have a soda gun, much less a mixologist. And Teri Rippeto, who founded this Capitol Hill institution with her father sixteen years ago, likes it that way. "What I've noticed, and some place may prove me wrong, but if it's about cocktails, then that's what it's about, and the music is really loud," she says. "What happened to coming out for a good, nice dinner?"
See also: Behind the scenes at Potager
Trends have never been Rippeto's thing. (If you don't believe me, take a look at the threadbare armchairs by the bar.) And yet Potager, with its emphasis on local, organic and seasonal foods, seems so au courant. Beef is grass-fed. Ricotta is scratch-made. Produce is listed along with the name of its farmer. But at Potager, locality is not a trend; it's a way of life — for Rippeto and, she hopes, ultimately everyone who walks through her doors. "If I can do it on this huge scale, then maybe in some way, [the restaurant] will influence and inspire people to do it on a small scale for themselves," she says.
Proselytizing, even from someone with as quick a laugh as Rippeto, can leave a bad taste in your mouth. But the twice-baked goat-cheese soufflé certainly won't; it's humming with lemon, and there's the promise of spring in the tousled pea sprouts on top. Nor will the white-bean soup, with whole — not mashed — beans in a light vegetarian stock made richer by a dollop of parsley pesto. When you've scooped up every last legume, drag the crusty sourdough — probably your third slice, given how soulful it is — through the bowl; the warm liquid softens the crust, turning it into an ad hoc crouton as good as in any French onion soup. The soup may not be poured tableside, as it is at other self-consciously trendy spots in town, and it may not be a study in textures, with pearls of jalapeño or pear slipping through creamy spoonfuls. But what you trade in excitement, you reap in honest flavor.
Potager's menu changes monthly, mid-month, and while Rippeto turned over the kitchen to chef de cuisine Chris Bell last year, she still designs the menu as she has from the beginning, with a careful eye to what's in season, choosing ingredients so fresh you can practically see the dirt being shaken from their roots. As the farm-to-table movement caught on over the past few years, many places talked this talk, adding seasonal dishes here and there, but Rippeto and staff adhere to it. Aside from apples used in a recent apple crisp, the menu might as well be a harvest guide. In early May, that means radishes, greens and spring onions; next there will be asparagus and rhubarb, halibut from Maine's short halibut season, and, before long, corn ice cream and tomato sauce for the signature cracker-crust pizzas. For now, the housemade ice cream is vanilla or chocolate or coffee, and the pizzas — which are spectacular — are topped with the likes of mint pesto, prosciutto and ricotta.
It's easy to eat seasonally in the height of summer, when markets are flooded with peaches and zucchini and melons. But what to do with spring's strong flavors? At Potager, arugula dances with mint, feta, currants and fennel-seed crackers in a bright spring salad, and also tops a lusty, red-wine-glazed sirloin steak. Spinach turns risotto under roasted monkfish a vibrant green. Spring onions are cooked long and slow, requiring the patience of a gardener waiting for seeds to germinate; the resulting (creamless) soubise is used as a bed for a crisp-edged peekytoe crab cake made with so little mayonnaise, you'd think it had none at all. Perhaps hardest to envision loving are radishes, a root vegetable low on many a diner's list. But the radish raita, hued pink from the root vegetable's jewel-toned skins, will challenge that status: Served in a miniature glass jar layered with spinach hummus, it's a springtime riff on the classic Indian yogurt sauce, with three airy chickpea fritters to continue the theme.
With a goal of changing diners' eating patterns, Rippeto isn't content just to serve seasonal food; she wants you to commit to it. That's one reason behind the restaurant's plant-filled back patio, a kitchen garden that gives the restaurant its name. (It also earned Potager an award for Best Patio in the Best of Denver 2013.) If the eggplant isn't ready, you won't see eggplant on the restaurant's menu — and you might want to reconsider using it at home. And that's also why this year, for the first time, she's offering farm shares — vegetables through Aspen Moon Farm, fruit through Ela Family Farms — with weekly pick-ups and cooking demonstrations at Potager to inspire further change.
In an industry riddled with long hours, burnout and turnover, Potager stands out. Much of the key staff has been with Rippeto for a decade or more, and she's known farmers long enough to watch their little kids go off to college. Some 60 percent of her customers are regulars who come in once a week, not just for the high-quality seasonal fare, but to enjoy a place where they feel at home, a space that could easily be a stage set for yesterday's restaurant, with big windows, white tablecloths, and servers who brush crumbs off tables before dessert.
The space isn't perfect; Rippeto tells stories of launching the restaurant with not a cent of working capital, and few changes seem to have been made in the intervening years. Holes pockmark the plaster. Walls could use another coat of paint. The food isn't perfect, either. One night, a chocolate cake came out as burned as toast; on another, an over-smoked pork chop was paired with creamed spinach so runny and pale, it wouldn't convince anyone to eat their vegetables.
But Potager is comfortable in its own skin, and isn't that a more reasonable goal than perfection? In life, as well as in the garden, kitchen or office, things happen. Tomatoes get worms. Phones ring with life-changing news. And if a cook leaves the cake in the oven a moment too long, what's the worst that can happen? A smiling server replaces it with a silky chocolate pudding — and life hums on.