Over the years, I’ve come to think of Justin Cucci as a mad genius, twirling his thumbs and cackling as he ponders what dominion to conquer next. Who else could take a gas station and some vegetables and make Root Down one of the coolest seats in town? Who else could turn a funeral parlor into the four-story party boat that is Linger, or dish up such good airport food that travelers at Root Down DIA practically toast delays? With Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, which opened in the Ballpark neighborhood this spring, Cucci has hatched his raciest — and riskiest — plan yet, and it’s every bit as maddening as it is genius.
Following in its Edible Beats siblings’ footsteps, Ophelia’s is a high-concept venture with a theme derived from its location. Housed in a turn-of-the-century building, this 8,400-square-foot eatery channels the spirit of the string of X-rated businesses that once operated here, most recently an adult bookstore and peephouse. (Parents, don’t say I didn’t warn you.) A black-and-white photograph, enlarged to wall size, greets you when you enter; it is Ophelia, the Victorian-era woman who inspired the decor, clad in see-through gauze. Lights are low; velvet couches in shades of gold and ruby encourage all kinds of naughty behavior. Posters for movies such as All in the Sex Family hang on wallpaper sporting a swirly gold-and-black ’70s pattern. Adult books are shelved by the bar, and water carafes bear the words “wet and ready.” Metal mesh covers the ceiling and shields the kitchen, suggesting — intentionally or not — a gigantic dance cage.
But Cucci didn’t just set out to create a sexy restaurant. Ophelia’s also operates as a live-music destination, with a stage and an additional bar on the open-ceilinged lower level. Main-floor booths and banquettes wrap around it on three sides, staggered downward for uninterrupted views of the scene below. On nights when bands perform, a per-person cover is charged. “I had wanted to do a music venue,” says Cucci, a longtime musician who sings and plays guitar and harmonica at company Christmas parties. “Music has always been a passion of mine.”
Music isn’t Cucci’s only passion. A veteran restaurateur — his family owned Ye Waverly Inn in New York City — Cucci has spent his life gathering all kinds of thoughts and ideas and inspirations, which come together at Ophelia’s like the retrospective of an eccentric collector. His efforts are most visible in design elements such as a bar top made of pinball-machine glass and thousands of yardsticks lining the bathroom stalls, but they’re just as present somewhere else, too: the menu. With an emphasis on small plates, this so-called “gastro-brothel” lineup — designed by Cucci, Edible Beats culinary director Daniel Asher and executive chef Jeremy Kittelson — showcases flavors collected everywhere from the South to Sweden, from Belgium to the Middle East. “I’m always drawn to something I call ‘intentional misalignment,’” Cucci says. “Putting things together that shouldn’t really go together, and putting them together in surprising ways.” His words were spoken in the context of decor, but to me, they illuminate much about Ophelia’s menu, which seems less interested in the ingredients themselves than in the euphoric rush that comes from disparate ingredients pieced together.
That’s why Scandinavian meatballs arrive with the lingonberry jam you expect, but also the duck and parsnip grits you don’t. The grits, incidentally, reflect a quality I appreciate most about this culinary team: an attention to detail that lavishes attention and creativity on something that, in other restaurants, could be a forgettable side. Here the grits are blended with riced parsnips for a sweet, earthy side that’s as memorable as the main event.
Other juxtapositions are just as delightful. An American classic like cornbread is layered with green chiles and goat cheese and served with fennel-honey butter. The brothel burger is made of yak, not beef, and sandwiched with miso-candied bacon and Korean spices on a pretzel bun. Mussels are steamed in beer, which isn’t as unusual as the splash of grilled blood orange and the lentils and gigante beans that turn the broth into a soup. Bay scallops are teased out of their comfort zone, first smoked and then hit with lemon, chive crème fraîche, and hot sauce delivered in a tincture bottle. The Spring Cheese Incident, a tribute to the Colorado band, delivers a gooey blend of cheeses studded with spinach, asparagus, marcona almonds and cherry tomatoes, like queso and salad mixed together. Weird? Yes. Tasty? Also yes.
Not all dishes succeed based on novelty and daring alone. Fried sweet plantains win points simply because they’re fried to that state of dark golden where fruit becomes candy. Mushroom flatbread satisfies as much for its harmonious combination of mushrooms, goat cheese and arugula as for the methodical way in which the toppings are spread across the pizza, ensuring satisfying bites from start to finish.
Sometimes, however, dishes trip over their own cleverness. English peas are a sweet vegetable, so why does a chilled pea soup need additional sugar in the form of raisins sunk on the bottom, especially when the soup is already finished with a busy collage of crème fraîche, curry oil, toasted buckwheat and pesto made from carrot tops? The kitchen seems especially keen on overplaying salads, as if a simple, ingredient-driven plate would be a sign of ennui. It wouldn’t; it would be a sign of respect. A salad of roasted baby carrots became a shouting match, with bitter frisée, pine nuts, miso dressing and crystallized ginger competing to be heard against a masala yogurt sauce that tasted strangely fruity and floral, like a Dum Dum lollipop. A salad of kale and crispy Brussels sprouts confused with no fewer than nine ingredients, none of which could be properly tasted — not the dates or the quinoa or the grilled avocado — given the heavily applied, heavily flavored mustard vinaigrette.
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If some dishes suffered because they overreached, service underperformed. Just three months in, servers already seem tired of telling the restaurant’s story; one night, ours droned on as if on autopilot and then seemed to wake up in the middle of the monologue, not sure where he was in the story. When asked for recommendations, the best one server could do was tell us what people seemed to like on Yelp. And communication between the front and back of the house needs smoothing. Repeatedly, dishes that our servers said would be coursed arrived all at once.
Given Cucci’s success at Root Down and Linger, expectations for Ophelia’s ran high, and the scope and audacity of the venture raised them even higher. But if you put yardsticks in the bathroom, you have to measure up, and right now, Ophelia’s has room to grow. The restaurant is a fun place to hang out, but it’s succumbing to the pitfall known to many a collector: the fallacy that more — be it pieces in a collection or ingredients on a plate — is always better. As the racy photograph of Ophelia suggests, sometimes less is even more seductive.
Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
1215 20th Street
Chilled pea soup $7
Crispy Brussels sprouts and kale $13
Roasted baby carrots $12
Belgian mussels $15
Brothel burger $16
Mushroom flatbread $12
Ophelia's Electric Soapbox is open 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at opheliasdenver.com.