Review: Atticus wants to be a grown-up restaurant, but it's suffered growing pains

Atticus 1115 East Evans Avenue 720-459-8273

Neighborhood restaurants often remind me of kids. Even when they're noisy and a bit rough around the edges, you still smile at them, knowing the potential within. Atticus is that kind of place. Sure, it might want to be president when it grows up, but for now the latest venture from Table to Tavern -- the restaurant group behind Boone's Tavern and Handlebar Tavern -- is more of a tween: lovable one minute, frustrating the next.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Atticus

Located near the University of Denver, Atticus stands out from other campus-oriented hangouts -- including Boone's, its adjacent sister property -- by attracting a crowd that turned its tassel not weeks, but years ago. With a stone fireplace, inviting off-white and blue walls, and fun touches such as a typewriter and a long-handled pizza peel hung in groupings, the space feels comfortable and cohesive, like a vacation house you wouldn't mind renting for the summer. A bar made of corrugated metal and beams from the old Stapleton airport squats in the center, but there's no community counter, making Atticus a spot to talk among friends, not necessarily pick up new ones.

Interestingly enough, Atticus wasn't conceived as a restaurant. "The neighborhood has changed my place completely," says Brian Midtbo, CEO of Table to Tavern. "We were supposed to open more as a bar with shared plates, but everybody kept coming in and thanking us for putting a restaurant in there." So Midtbo listened, changing course in April, two months after opening. The new menu, designed by former sous- and now executive chef Diego Coconati, is traditional in approach, filled with the kinds of entrees normally associated with destination restaurants: seared duck breast and duck confit, housemade ravioli, scallops with blood-orange gastrique. There's a burger but no sliders, and certainly no nachos or wings. Starters are also more individual than shared in nature, with offerings such as mussels, beet salad and a pea flan that showcases the vegetable's sweetness. Folks who feel like sharing are steered toward cheese and charcuterie plates -- and judging from my visits, more tables than not are in the mood to share.

Many dishes, entree or otherwise, hint at Coconati's years in Puerto Rico, Florida and his native Argentina, with flavors both spicy and tropical. Colorado lamb is ringed with a plucky sauce of ancho chiles and red-wine demi-glace that tastes like a swirl of barbecue and plum. Skirt steak is marinated overnight in soy sauce, pineapple juice and ginger, and plated over fingers of deep-fried yuca with cilantro and lime. Jack fish tacos, a tasty starter that could easily be a light meal, sparkle not with pico de gallo, but mango salsa and jalapeño slaw. Coconati has brought more seafood, vegan and vegetarian dishes to the original lineup, and he smartly sneaks in vegetables where you'd least expect them, tousling fennel, avocado and arugula over steak, for example.

It all seems very grown up -- until the food arrives. Then you realize how much growing Atticus has yet to do.

Keep reading for the rest of our review of Atticus. Waits were often long between courses -- and many courses were not worth waiting for. Too many plates were finished with chile or olive oil, a touch that sounds sophisticated but resulted in everything from flan to scallops floating in unappetizing slicks. Even without the oil, diver scallops were mushy. The fusion board -- a combination charcuterie-and-cheese plate promising three meats and two cheeses -- surprised us with two meats and smoked trout, a swap the server hadn't warned us about, as well as two cheeses that were both firm and mild in flavor rather than the mix of mild/pungent and soft/semi-hard you'd expect. And the crostini that came with the board -- billed as "breads" on the menu -- were so brittle and brown, we had to dunk them in chunky gazpacho to soften them up. As for that "local tomato" gazpacho, it seemed out of place with peak tomato season still months away. Other than a moist, bone-in chicken breast with potato-cauliflower gratin that was cooked as it should be, the kitchen seemed to have particular challenges with meat. One night the lamb arrived so rare, I could hardly find a bit worth swirling through that ancho-chile sauce. Another time, a friend's marinated skirt steak came out too undercooked to finish -- and a woman at the table next to us complained about the same problem.

Whether the restaurant was full or only partly so, we were always greeted warmly and treated like neighbors. Still, there were times when the front of the house, like the kitchen, seemed in need of supervision. Servers misidentified items on cheese and charcuterie boards, referring to green picholines as Kalamatas and calling Spanish lomo simply "shaved pork." A runner proudly declared "Always put protein to the guest" as he set our plates down, as if he had just learned the technique. And one night when another server pitched in to take our dessert order, he rattled off different options from the ones we'd just heard from our own server. Not that any of the desserts were particularly striking: a root-beer float, drunken berries, mango sorbet and shortbread. The woman who had complained about her meal and was trying to make it up to her nearly grown daughter with a chocolatey dessert simply asked for the check after learning that there weren't any chocolate options. "Want to get something at Ben & Jerry's or just go home?" she whispered after the server left.

Are Atticus's shortcomings simply growing pains? The owners have taken steps to make improvements, ordering noise-reducing panels and making those early changes in both chef and menu so that it can be the place that Midtbo envisions, with "great food and great cocktails in a neighborhood environment." Atticus isn't there yet, but rarely do restaurants hit their stride right away, and it's only been open for four months. Good thing that neighbors, like parents, are more likely to applaud potential -- and be forgiving along the way.

Select menu items at Atticus: Fusion board $18 Spring-pea flan $8 Caribbean-style fish mini-tacos $10 Gazpacho $6 Diver scallops $24 Bone-in chicken breast $16 Marinated skirt steak $18 Grilled lamb sirloin $22

Atticus is open from 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, and 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at tabletotavern.com/atticus.

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