”Do you want to be as close to or as far away from the music as possible?” asked the hostess at Baur’s Restaurant and Listening Lounge, which opened last spring in the former downtown home of Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar. There was a band coming on later that night, she explained, and in case we were still there, she wanted to make sure that we had a table where we’d be comfortable. We picked a booth far away — not that it mattered. The band, which wasn’t scheduled for another hour and a half, came on for its sound check during prime dinner time, playing so loudly that we had to shout to be heard. Not bad, exactly — such is the allure of live music — but this certainly wasn’t the relaxing meal we’d expected at a place like this, with elegant prices to match the roomy, burgundy booths and gilt crown molding.
Ah, expectations. Baur’s is bumping up against them at every turn, attempting to reconcile what it means to be both a listening lounge and a high-end restaurant while also trying to gain a foothold in a food scene that’s trending in a more casual direction. “We came out of the gate very, very ambitious,” acknowledges chef-owner Dory Ford, who’s also using the Baur’s kitchen to expand his California-based Aqua Terra Culinary catering company. “Three months in, we’re doing some retooling."
Ford and executive chef Robert Grant, an Aurora native and alum of Thomas Keller’s Vegas-based Bouchon, weren’t ready to share many particulars beyond the likelihood of more affordable entrees; currently, the menu skews toward $29 plates. They also mentioned a reservable eight-seat table inside the kitchen and the addition of a charcuterie, sausage, cheese and oyster station that will showcase Grant’s affinity for charcuterie, honed during a two-month stint in France. In the absence of firmer details, here are my suggestions for some tweaks to Baur’s 2.0.
For a kitchen that talks up seasonality, it’s not surprising that the best dishes were the ones most in tune with the season. Chickpeas and marcona almonds added spunk to a salad of frisée, feta and arugula. Expertly crisped black cod was accented with a hint of the vinegar that plays so nicely with fish, the flavor coming not from a bottle, but from pickled chard stems. Roasted cauliflower dazzled with romesco. At night’s end, scoops of sweet corn and cherry-goat-cheese ice cream allowed us to indulge our inner kid. But otherwise, the late-summer menu could’ve been handed to me in February and I wouldn’t have batted an eye, given the preponderance of dishes such as gnocchi-and-porcini gratin, bucatini carbonara and venison schnitzel with spaetzle. Why not leave such soul-warming fare to the months when our souls need warming?
Perhaps the adherence to cordillera cuisine, a term Ford coined to describe the “rugged” cooking he associates with Denver (“cordillera” means “mountain range” in Spanish), should be relaxed or at least seasonally shelved. Even when it’s no longer beer-and-patio weather, we’re still in Denver, not the mountains, and won’t be tumbling into Baur’s ravenous after a long day on the slopes.
Price point is obviously an issue, especially for an establishment that slides back and forth between noisy nightclub and restaurant. Ford and Grant are already addressing that, but how far will their adjustments go? Do we need $21 abalone flown in, still alive, from Monterey Bay? Do we need lobster deviled eggs priced at $4 a pop? Such dishes seem like trophy fare, the culinary equivalent of antlers hung for bragging rights. Denver isn’t a place for pretentiousness, especially when it’s all style and no substance. That abalone looked lovely — sliced thin, coated in breadcrumbs and pan-fried to a deep golden, then balanced atop a shimmery shell — but it was as rubbery as a tire. The deviled eggs were anchored to the plate with droopy potato chips and an odd dollop of guacamole that masked any lobster taste the egg might have had. A flight of ice cream, served in cones fashioned from pizzelle, had about two tablespoons of ice cream per cone, making it hard to appreciate the innovative flavors. Such precious portions wouldn’t be out of place in certain Michelin-starred establishments, but they were here. Furthermore, on nights with music, shouldn’t there be a lighter, more casual menu, one more in keeping with the vibe? Turns out there is an all-day “signature” menu with burgers, corn dogs and such — but we were never offered it, even when we asked a server if there was anything other than the dinner menu.
That wasn’t the only service problem. Servers were friendly but lacked the polish associated with the kind of three-digit tabs that are so easy to rack up at Baur’s. They had a hard time describing dishes as they were delivered, and on nights with live music were so overworked that we had to walk to the hostess stand to order dessert. The kitchen, too, needs to settle down and figure out how to handle the feast-or-famine swings inherent in the concept. On nights without live music, I’ve been one of two tables in the dining room; as a result, our courses were well paced. On boom nights, servers seemed to cover for line cooks who must’ve been in the weeds, repeatedly buying time by assuring us that the kitchen was “just plating our entrees,” only to come back twenty minutes later with our still-hot and obviously just-plated food.
On nights when the kitchen was slammed, execution suffered. Schnitzel was golden on one side only, pale on the other. Chicken pavé, similar to a ballotine but cut in the shape of a cobblestone, featured a spectacular sausage-like filling — thighs emboldened with herbs, Madeira and heavy cream — between layers of white meat. But the chicken-skin wrapper had been hastily crisped, with large swaths of flesh-colored skin that hadn’t seen the heat. Curried cauliflower purée could have been a nice accent, but the curry was too strong and browbeat the brilliant sausage filling. Carbonara was silky but tasted strongly of pepper.
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And even on slow nights, mistakes happened. A charcuterie board came out with a lovely porchetta and curried lamb rillettes, but without the pickles that would have cut the richness — and with a piece of plastic wrap hidden in one pâté. A 36-hour sous-vide pork chop didn’t come close to living up to the server’s billing as “so tender, you won’t need your knife.” Banana doughnuts contained so little banana custard, a friend wondered if he’d read the menu wrong and they weren’t supposed to be fruit-flavored at all.
Some restaurants — often small ones with tight menus and even tighter staffs — can be as soaringly straightforward as a singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar. Baur’s is not that kind of place. With multiple concepts in the sprawling space, it’s more like the band I heard that night. And like that band, it needs its own form of sound check. Ford and Grant are industry veterans who know the score, and they’re working on adjustments. So here’s hoping that Baur’s finds its groove.
Baur’s Restaurant and Listening Lounge
1512 Curtis Street
Pan-fried abalone $21
Lobster deviled egg $4
Roasted cauliflower $8
Chickpea salad $12
Chicken pavé $22
Pork chop $21
Pan-roasted black cod $22
Venison schnitzel $29
Banana doughnuts $8
Baur's Restaurant and Listening Lounge is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at baursrestaurant.com.
See our slideshow for more photos from behind the scenes at Baur's.