Brazen Neighborhood Eatery 4450 West 38th Avenue 720-638-1242
Given the excitement that chef's counters can bring to dining rooms, it's hard to believe they weren't always a staple of restaurant design. Rather than being separated from the kitchen by solid walls and a swinging door, a chef's counter lets diners perch on stools just feet from the line, feeling the heat of the flames, hearing the sizzle of ingredients in a hot pan, and taking in the cues -- "Four salmon, all day!" -- that keep the show running.
Not every chef's counter is successful, of course. I've sat at some where the cooks kept their eyes averted, as if they'd rather chop onions all day than make eye contact with a guest. I've had questions answered with a stiffness that says, "Please leave me alone," and been made to feel like a third wheel, tolerated but unwelcome. Counters like these are really booby prizes for diners arriving after all the other tables are full.
But at Brazen Neighborhood Eatery, which owner Chris Sargent opened this fall in Berkeley with chef Lance Barto, the chef's counter isn't a booby prize; it's the golden ticket.
Arrive early enough to score one of the six seats, which often fill before the pillowed banquette in the dining room, and you'll find yourself treated like a VIP. Counter meals start with an amuse-bouche, something the kitchen otherwise reserves for industry folks or friends. Cooks share tastes like secrets, handing out morsels of spiced cauliflower or whatever they're working on. And they deliver plates themselves, describing sauces and ingredients with the sort of detail that only the person stirring, sautéing and roasting would know. "When we opened, Chris said, 'We're going to have a chef's counter, but it can't be the typical chef's counter, with a bunch of silent cooks ignoring you,'" recalls Barto, formerly of Central Bistro & Bar, Beatrice & Woodsley and Strings. "The idea was that it would be interactive and engaging."
Even if you arrive too late for the counter -- and by late, I mean 6:15 p.m., even mid-week -- you'll find plenty at Brazen to engage you. That's not because the restaurant is doing anything particularly shocking or shameless, as the name might suggest. There's no in-the-dark dining, for example, no $585 tasting menu that would make the restaurant a bucket-list destination. No, Brazen's success, which was nearly instantaneous, stems from something much simpler: Sargent and Barto's uncanny ability to give people what they want.
In addition to a fun chef's counter, the restaurant beckons with craft cocktails and an aggressively priced wine list curated by Sargent, who spent time at Rioja and Acorn. It bustles with personable front-of-the-house staff -- including Sargent's brother, Daniel Rogan -- who steer you through the menu, are quick to refill water and wine, and make guests both young and old feel special. (Kids do occasionally find their way into the dining room, since this is a neighborhood restaurant at heart.) Most important, though, it delivers unpretentious, seasonally inspired small plates at prices so reasonable, you can eat and drink, and eat and drink, without the fear of a formidable tab.
Start with an order of spicy deviled eggs -- a signature dish loaded with goat cheese and harissa -- and what the menu calls fancy toast, a trend that has made its way to Denver from the coasts. Here, slices of whole-wheat levain are treated as composed plates, slathered with everything from pork belly and arugula to chèvre and butternut squash. My favorite is the earthy pairing of bacon, oyster and chanterelle mushrooms and a poached egg, anchored by a smear of white-bean purée. Groups big and small have been known to order all three versions of the toast, proof that there's nothing wrong with a gimmick if it tastes good.
Keep reading for more about Brazen.
For a menu that feels familiar with its preponderance of small plates, Brazen's emphasis on vegetables stands out. "We didn't want the vegetable section to turn into a list of side dishes," says Barto. Far from being cast off as sides, vegetables are treated with the dignity normally afforded to proteins. A curried carrot and butternut squash soup melds elegantly with a dollop of spiced yogurt and golden-raisin purée at the center of the bowl, the dairy's cumin and caraway creeping tantalizingly into the soup. Green-and-yellow boats of hollowed-out delicata squash overflow with a grain salad sprightly with pomegranate seeds, apple, and fresh tarragon, parsley and chives. A peppery arugula salad finds its balance in blue cheese, pickled cranberries, shallots and pear poached in apple brandy and champagne vinegar. Even Brussels sprouts, that cliché of a vegetable, deserve a second look when served with crunchy bits of candied bacon and a surefire foundation of flavors, including lemon, garlic and parmesan. Pair any of the featured vegetable dishes with an order of oysters on the half shell, and you've got yourself a meal.
Not that the cooked proteins are anything to ignore. A confit duck leg -- cured, cooked in duck fat and crisped to order -- provides the perfect rejoinder when friends in California start bragging about how they're playing golf in T-shirts. This duck dish is ill-suited to anything but cold weather, with a richness compounded by bean ragout laced with smoked pork shoulder and chicken demi-glace. Roasted half-chicken, one of several large plates sized for two, boasts moist meat hidden under golden skin crisscrossed by large sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Even braised meatballs over creamy polenta -- as much of a cliché as those Brussels sprouts -- hold their own, with a recipe of ricotta, beef and pork that originated with Sargent's grandmother. While the menu changes weekly, keeping a few constants like these is hardly brazen -- a fact that isn't lost on Barto. "Who cares?" he says, and laughs. "It's not popular for no reason."
For all Brazen has going for it -- including a park-side fire pit sparkling under strings of white lights -- there's still room to improve. Desserts lack the freshness of the rest of the menu, though groups seem to like the s'mores with house graham crackers and marshmallows sent out on a revolving platter. Not all servers are as friendly as others. Sometimes amuse-bouche arrive without proper utensils, like the thick parsnip soup I was offered one night without a demitasse spoon. The dining room verges on rock-concert loud. And given the quirky wine list, it would be nice for servers -- or even the menu itself -- to suggest pairings. But these are minor quibbles for a restaurant that's already secured a solid place in the Denver dining scene.
Golden ticket, indeed.
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Select menu items at Brazen Neighborhood Eatery: Spicy deviled eggs $6 Roasted mushroom toast $9 Carrot & butternut squash soup $7 Brussels sprouts $8 Delicata squash $9 Poached pear salad $9 Tomato-braised meatballs $12 Duck confit $14 Roasted half-chicken $27 S'mores $10
Brazen Neighborhood Eatery is open 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at brazendenver.com.