Review: Lower48 Kitchen raises the bar in Denver

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Lower48 Kitchen 2020 Lawrence Street, Unit A 303-942-0262 lower48kitchen.com

My first thought when I saw the opening section of the menu at Lower48 Kitchen was, "I want one of each." So it's no wonder that the column of small bites, with temptations such as a beignet filled with whipped tarragon and a potato omelet with ham and smoked mayonnaise, is headed "each." My second thought -- which speaks to my years as a journalist in the digital age -- was, "Oh, I see: He's charging for content that used to be given for free," since it seemed like chef/co-owner Alex Figura was charging for amuse-bouches, those fancy tidbits traditionally sent out as a gift from the kitchen.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Lower48 Kitchen

But that was in the restaurant's early days, when night fell in late afternoon and crocuses were snuggled deep in their beds. It was also before the narrow white platter of the most delicious appetizers I've had in a long while was set before me, appetizers each well worth two bucks...and more.

Dehydrated and fried celery-root coins became supports for a tower of smoked ricotta, shiitakes and honey that was balanced not just in structure, but in flavor, with a gentle interplay of smoky, earthy and sweet. That beignet split open to reveal a tarragon emulsion as bright in flavor as its green color. Crackers made of melted Gruyère were propped like a wheel, glued together with a whimsical mix of sunflower-seed butter, feta and greens. (They're now served open-faced.) Though made with many ingredients, each "each" had a dominant flavor -- lemon in the yogurt drizzle over chickpea-flour fries, smokiness in the mayo in the gratin-like omelet -- that harmonized with the ensemble. These were much more than amuse-bouches; they were open invitations to hang out with a talented group of chefs. And while I enjoyed the rest of my dinner that night, I was hardly out the door before I was plotting a return for a larger assortment of small bites as my first course, using the menu's small plates as my entree.

I must not have been the only one who felt this way, because as winter waned, Figura dropped the large plates in favor of a freewheeling selection of dishes that are called "small" but really come out somewhere between small plates and entrees. "From the get-go, [co-owner Mario Nocifera] and I talked about the 'each' category and how it was a great way to taste flavors and temperatures," says Figura, who overlapped with Nocifera at Frasca Food and Wine in 2011 before heading to a Michelin three-star restaurant in Spain, then returning to open Lower48 in a brand-new building in the Ballpark neighborhood late last fall. "As we were working through the menu over the past three months, I thought, 'Why not carry that over to smalls?'" That way, he explains, guests "can try various items and get a good range of what we do." The move was a good one -- not because there was anything lacking in the entrees, but because Figura's food is so multi-faceted, you want every opportunity to see what he can do before the pastry chef takes over.

At restaurants of this caliber, salads are often given all the attention of a pre-glass-slipper Cinderella. At Lower48, though, they receive royal treatment. The wild-mushroom salad, a new addition with the menu revamp, juxtaposed four kinds of mushrooms -- pickled and confited shiitakes, roasted maitakes, braised chanterelles and smoked oyster mushrooms -- over a sophisticated, hummus-like purée of pears and walnuts that deserves to be an appetizer in its own right. Pickled carrots, braised and raw radishes, celery and wisps of raw pear completed a dish that -- like much of Figura's cooking -- makes a strong case for why "cerebral" and "comfort food" are not mutually exclusive terms. Greens made more of an appearance in the winter salad, with seared baby romaine accenting a smooth, thin sheet of brioche bread pudding. Drizzled with what we considered salsa verde and the menu calls "green goddess vinaigrette," the salad was laced with oft-overlooked vegetables such as raw kohlrabi and cubes of celery root baked in salt, a technique Figura used at the uber-seasonal Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. "Our job as cooks is to put [ingredients] in the public eye," he says, which they're doing with a vegetable-heavy menu. "If a guest asks, we can make a great [green] salad, but we want to show them how much more can be done with great seasonal products."

See also: Behind the Scenes at Lower48 Kitchen

Unlike the Italian-oriented Frasca, where Figura also worked with now-sous-chef Greg Schesser, Lower48 was conceived as an American restaurant with a focus on regional American cuisine. But the focus is more subtle than overt, with an ever-changing menu that nods here and there to Americana -- a corn dog or potato chip on the "each" section, a short rib from Colorado beef, trout with shellfish chowder -- without categorizing dishes as "South," "East" and so forth. The decor is understated, too, with overt Americana (train tracks, telegraph poles) reserved for the private room off the bar. This makes for a dining room that feels contemporary yet comfortable, with upholstered banquettes, soft lighting from red and black pendant lamps, and the energy that comes from chatter among guests and chefs at the chef's counter. The room is even nicer now that dark falls late, given the floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around Lawrence and 21st streets.

Despite Nocifera's welcoming smiles and table-hopping to ensure that the night is progressing smoothly, servers at times let the food down, misnaming ingredients on a plate, neglecting to mention charges for sparkling water and bread, and not adequately guiding guests through the entree-free menu. But the food rarely let itself down. Brussels sprouts were livened up with sweet-potato steak fries that had been confited in clarified butter, wrapped in paper-thin pastry and seared to a spectacular crisp. Slender octopus arms, charred to black yet tender inside, showboated with house-cured lamb bacon in black squid-ink vinaigrette. A stack of savory pancakes, layered with spinach, mushrooms and housemade ricotta, cottage cheese and sour cream, made me long for perpetual winter, since the dish is too heavy for spring. Risotto was healthier than normal, with a blend of eight chewy grains, all cooked in different pots to ensure proper texture. Even desserts, which tend to be the weak spot at restaurants this calibrated and clever, wowed more often than not, especially the grilled cheese with whiskey ice cream and the citrus & meringues, with its yogurt foamed from a siphon, a dollop of four-citrus curd, and broken matchsticks of crisp white meringue.

What complaints I had centered on portion size for the price, particularly with a small cut of ribeye and a meager serving of cavatelli with brisket ragu. However, the elimination of large plates -- other than very large ones, as in a $74 ribeye for two -- has largely made these complaints moot. Although the kitchen is still teeter-tottering with cost and portion, I'll take these real-time adjustments any day, because all too often, this style of cooking is found at the kinds of places at which Figura used to work, places with high price tags and prix-fixe menus associated with anniversaries and big birthdays.

Why should food this good be reserved for special occasions? Lower48's new format -- which puts control in diners' hands with two-dollar bites and refined yet affordable small plates -- proves it doesn't have to be.

Selected dishes at Lower48 Kitchen Beignet $2 Chickpea fry $2 Gruyère crisp $2 Dried celery root $2 Potato omelette $2 Winter salad $13 Wild-mushroom salad $12 Sweet potato and charred Brussels sprouts $11 Charred octopus $14 Eight-grain risotto $17 Savory pancakes $10 Citrus & meringues $9 Grilled cheese $9

Contact the author at gretchen.kurtz@westword.com.

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