Review: Range Brings a Taste of the Mild, Wild West to Downtown Denver

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Range 918 17th Street 720-726-4800 Like the Great American West implied by its name, Range is a place with big ambitions. These are hinted at in the shiny metallic banquettes (gold fever?) and the walnut communal tables sized in anticipation of crowds. They're also implicit in the fact that Range, which opened this spring in the new Renaissance Denver City Center Hotel in the historic Colorado National Bank building, was built with two entrances: one off the soaring lobby, with its mural-covered walls and marble columns, and a second off Champa Street. "Range is played as an independent restaurant," says executive chef Paul Nagan, a twenty-year veteran who's spent his entire career in hotel eateries and knows their intricacies well. "It's refreshing to have that independent feel."

See also: Behind the Scenes at Range

So in addition to Range fueling business travelers with an early breakfast, cooking meals for those who'd rather not venture out and offering solace at the bar for solo guests looking for a chance to unwind, the restaurant was conceived as a place for locals to cool their heels. And if its first hundred days are any indication, the strategy has paid off. "I'd be hard-pressed to give a percentage," says Nagan, "but I get the feeling there are a lot more locals at the moment."

The menu is dotted with references only insiders would understand: feta from Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy in Buena Vista, soft-ripened truffello from MouCo in Fort Collins, pork from Denver's Tender Belly. It's also stocked with the kinds of ingredients and dishes that have become culinary shorthand for trendy. Purple carrots, Brussels sprouts and kale make appearances, as do charcuterie platters, skin-on striped bass and lamb belly, which has galloped to popularity on pork belly's tail.

On my first visit to Range, I entered from the lobby, a glamorous space filled with black leather settees, fuchsia pillows and the freestanding Teller Bar, where men in suits sat at an illuminated counter drinking cocktails. I wouldn't have minded eating dinner in that grand, repurposed space, but the full menu is served only inside Range, so we kept walking and found ourselves in a completely different environment. Range is decidedly Western in decor, with Western art and fabrics, original steel beams, and a dark floor and ceiling (this one nine feet -- not three stories, as in the lobby), giving the room a cold, subterranean feel after nightfall.

The feeling that we'd boarded a train in the cosmopolitan city and disembarked somewhere in the rough-and-tumble West wasn't helped by the hostess, who passed out menus (mine sullied with yellow stains) and said, "I'll leave you with this bad boy." I was surprised to find the bad boy labeled "Spring 14," which seemed out of keeping in late summer for a chef who knows the seasonality expected by his audience -- at least the local one. When I asked Nagan about it later, he chalked up the delay to difficulties with room-service menus. (Nagan's crew handles all food served in the building.) Shortly after my last visit, however, the menu was updated to better reflect the season, with about 70 percent turnover at dinner.

While many recipes are new, what remains constant is the kitchen's underlying philosophy, which was evident even if the ingredients weren't reflective of the season's bounty. "The idea was to source locally but stay true to flavors and techniques of the New American West," says Nagan, who approached this menu as he did the previous one, with an eye to grilling, smoking, pickling and preserving.

I got a taste of those techniques in an entree spotlighting smoked Tender Belly Berkshire pork tenderloin. I've endured my share of ill-fated smoker projects, with smoke so strong it harmed everything within shouting distance. Not so here, where Nagan had lightly cold-smoked the pork, then grilled it to order. The meat was so good that I longed to free it from the many other distractions -- lardons, burnt onions, ale-spiked jus, a pool of melted red-chile butter and two slices of smoked pork belly -- and simply enjoy the plate's purest flavors: that tenderloin, mascarpone-rich grits and wine-poached apples.

As plate after plate came my way that night and others, I noticed a pattern. Nagan's no-holds-barred approach covers a lot of culinary territory, and we often found ourselves happily along for the ride. A bread board featured an unusually rich assortment of cheesy popovers, pretzels and cheddar-jalapeño rolls (the last two sourced from locally acclaimed Grateful Bread). Charred Padrón peppers were slicked with a sweet barbecue glaze and tossed with feta, crispy onions and habanero bacon in a shoot-out of Western flavors that left us dragging spoons around the bowl, hungry for more. Skin-on bass arrived on swirls of salsa verde and red romesco, with a scoop of black beluga lentils (and candied tomatoes, peas and roasted beets) in the center. Fried green tomatoes bordered a prairie-sized piece of burrata, with added touches of raw Brussels sprouts, pickled shallots and pepper jelly. My favorite dish on the menu -- since replaced by Olathe sweet-corn soup -- was Azteca tortilla soup, a textured purée of roasted tomatoes and chiles, with plenty of thin tortilla strips for crunch and a dollop of avocado crema.

Keep reading for more of our review of Range. Not everything benefited from so much excess. The smoked-bacon-jam flatbread was good, and it must be a strong seller, because it was one of the few dishes to carry over to the new menu. But it would have been better as a white pie, without the tomato sauce that hogtied the bacon jam and bourbon-maple drizzle. And I wish it had been delivered as promised -- i.e., cooked in a wood (not gas) oven. Charred-carrot hummus sounded like a winner, but carrots are a sweet vegetable, and charring them intensifies that; the resulting dip was so thick and sweet, it wrestled with the chimichurri, pine nuts, pickled Fresno peppers and olives on top. Crispy chicken (the Jidori brand flown in from Los Angeles, oddly, rather than local poultry) was also overly sweet, with so much ancho honey that the Three Sisters panzanella -- a clever nod to ancestral peoples' use of corn, beans and squash -- tasted dangerously close to dessert.

Speaking of sweets, those, too, were ingredient-intensive. The best of them, lemon buttermilk cheesecake in a jar, was the table favorite, with a layer of lemon marmalade, whipped cream, toasted coconut and two pieces of decadent almond shortbread. Chocolate Dr Pepper cake, however, crossed the line, with chocolate striations and a thick soda reduction making it just too much of a few good things.

Nagan might want to simplify a few of these dishes -- and take the time saved in the kitchen to give the staff a little more training. When I entered from the street -- as many locals do, especially at lunch, the restaurant's busiest meal -- I felt like I'd snuck in through the back door. The hostess stand lies on the far side of the dining room, so we waited a while until we were finally welcomed by the bartender. In that setting, the casual greeting seemed to fit, and we took our seats, enjoying the daylight streaming in through the windows.

But for a restaurant built with a separate entrance and for a chef who's thinking of locals as much as out-of-towners, servers tended to operate from the opposite assumption. Cheery lines about filtered Colorado water sounded awkward to our ears. So did one server's reason for recommending the lamb belly: "If you're from out of town, I recommend the lamb, because it is, you know, Colorado lamb." Servers also mistakenly told us that lamb belly isn't fatty, misidentified sorbets as gelato, and read the night's few specials verbatim, as painful a process to hear from a server as from any public speaker.

Such mixed messages -- and, in some cases, mistakes -- don't matter as much at a hotel restaurant, with an audience that will check out the next day. But they do matter to locals, especially in a city with a thriving food scene. Nagan has delivered a solid (and now updated) menu, but there's still some wild to be taken out of Range's homage to the New American West.

Select Menu Items at Range Breaking bread $6 Blistered Padrón peppers $10 Charred-carrot hummus $10 Bacon-jam flatbread $13 Fried green tomatoes and burrata $11 Local striped bass $25 Jidori chicken $24 Smoked pork $23 Lemon buttermilk cheesecake $7

Range is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, go to rangedowntown.com

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