The Squeaky Bean 1500 Wynkoop Street 303-623-2665
If The Squeaky Bean were a person, it would be the kid making wisecracks in the back of the class, smart enough to ace the test without cracking open a book. It knows the rules but chooses to break them -- first in its eccentric original home in Highland, where the kitchen won the neighborhood over with rustic fare prepared on little more than camping equipment -- and now in LoDo. When the restaurant opened here after a year-long hiatus, it tried to reassure fans that despite the swanky digs and high-reaching menu, it was the same old Bean, with checks clipped to seed packets and drinks named for celebrities. But the food and service were far more sophisticated than silly, and I loved the place when I reviewed it in the fall of 2012.
This is a restaurant born of risk and reinvention, though, and much has changed since then -- including the replacement of opening chef Max MacKissock with Theo Adley, a veteran chef who made his mark at the Pinyon in Boulder. So I felt it was time to see what the kid is up to these days.
See also: Behind the Scenes at the Squeaky Bean
The best way to understand how much has changed at the Squeaky Bean is to stop in for Sunday brunch. Only you can't just stop in. You have to make a reservation and park a half-mile away, like I did -- I checked my map app -- given the scarcity of parking now that Union Station is open. Even two years ago, this part of LoDo wasn't nearly as hot, and many of the Bean's current competitors were little more than a twinkle in somebody's eye. And two years ago, if you'd shown up at the Bean in the daytime -- arguably the best time to enjoy the dining room, given its expanse of windows -- the only faces you would have seen were those of a few cooks getting ready for dinner. There was simply too much prep to be able to pull off brunch, "and then try to do what we're trying to do at night," MacKissock told me at the time.
But MacKissock parted ways with owners Johnny Ballen and Josh Olsen a year ago; bingo brunch, played with a vintage light-up board, was added a few months later. And today the Bean is not only pulling off the meal, it's packing 'em in. Between the fast-flowing drinks, microphone antics and guys high-fiving after a chug at the bar, brunch could be mistaken for a rowdy rehearsal dinner, with parents covering kids' ears so that they don't hear the caller's jokes. Food is clearly not the attraction at brunch, not even the campy pimento cheese or the pork hash, with its potatoes, Brussels sprouts and pan-crisped pork belly united in glory by a punctured yolk. It seems more of an afterthought, the price to be paid for the thrill of yelling "Bingo!" And that's the lesson that brunch here teaches us -- not just about this midday meal, but about everything now coming out of the kitchen: The Squeaky Bean is where you come to be entertained.
Adley has now had a year to make the menu his own. Dishes are still clever, as they were under his predecessor, in no way related to comfort food or what passes for it in professional kitchens. Plating remains artistic. Seasonal ingredients are the cornerstone. But a new style has emerged, at dinner as well as brunch, and it's more irreverent than ever. In fact, it's a lot like that joke-cracking guy with the mike.
How else to explain such elements as corn flakes, which are supposedly spruced up with spices (ours tasted straight from the box) and then tossed with Brussels sprouts? Peanuts already add texture; the cereal adds little more than shock talk. Porchetta -- really a piece of bacon-wrapped pork loin -- is topped with ruby slivers that look like prawn antennae, and are about as much fun to eat. Kimchi and fried chicken aren't really birds of the same feather, not even when it's apple kimchi tossed with roasted cauliflower -- but that's the point for Adley. "I love this stuff," he says. "It's really fun for me."
Philosophically, the restaurant remains committed to seasonal produce; Adley pores over a seed catalogue each winter to decide what to plant at the restaurant's farm. But where MacKissock wove elaborate tales around the vegetables themselves -- carrot soup with wise accents of lime roe and lime ice cream, beets that grew ever earthier with dots of nut butter and Gouda -- the kitchen now treats them like steps toward a punchline. This time around, the beets in a beet salad disappeared under a shroud of popped sorghum that mimicked the hard, nutty bits at the bottom of a popcorn box. Although a few round slices were propped vertically and wedges tucked underneath, these beets felt like garnish on the dish they should have been headlining. Squash soup raised hopes, but the curry was so strong that the soup tasted smoky, almost burnt. Keep reading for more on the Squeaky Bean.
As I wrestled with rubbery strips of matsutake mushrooms in my pumpkin risotto, I found myself wishing that something, anything, could be taken at face value. The plump grains, light yellow rather than orange, had no hint of warmth, no comforting sweetness from fall's favorite squash. Every bite was filled with funk and earth from the mushrooms, with a jarring tartness from lemon slices and the crunch of poppy seeds stirred liberally throughout.
At least the kitchen doesn't poke fun at technique. The fried chicken was uniformly moist, proof (if anyone needed it) that brining really pays off. Whole, deep-fried snapper on a bed of fresh mint and pepper ragout had an exquisitely crisp shell that clung to every bite, making it worth the effort to pick around bones. And lamb heart had been handled gingerly, as all hearts should be, cut into quivering slices to smear with chunky pesto. The Bean's servers should talk up these dishes; instead, they all but apologized for the unusual cuts, an awkward disconnect between the front and back of the house. Also awkward: having to wait thirty minutes for plates to be cleared, by which point the meter had expired and there was no time for dessert.
What servers did praise was a last-hurrah-of-fall appetizer -- likely off the menu by now, along with many of the other dishes I ate, given the pace at which menus change here. Baby eggplants, shishitos and tomatoes had been blistered until the skins blackened and loosened, then were yanked from the blowtorch a moment before the char became too much. Cooled with slippery burrata, which melted ever so slightly as the cast-iron dish made its way to our table, these last nuggets of the garden elicited the only "Mmmm" of all our meals.
That's the thing about humor: It often isn't as fun to receive as it is to dole out. Unless, of course, you've just yelled "Bingo!" and are the proud winner of an ovulation kit. And that's no joke.
Select menu items at the Squeaky Bean: Pimento cheese $8 Pork hash $13 Brussels sprouts $9 Lamb heart $11 Squash soup $10 Beets $10 Burrata $14 Risotto $21 Half chicken $24 Porchetta $22 Snapper $25
The Squeaky Bean is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Friday, 4-11 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at thesqueakybean.net.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.