Professional kitchens are not nice places. Creative, explosive, energetic, yes. Nice? No. You know this if you've worked in one, or if you've read any of the rant-filled memoirs by people who have. In the latest offering in this genre, Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, Michael Gibney churns out this characterization of the common chef: "His temper is incendiary. Allowing something imperfect to reach his hands might set him off, and the shrapnel hits everybody when he blows."
But at To the Wind Bistro, a tiny spot that opened on East Colfax Avenue this spring, the only thing blowing is, literally, the wind, which has a way of sweeping through the place when diners duck in to avoid the stray evening storm. Here there's no shrapnel, no temper. Truth be told, there's not even a sous-chef. There are only two people in the kitchen, and if they talk to each other like they actually like each other, it's because they do.
See also: A Closer Look at To The Wind Bistro"Sorry about that, sweetheart," I heard chef-owner Royce Oliveira say to his wife, pastry chef-owner Leanne Adamson, one night in the midst of the evening rush, when guests were piling in faster than tables were turning and a server was taking names on a folded-up ticket.
Such behavior might not sell books. But it does fill seats, with people lining up early to grab one of the few tables tucked into this 628-square-foot space. My favorite spot is at the chef's counter, a tiny slip of counter space between the front window and the open kitchen where everything -- and I do mean everything -- happens. This is where Oliveira, who spent five years at Mizuna, grills greens, fries tomatoes and coaxes trout skin to a golden state of crispness. It's where Adamson, a veteran of Cake Crumbs and Adagio Bakery, skins tomatoes, slathers parsley pistou on ribbons of yellow squash, and adds sweet orange segments to a plate of stout-fortified chocolate cake. It's also where you'll find their two daughters on occasion, before one parent or the other scoops them up and whisks them back downstairs, where the Wii and the TV are waiting to entertain them during service. "I love the fact that we can bring our kids to work with us," says Adamson. "They're not the first kids to grow up in a restaurant, and they're not the last kids to grow up in a restaurant."
To the Wind might be good for their kids, but it's not good for everyone else's kids. Tables are snug, banquettes are hard, and the menu is decidedly grown up. This means that the best way to approach a meal -- even for adults -- is to come in with an open mind, willing to taste ingredients you probably spent all of your childhood and much of adulthood shying away from. Veal, for example, which is breaded, pan-fried and bathed in nutty brown butter as a knockout schnitzel starter. Or escargot, which remains a culinary stumbling block for many, even people who scoop tartare and slurp down oysters. Rather than serving snails in the shell, Oliveira serves them as empanada filling, with garlic, leeks and cream cheese. I won't say they taste like chicken, because nothing tastes like chicken but chicken. But thanks to the oyster mushrooms alongside, they do taste pleasantly earthy -- until you drag a bite through the rich parmesan-cream sauce, at which point you'll stop worrying about what you're eating and just start immensely enjoying. "I've never sold so much escargot in my life," laughs Oliveira.Not all dishes are so provocative, but all are cooked with the kind of urgency and passion that are harder to come by in restaurants with more seats, more cooks, more middlemen. There are no middlemen here, just two cooks who have put their hearts into this place. The menu is adjusted daily, based on what sold well the night before and what's available at the neighborhood Sprouts, which Oliveira visits regularly. You might find thin strips of squash folded on the plate like old-fashioned ribbon candy, with confit tomatoes and a spoonful of whipped, chive-flecked ricotta. Or chewy curls of housemade cavatelli lushly studded with fava beans, mushrooms and kale in a meatless carbonara, or steak over onion purée with green beans and Gorgonzola. If you're really lucky, you'll find floured, pan-seared monkfish, pea shoots and peas in a mint-specked broth, a dish so refreshing it made me wonder why mint remains under-utilized (except in tabouleh and mojitos). Barbecue also makes an appearance, albeit in the form of roasted pork shoulder slicked in a vinegary, mustard-based South Carolina-style sauce, with coleslaw and Belgian waffles, not white bread, as stunning bookends. Keep reading for the rest of the review of To the Wind Bistro. One night, we asked our server for help narrowing down the small menu. All of the possibilities enticed us, even if many were hotter and heavier (think lamb sweetbreads and pastrami with sauerkraut) than we would've dared cook at home in this heat. "What do you recommend, the chicken or steak?" my husband asked. "Chicken!" she instantly cried, with the enthusiasm of someone calling out bingo numbers. When his plate came, I quickly saw why: The roasted chicken was moist and tender from a buttermilk brine, with tempura- and panko-coated wedges of green tomatoes and grilled greens tossed with quinoa for a refined yet approachable plate of Southern goodness.
We had an equally hard time choosing between the desserts, all of which are designed and executed by Adamson, who graduated from Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island with a degree in baking and pastry. Working with the assurance of someone who knows and appreciates food, not just sweets, she sends out dishes with unusual, and delicious, touches: apricot filling in the ganache-covered stout chocolate cake; stem-on Rainier cherries on the seasonal tapioca tart. Watching from the chef's counter next to us, a guest who had sat down after a thirty-minute wait commented, "I can't wait to bring my friends here." Adamson looked up from the cake she was plating and smiled. "But you haven't eaten anything yet," she said. "I know," he countered, "but everything just looks so good."He was right to trust his intuition. I ate here many times, on busy nights and slow nights, and came to the same conclusion: Everything we ate looked good, in an honest, glitz-free way, and tasted as good as it looked. The few distractions that arose only did so because there's so much to do and so few people to do it. (At times, Oliveira calls on his brother-in-law, also a chef, to help out.) One night we waited forty minutes between courses. Another time our plates sat on the counter half-finished while Oliveira tended to other dishes. When our food finally arrived, the steak was perfectly cooked and seasoned -- but lukewarm. An addictive bowl of complimentary hot peanuts, boiled in a mix of brown sugar, fennel seed, garlic and other spices, should've come out while we were drinking beer and checking out the menu, but it arrived moments before the first course.
But rather than detract from the experience, these glitches only reinforced the charm of To the Wind, a place with immediacy, sincerity and, truth be told, niceness, whether you work in the tiny open kitchen or just peer into it while enjoying your meal.
Select menu items at To the Wind Bistro: Warm squash salad $7 Cornmeal waffle $9 Veal schnitzel $10 Escargot empanadas $11 Monkfish $21 Bistro steak $20 Buttermilk chicken $17 Chanterelle carbonara $18 Seasonal tart $7 Stout chocolate cake $7
To the Wind Bistro is open 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at tothewindbistro.com.