Review: To the Wind Bistro Is a Breath of Fresh Air on East Colfax

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"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.
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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz