Think of the last time you ordered wine for the table. If you care passionately about good food and good wine, your pulse probably still quickens at the fear of blowing your budget or mangling the name Georges Duboeuf in front of your friends. Now double that, and you’ll be somewhere close to the intimidation factor of fine cheese.
Yet when you walk in the door of Truffle Table, a four-year-old restaurant in LoHi that specializes in both wine and cheese, intimidation is the last thing you feel. And that’s by design. Run by Rob and Karin Lawler, owners of Truffle Cheese Shop, this unassuming sliver of a restaurant at the edge of LoHi is undeniably friendly, its walls filled with cheese labels and wooden cheese boxes, its seats filled with people deep in conversation. A staffer looks up from the glass of wine he’s pouring and invites you to sit where you want. A saucer of spiced corn nuts and chickpeas arrives in short order to take the edge off, but nothing is demanded of you. “I know you just sat down,” your server says amiably. “I’ll let you get settled.” That’s a small gesture of hospitality, perhaps, but one that other restaurants often overlook in their rush to get tables turning. At Truffle Table there is no rush, so you’ll begin to relax even before your glass of respectable house red and your cheese plate arrive.
We’d come at happy hour, when the prices are good, the portions large and the cheese plate pre-set from thirty or so selections listed on the chalkboards. In a world with too many choices, having it pre-set was another welcome move that took the pressure off. All talk of traffic, kids and house projects ceased as my husband and I tackled our three-cheese plate, which we beefed up with an ounce of jamón ibérico. There was tête de moine, a nutty cow’s-milk cheese from Switzerland shaved and ruffled like an Elizabethan collar; cacio de Roma, a young sheep’s-milk cheese sliced in pale yellow strips; and the softer, moodier monte enebro, a Spanish goat with a gray rind of mold and ash. We pressed the runner for details, eager to learn more about what he’d set before us.
Instead, he just recited names and countries of origin, then hurried off to the kitchen with a joke: “Rind at your own risk!” We started tasting and continued talking, stepping away from the intensity as needed with the provided grapes, mixed-berry preserves and almonds. But without more background to inform our conversation, we primarily talked in degrees of likes and dislikes. Or make that likes and really likes: The kitchen, under the direction of Rob Lawler while chef de cuisine Deirdre Borer is on maternity leave, knows its stuff and makes good choices.
But we couldn’t help imagining how much more nuanced our experience would have been if we’d been told more, perhaps a story about one of the cheesemakers or a tidbit on the evolution from young to ripe. I knew such information was available, and I could have pulled my phone out to find it. But that would have killed our conversation; devices have a way of doing that. Frustratingly, the server who could have provided those details was busy regaling another table with stories, like how ash was used as a preservative in the days before refrigeration, a fact the runner — even when pressed — hadn’t shared. What cheeses was the server talking about when we overheard him saying that one cheese is “like a wife, and one’s a little slutty, like a mistress”? We wanted to know; after a lead-in like that, who wouldn’t want to try them both? Such lessons should make the difference between buying cheese at the supermarket, where it’s cheaper, and eating it at a cheese-focused restaurant, where you’re paying for the staff’s expertise as well as superb cheese.
We encountered the same lack of information regarding the wine. Some wine bars, though not Truffle Table, provide tablets with tasting notes for every wine on offer, so you can narrow down wines based on profiles you like: say, citrus or hints of cherry. But when I asked for help narrowing down two choices, the server quipped, “If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it for you and bring the other one.” More mysterious was our butter sampler, which was dropped off without a word and two courses too late — after the check, with no apology or gesture of goodwill.
Turns out, there are two reasons for the information shortage at Truffle Table. On many nights, there’s only one server. This lends a leisurely, European vibe to your meal, creating an atmosphere so intimate, you get the sense that if you stopped in twice, you’d be welcomed by name as a regular. But no one can be in two places at the same time; if your server isn’t telling you about the cheese plate, it’s because he’s taking an order from another table, running into the kitchen, then hurrying to the patio. And by the time he comes back to check on you, your cheese is already gone.
The second reason is more philosophical. When the restaurant first opened, Rob Lawler says he expected to run it as he does his cheese shop, introducing people to the intricacies of rinds and textures and even offering classes. But “people just wanted to sit and talk to their girlfriend,” he explains. They “didn’t want to treat it like an educational experience. The people who did were few and far between, so it didn’t make sense to push that angle.”
This revelation, offered over the phone after I’d already eaten several times at Truffle Table, astonished me. I’d enjoyed the spot’s ambience and food, and plan to return again, even though I know I’ll probably again leave hungering to know more. But Rob’s observation made me wonder: How deep does this city’s obsession with food go? We pour ourselves into craft beer, but do we care just as much about our fish’s catch method, our organic beets, our stinky cheese? Or are we using the promise of a good meal as simply the rallying point for going out, with the meeting and greeting, rather than the eating itself, the most important part of the evening? In Denver’s booming restaurant scene, motivations may not matter…but if there’s a bust, they might.
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Fortunately, having just marked its fourth birthday this summer, Truffle Table appears to have staying power. For people who come here just to talk with their significant other and not talk about cheese, the menu has options. They’re all so homey, they seem designed to make every last trace of intimidation disappear — but in reality, the menu is dictated by the closet-sized kitchen, which has only two induction burners and an oven. Bruschetta of the day were straightforward but satisfying, with melted Gruyère and colorful dots of yellow and red heirloom tomatoes. Bacon-artichoke dip was homespun, the taste of every potluck you’ve ever gone to. Risotto — an Americanized version, not the runny, creamy stuff of Milan — welcomed fall with mushrooms and butternut squash. (It was a brief salute: The dish just came off the menu.) A cheese-lover’s blend of cheddar, blue and truffle Gouda had the potential to make a noteworthy mac and cheese, but mine was largely unsauced and gritty from toasted breadcrumbs. Pork-prosciutto meatballs were also dry, on a bed of raw, wide kale strips that fell in the category of green stuff your mom made you eat. Brûléed bananas crackled at the tap of a fork, but the bread pudding was cold inside, despite a bath of warm butterscotch.
But any concerns over these blunders were subsumed by the rush of nostalgia you feel as you pull apart a grilled cheese sandwich, strands of melted cheddar stretching like a suspension bridge. “It’s like what your mom made, only fancier,” said our server. Instead of Velveeta, though, you’ll find goat cheese-pesto or cheddar, bacon and tomato-chipotle jam on hearty sourdough that crisps until even its buttery edges become things of beauty. Add a deep bowl of tomato soup, with all the virtues of San Marzanos (the tomato of choice for Neapolitan pie), plus crumbled bacon and a swirl of sour cream, and you’ll be happier than a kid in a candy store. You should be: You’re an adult in a cheese and wine bar that’s also a winsome neighborhood spot.
2556 15th Street
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Select menu items
Happy hour 3-cheese plate $10
Butter sampler $9
Bacon-artichoke dip $9
Grilled cheese $12
Macaroni and cheese $13
Bread pudding $7