Michael Shiell created quite a stir when he picked the name for the restaurant that would mark his return to Denver after a three-year hiatus: It would be called Milk & Honey, after a biblical phrase synonymous with good times. It might have been more straightforward to call the place Good Times, but that was already taken by a drive-thru burger joint — and in any case, that name was too lowbrow for the spot in Larimer Square that Shiell had chosen. Problem was, Milk & Honey was already the name of a revered speakeasy-style bar in New York credited with setting off the craft-cocktail movement.
That Milk & Honey closed last fall, but Shiell was still accused of piggybacking off the cachet of someone else’s brand. He stuck with the name, though, and in June he opened Milk & Honey Bar-Kitchen in an elegantly remodeled subterranean space close to Bistro Vendôme, with its own European-style bricked-in courtyard, white-leather banquettes, and dimly lit booths where couples like to snuggle and kiss while sipping sparkling wine. Welcome to the Promised Land.
Or something like that. Even without the copycat accusations, the name would have raised a few eyebrows. People who know their Bible know that most of the folks wandering in the desert died there, never to see a drop of milk or honey, making the connotations both bitter and sweet. And what does the name say to Denver diners? Is Shiell’s restaurant the one we’ve been waiting for, the fulfillment of some kind of promise, as if we were exiles in a vast food wasteland? That’s a lot of baggage for a new restaurant to unpack.
Fortunately, Milk & Honey had a few things going for it right from the start. One is that Larimer Square caters as much to tourists as it does to residents, so even as locals flock to beer joints and hipster spots in other ’hoods, this block sees a steady influx of people like the French-speaking family eating near me one night who seemed delighted to find a restaurant such as this in Denver. Besides, tourists — especially ones staying at the tony hotels downtown — come bearing vacation mindsets and wallets, and are more likely to splurge.
Another thing working in Milk & Honey’s favor is Shiell himself, who’s spent his life in high-end restaurants. If anyone can put together a menu knowing what works and what doesn’t, it’s Shiell, which is why the kind of $42 entrees that are harder sells these days are outnumbered two to one by other items: oysters, cheeses, charcuterie, and the small plates that go so well with today’s free-flowing meals. They also go well with wine, which is the restaurant’s beverage focus.
Shiell was born into a branch of the family that owns Rao’s, the fabled Italian eatery in New York. After a stint in the Vail Valley, he opened and ran Michael’s of Cherry Creek in the ’90s. Most recently, he made a living as a California-based restaurant consultant. Milk & Honey came about because Shiell grew tired of the travel and because, he says quite simply, “I missed the kitchen.”
It’s always good when a chef wants to be in the kitchen. You can taste that desire in the food, and you can definitely taste it in the best of Milk & Honey’s food — but not all of the dishes. Certainly not in the dried-out tortelloni bathed in an inedibly salty oxtail reduction, nor in the roast chicken with eerily pale skin, nor in the grilled olive-oil cake with the texture of a stale biscuit. But these disappointments were exceptions to otherwise fine fare.
Cheeses that would have danced in their own right — a carrot-tinged Shropshire blue from England, a Monte Alva from Spain — jitterbugged with dabs of raspberry preserves and a translucent gelée of white grapes and champagne. Deep-fried polenta triangles took on the honest ruddiness of a van Gogh peasant, the cornmeal’s earthiness enhanced with turmeric aioli. A plump crab cake laughed in the face of hard times, when cooks stretched expensive ingredients just to make ends meet; this cake burst with peekytoe crab, the sweet flakes unblemished by too much bready filler. We’re in the Promised Land now, baby!
A tomato salad tipped its hat to the time-honored Caprese, with an assortment of yellow and reddish-purple heirlooms as colorful as baubles. But instead of the milky mozzarella that usually steals the show, this plate, with its simple curls of parmesan and cucumber, honored the fruity complexity of the vegetables. With each bite, you felt part of something bigger, something that spoke of patient farmers and months of sunshine and rain. A salad that could’ve seemed simple instead seemed profound.
Simplicity is a hallmark of modernity — but don’t let those tomatoes convince you that Milk & Honey is a simple, let-the-ingredients-speak-for-themselves kind of place. It’s modern in a different way, heavy on the global accents favored by so many contemporary chefs. So Chinese mustard and bordelaise are paired with a soy-marinated beef filet, while ginger emulsion blended with soy-sake broth poured tableside becomes an ad hoc sauce for monkfish. Elsewhere, peaches, grits, cumin and honey lend a down-home touch to a bone-in pork loin with a spectacular sear not often found on sous-vide meats.
Milk & Honey is modern, too, in its use of liquid nitrogen, that favorite plaything of cutting-edge contemporary chefs. Here it’s used to crisp the powdered cashew brittle encasing silky spheres of duck liver. Never mind that the resulting bonbons are too large, not to mention too cold; they’re emblems of the decadence and joy that the restaurant stands for. Just do yourself a favor and eat them halved and warmed slightly, the better to appreciate the foie. And you’ll definitely want to do yourself another favor and share your dinner with someone whose company you enjoy: The kitchen moves in fits and starts, and delays of up to thirty minutes aren’t unknown for entrees, even when there are more empty tables than full ones.
Why are those tables empty? Is it because the pendulum is still swinging toward the casual, as exemplified by Steven Redzikowski of Acorn, Jeff Osaka of Osaka Ramen and Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class? Or is competition an inevitable byproduct of what attracted Shiell to Larimer Square in the first place? “Look at the company we keep,” he told me. “Look at the chefs and restaurants that are on the block.”
Too many good restaurants to choose from? That’s my kind of Promised Land.
Milk & Honey Bar-Kitchen
1414 Larimer Street
Foie gras bonbons $12
Crisp polenta $7
Cheese, one ounce $5
Crab cake $14
Tomato salad $9
Pork loin $31
Roast chicken $24
Grilled olive-oil cake $7
Milk & Honey is open 4-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-10:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Learn more at milkandhoneybarkitchen.com.