Ryan Leinonen isn't shy about his goals: "I want to have one of the top five restaurants in Denver," he says while hunched over a plate of steelhead trout, one of the Scandinavian-inspired dishes on his menu at Trilllium, which opens tonight in the Ballpark neighborhood. "There's no reason why that shouldn't happen," he continues. "I've opened what I think is a fantastic restaurant with a great staff, and we're definitely going to put out some of the best food in the city."
Leinonen, who grew up in Michigan, where Scandinavian food is prevalent, struts an impressive culinary pedigree, having done time on the line of several of the best restaurants in Denver and Boulder, including the Kitchen, Root Down and Colt & Gray. And here, at Trillium, he's bringing his Midwestern background and passion for Scandinavian cuisine -- something we don't have in Denver -- to his own kitchen, on his own terms, with an equally impressive staff.
His general manager, Josh Chesterson, spent four years at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York, as the bar manager -- and also cooked at Colt & Gray; Jessica Rogers, his assistant GM, opened H Burger; Kelly Wooldridge, Trillium's beverage director, most recently worked alongside Kevin Burke at Colt & Gray; Chris Canales, Leinonen's sous, was the exec sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Beaver Creek; and Max Rapaport, his chef de cuisine, is fresh off a multi-year stint at Potager. "It's an amazing group of people who all do an incredible job," says Leinonen.
The space, minimalist and cosmopolitan, with European beachwood chairs and tables, a long, glass-enclosed fireplace that glows amber, an exhibition kitchen and a rectangular "cloud" that's suspended over the bar, was conceived, explains Leinonen, after a holiday to Scandinavia, which included a jaunt to Sweden. "I took a ton of photos of some really crazy-cool architecture when I was in Sweden, and I've blended that with an urban downtown-Denver vibe," he says.
And his menu, he notes, while Scandinavian in concept, is also deeply American, with a significant nod to the Midwest. "Some of the food -- like the tater tots -- remind me of my childhood growing up in Michigan, while other dishes, like the arctic char raaka, is a Scandinavian tartare preparation."
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As he gets his sea legs and the restaurant moves forward, Leinonen says he'll evolve the menu to include more Scandinavian dishes. "I'm keeping it pretty approachable to start, but I definitely plan to start playing around with some weirder things -- things like different cured fishes and more caviar," he tells me.
In the meantime, Leinonen and his team are off to a good start, turning out lovely dishes that I had the opportunity to sample before today's opening.
Cauliflower soup with dill pistou and cheddar-rye crouton. Apple, cheese curd and fresh rosemary bread pudding with cider-black pepper gastrique, olive oil and Verde Farms sprout salad. Winter bread salad composed with pears, carrots, turnips, kohlrabi, frisee, toasted marbled rye, Prima Donna Gouda and dressed with a vanilla vinaigrette. Toast "Skagen," a Scandinavian dish with poached shrimp, dill mayonnaise, fennel salad, golden trout roe and brown-butter brioche. Pan-roasted Red Bird Farm chicken plated with Brussels sprouts, egg noodles and bacon-mustard vinaigrette. Arctic char raaka, a Scandinavian tartare preparation created with shallots, sliced apples, fennel, char roe, marbled rye and horseradish "snow." Beef tenderloin with roasted root vegetables, black-pepper brandy caramel and bacon-infused whipped cream. Pan-roasted steelhead trout with golden potatoes, leeks, fennel, carrots and celery floating in a mussel-dill broth. Cones of truffled tater tots with ketchup and hollandaise sauce. Carrot cake paired with maple ice cream and carrot-caramel.