Depending on how you think about it, Solitaire on West 32nd Avenue could be a stormy portent of new Denver or a warm reminder of the old. Owners Andrea Faulisi Ferguson and Mark Ferguson bought the space that had housed neighborhood standard Highland's Garden Cafe since 1994 and transformed it into one that skews modern, even sexy, with a menu to match. Yet the Victorian charm of the place and the famous garden surrounding it have been preserved, and Solitaire promises to continue the seasonal and local focus of its predecessor. Beyond identity, Solitare's new happy hour is exceedingly generous, lasting all day and night Tuesday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Now that the days are long enough to convince us it's summer already, taking a seat by the fire pits out front or in the placid garden around the bar area (happy hour isn't served in the dining room) seems like the right thing to do. Outside, the bees are zooming about, the fountain is softly trickling and the air is fresh. West 32nd packs more distractions and restaurants than it ever did during Highland's Garden Cafe's tenure, but the atmosphere here is still a unique pleasure. Flora and food have been the main selling points for Solitaire thus far, but the bar program and wine list deserve mention for their breadth.
The happy-hour cocktails are significantly stripped down compared to the creations on the dinner menu, but they still command a princely $7 each. Either I've been corrupted by $5 drinks, or these tipples need a buck or two knocked off the price. But it's hard to run the numbers in your head after sipping Squirt's Revenge, a tart paloma with blanco tequila, grapefruit and soda, sweetened with agave. The flavors combine with a delicate and refreshing effect that matches the environment, and a salted rim balances the sweetness.
Just like the rest of the menu, the happy-hour roster changes with the season, cribbing from the dinner selections with some originals of its own. Shishito peppers and oysters are in attendance, but this is by no means a typical happy-hour spread, just a smartly minimized preview of what the kitchen has to offer. Mozzarella in carroza ($8), a fancy cheese sandwich in a carriage of bread that's been dipped in egg batter and fried. Solitaire tops it with grated Pecorino and slips in a bit of spiced salami — y'know, for nutritional purposes. Not for the hypertense of heart, this supremely salty snack sits well with a roasted-tomato coulis on the side and garden-fresh basil.
Back to those shishitos ($6,) a dish that is to happy hour what the European rabbit is to Australia: invasive and ubiquitous, but just so gosh-dang lovable. These samples don't break the mold, but they seem to be well-sourced, beautifully blistered and blissfully seasoned. They're paired with some rémoulade that proves that mayo-based sauces are the best shishito pairings. (They also go well with rabbit. Ball is in your court, Australia.)
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There are other delectable dishes on the slate here, like sourdough tempura rock shrimp ($10) or an uni "shooter" ($7) dressed up like a Moscow mule with sake ponzu and wasabi caviar. But the plate of mesquite-smoked oxtail marmalade stopped me immediately, in a very good way. This is a legitimate entree that's merely been shrunk, yet still attended to with dinner-service care. The smoked, braised meat is rich and tender as it must be, with more Pecorino for bite. Thick, grilled ciabatta is the bridge between it and the yellow pool of marmalade that brings sticky sweetness. A triumph.
Even with happy hour considered, the question of price can't be avoided. Everything is more costly than it should be, especially the mini grilled cheese and $5 bowls of nuts, well-appointed as they are. It's likely that this menu is not overpriced, but rather that dining as a commodity is undervalued — and Solitaire provides few facts about superior ingredients unless you interrogate your server. What is clear is that Solitaire doesn't undervalue happy hour, putting together memorable morsels that resonate as sweetly as that first summer breeze. Finding yourself under the red shades of the patio, the orange glow of the sunset and the green of the garden is worth almost any price.
Don't Miss: Oenophiles should dig deeper into Solitaire's wine list, but for normal humans, $5 happy-hour wine pours will be quite satisfying. Seemingly rotated for the season, white and red glasses are given the $80-a-bottle treatment. The bottle will be presented, a sample poured; you'll swirl, sniff and nod with approval as if you know what you're doing. It's great fun.