Cafe Society

Syrup is a sweet Cherry Creek brunch spot

Our family led a pretty modest existence when I was a child, but weekend mornings were sheer luxury. My brother and I would plod down the stairs and be greeted by a pile of misshapen chocolate chip- or banana-studded pancakes, steam still rising from the freshly griddled ones on top. Our parents would busy themselves with coffee and the paper and generously overlook the fact that we promptly drowned our meal in half a bottle of syrup, then proceeded to cover every item on the table with a sticky film. In those days, we were probably getting Bisquick meets Aunt Jemima, but to our elementary-school palates, trained to fully appreciate the brutally sweet, we couldn't imagine that many things could possibly taste better.

I know better now, of course, but thanks to those indulgent mornings, I still have an incredible love of brunch. The meal's a glimpse into a life of leisure, one full of crossword puzzles, meandering strolls and whimsy, an existence that's utterly devoid of any obligation to abide by social norms. Want to eat until you have to unbutton your pants at the table and then go home and nap? Brunch urges you to do so. Looking a little haggard after a rough night? Brunch offers a friendly, non-judgmental bosom. Feel like having dessert for a meal? Brunch calls it pancakes.

And so I spend Saturday and Sunday mornings picking pork-filled buns off a dim sum cart on Federal Boulevard, trying some inventive new take on the full English breakfast in a posh bistro, inhaling a smothered breakfast burrito. But occasionally, I crave a nostalgic throwback to those pancake breakfasts. And that's when I'm sweet on Syrup, which Tim Doherty opened in April with chef Tom Willis.

Doherty ran Lodo's Bar and Grill for sixteen years before he decided to give up the night before for the morning after, picking up the lease on the garden-level spot in Cherry Creek that the Egg Shell vacated last December. Syrup resembles an oversized breakfast nook, swathed in a pastel palette and illuminated by sunlight, despite the fact that it's partially underground. The kitchen pass is visible from every banquette and wooden table in the dining room, bringing the galley partially into the action — much as it would be in an actual home. And the former bar manager doesn't serve even a drop of alcohol in his breakfast-and-lunch joint, since the address's proximity to a school prevents it from holding a liquor license.

As the name of the restaurant suggests, much of the menu is devoted to foods that are vessels for syrup — and Willis, who manned kitchens at Lodo's and Rock Bottom Brewery before moving here, makes several versions of the sticky stuff. Some of them, like agave-honey and blackberry, are offered year-round. Others, like mint-chocolate and raspberry, are seasonal. They're all paired with sweet breakfast dishes that would have made the ten-year-old me ecstatic, whose menu descriptions include magic words like "chocolate" and "oreo" and "dulce de leche." And while the current me still appreciates the occasional threat of a diabetic coma, it really digs the sentimentality of decked-out pancakes, waffles and French toast. Which is why I encouraged my family to meet me at Syrup a few weeks ago.

The place was crowded that Sunday morning, with couples and groups chatting in the hallway in front of the door; a friend who'd arrived early was reading one of the papers abandoned on a table in front of the host stand. A chipper Doherty led parties to tables, bouncing with nervous energy as he attempted to ensure that everyone was having a good time. His waitstaff seemed less concerned, with a slightly detached group of servers looking like they'd rather be sitting at breakfast than serving it (though I can't exactly blame them).

After we got our coffee — steaming hot, and weak enough that I could safely down several cups without heart failure — we ordered a plate of beignets, crisply fried pillows of pastry dusted with powdered sugar and delivered with our choice of three different syrups for dipping. But only the tart apple-cinnamon stood out. (The buttermilk may have been creamier than the maple-vanilla, but otherwise they tasted almost the same.) Fried dough inhaled, we settled in to wait for our main courses. As the caffeine in my bloodstream ticked up, I found myself impatiently watching the pass in the kitchen every time a plate came up. At brunch, I socialize only after my stomach is full; before that, I sit in a haze, counting down the minutes until I can eat.

Thankfully, our ticket was finally called. The dishes piled onto our table until every inch of space was covered, tiny side plates balancing precariously between platters. And then the feeding frenzy began. We wolfed down bites of a crisp waffle laden with sticky brûléed banana, its gaping holes flooded with maple-vanilla syrup. The gooey Charlie's Factory pancakes were so packed with Ghirardelli chips, the chocolate had melted to practically form a filling; we poured on the buttermilk syrup, just in case our blood sugar wasn't spiking high enough already.

Not total gluttons for punishment, we'd ordered savory dishes, too — and I soon discovered that my favorite item on the brunch menu had nothing to do with syrup. Willis makes his own corned beef hash, which mixes succulent chunks of salty meat with sweet onions, cooked until soft and translucent, and crispy bits of golden-brown potato. The hash would have been satisfying on its own, maybe served with a side of toast. But as the star of the Cherry Creeker, one of Syrup's variations on eggs Benedict, it was stellar. Two toasted halves of an English muffin were heaped with the hearty hash, then topped with two quivering poached eggs and smothered with creamy, tart hollandaise. The dish was a rich gut-buster, requiring plenty of coffee to stave off an imminent food coma, but I polished off every bite. I did skip the side of crisp, shredded hash browns — not because I was being good, but because they were desperately undersalted and needed a major dose of Cholula to reach edible.

On a return visit, I encountered the hash again — this time in the Brooklyn omelet. It worked just as well stuffed into a fold of eggs with sharp, stringy Swiss cheese and a sprinkling of scallions. But I wasn't as thrilled with the Jan omelet, eggs enveloping a basic combo of ham strips and melted cheddar mixed with scallions and onions. Overcooked and badly in need of seasoning, it reminded me of something I might get from an omelet bar at a hotel breakfast buffet — when I wished I'd instead piled my plate with mediocre bacon or more pastries. But there was nothing mediocre about the side of sausage at Syrup. The thin, juicy links, outsourced from a local sausage-maker, were so tightly packed into the casing so that they popped pleasantly when the fork cut into them, making me forget just how boring the Jan omelet had been.

Instead, I determined that next time, I'd get those porky sausages on the side of a pancake so I could douse them in more syrup.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk