Cafe Society

Tale Spin

Brunch is almost always a bad idea. For consumers, it spans the dullest, most grinding hours of the day -- that weird, timeless space between a leisurely late breakfast and the early start of happy hour -- and brings to the table nothing but the worst of two meals that should never be combined. For the kitchen, brunch is where you stick your B team. It's where you temper the new guys, retire your old hands or put a dinner cook when he needs to be punished or exiled.

Brunch does serve a purpose: It gets people through restaurant doors during hours that would normally be a wash, and it lets chefs recover a little food cost by using some of the weekend's leftovers. Still, if it weren't for the mimosas-and-eggs lounge crowd and indolent sluggards like myself who sometimes demand hard liquor and breakfast burritos before even thinking of going out and seizing what's left of the day, it wouldn't exist at all.

There were only two things wrong with my recent brunch at the Fourth Story Restaurant and Bar: the food, and everything else. At 1:30 p.m. on a holiday-shopping Sunday, the joint was jumping; its dining room was packed with the kind of eclectic crowd you're only going to find at a place set atop a bookstore like the Tattered Cover. Because of that location, it's no surprise that the Fourth Story's decor relies heavily on the bookshelves lining the walls and the large windows that look out over the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to the mountains beyond. Although the Fourth Story has only been perched here for seven years, in previous decades the space was home to the '80s-hip Chrysler, and before that, the heavy-duty Stromberg's; the longer I sat, the more the place -- with its curving dark wood and domed art-deco-style light fixtures -- began to feel like the first-class dining room of an elderly ocean liner bound for some wheezing, bloated culinary hell. The room was loud, it was busy and, yes, I'd gotten a late reservation (brunch ends at 2:30 p.m.), but none of that excused this meal.

We started with a plateful of worthy breakfast breads -- a buttery brioche, thick slices of soft, spiced banana bread and some excellent crumb cake -- but they were served with a bitter blueberry jam, made in-house from out-of-season berries. The chorizo breakfast burrito that followed was a mess: burned eggs, a few measly shreds of spicy sausage and enough slimy roasted red pepper strips to top a dozen antipasto plates. Seriously, how tough is it to make a good breakfast burrito? There are guys with pushcarts on the streets whose burritos are ten times better, and they deliver them with a smile and a friendly hello rather than the distracted service I received from no fewer than four different servers -- all apparently fresh off a thorazine drip and in no particular hurry to do anything but slouch limply at the bar.

As bad as that burrito was, the Eggs Fourth Story were worse. They were underdone, poached to about the consistency of gooey egg Jell-O, and served atop a good, crumbly chive scone that had been tragically glopped up with suspiciously lukewarm champagne hollandaise. If I'm sitting in some truck stop paying $4.95 for an artery-clogging plate of glorified eggs Benedict, I deserve what I get. But paying twice that in a swank joint like the Fourth Story, I expected something better. Hell, I at least expected competence. I don't care how busy a place is or how harried the staff, putting out good food under tough conditions is part of the job. As a matter of fact, it's the entire job.

But because I'm not the kind of guy who judges a book by its cover -- or a restaurant by one bad but inexplicably popular brunch -- I returned for dinner with high expectations. Chef Tyler Wiard, who took over the Fourth Story's kitchen this past summer, came with a resumé full of big names and swank addresses like Q's in Boulder, Zenith and Mel's. He's a New American explorer, one of those guys who consider the whole world their pantry, freely sampling this and that from here and there, with little concern for borders. His new winter menu is wordy but ambitious, full of adventurous, interesting juxtapositions that set jacked-up American soul food beside pared-down classics.

When Wiard sticks to those classics, like a simple duck rillette served with cubed beets and cornichons, the results can be beautiful. They say quite plainly that he's a man who knows his history, someone who's made his bones and gotten a good education along the way. But he's also trying to do something new here, putting together simple ingredients in complex architectural constructions of flavor and texture. When he hits on something good -- like a wonderfully subtle and rich winter-squash soup topped with fried chickpeas and swirled with curry crème fraîche -- he's rewriting the book, blazing new culinary trails.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan