Linda Hampsten Fox has lived a life straight out of the movies. She ran culinary tours from a small farm in Tuscany with a vineyard and olive trees, taking clients to vintners, restaurants and art historians; she worked as a private chef for celebrities including Dave Matthews and Jane Goodall; she opened a cooking school in Mexico. Now back in Colorado, where she studied art at the University of Colorado Boulder decades ago, rather than slowing down after nearly thirty years of professional cooking, she’s pouring a lifetime of experiences into The Bindery, her first restaurant, which she opened last fall.
This sprawling, sunny spot at the edge of LoHi bills itself as an all-day eatery and marketplace. Although early reports lumped the Bindery in with the city’s other food halls, it’s not quite there. The counter currently focuses on coffee, pastries, quiche, chocolates and bottles of the ultra-dark maple syrup that Hampsten Fox brings in from Vermont, though house-packaged goods and take-home meals are in the works. But the 4,000-square-foot restaurant offers just about everything else, opening early for breakfast, when the warm, buttery smell of baking pastries fills the room, then serving lunch or weekend brunch and later transitioning to an elegant dinner menu reflective of Hampsten Fox’s travels. This summer, the Bindery will serve as a CSA distribution point and micro-farmers’ market, and there’s even talk of a beehive on the roof. “Some of my chef friends,” she admits, “have been like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what you’re getting into?’”
The Bindery came together just as Hampsten Fox wanted it, though, with vibrant art, tall ceilings, a neutral palate, and open spaces so you can see the kitchen, bar and pastry teams at work. When advised by architects against details important to her, such as radiant heating, she parted ways rather than compromise her vision, so that guests along the long wall of windows wouldn’t be cold in winter. It’s a wonderful room, pleasant at any time of day. If I lived nearby, I’d pop in regularly for a latte or cocktail, just to soak in the atmosphere.
Hampsten Fox’s thumbprint is all over the menu, which is heavily but not exclusively Italian and carried out by executive chef Jake Riley. Long, housemade grissini (crisp breadsticks) are wrapped in prosciutto. Osso buco is delightfully grand, the hulking lamb bone set on pebbles of stewed carrots and chickpeas in a rich, meaty reduction. Braised cinghiale (“boar” in Italian) is classically Tuscan, not too saucy, not too tomatoey, served in tender chunks over hand-cut pappardelle. Thick carvings of raspadura, sliced off a wheel in the kitchen to order, complete the dish better than grated Parmesan.
Not all dishes are a salute all’Italia. A hearty entree of braised beef cheeks evokes Hampsten Fox’s time in Mexico, with tomatoes and two kinds of chiles uniting in a dark, meaty sauce dotted with oil subtly infused with toasted corn husks. The meat is braised until it falls into shreds, then spooned over coarse Parmesan grits for a combination of textures that’s comfort food at its finest. Some accents are broadly Mediterranean, including the tahini-dressed quinoa, the labneh (house-strained yogurt) and dukkah (an Egyptian blend of nuts, spices and sesame seeds). Other dishes are French, such as a mushroom tartine reminiscent of rustic, wine-splashed duxelles, and a croque madame tartine that paired surprisingly well with a breakfast daiquiri, thankfully far less sweet than billed. Still others are New American, like a brunch hit of Belgian waffles laced with ginger and grated carrots and topped with candied walnuts. No matter which menu you’re reading, pay close attention so that you take it all in: the pistachio dirt and Gruyère broth, the lardo ibérico and salt-cured egg yolk. And don’t get distracted by the out-of-place cutesy names such as “Secret Garden” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” which distract from the kitchen’s serious aspirations.
As chef/owner of such a multi-faceted project, Hampsten Fox wears many hats. At times I found myself wishing that she’d take them all off save one: a chef’s toque, so that she could execute the food according to her vision. Details — from radiant heating to olive oil — clearly matter to her, but many plates aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Breads need to be heartier and better toasted: Two tartines and rabbit rarebit, a take on Welsh rarebit with braised, smoked rabbit on sourdough, quickly turned into soggy fork fare. A cheesesteak was all bread and no meat; I shoved what little steak there was into a corner for two satisfying bites, then threw the bread away. Too much orange zest on the beef cheeks made each taste seem like I’d just bitten into an orange. A thick layer of dried-out goat cheese gave a strawberry Danish the texture of toothpaste. Strong cinnamon ice cream hijacked a clever baked Colorado with angel food cake and a swirly merengue shell. And salt was universally over-applied.
Reached by phone after my visits, Hampsten Fox dazzled with stories that brought extra life and dimension to the food: the time she was biking in Italy and saw a boar in the vineyard, the food historian who taught her that boar should be dusted with cocoa, a soup recipe she resurrected from medieval Florence. But because she’s so busy, Hampsten Fox isn’t out greeting tables, and servers don’t share these stories — or even more basic info. One night, a server couldn’t name the house red and white. Another time, we were surprised to find fruit in a morning bun, not the cinnamon the server had described. “It’s like the entire staff turned over and is being trained,” a friend quipped.
Not entirely, but changes are in the works at the Bindery. The pastry team was recently boosted with a veteran of the French Laundry, so things are looking up for the bread program. And the winter menu, with its heavy sauces and hearty braises, has just transitioned to lighter spring fare.
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Still, if Hampsten Fox’s life is straight out of the movies, her concept might still need editing to focus in on what the Bindery does best and could do better...and to give her own experience more of a starring role.
1817 Central Street
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Select menu items
Carrot-ginger waffles $12
Croque madame tartine $13
Pappardelle al cinghiale $17
Braised beef cheeks $23
Osso buco $21
Baked Colorado $9