Cafe Society

The Curtis Club: Welcome to the mild, mild West

There's a certain kind of restaurant that could be picked up, Wizard of Oz style, and set back down in a spot far from home without skipping a beat. Life would go on as before — chefs would cook, bartenders would pour, customers would pile in — only in a different climate, with a different zip code. Acorn, Rioja and Beast + Bottle are those kinds of places. The Curtis Club, which opened last fall in the former home of Old Curtis Street Bar, is not.

See also: Behind the Scenes at the Curtis Club

Launched by musician-turned-restaurateur Scott Bagus, the Curtis Club exudes a vibe that would be hard to imagine outside of the West. Walls are decked out with cedar-fence wood. Community tables sport oversize steel wheels, the kind found on farm equipment. Horseshoes hang by the tin ceiling. A mural of a lake backs the bar, and stools are made of metal tractor seats. In other towns and in other hands, such touches might verge on kitsch; here, they feel like part of our heritage. "I was going for the Old West, but with a classy feeling," says the 37-year-old Bagus, who designed the space himself and did the renovations with friends. And that's just how it feels: Walking in for the first time, I had the feeling I was stepping into a sophisticated, 21st-century version of an old-time saloon.

Despite the decor's nod to the wild West, chef Eric Johnson — formerly of the Flagstaff House in Boulder — has designed a menu that contains none of the clichéd buffalo stew, chicken and dumplings and cornbread you might expect. Bison does make an appearance, though — not as stew, but in a tender, wine-splashed Bolognese over almond fettuccine, one of many gluten-free options. (That song about a home where the buffalo roam is wrong; early explorers mistook bison for the buffalo of Asia.) I couldn't resist stealing tender, ricotta-specked bites from my husband's plate. He, in turn, stole bites from my duck dish — and he's not even a duck fan. He was after the farro cake, chewy with plump grains and flecked with thyme, under a tower of duck confit and crispy duck breast. I was after the acidity of the tomatoes in the Bolognese, which I needed to cut the richness of all that fowl.

Confit isn't the first — or even the fortieth — thing that comes to mind when I think of the Old West. Neither are Brussels sprouts, another indication that the kitchen is thinking contemporary, not chuckwagon. Served as a cold salad, the sprouts were sliced into what the menu called "petals" and sprinkled with almonds, currants and aged goat cheese. Tossed in an Italian agrodolce, or sweet-and-sour sauce, they tasted lightly pickled. The refreshing salad paired perfectly with a decadent appetizer of rabbit rillette. Creamy rather than greasy, with sherry vinegar and berbere spices eliminating any hint of gaminess it might once have had, the rabbit coated toast points like butter. This dish, one of my favorites at the Curtis Club, would make a great introduction to rabbit — and tiny quail eggs, for that matter, which are deviled and plopped on top. But it's definitely a dish to share; it's too rich to indulge in solo.

With so many French terms — confit, rillette, etc. — you might get the impression that the Curtis Club is a French restaurant in Western garb, but it's not. "I'm not trying to do hoity-toity French food — or down-home Southern cooking," says Johnson. "I'm after more of a mainstream, go-to thing." But instead of roast chicken and flatbread pizza, which epitomize mainstream eats, he offers grass-fed beef tenderloin with Bordelaise and prunes, and white-bean-lavender soup, featured one night as the "soup of the moment." Made with duck stock and puréed beans, the smooth soup had just enough lavender to taste elusive, not perfumed. Johnson's idea of mainstream also extends to oysters and greens with feta and grilled pear, as well as to a fantastic trio of sliders, definitely a "go-to thing" during happy hour. Topped with tomato jam, caramelized onions and herb aioli, the beef version always disappeared first from our table, though the crisp bass patty, akin to a crabcake, and housemade veggie burger with lentils, quinoa and more berbere, never lasted long, either. Too bad the dinner lineup doesn't include entree-sized burgers (beef and veggie burgers are available only at lunch); they would go well with the decor, not to mention one of the eight local beers on tap.

Sitting in the dining room, warming up with an elegant bowl of soup while watching snow coat the sidewalks of this still-edgy part of downtown, it's wasn't hard for me to see the Curtis Club's classy side. But the place often comes across more rough-and-tumble than it should. One night we were greeted with a brusque "You wanna start with somethin'?" that seemed out of step with both the fare and the price point. Another time, a server spilled my drink and walked away without wiping up the mess. We were never informed of daily soup, vegetarian or seafood options, nor did servers describe the plates as they set them down, standard practice at restaurants of this ilk.

Front-of-the-house folks weren't the only ones responsible for the wild ride. The hickory-smoked trout must have spent a few too many minutes on the smoker, since it tasted like liquid smoke. Caramel-apple cheesecake, recommended by the server, came out partially frozen. Steak wasn't cooked to the proper temperature, and one night I pulled a bone from my duck confit.

Such a gap between vision and execution might stem from the fact that Bagus, though he's worked hard to transform what was once a popular dive bar, is new to the restaurant business. Or from his decision to make do without a general manager. Or it might reflect some confusion over what the Curtis Club wants to be. "It's taken the role of a restaurant with a bar," Bagus tells me, "but I think of it more as a bar with a restaurant." He hopes the common perception will change to his way of thinking, and it very well might as the weeks go on, with comedy acts starting this month and live music projected for the spring. At this point, however, his vision might come as a surprise to people dropping $25 on lobster and $21 on lamb in a dining room that's more likely to be half-empty and hushed than rocking.

With its relaxed interior and easy-to-like menu, the Curtis Club has potential, and the niche it hopes to carve for itself — as a one-stop shop for classy yet comfortable dining, drinks and live entertainment — is a good one. Now all Bagus needs is a pair of ruby slippers to speed up the trip from here to there.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz