If you're of a certain age — I'll leave the exact number of years up to you — you'll remember when restaurant menus were as long as novellas, with enough adjectives to give Emily Brontë a run for her money. Intricate details of cooking technique and provenance were listed for each dish, turning the act of reading a menu into a laborious process better suited to a comfy armchair and reading lamp than a noisy restaurant and dim lighting. These days, though, all unnecessary words — and some necessary ones, too — have been stricken from the page, leaving entrees described by little more than a series of ingredients, as in "pork, polenta, peach, beans." (That's only a slight exaggeration.)
See also: Slide show: Behind the Scenes at Tables
But whether menus are overly descriptive or spare, they should serve a single purpose: to lay out the choices so that you can pick what you want. My hunch is that beyond the main idea — lamb, tagliatelle, salmon — most details are forgotten by the time the wine is uncorked. As a result, diners can be in for a surprise, especially when chefs have tricks up their sleeves and things aren't as obvious as they seem.
I found myself in this position one recent night at Tables, Amy Vitale and Dustin Barrett's intimate, dinner-only restaurant in sleepy Park Hill. Blame it on good conversation, the joy of being on a patio where crickets are noisier than cars, or the excellent appetizers, but by the time my entree arrived, all I really remembered was this: chicken. Crispy. Panzanella. True to billing, there was the chicken, two moist breasts butchered in the nifty cut known as "frenching," bones protruding like a rack of lamb. It was indeed crispy, thanks to a quick drench in flour and a good skin-side-down sear. And there was the panzanella, with reddish-purple morsels and white slivers that I assumed were tomatoes, olives and onions. So imagine my surprise when, instead of the salt and vinegar I was expecting, I encountered tangy sweetness instead.
Turns out that Tables is full of such surprises, each more delightful than the last. To begin with, there's the location. The restaurant has earned its share of critical attention since it opened as a daytime joint in 2005, yet it still suffers from geographical bias, as in "It's good for the neighborhood, but not worth the drive." Judging from other guests — gray-hairs, families celebrating a teenage son's birthday, assorted singles at the bar — most diners seem to live within walking distance. But to dismiss Tables as a neighborhood spot rather than a destination is as flawed as assuming that if a restaurant is downtown, it's worth the gas.
The decor is a bit of a surprise, too. Not in the theme — which is spelled out in the restaurant's name and consists of vintage mismatched tables and architectural elements such as whitewashed doors, banisters and leaded-glass windows hung on gray walls — but in the way it comes off: homey, not kitschy; familial, not flea-market.
Then there's that panzanella. Instead of serving a traditional Italian bread salad, Vitale and Barrett — who are, among other things, co-owners, chefs and spouses — swap cherries for tomatoes and fennel for onions. Seasonal riffs like these run through the menu, which changes quarterly and highlights both the large weekly share of organic produce they get from Grant Family Farms and the herbs, apples and tomatoes grown in their back yard. (Vitale and Barrett live two blocks away.) Molecular gastronomy, it isn't, but the food is creative. And delicious. And after the half-second it took for my brain to catch up with my tastebuds, I became so enamored of the sweet burst of cherry, the mild, creamy goat cheese, the crunch of croutons and the snap from fennel that I nearly forgot about that crispy chicken.
The surprises don't end there. After a perfectly normal Caesar, with anchovies, fresh parmesan and torn romaine in a combination you've had countless times before, and a comforting if staid bowl of creamy tomato soup, you'll be startled by the flashiness of the tuna tartare. Small pieces of raw tuna, avocado and scallions are mounded together in the center of the plate, with crispy wontons stuck into the disc like so many sunbeams. A sprig of watercress pokes out of the top like hair, giving the whole dish an aura of ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs scratched on a rock. Be warned: The dressing, described on the menu as "lemon-ginger," packs a hidden punch, with more relevant descriptors such as "cayenne," "spicy" or "hot" nowhere to be found. (See what I mean about today's minimalist menus?)
Vitale and Barrett met at longtime Denver institution Strings, where they held posts of executive chef and sous chef, respectively, and their experience shows. A pork terrine, listed as a "side table," or appetizer, is as down-home as the space, with plenty of fresh thyme and parsley and scratch-made mustard so thick it seems like hummus. Roasted beets and goat cheese rest atop flatbread in an iteration of a common pairing. Here, though, the beets' earthiness is mellowed by a lemon-infused honey drizzle and, more important, a stint in the oven, which oozes the cheese in a warm, melty contrast to the cracker underneath.
Given the restaurant's modest size, the selection of entrees, dubbed "head of the table," is surprisingly large. Lamb, pork, fish, seafood, pasta, not to mention that crispy chicken — you could come here frequently and still find something different to catch your eye. One night it might be the grilled New York strip, with a smoked garlic rub and a slick of zinfandel demi-glace so deeply flavored, you instinctively sense the hours behind it. (Stuff that good doesn't come quickly, or out of a can.) Rainbow trout is served skin-on, with the top half of the fillet propped up, tent style, over the well-seasoned bottom half, making the crispy top skin easy to get at for those who want to eat it, and easy to flake off for those who don't. Whichever you prefer, make sure to scoop up the roasted cauliflower, turnips, potatoes and capers with each bite of fish. Order the grilled pork chop with blue cheese and sautéed peaches if you're holding on to summer, the mushroomy pepper pappardelle if you're ready to embrace the fall.
After such fine savories, desserts can seem a little clunky. With a thick layer of brownie and a drenching of warm Callebaut chocolate sauce, the double-chocolate s'mores deliver almost too much of a good thing. Buttermilk-lemon cake proves nearly as sweet, without the tartness you'd expect from the lemon or the rhubarb in the filling. Clunky, too, is the service. One night the server acted like a kid on her first night of public-speaking class, fumbling through the specials and hardly making eye contact. Another night, when asked to describe an appetizer, the best our server could do was mumble something about a "richly thick sauce."
Tables makes no bones about the fact that this is a family operation. Barrett, clothed in chef's whites, likes to make the rounds when dinner service slows, and wedding pictures grace the walls. If that comes at the price of polish, so be it. This is a restaurant that's comfortable in its own skin, and I'll take that over high-gloss corporate directives any day. Especially when the food's this good.