Forget that tired bowl of crinkle-cut carrots or that pile of limp salad with anemic tomatoes; this summer, up your vegetable game by going big, beautiful and boisterous. Veggies play a huge role at the height of the growing season as they add grace to meat dishes, take center stage on their own and liven up main courses and appetizers alike. Chefs all over the city have taken radishes, romaine, carrots, mushrooms and other bright pieces of available produce and are using them to create works of edible art that not only wow on sight, but taste good, too. Here are ten of our favorites right now.
1550 17th Street
Rejoice in tomato season! Hopefully you will see these beauties popping up all over town, but in case you want to sample the best of the best, go for the heirloom tomato and melon spread at Avelina downtown. Chef Bradley Yard knows how much people like heirloom tomatoes, and he wanted to put something on the menu to highlight their juicy, acidic flavor. So alongside the tomatoes, guests will find crisp cucumbers and three types of melon: honeydew, watermelon and Rocky Ford cantaloupe. Purple and green micro-basil and goat cheese garnish this lovely spread, along with a drizzle of shoyu-raspberry vinaigrette, drops of mint oil and a sprinkling of garlic breadcrumbs.
2227 West 32nd Avenue
Summertime means watermelon is at its peak, and chef Carrie Baird's salad at this Highland hot spot proves perfect for the season. Aside from the scrumptious red flesh, the plate is loaded with pistachios, pickled onions, micro-basil and stracciatella cheese, which all gets tossed in a light pepperoncini-laced vinaigrette. It's vibrant, bright and fresh — just what we crave in warmer weather.
Black Cat Bistro
1964 13th Street, Boulder
How many chefs can boast plucking squash blossoms, kale, summer squash, fava beans, garbanzo beans and scarlet runner beans all from their own garden? Not many, but chef and restaurateur Eric Skokan can. Everything on Skokan's summer platter comes straight from the source, Black Cat Farm, save for the salted lemon and pistachios in the tarator, which is an Eastern European-style sauce made with garlic, herbs and yogurt. As for the veggies on the chef's produce-driven platter, they are roasted, puréed, sautéed, stuffed and arranged with love and care indicative of both of Skokan's Boulder restaurants. The next time you visit, these vegetables will likely have changed, but the theme and preparation remains constant until harvest season ends.
2930 Umatilla Street
The view of Denver from the deck of El Five in LoHi may prove stunning, but it's not quite as impressive as owner Justin Cucci's ash-roasted carrots. After all, the cityscape comprises mere buildings and sky, whereas this vegetarian creation showcases seeds, herbs, nuts and produce to create a work of art. Oddly, Cucci got inspiration for this masterpiece from the trash. “This was a dish collaboration between myself and my chefs,” said Cucci. “We used waste products like vegetable ash, herb stems, onion peels and carrot tops as a way to turn the waste into beautiful flavors.” On the plate you will find raw radish, fennel, mint, ash-coated carrots, pine nuts and ras el hanout yogurt, a Moroccan-spiced spread. Over the orange, green and gray composition, the chefs have sprinkled Cucci's signature seed granola mixture, an addition that gives a pleasing crunch to the whole thing.
Hearth & Dram
1801 Wewatta Street
Mushrooms have a certain finesse and mystery about them that just livens and enriches any plate they're put on. But at this downtown restaurant, chef Jeffrey Wall has allowed the fungi to shine all on their own by simply roasting a pile of maitake mushrooms and coating them in butter before adorning them with minced garlic and shallot. "I love how meaty hen of the woods [aka maitake] mushrooms taste when cooked slowly until they are crispy on the edges and tender in the middle," says the chef. "It’s very satisfying.”
The chef also adds a splash of Minus 8 vinegar, an ice-wine vinegar from Canada that lends a touch of tart sweetness to help counteract the mushroom's natural earthy notes. But that's not all: These maitakes then get placed on a pillow of silky celery-root purée and bedazzled with nasturtium leaves that not only look pretty, but give the dish a mustard-like kick. The result is a shining and plump mess of tangled brown mushrooms, singed with smoke and ready for your exploration.
1100 14th Street
Chef de cuisine Russell Stippich has really outdone his lettuce game with his grilled romaine salad. The dish garners inspiration from the classic Waldorf salad and uses the same foundation: apple, celery, walnut and grape. But, instead of the usual mayonnaise, the chef makes pink peppercorn-studded labna — a thick and salted Middle Eastern yogurt — the star of the dressing. That lovely sauce gets smeared on the plate and topped with half a head of warm, grilled romaine, pickled grapes and compressed green apples. Crowning all of that is a soft paste made with Italian Gorgonzola dolce cheese and caramelized white chocolate.
"The grilled romaine is one of my favorites," says Stippich. "It was a challenge to take something so iconic and recognizable and really make it our own while still paying tribute to a great hotel and a great dish that has been around for more than one hundred years."
3163 Larimer Street
Chef Kat Caine doesn't take vegetables lightly; in fact, she's pretty serious about letting nature's candy shine on the plate. "I wanted something well composed and rich, but focused solely on the flavor of the vegetables," she says. "Plus, you find shishito peppers are something people adore." In this colorful dish, Caine has created a wreath of various flavors, textures and types of vegetarian dazzlers. For starters, the base is a luscious smoked chèvre from Broken Shovels Farm. On top of that, Caine has placed roasted pattypan squash, charred shishito peppers, plump pickled mustard seeds and dollops of sriracha aioli. To give it a little crunch, she made garlic-laced croutons out of Grateful Bread's signature brioche and added a sprinkling of pine nut crumbles. It's all at once spicy, smoky, rich and filling, but light enough that you'll want to to lick the plate clean.
3040 Blake Street
New to the menu at this airy RiNo eatery is a lively plate of vegetable crudité, and it tastes just as good as it looks. Crisp lettuces and fresh mint from the restaurant's rooftop garden mingle with organic asparagus, Colorado fingerling potatoes, bright carrots, Oxford Garden tomatoes and an array of housemade pickles. Get it with a briny tapenade and Caesar dressing to dip the elegant veggies in, or, if you're going vegan, skip the latter and try the muhummara, a pickled-pepper pesto. The dish has proved very popular, says co-owner Whitney Ariss, so you can expect it to stay even as the items change with the harvest.
1431 Larimer Street
Just as meat doesn't need veggies to taste good, vegetables don't need meat to make the dish. But once you taste executive chef Tim Kuklinski's beautiful porchetta and see how artfully he has arranged produce around the pig, you will be happy he decided to combine the two. Every circle of pork comes crowned with plump roasted and raw apricots, silky braised turnips, peppery mustard greens, brown-butter oats, a spritz of balsamic and delicate blue corn flowers to give it even more grace. Each week Kuklinski shops the Union Station Farmers' Market, the place that helped inspire this dish.
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"I took all these ingredients back to the restaurant with a color palette in my head and a flavor profile," says the chef. "Green mustard greens, purple corn flowers and orange stone fruit are a match made in heaven. All I needed was something to tie them together. The oats and brown butter grounded all the flavors and brought thoughts of cobbler. The result was unctuous, sweet, savory, grounded and elevated."
1441 Larimer Street
There's art and then there's executive chef Korey Sims's summer vegetable "landscape," which he is serving right now at this downtown staple. “The dish is composed from the bottom up using housemade buttermilk ricotta, blackberry jam, pickled blackberries, roasted corn, a 'soil' made of rye bread and toasted almonds, granola made from puffed rice and herbs from our garden," says the chef. On top of all that, guests will find a melody of locally sourced vegetables and herbs. Each piece of produce gets lovingly considered and prepared in various ways — from pickled to roasted to steamed, or perhaps merely served raw.
"Finally, to simulate watering our vegetables, a lemon vinaigrette is poured tableside from a small watering can,” says Sims. That's right, a tiny watering can — just to make this still life come alive.