Cafe Society

The Kitchen's Hugo Matheson weighs in on creating a Denver menu

Tomorrow morning, Hugo Matheson, Kimbal Musk and Jen Lewin will open the doors to the The Kitchen Denver, the Mile High City outpost of their expanding empire which started in Boulder eight years ago. The new restaurant -- which features a massive bar, three patios and several nooks and crannies for dining -- is about twice the size as the original restaurant, though it looks similar, with a modern-meets-rustic feel as well as urban design elements.

That decor scheme sets the stage for a place the owners hope will become an embedded neighborhood joint. "Building a relationship with a restaurant is what's important," Matheson explains. "We want to build a relationship with the Denver community and provide something that they enjoy," adding that he likens it to trying to recreate the idea and feel of a small village pub in the city.

And that's also how Matheson, who sets the direction of the menu for all of the restaurants, thinks about the food. "Food's a way that people can reconnect," he says. "The food should be tasty, familiar dishes. It's a bistro. You have a familiarity and a comfort zone."

The chef also says that the comfort zone has really changed since he first got into the business. "Kids are actually learning to cook again," he says. "We didn't used to have to do that. You had to have basic skills, but your palate wasn't as important. It's good to see a resurgence of small restaurants. We're teaching people old crafts again." Like making pate, chutneys and jams and focusing on sourcing excellent ingredients.

That's what Matheson really meditated on for the Denver location, which will showcase a different menu from its sibling restaurant, partially because it has so much space and offers a number of different experiences. "We're making it accessible so people can relax and pick different environments," he notes. "The bar's much bigger, so we're doing a number of crostini and bruschettas, but they're nicer and smaller so it's really just a nibble in the afternoon." His menu also has a list of shareable platters as well as more traditional entrees and appetizers for those who want to stay on for dinner.

Like The Kitchen in Boulder, the Denver list is "American, with influences from Italy and Spain and my home of England," says Matheson. Specific items include crispy pig's ears, kale chips, burrata and achioade -- which is an anchovy vinaigrette -- tagliatelle bolognese and turlu turlu, a Moroccan dish made with winter root vegetables.

Matheson is also eagerly anticipating the new raw bar, which is something he's wanted to do for awhile. "It's really exciting, and I've always loved seafood bars," he says. "Ours is pretty much in the French or European sort of style. It's not the Louisiana seafood bar. We'll have American caviars from a Californian caviar company, half or whole Ingrid's lobsters and smoked mussels and clams. I just love eating those. It's an amazing thing to share with half a dozen people." Fish selections will also rotate based on what's fresh.

Focusing on bistro fare will also help the restaurant maintain the kitchen's consistency. "When you're cooking on this scale, everything has to be pretty simple execution and pretty straightforward," Matheson explains. "The dinner crew only has a couple of hours to get ready for dinner, so it has to be fairly simple, rustic cooking." The chef says the menu also won't change as much as the list at The Kitchen in Boulder, at least not at first. "Moving forward, some things will remain the same and some things will begin changing," he says. "But with the scale, we have to have some sort of structure to it."

Future changes will be up to chef de cuisine Eric Lee, who has been with the restaurant for years and will head up the day-to-day operations of the kitchen in Denver. But above all else, says Matheson, the place will continue to focus on one thing: "We're trying to build a community where people feel comfortable using it in a multitude of ways," he says.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk

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