First Look

The Mystery Behind Arcana to Be Revealed Monday in Boulder

A little secret has been building in Boulder that will soon be revealed. Although the restaurant that industry veterans Elliott and Annie Toan are nearly ready to open is still lacking a street-front sign, they will open the doors to Arcana on Monday, February 15, revealing a sumptuous dining room, a well-appointed bar and a menu from chef Matthew Lackey that will celebrate the food and ingredients of early America, with a particular focus on regional meats and produce.

While "New American" is the catch phrase for the eclectic menus on offer at many top new restaurants, "Old American" might be a better way to describe the approach at Arcana: cooking over oak, mulberry and pecan, working with what the seasons have to offer (for both meats and produce), showcasing ingredients indigenous to the Rocky Mountain region, and using time-honored techniques to preserve foods for use throughout long winters.

Elliot Toan attended the Culinary School of the Rockies (now Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts) in Boulder, where part of his training was an intensive immersion in farm-to-table studies. His career, in both the front and back of the house, has taken him to some of Boulder's best restaurants, including Salt, Centro Latin Kitchen and Oak at Fourteenth. "Boulder is such a unique town — we end up with a lot of really talented cooks and front-of-house people," he says.

The name Arcana captures the mysteries and secrets of nature, he explains, which reveal themselves in the restaurant's food.

Lackey is new to Boulder, having learned the ins and outs of sustainable food and Southern cooking at celebrity chef Sean Brock's McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to his native Tennessee to helm Flyte in Nashville. Lackey grew up surrounded by food production; his grandfather owned a farm and his grandmother ran a diner, so he was always either in the field or in the kitchen. He brings a farmer's sensibility to Arcana, where he has already built relationships with local producers to find lamb, bison, trout, chicken and other proteins, along with unique ingredients like fermented, dried chile flakes produced by the same farmer who supplies Arcana with chicken.

Between his time at Flyte and signing on with Arcana, Lackey spent several months in Copenhagen, one of the current culinary capitals of the world, learning about what it really means to create a local and sustainable food system. "They face a lot of the same conditions we have in Colorado," he says of Denmark's short growing season. "They're producing and storing foods for long periods of time — and they do fine dining with all of that."

A look into Arcana's kitchen shows the results of what he has learned; jewel-toned jars of vinegars line one shelf and more jars packed with pickled vegetables decorate the wall above the kitchen pass-though. A dish planned for the opening menu features green farro cooked in fermented broccoli juice, which gives the grain a hint of acidity as well as funky, smoky notes. In the walk-in cooler hangs a whole sheep carcass from Boulder Lamb — aged for an additional two-to-three weeks beyond the minimum — awaiting the butcher's knife. Lackey says he's looking forward to Colorado's growing season so that he can take advantage of foraged foods like ground cherries, sumac and feral apples, for example. 

Meats will also follow a seasonal cycle and the kitchen will try to emphasize the full life-cycle of the farm, rather than relying on industrially produced beef, chicken and pork. "In this country, cattle are raised for either beef or for dairy, but not for both," Lackey says. He wants to reconnect those by looking for sources of protein where animals live a more natural life and are harvested later, leading to more flavorful meat and well-developed, healthy fat.

One thing you won't see on the menu? Seafood. There will be fish, but it will come from Colorado aquaponic farms that are raising trout, tilapia and other species cleanly and sustainably, he adds.

The attention to detail goes beyond the food. An elaborate Grillworks wood-fired grill with an add-on smoke box is the centerpiece of the kitchen. Wood is sourced from a Niwot firewood company that specializes in the use of removed trees (rather than natural forest growth). "We use wood as an actual ingredient in cooking and not just as fuel," Lackey notes. Specific woods are added to the grill so that the smoke adds the right flavor to each protein.

Serviceware comes from Lynn Mahon, a Yountville, California, ceramics artist who designed Arcana's collection of rustic earthenware plates and bowls to meet the owners' specifications. Even the beverage program, headed by bar manager John Watsky, will emphasize cider as the focal beverage because of its long history as an American product. Elliot points out that prior to industrialization and Prohibition, cider was the primary alcoholic beverage consumed by average Americans. Watsky is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef who has worked at Thomas Keller restaurants as well as Frasca and Oak at Fourteenth. General manager Mile Elmore notes that Watsky's culinary background enhances the cocktail program because the bartender "looks for ingredients to take out, not to add in."

Pastry duties will be handled by Tesa Butkus, recently of Frasca and Table 52.

The decor inside Arcana, selected primarily by Annie Toan, ranges from colonial to industrial modern, with unfinished, high-backed chairs that give the feel of a Southern plantation in decline; chandeliers wrought from patinated steel and wavy glass panels; Art Deco wallpaper and navy-and-gilt wainscoting that adds an elegant, Napoleonic feel. An antique book installation on a wall above inset booths was also created by Annie.

Arcana will hold a series of invite-only soft openings this week before opening for dinner service at 5 p.m. on Monday. Regular hours of operation will be 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 pm. on Friday and Saturday. Reservations for the 85-seat dining room are recommended, but Elliott notes that 25 percent of the seating will be held for walk-ins, and there's also a community table in the bar area that will always be open for diners. 

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation