At 5:30 p.m on the first workday of the week, there isn't an oyster to be found at Brazen. Before most Denverites had punched the clock and slid down the brontosaurus tail, Brazen patrons had already declared this Mollusk Monday, ordering happy-hour oysters by the dozen. They came from over the hills, from the houses and apartments behind the Historic Elitch Theatre's Carousel Pavilion. They came from up and down 38th Avenue and the Berkeley neighborhood. And they come from even farther afield, like we did, looking for the fresh, fetching cuisine promised by Brazen's steady buzz.
Brazen, opened by Chris Sargent (who also owns Telegraph across town) in the fall of 2014, features a RiNo-ready interior installed right next to a Comfort Dental office. Executive chef Carrie Baird joined the team last year. As inviting as the space looks, there weren't more than a couple of scattered seats left inside, so we spread out to the sunny patio hidden far from the fumes of 38th Avenue. In addition to happy hour, on tap from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Brazen offers brunch, a competitive wine list, and a late-night menu that runs from 10:30 p.m. until closing, which approaches 2 a.m on weekends. Yeah, this ain't your normal neighborhood watering hole.
This is definitively and proudly "New American" food, backed by twin philosophies of hominess and the supremacy of the plant. The happy-hour menu is split evenly between these, with hearty plates of vegetables on one end, stomach-warming meats on the other. And, yes, there are those oysters, at $1 a pop for West Coast or $2.50 for East Coast. To wash them down, you'll need the healing powers of hooch, and Brazen has this part well covered. Upslope Pale Ale for $3 will please everyone at the table, and a Pimm's Cup ($6) will please fussy dandies like myself. Clear and with a spear of cucumber, this version didn't sub lowly Sprite for the U.K.-standard English lemonade, allowing the secret flavors of Pimm's to shine through. Similarly faithful is a Brown Derby ($6), a simple bourbon, grapefruit and honey confection, served in a saucer glass with just enough ice to cut against the summer heat.
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Underestimating the size of Brazen's offerings, we requested multiple cast-iron dishes of some Brazen favorites. If these hearty bites weren't appropriate for this steamy evening, well, they were worth every additional drop of sweat. Tomato-braised meatballs ($11), a longtime constant here, are made from a ricotta, pork and beef recipe passed down from Sargent's grandma. The red sauce reflects the simple flavors of the meat, and the just-so-satisfying polenta lake is thick with stirred-in cheese (and butter?). More like deadly Southern grits than simple polenta, it's a homespun touch that further endeared me to Brazen's style.
At this point, a burger ($11) seems almost inevitable. Thankfully, it's a good one; the sawed-off quarter I was reluctantly given was a cross-section of a messy and compelling sandwich, a rustic bun barely holding the patty, candied bacon, cheddar and bright-orange special sauce. Here, downing your vegetables is not mandatory, only strongly recommended. That's because the haricots verts plate ($9) is not homework, but indeed the syllabus itself. Nestled among arugula and more bacon, green beans appear in various states of crispness, all smacking of the same light dressing. Slightly browned garlic slices in the mix add spiciness, and dried cranberries counter with a sweet note. Beauty is found in this cast-iron dish.
The strain of the happy-hour rush resulted in a bit of chaos and comically late beverages, but it didn't tarnish our affection for Brazen. Nor did the increased happy-hour prices. For many eager diners around Denver, Brazen is a special-occasion place, but the neighbors have already turned it into a regular hangout spot. Hurry up and grab those oysters next time; the evening crowd here is only going to keep coming back and loving it.
Don't Miss: You can certainly try to get a pre-show dinner together at Brazen before a screening at the Elitch Theatre's Outdoor Summer Film Series, but I think you'll find that plenty of others will have the same idea. Nonetheless, Brazen pairs well with sunsets, fresh air and Hairspray. Alternately, a pre-gaming and dinner session here would be good preparation for a visit to one of my favorite places, neighboring Tennyson's Tap and its nightly entertainment.