Unless you're a movie buff, you probably don't remember The Doctor, a touching early-'90s film about a surgeon diagnosed with cancer. Having seen life through a patient's lens, the doctor, played by Oscar winner William Hurt, learns to practice a different, more empathetic kind of medicine after his recovery.
Ryan Leinonen, chef-owner of Trillium, the Scandinavian-American hot spot that opened last December in the Ballpark neighborhood, should order the movie from Netflix on his next day off.
I say this not because Leinonen needs an etiquette lesson. Though I've never met him — as a critic, I dine incognito — I have spoken to him by phone, and the Michigan native comes off as both passionate and smart, with a refreshing lack of tolerance for the division so often found in professional kitchens. But after all his years as a high-end chef — Leinonen spent time at Colt & Gray and the Kitchen and was the opening chef at Root Down — I think he would benefit from seeing Trillium not in chef's whites, but in street clothes.
From either perspective, there's much to love about the restaurant, which has become a place to impress out-of-town clients and dates alike over the past eleven months. The decor is sleek, with blue and white pendant lamps, colorful pillows from Ikea, and gray-and-black tiles snaking on the walls like a Mondrian painting. Airy in feel, with a U-shaped bar at the center and an exhibition kitchen beyond that, the layout was sketched by Leinonen himself, who wanted to re-create the open flow of restaurants he'd seen in Sweden and Finland, where he and his wife have roots.
If you come for drinks, you can sit either at the bar, which is cozily separated from the rest of the room by peek-through dividers and a flickering, linear fireplace, or in the lounge, with a semi-circular sofa and views out ceiling-height windows onto Larimer Street. Happy hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and even later on Sunday, is generous, with $4 spirits and $5 wines. Order a trio of well-priced nibbles — perhaps the aquavit-cured salmon, pickled perch and cauliflower soup — and you'll have every reason to add your voice to the chorus of raves.
Venture to the dining room, however, and your euphoria might begin to fade. A near-identical list of snacks appears under the menu's "smorgasbord" section, but instead of the $4 price tag, they're $7 here. Assemble them for a group, as many do to start a meal, and your stomach might flutter the way it does when you're staring down an overpriced wine list in front of someone you want to impress. Yes, the house-smoked maple trout is delicious, but shouldn't there be more than three bites? And why does the accompanying crème fraîche and chopped egg run out after two? Slick, meaty slices of air-cured beef tenderloin are fun to fold in half and eat on marbled rye, but unless you reach for the small plate before your fellow diners do, you'll never get to taste them with the pickled onions and grainy mustard as intended, given the minuscule serving of each.
Quality is paramount to Leinonen, who sources humanely and knows his farmers by name, and Denver diners are willing to pony up for the good stuff. But why skimp on condiments? Why not make portions a smidge bigger so that a guest's mind never wanders to that three-dollar jump? What had seemed generous in the bar moments before now begins to seem like nothing of the sort. Imported cheeses, three for $21, enhance that sense, as does caviar, which starts at $125 and goes up from there. Leinonen assures me that the precious eggs sell well, but has he thought about the mental impact the sky-high price has on guests who are not on an expense account?
Leinonen is a talented chef, and his dedication to his craft is evident. The most successful dishes showcase his skills in coaxing maximum flavor from simple ingredients. Red Bird Farms chicken thighs and legs emerge from an ice cream machine (of all places) as a mild, silky mousse. Edged with minced mushrooms and wrapped in bacon, it becomes the centerpiece of a harmonious terrine. In a re-creation of toast Skagen, a classic Swedish starter, shrimp are gently handled, bathed in a light, housemade mayonnaise, then mounded on a slice of brown-buttered brioche with a crown of glistening salmon roe.
Prawn ravioli, a stunning entree, is more complex, with prawns, kale, cherry tomatoes and roasted mushrooms layered between open sheets of tender housemade pasta. But it is the flavor Leinonen gets from another component, one not even listed on the menu, that makes the dish so decadent: Heavily reduced and thickened with cream, an intensely flavored lobster bisque laps at the ravioli and sweetens every bite.
Leinonen says he is drawn to strong flavors, and Scandinavian cuisine, with its preponderance of roe and assertive fishes, is certainly full of them. At Trillium, these flavors are often well balanced, as in the standout "Never Never" New York strip, so named because the beef was never given antibiotics or hormones. Served atop roasted fingerlings and topped with arugula, pickled mushrooms and blue-cheese sauce, with fried leeks for crunch, the steak is a contender for best in town. Equally good is a moist chicken breast topped with caramelized Norwegian goat cheese, with braised cabbage and pan-crisped sweet-potato spaetzle lending the right amount of autumn warmth.
Clearly, Leinonen has put plenty of thought into this artful fare. But has he thought about how it comes together as a meal? Horseradish is listed as a component in four dishes. One night, horseradish overwhelmed not just the silky white-bean purée it was in, but everything else — crumb-topped whitefish, Hollandaise and tomato-cucumber salad — on my plate, although the pungent root minded its manners in the bed of fingerlings underneath my friend's New York strip. And another night, it played nicely with the Dijon underneath fried Havarti in the "Ham & Cheese" appetizer. But who wants to spend more than $100 on a meal and have to contend with such an assertive flavor at every turn?
Horseradish isn't the only unwelcome diva at Trillium. A savory butternut-squash pudding is exquisite, or at least it would be without the bacon vinaigrette drowning out the rightful star. Spiced cranberry semifreddo suffers a similar fate, with a fantastic holiday flavor you can hardly taste, hijacked as it is by chopped pecans.
While the kitchen seems to be trying to impress, the service does not; it swings from superb to nearly nonexistent. One night, no fewer than three large groups were squeezed into the dining room, overpowering nearby two-tops and requiring the server to wiggle around their chairs and smaller tables to avoid a collision. Meanwhile, the other side of the restaurant sat empty. I have waited thirty minutes after ordering for the chewy, herb-topped rolls that come with every meal, and on numerous occasions have had to ask the server to speed things up so that my two-hour meter wouldn't expire.
Leinonen and his staff have invested loads of heart in Trillium, named for a rare blue wildflower that he says only blooms when conditions are right. In restaurant terms, those conditions are superb food, fun decor and gracious service, and Trillium has the potential to meet all of them. But until Leinonen sees the establishment from a diner's perspective and recognizes the places where the experience can fall short, that prized, four-star flower might not bloom as often as hoped.