Cafe Society

twelve: Jeff Osaka's restaurant celebrates a significant birthday

In marriage, the fifth anniversary isn't insignificant — every year together is cause for celebration — but it doesn't have the ring of the twenty-fifth or fiftieth, which are such admirable achievements that they call for gifts of silver and gold, not the pizzazz-less wood traditionally swapped half a decade after saying "I do." Restaurants, however, live in dog years, so next week, when chef-owner Jeff Osaka hosts a party honoring the fifth anniversary of twelve, it will mark a much bigger milestone than the calendar suggests.

Why do restaurants age by a factor of seven? As with everything, there are long answers and there are short ones, and the latter is this: The industry is just plain tough. Hours are long, days off are rare, margins are thin. Even when chefs do everything right, the fact remains that 60 percent of restaurants close within three years — not quite the urban legend of nine out of ten failing within the first twelve months, but cold comfort nonetheless to cooking-school grads. Add to these standard stats the challenges of opening during the Great Recession, and in a neighborhood that's in transition (to put it politely), and you'll understand the scale of Osaka's soiree, with a handful of the city's best chefs — Alex Seidel (Fruition), Lon Symensma (ChoLon) and Justin Brunson (Old Major), among others — cooking at the $125 prix fixe affair.

See also: Behind the scenes at twelve

That Osaka attracted such an outpouring of support isn't surprising. The Los Angeles native — whose career includes stints as a private chef for Steven Spielberg and time in a two-Michelin-star kitchen — has made it a mission to foster ties among chefs, many of whom he counts as friends. Even before these regular get-togethers started, though, industry folks seemed to catch on to the restaurant before the rest of the city did, appreciative of both Osaka's precision and his guts (he launches a new menu every month, hence the name of his place). The fact that so many big names are turning out for twelve's anniversary party says something about Osaka's position in the dining scene. But what does it say for the rest of us? Curious to see how twelve has settled in, how the concept and neighborhood and cooking feel after five years in which much around the city has changed, I decided it was time for a closer look.

What I found was a restaurant that still seems better understood by chefs than by the public. The restaurant has never generated much buzz, and it's rarely included on the short list of places that people are talking about. Despite the fact that business has increased by 20 percent a year, sales didn't meet Osaka's opening projections until last year. Not that business is bad: On weekends, I've frequently seen parties turned away for lack of reservations. But mid-week the space has seats to fill, even with its generous prix fixe menu on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays that offers a choice of any full-portion appetizer, entree and dessert for $38.

This is perhaps because Osaka prefers to do his own thing rather than the popular thing. Other than price, which he admits was too high in the early days, he's made few changes over the years. The space is much the same, with the same vintage-theater-like marquee that hardly suggests the eatery within; the same grand mirrored bar and nicely spaced tables; and that bare spot near the entry just waiting for a large piece of art. The concept hasn't changed much, either. Osaka hasn't adopted the small plates, community tables or craft cocktails that so many restaurateurs have ridden to success, nor does he offer happy hour to get people in the door. "That was never us," he says simply.

What twelve is — and always has been — is an intimate spot offering a tightly edited, protein-centric menu that glides through the seasons, with five new appetizers and six new entrees designed to capture the spirit of each month. (Only two dishes — a green salad with fines herbes, watermelon radishes, carrots and fennel, and the chocolate trio — never change.) In October, I found entrees such as scallops, pork cheeks and bavette accented with winter squash sliced into batonnets, diced in risotto, and puréed as a sweet, earthy bed for the steak. There were beets, too, both sautéed greens and baby jewels, as well as sweet potatoes turned into a soup and poured tableside, with an island of bacon-studded lentils in the center. Fall's favorite fruit, the apple, made several appearances, too, the best in an apple mostarda served with housemade fennel sausage and a pain perdu fashioned from apple-cinnamon bread. Though ingredients flow in and out depending on the season, dishes are never repeated, so don't look for October's scallops again, even though you'll want to: The pairing of scallops with sweet persimmons (shipped from Osaka's mother's tree in California), smoky bacon and butternut squash was excellent.

A compact menu, talented sous-chefs (Osaka now designs only 20 percent of the menu and leaves the rest to them) and seasonality don't always translate to transcendent plates. Even on this small of a lineup, a few dishes seemed ill-conceived, such as a starter with blue cheese, candied walnuts and lackluster apples, which needed better fruit and more heft — bruschetta? a mound of greens? — to lift it out of the "nibble with a glass of wine" category. Risotto was too similar in texture to the fork-tender pork cheeks atop it to be interesting; stronger flavors in the risotto might have helped (it tasted mostly like butter). But twelve is a place for subtle, not strong flavors, even when they're called for: a curry sauce that needed more kick to tame the richness from so much lamb belly in the "porchetta"; mascarpone and caramel ice creams too coy for their own good.

Even if white tablecloths aren't part of the experience, other hallmarks of fine dining are. Plating is artistic, with a shoot of micro-celery tumbling off crispy, skin-on Colorado striped bass, a wisp of baby red sorrel fluttering to the plate like an aspen leaf. Other ingredients are just as thoughtful, though not as easy to spot or identify — but that's part of Osaka's game, too, with bone marrow melted into breadcrumbs sprinkled over the steak, and little-known ingredients like Romanesco broccoli, with nubby pyramids growing off the pale-green vegetable, accenting the fish. Service is usually, though not flawlessly, attentive, with Osaka himself pitching in to top off complimentary sparkling water and busboys taking dessert orders when a server is occupied with a large table.

With so much going for it, it's hard to see why twelve hasn't earned a spot on the short list. Except, of course, for the elephant in the room: location. Though the neighborhood has changed significantly since Osaka signed the lease — with restaurants such as Trillium opening a block down Larimer and Amerigo Delicatus and the Populist opening farther up the street — this particular block has remained stubbornly sketchy, to the point that people still call to ask if there's security or a valet. There isn't, but if I were Osaka, I might consider joining the ranks of other restaurants around town offering valet service — not just for security, but for convenience. Doing so would take away one of the restaurant's big obstacles to getting folks in the door. Because once you're through that door, you're going to want to stay — not to mention return.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz