"We've been a tough restaurant to understand and adjust to, I think," says Rippeto. "Our menu is different every month, we're noisy and chaotic a lot of the time and so aren't what you'd call a traditional place for intimacy, and we have a commitment to offering dishes that aren't being done everywhere else in town. I think those elements can make diners kind of nervous, because they're used to being comfortable with what they see everywhere else." From the back of Potager's dining room, what you see is the fenced-in area behind the restaurant that contains a kitchen garden (which is what potager means in French) and is a heavenly place to eat in the late spring, summer and early fall, surrounded by growing herbs. Some of those herbs become components in Rippeto's dishes; she's one of the area's most vocal advocates of changing menus to accommodate the freshest of ingredients. Inside, the space is funky and crowded, lined with exposed bricks on two walls and windows on a third, and centered by a cramped, if cozy, bar. Here Rippeto serves up dinner five nights a week. Initially, she offered breakfast and lunch, too -- but that concept lasted all of a month.
"I need a life," she explains. "And, frankly, the customers were telling me that's what they were looking for and that's what they would support." Today the vast majority of her customers are regulars who have a great deal of say in the types of food Rippeto offers. "They know exactly what day the menu is going to change each month, and on that night, we are always packed," she says. "It's funny how people are hungry for what's in season. Right now everyone wants to know if we're doing the cassoulet, so I'm up to my elbows in duck fat every day. Not everyone's going to that kind of trouble, let me tell you."
Rippeto's partner in Potager is her father, Tom Rippeto, who comes to Denver once a month to take care of the books and any repairs. "My dad arrives and everyone's sighing in relief," laughs Rippeto, who went to culinary school in San Francisco and worked at restaurants there before moving back to her hometown of Columbia, Missouri, for a while. "They're sick of me by then, and so they look to him for a breath of fresh, uncranky air. And so first he makes sure that we're not going under, and then he straps on a tool belt and fixes all the stuff everyone's been complaining about for a month. We have a very special relationship, and I think that makes a difference in the way the staff feels about where they work."
The daddy-daughter team first opened an eatery together in Columbia -- a California-style Italian spot noted for its connection to a local farm -- and then Teri decided she wanted to move west. Once in Colorado, she started looking for an area farm she could hook a restaurant to so that she'd have a direct link to fresh produce. She found one in Boulder's Hedgerow Farms. "We are up there two or three times a week picking up ingredients, and then we supplement that throughout the week with stuff from farmer's markets," Rippeto says. "It's a lot of extra work, and I'm not sure that diners understand the kind of commitment required to make that happen. But I think it's worth it."
While Rippeto's responsible for everything coming out of the open kitchen, including the pastries -- "That's by default," she says -- her general manager, Jerry Payne, who recently passed the first level of sommelier training, runs the front of the house. The place can get so crazy that it's sometimes like a football game, she suggests: "You know, everyone bashing into everyone, a lot of chaos and running around." But just as often, customers tell her it's more like a ballet.
And that's how I found it on a recent visit, with lots of fancy footwork to match the very artistic food. The first act was a beautifully sautéed foie gras over a heavy piece of hazelnut French toast ($10.25), which was ringed by pear slices and moistened with both a balsamic syrup and a butter-like ball of pear sorbet that melted all over everything. A second starter, the roasted acorn squash and pear tartlet ($8.50), was heavier than I'd expected, but it was still a smartly assembled marvel augmented with blue cheese and an intensely sweet port syrup.
The scallops marinated in lemon and ginger ($19.50) didn't have enough tartness or ginger, and the broth of the accompanying Asian noodles lacked flavor, but the scallops themselves were impeccably fresh and perfectly sautéed. The escolar ($22.95) was simply perfect: an impressive trio of succulent fish medallions sitting atop a "sauce" of wilted arugula sweetened with beets. Few local restaurants offer escolar, and that's a shame, because the firm-fleshed fish has a wonderfully lush flavor. Fluffy mashed potatoes enriched with goat cheese proved a nice complement.
Rippeto is particularly adept with the starchy side of things, as evidenced by her risotto ($10.75). During the winter months, some version is always on the menu; this creamy, not-too-thick, not-too-gummy concoction was filled with thick, soft pieces of winter squashes, spinach so fresh it still tasted of the sun, and tiny slips of apple whose sweetness played off the bite of the greens. The combination showed how canny Rippeto is at matching ingredients that are in season simultaneously -- a trait that many chefs who pair frozen produce with winter meats would do well to emulate.
To round out the meal, we ordered Rippeto's homemade chocolate pudding ($4.50), the kind made from melting down chocolate instead of adding milk to a mix. Her version was a concentrated mound of comfort, served pots de crème-style in a little ramekin and topped with a bubble of freshly whipped cream.
How does Rippeto's garden grow? Deliciously, thank you.