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Urban Cowboy

Within Row 14’s sleek downtown space, chef Jensen Cummings works to find culinary harmony. 

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I confess: I love the click of concrete under high heels. The thrill of jaywalking in the middle of the block. The silent triumph of finding a parking meter, nearby, with time remaining. I know Coloradans are supposed to love the wood smoke smell of the backcountry—and I do. But I also celebrate whenever a grown-up restaurant like Row 14 opens in the asphalt center of it all.

Row 14 is the kind of restaurant where you feel the city buzzing around you. Walk a block east and you mingle with badge-wearing out-of-towners streaming from the convention center. Head west and you encounter the silk-stocking, heavy-coat theater crowd. Check in with Row 14’s host and you’ll see, through a long wall of windows, the Times Square–size video monitor that floods the restaurant with splashes of light and color.

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Owner David Schneider, 41, has a notable history of owning and managing urban hot spots like Bin 36 in Chicago. Although relatively new to Denver, he knows how to create a space that gives city dwellers what they’ve come to expect: low pinpoint lighting, exposed ductwork, and a trendy urban-enviro aesthetic that blends details like concrete columns and beetle-kill paneling. Throw in some gold tones (in the leather booths and lacy chain curtains that separate the bar from the dining room), and you’ve got a backdrop wherein the simple act of sitting down at your table is accompanied by an uptick in energy.

That energy is especially appealing to wine lovers and others who may have grown weary of the craft cocktail trend. Row 14 has a seductive selection of more than 60 wines by the glass, as well as ever-changing red- and white-wine flights. A choice of either three- or six-ounce pours makes it easy to experiment with something unusual, such as a dry Riesling from New Zealand, or a Calea Fiano, a crisp aromatic white from Italy. And once you do, you’ll anticipate something spectacular—perhaps even a little daring—from the menu.

Fortunately, chef Jensen Cummings, 29, is an eager innovator. He takes a familiar dish like mac and cheese—complete with Kraft-brand cheese—and tops it with Korean short ribs. He riffs on the supremely American Philly cheese steak—rib-eye, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Cheez Whiz—and packages it inside delicate empanada pastry dough.

Cummings, a self-professed food and history geek, takes his inspiration from “Pangean cuisine,” his phrase for food modeled after the hypothetical supercontinent that existed approximately 250 million years ago. His idea: to playfully mix different cultures in each dish and throughout the menu. Listen to Cummings wax rhapsodic about food and cuisine, and you’ll like him because it’s clear he cares.

But although the creativity and cross-continental thinking that goes into Row 14’s menu is impressive, the dishes themselves rarely reach the point of transcendence. Some are simply too timid. The tiger shrimp ramen, a giant bowl of warm soy dashi broth filled with noodles, shrimp, kamaboko (a pressed white fish cake), and pickled cabbage, should have delivered far more punch. The crispy-on-the-outside barramundi served with potatoes cooked risotto-style was more interesting to read about than to eat. The fried tilapia in the fish and chips was generously portioned, but beige in both presentation and taste; the faint drizzle of red pepper rémoulade was not enough to relieve the monotony of the dish.

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More often than not, however, Cummings’ dishes overreach. The fish in the ahi and salmon rangoons was mobbed by too much, and too-rich, cream cheese. The kurobuta pork loin, normally a sweet and marbled cut, was overcooked, overly chewy, and overwhelmed by the salty curry miso sauce. The coconut cream pie—the filling of which was a thin, soupy mash—tried too hard with the sweet candied fennel topping, the spicy Sriracha peanut butter side, and the crumbly graham cracker crust. My thought at the end of a meal that included all these items? Enough already!

Cummings earned his cooking clogs working for local chefs Troy Guard at TAG and Kevin Taylor at the Opera House. It can’t be easy working in the shadow of such big personalities, and it must be a relief for him to finally push his own damned envelope. But with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, and Cummings has not yet mastered the balance necessary for finely wrought cuisine.

The potential is there, however, and when he does hit the sweet spot, the effect is downright sublime. One evening, the grilled rabbit special served atop a spinach-jalapeño purée had my dining companion and me passing the plate back and forth and wondering aloud why rabbit isn’t served more often. Cummings’ silky and swoon-worthy yellowtail crudo contained several nutty layers of flavor, thanks to the addition of sesame oil, nori, and sunflower seeds. And the pan-seared, skin-on Alamosa striped bass combined smoky bacon, fresh pea shoots, and a lively soy-ginger sauce in a truly artistic way. Like Jackson Pollock before he got control of his paint cans, Cummings clearly has the talent and vision to succeed. He simply needs more equilibrium and finesse.

Service at Row 14 is similarly inconsistent. One night, you’re charmed by the waiter who is as enthusiastic about the rabbit and the Rioja as you are. Another, you strain to find your server and then wonder why you tried so hard, since she was unable to answer any of your questions. These wild swings in preparation and presentation mean that if you’re lucky—and one evening, I was—you’ll walk out of Row 14 into the night air having devoured a meal that was perfect in every way. Or, you might leave the restaurant vowing never to return.

I wouldn’t write this place off, however. Row 14 has a center-of-the-action vibe that’s energizing and worth checking out—at least initially, for the wine list and people watching. With time, I suspect the kinks in cuisine will be resolved, and I’d be willing to pay full price at a meter to find out.

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