Charcoal – 3 stars
43 W. Ninth Ave.
The Draw A satisfying contemporary American menu enlivened with European touches and presented by an attentive waitstaff.
The Drawback The main dining space lacks warmth and cheer.
Don’t Miss Lamb meatball, braised oxtail ragoût, grilled pork chop, french fries.
Price $$$ (Average price per entrée: $23)
FOOD: 3 stars
SERVICE: 3 1/2 stars
AMBIENCE: 2 1/2 stars
If you watch The Food Network (and, really, who doesn’t?), you’re well aware of the kind of ego it takes to become an attention-getting, award-winning chef. It’s not enough to prepare good food in an artful way. To gain acclaim you need swagger! Backstory! Tattoos! If you can muscle up an air-sucking, tweet-worthy, zaniest-kid-on-the-playground persona…even better.
I don’t know about you, but I get tired just thinking about all that attitude. I just want a good meal in a grown-up restaurant free of arrogance and affect. I want a meal from a chef who’s not working out his or her issues in the kitchen. I want a chef who places my needs above his or her own.
Happily—and with great relief—I discovered these characteristics at Charcoal, a contemporary American bistro that opened last September in the Golden Triangle. Here, the kitchen is controlled by Patrik Landberg, 37, a Swede who relocated to the United States 12 years ago. You may not have heard of Landberg because he’s relatively new to Denver: He worked for just six months at Satchel’s Market in Park Hill before it closed. Before that, Landberg cooked for 10 years in New York City.
But I suspect the real reason you may not have heard of him is because Landberg is not that kind of chef. He doesn’t seek the spotlight through molecular this or sous vide that. He doesn’t break the rules in a bizarre way (no caviar with ice cream; no popcorn on fish). Instead, his menu is built around straightforward favorites such as pork chops and strip steak and salmon. Even when he does offer something relatively unusual for Denver—tangy mustard herring, for example, a traditional Swedish dish—he does so without fanfare.
This is not to say Landberg is above a bit of novelty. When Charcoal opened last September, his mission was to create a menu built around meats cooked on a customized grill using smokeless Bincho-style charcoal. This grilling method allows meat to cook swiftly at more than 2,400 degrees, crisping the outside while maintaining the juicy tenderness inside. But over the past year, his menu has evolved. While precisely grilled meat remains a mainstay of Charcoal’s menu, you’ll also find pasta and charcuterie and one of the most satisfying small bites menus in town.
Landberg’s starters lean heavily on assertive flavors designed to accelerate your appetite. The bacon-wrapped dates are chewy, sweet-and-smoky nuggets that pair well with anything from a bright glass of Albariño to a heady bourbon cocktail. His succulent and substantial lamb meatball explodes with Middle Eastern spices—cumin, turmeric, paprika, garlic—and is cooled by a pool of tangy, dill-laced tzatziki. And, at the risk of sounding extraordinarily pedestrian, Charcoal’s french fries—an enormous heap of crispy-salty addictiveness—are the kind of dish I might order for pickup in the middle of the day, to enjoy by myself. The light sprinkling of truffle salt and herbs (chives, tarragon, parsley) makes Charcoal’s fries a mature version of the grammar school staple.
Dishes on Charcoal’s appetizer menu are equally satisfying. My favorite is the warm and comforting braised oxtail ragoût. In this dish, the tender meat of the oxtail melts into a thick, rich red sauce intertwined with wide ribbons of fresh pappardelle. This dish is tight-knit, possessive of its secrets, and united around one common goal: your pleasure. The gravlax, a much lighter, cooler appetizer, demonstrates Landberg’s range. Cured in-house, the tender, thinly sliced salmon is gently brushed with aquavit (a Scandinavian liquor) and drizzled with a sweet and sour mustard sauce. Whereas the oxtail is filling and layered, the salmon is light and simple, and both dishes showcase Landberg’s quiet confidence.
The assurance Landberg brings to the small plates menu extends to his entrées. To get a sense of what Bincho-style charcoal grilling can do to a piece of meat, order the pork chop with fingerling potatoes and sweet roasted apples. The grilled pork, drizzled with a stock, cider, and white wine reduction, is meaty, juicy, flavorful—in other words, the exact opposite of the rubbery pork impersonators most of us have grown used to. The New York strip steak, served sliced atop a creamy celery root purée and accessorized with an elegant red wine demi-glace, is also a grilling masterwork.
While the halibut, grilled over charcoal in a cast-iron pan, was also cooked well, the tender fish was overcome by the too-rich creamed corn and lobster vinaigrette. I know, I know…halibut on its own is almost always boring. But pulling back on the béchamel and chipotle in the corn, or the rich lobster and sherry vinegar in the vinaigrette, would have created a more balanced dish.
Also on the list of lesser entrées: the pan-roasted half chicken and grilled salmon, both of which suffered from a lack of oversight in the kitchen. The chicken was overcooked and dry (perhaps because it was pan-roasted and not grilled), whereas the salmon had been out of water too long.
The servers at Charcoal do their best to make up for mistakes, and their best is very good indeed. The waitstaff—all of them attractive, attentive, and knowledgeable—remind me of young Broadway hopefuls lining up for audition. They are eager in a way that isn’t put on and genuine in their desire to please. As casting director I’d hire them all.
I would also invite the help of a set designer. While there’s a lot working inside Charcoal—the expansive open-view kitchen, the wine-colored booths lining one wall, the welcoming long bar—the main dining area, which is filled with small, square tables and metal-frame chairs, feels more like an executive cafeteria than a modern American bistro.
Come to think of it, maybe the executive analogy is an apt one. The crowd at Charcoal is slightly older than you’ll find downtown, more interested in conversation than getting smashed on the latest craft cocktails. Together, the menu, the clientele, and Landberg’s refreshing lack of ego work together to create a grown-up restaurant that’s easy to embrace.