Flood Update: Despite significant damage to chef-owner Eric Skokan’s farms, Bramble & Hare and Black Cat are open and operating. One simple way to help flooded areas return to normal is to dine out at affected restaurants.
Bramble & Hare
1970 13th St., Boulder
2 1/2 Stars
Carefully sourced and lovingly prepared food, served in a thoughtful (if at times contrived) space.
Servers are reserved and unable to describe dishes with much accuracy or enthusiasm.
The erudite and well-edited wine list; potato chips with warm mayonnaise; farm greens salad; meatloaf; any dish with house-raised Mulefoot pork; cheesecake with seasonal fruit.
Small plates, $4 to $14; three-course farm dinner, $29. Street parking. (Tip: Bring $3 cash for the lot across the street). Open daily for happy hour, dinner, and late-night service 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Reservations accepted.
I have admired Eric Skokan, owner of Boulder’s Black Cat and Bramble & Hare restaurants, for years. Never mind that we share an alma mater (the University of Virginia) some 1,600 miles from the Front Range; Skokan is the consummate Renaissance man. This is a guy who is at once a supremely talented chef, a farmer of 130 acres, a recipe adviser from behind his table at the Boulder farmers’ market, a self-trained home repairman who bought a 1925 farmhouse with a tree growing out of a toilet, and an intellectual who effortlessly uses words like yeoman, farrowing, and filberts.
This overachiever’s official title, chef-farmer, is more rare than it might seem. True, the country is rife with chefs tending their own kitchen gardens, growing herbs and even some produce for portions of their restaurant menus. Inspired by Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, some chefs are also taking the practice into the off-season by, say, pickling cucumbers, hanging hams for prosciutto, or root-cellaring potatoes, carrots, and beets. There’s the Herbfarm’s five planted acres in Washington state; Oregon’s Nomadic Chef, a mobile brunch and supper club that owner Stacey Givens fuels from her Side Yard Farm; and Indiana chef Daniel Orr, who tends the countryside for Farm Bloomington. But very few chefs are bona fide farmers—growing and raising not “only” to serve the needs of their restaurants but also producing enough to sell goods at the farmers’ market. “Most chefs don’t farm and most farmers don’t chef. It’d be like working two full-time jobs,” an industry insider says.
At Bramble & Hare, which opened in summer 2012 as the informal answer to Skokan’s celebrated Black Cat, anyone can be part of Skokan’s special story. “We’ve heard thousands of times, ‘I love [Black Cat], and I come once a year on my anniversary,’ ” Skokan says. “We wanted a place that was casual and fun and eclectic and artsy.” Translation: At Bramble & Hare, $29 will nab you a full three-course dinner for which Skokan and his team personally raised nearly every ingredient.
From an elfin kitchen that should be measured in square inches instead of its 88.5 square feet, I’ve tasted a sublime coriander-flecked meatloaf. Skokan served the inch-thick carving of beef, purchased by the whole steer and ground in house, with a pool of creamed tomatoes he harvested and dehydrated at peak sweetness. Coarse-mashed russet potatoes and delicate crisped onions rounded out the plate. On another visit, using mismatched silverware that Skokan’s wife, Jill, spent months collecting at antique stores, my friends and I raced to pop a soft-cooked farm egg so the yolk would melt into a starter of tender borlotti beans, braised Mulefoot pork, and hoop-house mustard greens.
Bramble & Hare is a restaurant where smoked trout rillettes come with an apricot mostarda made refreshingly bitter by dried mustard seeds. Garnishes such as pickled beets repeat themselves, as they would in the home of a vegetable gardener who had just popped open a new jar. Carrot soup, delivered in a single-serving yellow Staub pot, is made from matching yellow jaune du doubs carrots. A one-pot meal of roasted ham, quinoa, lardons, and asparagus is adorned with the fronds of the asparagus plant, which chefs only have access to if they’ve harvested the perennial themselves.
Focaccia and sandwich bread inspired by a neighborhood market of Skokan’s youth in upstate New York can be seen proofing in the kitchen window. But it is Bramble & Hare’s salads—generously dressed without battering the arugula and satisfying with the hearty additions of rough-cut fingerling banana potatoes or beads of farro—that I find myself wishing I could recreate at home.
Like the man and his food, there are many elements to adore within the 40-seat dining room. Cocktails are served in lovely Marie Antoinette coupe glasses and petite cordial stems. Scene-setting sheep and goat pelts draped over the backs of chairs could double as lap blankets on cool fall nights. Pillows stuffed with the farm’s sheep’s wool are comfortable and homey. A 1,000-pound grain scale is a humorous take on sizing yourself up in the bathroom. However, at times such thoughtfulness becomes contrived, and you wonder if the prop stylist for Picasso at the Lapin Agile (the play that inspired the restaurant’s name) designed the “set.”
To wit: “Bramble & Hare” is emblazoned on the little golf pencil that comes with your sushi-style ordering form. Sheet music for Chopin bedecks an upright piano that you’re invited to play. The menu touts vintage board games that would be more alluring if you simply discovered them on your way to the loo. The liquor carousel behind the bar, made of spare parts and chains from an old combine, is clever—until the bartender whirls it into a wine glass. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so sensitive to the amount of thought put into the space if it weren’t a visual reminder of the amount of thought absent from the consistently bizarre service.
Over several visits, there were common gaffes: prematurely cleared plates, frequent poor pacing that once rendered doughnuts cold and soggy, audible tiffs between staff members, the need to ask for flatware and flag down servers instead of being checked on, a sommelier’s blind selection delivered without explanation, trouble describing obscure spirits on the cocktail menu, and even an annoying habit of saying “thank you” every time we expressed our approval of a wine or dish (as if the server thought he’d bottled or cooked it himself).
What was more surprising was that servers were oddly unforthcoming, even uninformed. The exception was beverage director Dev Ranjan, who can deftly describe the stories behind his thoughtful list—concise but loaded with obscure grapes and small-batch producers—and offer pairings.
In the last several years, as diners rightly began craving more information about the origins of the food they consume, marketing-savvy chefs printed menus that were littered with a tedious amount of detail. In extreme cases, an entrée composed mainly of imported ingredients would credit a local farm for growing the parsley. I understand the industry argument for “menu provenance overload” and agree that, as Skokan says, “customers have hit their limit with jargon,” but servers can’t use this justified call for more subtle service as an excuse for misinformation—especially in a model farm-to-table restaurant where it’s these details themselves that are the draw. “When we train a new server, we explain to them that they need to know everything in depth,” Skokan says. “If they perceive that the customer really wants to know more, then we go into the long spiel.” This is a sound ideal, but not once did a server accomplish it.
Although the waitstaff was welcoming, actual interactions were perplexing. When my dining companion asked what the bright green drizzle on our plate was, our server happily went running back to the kitchen only to report it was puréed “mi-zoo-MAY” (aka mizuna), then said, “Now that that’s settled,” as she fled the table. During another visit we asked if a ham entrée was cured or uncured.
“What’s cured?” our waitress asked. Another server zealously encouraged a cheese plate that she presented to us with descriptions stopping at “blue-ish” and “Brie-ish.” Even those staff members who did know the pork species was Mulefoot or that their colleagues had foraged the king oyster mushrooms were so taciturn it was as if we were holding up a line in the Ikea cafeteria by asking absurd questions. On each visit, I left sad and discouraged that we diners had more enthusiasm for the restaurant’s backstory than the staff did. The experience wasn’t just limited to my meals: Employees were oddly baffled during what should have been simple phone calls about parking and the restaurant’s hours.
Among many admirable qualities, Skokan himself is a modest guy, not eager to boast. But once you ask him a thoughtful question, he is delightfully forthcoming—never aloof or terse. In fact, Skokan’s answers can be such gully washers that you’re tempted to interrupt him out of respect for the hay you know he has to bale or the 7,000 tomato starts he has to plant before sundown. I hate to add to his to-do list, but maybe the chef-farmer needs to spend some time waiting tables as well. Or at least spend a long winter training his staff how to do so.