For more information about how 5280‘s rating system works, read this post from critic Stacey Brugeman.
Session Kitchen, the 11,000-square-foot restaurant in the former Izakaya Den space on Old South Pearl Street, is as much urban art gallery as it is one of Denver’s most-talked-about new restaurants. From the hostess stand, you can spot the word “Session” spray-painted by London street artist Ben Eine in massive red and gray script across the dining room’s northern wall. To the south is a 450-bulb installation of long, slender lights suspended above the first-floor bar like neon stalactites. Behind them hangs “Smoke Lady,” a painting of a woman’s profile that appears to be composed of a plume of red smoke. Not far away is a three-tiered mobile of black fabric birds.
In theory, Arkansas-born chef Scott Parker’s inventive, whimsical cooking—the style he was celebrated for at Table 6—and Michael Cerretani’s avant-garde cocktail program should be harmonious pairings for a restaurant flooded with edgy contemporary art. In practice, however, it’s the artwork at Session Kitchen that steals diners’ attention.
Parker turns out noteworthy dishes such as a warm kale heart salad. The 40-year-old chef fills an ovular Staub pot with crunchy peanuts, al dente griddled kale hearts, crispy yet tender cubes of house-cured pancetta, julienned Fresno chiles, and a punch of mint and lemon juice. The dish is full of varied texture and is as aesthetically pleasing as its surroundings. Other hits include Parker’s bergamot-spiked dolmas stuffed with creamy, well-seasoned carnaroli rice and served with near-crunchy barigoule-style artichoke hearts and a smooth white bean hummus. A salad of Bibb lettuce, generous avocado and grapefruit slices, and Campari-spiked goddess dressing was refreshingly classic—a thing of dining rooms with brandy carts. I also loved Parker’s pizzalike tart at brunch. Served on a gorgeous curved bamboo board, he confidently topped a buttery, flaky crust with anchovies, tomme cheese, heaps of fresh arugula and parsley, and a runny egg. These dishes showcase the work of a talented chef who can dabble in classical, ethnic, comfort, or inventive cuisines.
The decision to offer such a varied, creative menu doesn’t always pay off. At brunch, Parker replaced a stack of pancakes with a two-inch-thick, skillet-baked one. It seemed like an ingenious idea when the dish first landed on the table, still bubbling; however, my first forkful revealed a significant amount of raw batter in the middle. At dinner, a friend and I were intrigued by the lamb collar (neck meat) entrée, but the much-lauded dish arrived overcharred and dry. Another Staub pot of tender meatballs, plump Manila clams, house-made spaghetti, and a lemony broth looked and smelled like a winner—until I went to twirl the noodles around my fork and the entire serving of them stuck together like the bristles of a forgotten paintbrush. An “almond polenta,” listed only as such on the menu, was so unexpectedly smoky the side dish tasted like it had been scraped off the inner lid of a Weber grill.
With a menu full of novel-yet-unmentioned details, such as that single pancake and the mesquite-smoked butter in the almond polenta, the Session Kitchen experience frequently feels abstract. The waitstaff, therefore, plays an especially important role in helping guide, shape, and translate one’s meal. Some servers—one of whom is so serious about her line of work that she has a fork tattooed across her wrist—delivered. This waitress and some of her co-workers included details such as ingredient provenance, broke out their notes to answer questions, circled back with additional details, kept our water glasses full, and were enthusiastic enough about the art installations to point out subtleties we had missed. (If you look closely, a wall of gray and white subway tile spells the word “kitchen.”)
But service missteps were not uncommon on my visits to Session. A server didn’t bother asking what we thought of a cocktail that sat unconsumed for an entire meal; another didn’t know a primary ingredient in an appetizer she’d just finished raving about; a bowl for discarded clam shells never arrived; a cough-drop wrapper from the previous guest sat in front of us through an entire visit to the bar; a waiter failed to guide a guest with nut allergies away from the pineapple upside-down roll (which is laden with unmentioned pecans); and on one night we waited more than 30 minutes for a table despite having a reservation.
Like the food, the bar program at Session Kitchen is brave and, at times, effective. Bartenders were quick to welcome us and get drinks started—even on nights when swarms of customers stood two-deep behind the bar seats. Ice cubes from a fancy ice machine were so grand I overheard a customer ask, “Are these real?”—to which he was given a kind and patient answer. The beer list is remarkably diverse for a restaurant that’s owned by the folks behind Breckenridge-Wynkoop. Waiters tell you the backstory of winemakers such as Chapoutier and Patricia Green, and bartenders are adept at making classics like a Vieux Carré.
The beverage program quickly falls down, however, when many house-developed concoctions go from experimental to extreme. At brunch, a Bloody Mary was a work of art, with colorful pickled vegetables skewered across the top of the glass. But the drink itself was dominated by far too much brine from pickled radishes. The John Hammond mezcal cocktail I ordered, brought to the table still smoking, was one of the few drinks I’ve had in my life I couldn’t finish. I love the smoky agave spirit, but with the added component of smoked eucalyptus, the selection was completely overwhelming, the way your clothes smell after one too many nights next to a campfire.
Even with some candid editing to an otherwise exciting bar program and improvements to a service team that—in its finest moments—shows potential, it’s chef Parker who has the most soul-searching to do. My most memorable meal at Session Kitchen was lunch during a blizzard. With a near empty restaurant, inventive efforts such as chicken liver mousse with almond flour waffles, a chicken ham hash, and a Chicago-style tart were excellent and would earn spots on any list of Denver’s most interesting food. These dishes recall the talent we all came to love when Parker helmed Table 6. Parker spent nearly 10 years (a rare tenure in the industry) at the 60-seat neighborhood bistro. The much smaller Table 6 was a more forgiving place to tinker with ideas like dousing pierogi with Frank’s RedHot sauce and topping pork kabobs with ground-up maraschino cherries and chiles. Session Kitchen is a 300-seat behemoth where trays of bourbon shots, flaming drinks, and countless private industry events coexist with increasingly demanding everyday diners. For Parker, this is a major adjustment in sheer size alone. He must motivate, train, and entrust a kitchen staff double the size of that at his previous post to effectively execute his creative dishes.
When Parker scores—whether it’s in the medium of a crisp classic salad or a wholly inventive warm one—you can taste the following he built across town. But for the chef’s entire body of work to be seen as that of a master, he must work on kitchen consistency, even during the restaurant’s most slammed nights. This may mean temporarily shortening a menu that already underwent a major edit three months in. However he gets there, I’m confident that, if he chooses to put in the work, Parker has it in him to make Session Kitchen’s food upstage the space.