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Reclaimed and salvaged design details—finished in the owner’s woodshop—come together to create a contemporary urban saloon.
Inconsistent execution in the kitchen and significant front-of-the-house shortcomings.
Curtis Club Bloody Mary, Curly Wolf cocktail, Brussels sprouts salad, open-face beef cheek sandwich, Scott’s tuna melt
Entrées at dinner, $15 to $28. Street parking. Open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Reservations accepted.
Across seven visits to the Curtis Club—the urban saloon that quietly opened last fall but was quickly discovered by trendsetters—the first thing every one of my dining companions commented on was the decor. Some mentioned the antler damask wallpaper. Others were taken by the mismatched barstools. My female guests were struck by the recessed tin ceiling and crystal chandelier. The guys waxed lyrical about the pine boards that owner Scott Bagus salvaged from a family ranch in Montana and crosscut in his woodshop. The hot pink paisley paper that hangs in the ladies restroom made me want to redesign my own powder room.
It was, however, the disco-era Wurlitzer Americana II jukebox that captured the attention of my art director friend. Emblazoned with red push buttons, faux wood panels, and a photo of snowcapped mountains, it might just be the most handsome jukebox in Denver. Bagus, a one-time indie rock guitarist and first-time restaurateur, bought the gem from Terry Dean, a “jukebox guru” in Woodland Park. At some point between our bison Bolognese and bacon-wrapped rabbit loin, my friend got up from our table to check it out. “Too bad it doesn’t work,” he said when he returned. Over time, I realized the jukebox provides an unfortunate metaphor for the restaurant. The Curtis Club is an eatery that landed on both 5280’s and Westword’s 2014 lists of best new restaurants. And although it was initially quite inviting, it has since lost much of its appeal.
Last year, as Bagus prepared to open the Curtis Club, he smartly hired an experienced veteran to run the kitchen. Chef Eric Johnson has manned the burners at the Flagstaff House and the Greenbriar Inn, among other fine-dining destinations. As I perused the menu while sipping a Curly Wolf, a well-made cocktail of rye whiskey, rhubarb liqueur, sweet vermouth, and almond syrup, so many things sounded delicious that I had trouble deciding. Johnson offers starters such as rabbit rillettes on toast points with quail eggs; house-made Burrata cheese with Mission figs and pistachios; and grilled asparagus with preserved lemon and green garlic aïoli. For entrées, he features alluring proteins like rabbit, alpaca, and soft-shell crab. And the menu is littered with an obvious commitment to Colorado. The bar pours every bourbon distilled in the state, and the kitchen lists seasonal jewels such as pea tendrils from Cure Organic Farms.
Some of the dishes from the menu sang. Served with toasted almonds, dried currants, Haystack Mountain Dairy’s queso de mano cheese, and a sweet white balsamic vinaigrette, I loved Johnson’s salad of unexpectedly blanched then chilled Brussels sprout petals so much that it inspired me to try serving the leaves cold at home. One night the fish special of tender cobia came with an inviting punch of heat and ginger, al dente asparagus spears with a tasty char, and fried yam ribbons that gave crunch to each forkful. During lunch I enjoyed the chef’s take on the tuna melt. He seasoned a mound of net-free albacore with a chaotic but marvelous collection of fresh horseradish, diced cornichons, Dijon mustard, aïoli, chives, cayenne, smoked paprika, fenugreek, and other spices. An open-face sandwich at brunch was just as memorable: A generous heap of exceedingly tender beef cheek arrived atop La Brea’s sourdough with warm deviled eggs and a side of crisped, tender potatoes.
But the majority of the menu, like the jukebox, didn’t work. During one meal I had a salad of chickpeas, frisée, pitted Castelvetrano olives, and julienned carrots that reminded me more of the odds and ends I might throw together in a pinch than something I’d trek across town to spend precious dollars on. Plus, the chickpeas were so undercooked that my fork couldn’t pierce them. Both pasta dishes I tried were disappointing: One was advertised as spring peas and penne with mint, pea tendrils, feta, and a soft-poached egg. But the gluten-free noodles were dense, the egg was overcooked, the peas were tacky between my teeth, and the whole bowl was overwhelmed by a tomato ragù that was not mentioned on the menu.
On another night, the red sauce for a bison Bolognese that Johnson served with almond fettuccini was so over-puréed and flat it was reminiscent of something out of a can. During a lunch visit, my cousin ordered a salad of hanger steak, grilled romaine, feta, and marinated tomato. The steak itself arrived perfectly pink in the center, but dry swaths of burned lettuce resembled the brown, smoldering paper you start a fire with. The feta was one day too tangy.
Over the course of these meals, too many of Johnson’s dishes ran sweet, as if he were still cooking for the 2002 Denver diner. Similarly, many dishes arrived with certain ingredients used so sparingly I wondered aloud if there were financial concerns at play. That rabbit rillette was stingily pre-spread on our toast, the chickpea salad had chopped pieces of (maybe) two olives, and a brunch waffle’s four blackberries were halved. Bagus insisted in later interviews that these were not monetary choices. But, at a minimum, the feeling of being nickeled and dimed wasn’t particularly hospitable. This, however, was the least of the Curtis Club’s woes with regards to hospitality.
On the same visit as the disappointing jukebox discovery, my friend and I were sitting at our table for 10 minutes before a bearded, plaid-shirted twentysomething came by with water. Worse than the delay itself, he neither bothered to welcome us nor make eye contact. After helping the adjacent tables two different times, our waitress finally decided to greet us with a spiel about recent media accolades.
Those off-putting first impressions were, literally and figuratively, just the beginning. Over my many meals, the “host”ess stand was often unmanned. Servers consistently offered mumbled, muffled, or otherwise halfhearted hellos. The staff told us on one visit it was possible to get a half order of the pasta, impossible the next. Waiters failed to inform us of ingredient substitutions such as almonds for pistachios, frisée for arugula, and halved berries for rhubarb compote. Servers cleared plates we weren’t finished with; they didn’t inquire about plates we’d only partially consumed but pushed aside; and entrées almost always arrived before our appetizers had been taken away.
One lackadaisical lunch waitress—with visible remains of the previous night’s consumption—returned to our table after 20 minutes to report that a beet starter we’d ordered was no longer available…without a menu in hand so that we could pick a replacement. Another server went an entire night without ever filling our empty wine glasses from the bottle we’d splurged on. A third delivered our food in an apron so filthy I wished I’d carried our meal from the kitchen myself. On my final dinner visit, in the time it took us to finish our cocktails at the bar, we lost the reserved table we’d checked in with the hostess about.
When I interviewed Johnson, he closed our conversation by talking about the planters Bagus was building from horse troughs for the patio. Bagus described the glass tabletops he was waiting on that would reveal the bottom half of the wagon wheels from which some high-tops hang. The first-time restaurant owner assured me his jukebox was loaded with Motown R&B, blues, and soul 45s that were just waiting for someone who could help him with an audio output problem.
Far more important, however, is the need for Bagus to look up from his design punch list long enough to realize that fabulous tabletops and even a spot on a couple of early best-of lists are only small parts of running an eatery. While I’d love to sit in this modern-day saloon sipping one of those Colorado spirits to the hum of the Wurlitzer, I’d rather Bagus focus on critical problems—or hire more tenured professionals to do so. Recently, I got a call from Johnson telling me how excited he was that his boss had finally hired a front-of-the-house general manager. That’s a good start.