The Draw: Bawdy decor and a lively menu in a supper-club space that just won’t quit
The Drawback: Most dishes don’t know when to stop; good ideas are buried under an avalanche of ingredients
Don’t Miss: Duck wings, Belgian mussels, mushroom flatbread, smashed baked potatoes, cocktails
Details: Starters, salads, flatbreads, and small plates $6 to $16; entrées $19 to $29. Dinner nightly from 5 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Street parking and valet available.
After three head-spinning evenings at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, I drew up one of those fantasy dinner-party guest lists. Picture a table for four overlooking the restaurant’s stage and gigantic movie screen. At the table sits Sigmund Freud, the original id man. To his right, sexploitation director Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Opposite Freud is Shinichiro Ohta, the excitable Japanese narrator of the original, bonkers Iron Chef television series. For a dose of sanity, Pee-wee Herman anchors the fourth chair. Russ takes Sigmund downstairs to show the good doctor the movie poster for Smoke and Flesh, a laughable weed-and-orgy flick from 1968, located near the men’s room. (As Sigmund goes inside, he discovers the urinals are separated by partitions made of vintage yardsticks, but we can’t tell if he’s amused.) Upstairs, Pee-wee orders cocktails for the table: a Sex Machine, a Hard Eight, a Morning Tryst, and, for Russ, a Moral Turpitude. Shinichiro, trying to decode Ophelia’s dinner menu, decides he hasn’t seen an odder combination of ingredients since the Iron Chef battle on November 4, 1994, when challenger Yasuo Kawada served anglerfish pie with foie gras and ketchup sauce.
The id-plosion that is Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox was conceived by chef-owner Justin Cucci, of Root Down and Linger fame, and his restaurant makes about as much sense as the first paragraph of this review. But I have to concede that in some weird way it succeeds. Like a furious baby, Cucci has thrown everything at the wall, decorwise and foodwise. The restaurant’s aesthetic polestar is the historic building’s smutty peep-show/brothel past, hence the soft-core film posters, the naked-lady wall art, the burlesque stage, and the bordello lighting. But that’s just the beginning. An avid collector of diverse stuff, Cucci threw in pinball machine art, vintage radios, and a basement bar constructed of Jägermeister minis, and then he kept piling on more.
With a bar that dominates the main room and balcony tables that overlook a downstairs stage and dance floor, Ophelia’s is really a dinner club, with live acts on the weekends—including burlesque on some Sundays—and sports on the big screen when a game is happening. (If you can snag one of those balcony tables, it’s a fine place to cheer on the home team while puzzling over the menu.)
Cucci calls Ophelia’s a “gastro brothel,” and thereby morphs “gastropub” into an even less appealing phrase. With vaudeville energy, the dinner menu ranges across eight categories, from “brothel boards” and “noshes” to “stone fire skillets,” managing along the way to feature items such as duck meatballs, wild boar sausages, ostrich burgers, and octopus à la plancha. What the kitchen is pimping can be tasty and even inspired. The stout-teriyaki duck wings, for example, one of several small plates, are brilliant finger food: crunchy, chewy, sweet, salty duck meat on long bones. Order a beer from the list of 12 Colorado brews and ask for the dry-rub ribs too; their Carolina mustard sauce has a nice, tart twang.
Also try the Belgian mussels, which come in a citrusy beer broth that is the finest I’ve ever tasted; I was madly scooping it out of the bowl with half a shell, like an addict, while I tried to figure out what all that other stuff was doing in the bowl. For it’s Cucci’s style to build a solid dish and then ornament it like a culinary Gaudí. Aside from bivalves and broth, the mussels contained “fregola sarda”—a Sardinian pasta rather like Israeli couscous, but toastier—along with lentils and jalapeño cheddar bread. Now, cheddar is a very specific cheese that really has nothing to do with mussels, fregola, or lentils, and for that matter I’ve always thought it was mismatched with jalapeño. The dish, taken as a whole, tastes like an argument between a progressive chef from Brussels and a line cook in a TGI Friday’s kitchen.
Why, for example, does a little pot of succulent smoked scallops, served with charred lemon and crispy lavash crackers, also need A) the pot of crème fraîche that tastes like oniony chip dip, and B) a tincture bottle of blazingly spicy and vinegary hot sauce? There’s no reference for that culinary Babel in my brain. With many of the dishes, I ended up picking and choosing from the vast range of stuff on a plate to create my own sub-genre serving of, say, scallops with scorched lemon, which was rather delicious in its simplified form.
The pell-mell style also creates a blurring butterscotch pudding—with banana cream and bourbon sauce, walnuts, and “house nilla wafers”—had that throat-catching richness one wants in a pudding.
With its night-club vibe, Ophelia’s owes customers good cocktails, and it delivers. After I got over having to mutter the words “Sex Machine” to the server, I found it a well-made mezcal and cayenne drink, not too smoky, not too spicy. Untitled Project finds a perfect balance among the vinegar of a pineapple shrub, the bitter of Campari, and the sour of lime and tequila. Hard Eight gives a basic bourbon-lemon treatment the sting of fresh ginger.
And the waitstaff, aside from a couple of missteps, managed to be both jaunty and considerate. One night, our server, seeing that we had ordered too much food, held back on putting two orders through to the kitchen, allowing us to cry uncle and save the money. That’s a rare gesture in a restaurant, and much appreciated.
In the end, this odd, chaotic joint plays out less like a brothel than a bit of B cinema. I appreciate Cucci’s mad vision the same way that I enjoy Ken Russell’s unhinged 1988 film The Lair of the White Worm, which featured a young Hugh Grant battling a large metaphor. Yes, Ophelia’s food would work better if the kitchen eased up on its Gatling gun tendencies, but there are certain people I would happily take there for a night on the town. Consult the first paragraph for the sort of guest list I have in mind.