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From left: Dining al fresco on Avelina's Wazee Street patio; charred octopus. Photography by Sarah Boyum

Restaurant Review: Avelina

At this New American eatery in downtown Denver, you can hit the jackpot—or leave disappointed.

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Avelina

1.5 Stars

The Draw:
Eclectic New American cooking, excellent desserts, an impressive wine list
The Drawback:
Inconsistent quality can turn a meal into a roller coaster ride
Don’t Miss:
Boudin blanc, duck liver mousse, Peruvian shrimp, warm Brussels sprouts salad, charred octopus, coconut panna cotta

In the age of eclectic, pancultural, farm-to-table, New American, rootsy-sophisticated, locally and globally sourced cooking, inconsistency and lack of focus are the industry’s bugbears. As a restaurant crams multiple cuisines and techniques onto one menu, challenges pop up like fourteeners in the backcountry.

That was what happened at Avelina during chef John Broening’s six-month tenure, which ended two days before this issue went to press. Broening’s departure turned this review into a postmortem concerning the perils of ambitious launches in Denver. As I write, I don’t know whether Avelina’s owners intend to use their chef’s exit to rethink their restaurant, but its wobbly performance out of the gate is a cautionary tale. Eclecticism is just as hard to pull off as any other style—maybe even harder.

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After Avelina’s launch this past September, Broening explained why an eclectic New American approach made sense in Denver. To paraphrase: The city has no native culinary tradition of its own; the hot local dining scene is running off in all directions at once; and removing constraints can be liberating for a seasoned chef such as he. Broening’s menu offered, among other things, sashimi, Peruvian shrimp, cheese croquettes, a tagine, boudin blanc, charred octopus, good old steak and potatoes, and hybrid items like walnut white-soy pesto and something called Brad’s Neo Gyro.

It was a risky proposition. If, for example, you put lamb ragu pappardelle on the same menu as Umami Broth with shrimp wontons and pork, you jump into the deep end of two foundational culinary traditions. Complex, flavorful broth defines some of the most exquisite foods from Singapore to Japan to China. Braised meat sauce with pasta is sacred to Italy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there are cooks who feel their life’s work is done if they approach perfection in ragu or broth.

Avelina Brussels sprouts salad
Avelina Brussels sprouts salad. Photograph by Sarah Boyum

On one chilly night, we ordered both of those comforting dishes at Avelina. At first slurp, the soup was top-notch: Mild, rich broth was haunted by aromatic five-spice flavors and—this is much too rare—was not overly salty. It came with delicate shrimp dumplings, mushrooms, tendrils of slow-cooked pork, and a deftly poached egg. I was immediately in a jealous pique because the broth was not what I ordered. My entrée featured a ragu that might have been delivered via a Star Trek transporter through a wormhole from the saddest days of my post-college attempts at cooking. Chunks of chewy, dry, hard-to-place meat—no lamb flavor, certainly—combined with a too-scant sauce that had abdicated all of its tomato responsibilities. The whole thing was plopped, rather than arranged, in a shallow bowl and topped with an alarmingly large blob of ricotta. I have not had better broth, nor worse ragu, in a long time…and definitely not in one place.

And so it went as I marched through the greater part of Avelina’s dinner menu and some of its lunch offerings: one dish raising the bar, the next lowering it. Peruvian shrimp, from the shared-plate menu, turned out to be beautifully seared prawns in a chorizo-inflected broth that was sweet and salty and smoky and spicy, served with a crisp zucchini-and-anchovy toast soldier. An entrée that followed, called High Plains Poultry Chicken, For Two, was nicely divided and served with a pile of flageolet beans, sautéed greens, and an herby purée. The beans were cassoulet-creamy, but the chicken was an epic fail: overcooked, dry, too salty. A charred octopus appetizer was skillfully prepared, but a warm artichoke small plate was bland and unfocused despite the flavorful promise of pecorino, roasted shiitakes, and a porcini dressing.

Up again: the Escarole “Caesar” (Avelina’s air quotes), which had a lemony, anchovy-rich attack that I loved. Down again: Pork belly, served with beluga lentils, was flabby, not crunchy and succulent. Success: perfectly fried cheese croquettes and a lovely charcuterie board that included a snappy grilled boudin blanc sausage, pickled mustard seeds, fig compote, good bread, and Broening’s famous duck liver mousse, which triumphantly avoided the cliché of too much winey sweetness. Heartbreak: A limp slab of $35 rib-eye came with undercaramelized cipollini onions and dry scallion mashed potatoes. This wasn’t dinner; it was whiplash.

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avelina-olive-oil-cake
Cake time—Olive oil cake comes with rich pistachio gelato. Photograph by Sarah Boyum.

It’s possible that different people cooked those high and low dishes with no one standing watch; that’s a quality-control problem no restaurant can survive. It seems to me, however, that the trouble ran deeper, springing from a lack of conviction about what Avelina’s style and approach was supposed to be. Was the cooking fancy, simple, hearty, refined…? Dishes that might have been playful, had the cooking been well-executed, were confused. Presentation varied without clear purpose. An entrée of Hudson Valley duck breast (a bit overcooked) was sliced and fanned over a boat-shaped smear of confoundingly bland brown-butter cauliflower purée with wild mushrooms fore and aft and pickled raisins port and starboard, in a contrived but ultimately sloppy style that I associate with culinary school restaurants. The aforementioned rib-eye, meanwhile, was plated in a way that reminded me of old-timey family establishments: meat and onions plunked down, potatoes in a little cast-iron pot, sauce in a small bowl.

Much steadier—and something the restaurant should build upon going forward—was Avelina’s beverage program. The wine list was exceptional, spanning the New World and the Old and doting on interesting varietals and blends. There were two dozen wines by the glass, including Galicia’s Bodegas Godeval Godello 2015, a fruity white from a grape that almost went extinct in Spain before its revival. Of the nine cocktails on Avelina’s list, the Pomme, sweet-tart and appley with a hint of lemon, and the Guero, which combined silver tequila with a nice fresh-ginger kick, were tasty and precise.

Unfortunately, the kitchen’s up-and-down performance did not cease until we ordered desserts from acclaimed pastry chef—and Broening’s wife—Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, who also left Avelina in March. Her sweets were thoroughly self-actualized. (For some reason, I want to put Avelina on a couch and analyze it as much as review it.) Her olive oil cake was a wee ramekin-size thing—slightly crusty without, beautifully moist within, tinged with grassy olive oil flavor, and served with a pistachio gelato that tasted like pistachios, not marzipan. The Dulce de Leche Stack, made with kouign-amann crisps and Tahitian namelaka (a Japanese-style ganache) was basically a post-doctorate Napoleon in the shape of a torpedo with a strong caramel inclination.

Lozada-Hissom’s desserts were diverse, but each had the same goal: clear flavors, proper textures, and a few surprises anchored by familiar guises. Eating them, it felt like the static had been cleared from Avelina’s culinary signal. But by then it was too late—for me and, evidently, for the chefs as well.

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