The Draw: Ambitious fusion cuisine rooted in Asian flavors and techniques
The Drawback: Some dishes tend toward blandness
Don’t Miss: Whole fried fish, crispy lamb cakes, Korean glass noodles, grilled tiger prawns, pork banh mi, chocolate custard
Sometimes a single dish embodies the mission of an ambitious restaurant, and at Departure Restaurant & Lounge, that dish is the crispy whole striped bass. It’s the sort of tour de force I go out to eat for: showmanship on a plate, requiring a seasoned fry cook and surgical knife work. The skeleton of the fish, lightly battered and deep-fried until crunchy, comes wrapped like a turban around the filleted, flaky white meat. Crowning the whole business is shredded green mango salad, nuggets of cashew, and a sweet sauce redolent of garlic, lime, and fish sauce. You chopstick chunks of the fish and mango onto perfectly cooked rice (make sure you get the rice, which is a side order), then begin pulling apart the fin-and-bone framework with your fingers. Soon you’re poking for cheek and collar meat and other hidden tender bits. It’s an elaborate dish, but also primitive: a classic Asian presentation and technique meant to be devoured tooth and claw, served in a setting as slick as any you’ll find in Hong Kong.
Departure, which is attached to the new Halcyon hotel in Cherry Creek North, is an impressive architectural statement. The main dining room is modern, woody, dark, and stylish, with banquettes and intriguing art. The large, open kitchen is boldly tiled in bright colors. But the scene setter is the bar, a gleaming homage to a first-class airport lounge, perhaps in Munich or Milan circa 1988: white leather stools, an illuminated white glass counter with white padded rails, and the tail end of a shiny white airplane overhead. Zagat, excited by the “aerodynamic thrust” of the bar, elected Departure to its list of the “sexiest restaurants in 15 U.S. cities.” Certainly the room, filled with nattily dressed Cherry Creekers, was roaring on the Saturday that we demolished that striped bass.
The globe-trotting theme is intended to accent culinary director Gregory Gourdet’s Pan-Asian cooking style. Gourdet had several jobs with Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City before moving to Portland, Oregon, to open the first Departure in the Nines Hotel (one of my favorite hotels in the country) in 2009. Executive chef Khamla Vongsakoun, meanwhile, cooked at the Pan-Asian restaurant Buddakan in Philadelphia and later for Michael Mina’s empire. These are resumés that promise urbane Asian-fusion fare, the kind of food that’s only successful when chefs understand the root flavors and techniques. If they don’t—and many don’t—fancy fusion cooking collapses like an over-egged lemongrass soufflé.
Happily, much that emerges from Departure’s kitchen is quite good. Standouts, beyond the bass, include the lamb cake appetizer, which consists of fried pastry pockets filled with spicy pulled lamb and long beans. Eating these treats, I really did feel like I’d been transported to a savory Indian pancake stall in Malaysia or Thailand. Equally satisfying are the lunchtime Korean glass noodles, supple and slippery as any I’ve had in Seoul or Singapore. Soy-dark and slightly sweet, they’re tangled up with scallion, carrot threads, peppers, and bits of shiitake.
The signature chicken wings are a delightful pairing with a glass of sake from Departure’s short but well-described list. The meat is pushed, lollipop-style, down the bone into bite-size globes, then fried to a crisp and given a sweet chile glaze. There are lots of shareable small bites like this: Fat shiitake caps, brushed with yuzu and shiso and cooked over Japanese charcoal, were gently charred and tangy. Less intense but just as tasty were the grilled tiger prawns, aromatic with makrut lime and lemongrass, which reminded me of grilled seafood eaten on a beach southeast of Bangkok half a lifetime ago.
I also liked the wok-fired Thai sausage and egg fried rice, though I did have a few quibbles. The sausage was rather ordinary; the dish would have been elevated by, say, slices of Isan sausage, which is fermented until sour. And the egg came fried on top of the rice with a loose yolk. I’d argue for egg integrated into the fried rice as bits or ribbons, Chinese-style, because the weeping yolk only confused the chewy texture of the rice. Still, it’s notable that the Departure kitchen understands rice—no small thing for American restaurants, which often miss the nuances of this complex grain.
After these successes, I was surprised that, here and there, blandness crept in. The smoked salmon roll from the sushi menu was underwhelming, despite the promise of “yuzu kosho” (a vibrant citrus-chile paste). Ditto the dinner entrée of black-pepper chicken with tamarind, red chile, and lime: I expected a fierce, peppery crust, but the flavors were muted. Pork siu mai, from the dinnertime dim sum appetizer list, arrived as chewy golf balls, capped with an insufficient quantity of hot Chinese mustard. They were forgettable.
Believe it or not, the above hardly touches on the range of Departure’s menus, which at dinner alone feature more than 35 offerings, including stone-grilled wagyu sirloin, a Vietnamese duck curry, grilled lamb shoulder with coconut raita, a shaved vegetable salad with lemon miso, and for dessert, a sensational five-spice-infused chocolate custard with huckleberry granita. Our group dug into the layers of that dessert’s profound richness until the bowl was clean. On a less successful note, the sticky rice, made purple-ish and tart with hibiscus and blanketed by foam and sesame seeds, was an example of overcomplicating a dish. In Bangkok, this dessert typically features sweet sticky rice and a salty coconut cream and is a delicious lesson in simplicity.
The lunch menu presents an edited version of dinner but adds bento boxes, noodle bowls, and sandwiches, including a grilled pork banh mi with fresh mint, tangy green mayo, and ample spice from jalapeños. (The bread was crisp-crusted and soft within, allowing for the smooth chomp essential to a good banh mi experience.) None of this even gets us near brunch, with its sweet and savory dim sum menu and a raft of egg dishes such as a Dungeness crab omelet. All of which is to say that there may be a few too many dishes on the menu—a bit of concision would bring more consistency.
On the drinks side, expect an equally wide reach. The wine list includes more than two dozen wines by the glass, extending to spice-friendly whites from Germany, Italy, the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, Oregon, and even Greece, plus five bubblies (including Dom, if you’re out to impress, at $45 a glass). Cocktails are complex—well made, well iced—with names like Monk Reviver and the Wind Rises. The latter combined mezcal, gin, Cherry Heering, and yuzu syrup into a luminously clear drink, sweet and bitter, the color of old Madeira.
Oddly, there was one consistent, niggling miss at Departure: the onboarding. A restaurant of this style requires a proper greeting. On three occasions I had to wander well past the bar, seeking someone to check me in. After that, service smoothed out and was cheery and efficient.
I quickly got over the bumpy takeoffs. Departure is a splashy urban operation that, like Matsuhisa nearby, is a sign of Denver’s developing restaurant muscle. It fits the cash flow of Cherry Creek and the big-league chops of its ambitious chefs, and it always makes you feel as if you’re stepping out.