The Draw: Reinterpreted comfort food in a small, cozy house with modern touches
The Drawback: Variations often lose their comfort-food soul
Don’t Miss: Lamb meatloaf, roasted sweet potatoes, crispy duck wings, good wines by the glass
When chefs get fancy with comfort food, the question is how far they can push things before the comfort is lost amidst the fanciness. Pretty far, it turns out: The maniacs at Montreal’s notoriously mobbed Au Pied de Cochon put foie gras on poutine and stuff it into hamburger patties. There’s a high-energy nouveau-pho joint in Houston called LA Crawfish that serves up Vietnamese soup with mudbugs and Cajun spices, and I’d happily fly down there this weekend for another soulful bowl.
But the original dish must be respected and understood. Consider the quintessential American standard, mac and cheese. It demands creaminess, the right ratio of goo to macaroni, and a luscious noodle texture. Those things are nonnegotiable. You can fiddle with the cheese—add bleating notes from chèvre or even minor-key growling from blue cheese—but if you swap out the macaroni, change the cheese, and add vegetables…don’t you turn mac and cheese into a pasta dish?
Aunt Penny’s Mac & Cheese at River and Woods—the Boulder restaurant that calls its food “Colorado Comfort Cuisine”—changes with the seasons, but when I ate the dish, it featured orecchiette pasta, Hazel Dell mushrooms, roasted heirloom squash, Oxford Gardens greens, Pueblo green chiles, something called “onion-potato crunch,” and cheese from a can. That last one is aged cheddar from a creamery at Washington State University’s dairy department, of all things. (Points for innovative sourcing.) Although Aunt Penny’s creation was mushroomy, reasonably creamy, and even intriguing given those green chiles, mac and cheese it wasn’t.
The genesis of this tinkering is executive chef Daniel Asher, whose pedigree at Root Down, Linger, and Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox tells us we should approach River and Woods ready for surprises. Asher is clearly talented, but I bet he wouldn’t make a beeline even for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. No, Asher is a chef of jackrabbit habits, racing from idea to idea. His River and Woods menu, which groups dishes by geographical affinity—rivers, woodlands, high plains, and coasts—may be toned down from the kaleidoscopic craziness of Ophelia’s, but it displays a sort of culinary ADD.
Not every dish loses the comfort-food thread, and the successes are delicious. For a main course or as a hearty shared plate, I recommend the Lamb & Oat Meatloaf. As a longtime meatloaf dabbler, I kicked myself for never having considered lamb, which adds wonderful muttony depth. The River and Woods version—a mixture of lamb and grass-fed beef—arrived sizzling in a little cast-iron pan. It was fatty, chewy, tender, and loaded with umami. It came with a cup of sweet-potato chunks that had been pulled from the fire at exactly the right moment, with scorched, crisp, papery skins and creamy flesh. (You can get those candylike treats as a side dish, and you should.)
Would that every plate were so simple. I was particularly puzzled by the restaurant’s version of panzanella. The allure of that Italian salad comes from stale, chewy Tuscan bread rendered just-soggy from the juices of fresh, ripe tomatoes and the generous addition of olive oil. Panzanella is not about ultra-crispy toasted ciabatta croutons, nor is it about apples, quinoa, Chioggia candy-striped beets, blue cheese, or citrus–poppy seed vinaigrette. It’s an interesting mix, but you’d probably cause a fistfight if you served it under the sobriquet of panzanella in Florence.
I will say that the soothing vibe of River and Woods deserves praise. The two main rooms of the restaurant are cozy, and that’s not a word I’ve employed in recent reviews. Restaurants on the Boulder-Denver axis tend toward the rectilinear and modern right now, with eclectic urban festoonery. But River and Woods gently occupies an old cottage, the former location of John’s Restaurant. The decor has been updated with a look that leans Scandinavian without taking on a chill: white walls, banquettes, and sconces made of light wood. The gently slanting ceiling in the dining room is covered in multicolored planks. There are dark timber accents, but in a cheery style. I haven’t felt as relaxed and charmed in a long while. Even the bar—serving an admirable selection of wines by the glass, including three on tap for $9 or less—is snug. And the service follows the designer’s lead: relaxed, attentive, not overfriendly.
A fair number of River and Woods’ recipes have been sourced from friends and family, a practice meant to build a bridge into the community, and the effect is sincere; there are long biographical explanations on the menu. But this approach provides a clue as to where the kitchen goes astray: A quirky dish that gives comfort to one family may fail to woo the rest of us. It’s like hearing someone’s dad singing his Fort Collins lyrics to the tune of “New York, New York”; you need a lifetime of context. Moreover, items with local meaning can elude recent arrivals (read, me). John’s Gnocchi Verde, for example, is described as a beloved staple of the John’s Restaurant menu for more than 30 years. My companion, a Boulder newbie, ate two of the spongy, spinach-y golf balls and pronounced them a losing argument between gnocchi and mashed potatoes. Folks familiar with the dish no doubt find more succor there.
I also had an issue with a dish called Oysters Hickenlooper. Syllabically, at least, it riffs off the New Orleans classic, Oysters Rockefeller, but it had none of its namesake’s butteriness or brininess, nor its haunting anise notes from Herbsaint or Pernod. Why not sprinkle on a local liquor or bitters for Centennial State inflection? In any case, the Rappahannock River oysters were teensy and overwhelmed by kale queso and chèvre.
By now it sounds like I’m prosecuting a breach of contract case. So what if dishes fiddle with old standards, if they’re good? Alas, they’re not always good, and I worry about restaurants that improvise so much they lose the melody.
I did like the crispy duck wings, which—as at Ophelia’s—possessed a meaty, garlicky kick. Also good: the chicken-fried calamari steak, fork-tender within a delicate crust and served with a lemon-pepper aïoli. I leave it to chicken-fried steak enthusiasts to pronounce it playful or sacrilegious, but it’s a deft dish. A plate of pan-fried trout and chips, however, though blandly pleasant, was lacking the essential batter-fried satisfaction of true fish and chips. Why not deep-fry pieces of trout in a Colorado beer batter?
In many cases, the fail at River and Woods was a matter of technique. Several dishes were too heavy, including the brunch pancakes, which were like manholes served, oddly, with limp home fries. The corn-dog batter enrobing a snappy elk brat from Denver’s Continental Sausage was stodgy. And the desserts left my sweet tooth in a nitpicky mood. One example: A cookies-and-milk dessert with “Conscious Cleanse spiced almond date milk” missed the essential quality of cookies to be dipped in any kind of milk: crunch. The chocolate chip cookie was oily and dense, which is existentially wrong.
With that, I rest my case—and am now setting off to buy a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.