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El Five's Spreads of Med board: Turkish eggplant, peanut hummus, red lentil hummus, htipiti (feta-red pepper spread), olives, artichokes, house-made pita. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

Opening Alert: El Five

Justin Cucci’s stunning new restaurant features panoramic views and an inventive tapas menu.

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When Justin Cucci opened LoHi’s Linger, in 2011, it had Denverites talking about three things: the far-flung menu, the unique environs, and the unobstructed city views. But shortly thereafter, a residential building was constructed on Boulder Street, effectively obstructing Linger’s vistas. El Five, Cucci’s not-yet-three-week-old restaurant, is his shot at redemption. Its strategic positioning on the fifth floor of a new LoHi building affords panoramic vistas of our crane-strewn city to the east and gorgeous mountain sunsets to the west.

Cucci’s Edible Beats group (also behind Root Down, Ophelia’s, Vital Root) is known for wildly creative restaurant interiors and sustainably minded, globetrotting menus. El Five’s stunning decor—every conceivable surface is papered with vibrant, vintage Moroccan movie posters—and new-school tapas menu certainly fulfill these two canons.

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Chicken kofta and green gazpacho were both perfectly executed, the former juicy and the latter balanced and bright. Jamón Ibérico, the glorious ham that is one of Spain’s most beloved exports, comes with the makings for DIY pan con tomate (bread with tomato). Even the more inventive tapas worked: both shawarma-spiced lamb ribs with pickled mango sauce and delicate matzah ball soup dumplings are worth your time. (Be warned: The soup dumplings only come three to an order.) And the peanut hummus on the Spreads of Med board? Surprisingly delicious.

But not everything on El Five’s menu is as marvelous as the view. When I first read the list of ingredients for the “Valencian Paella,” I cringed: rabbit, smoked sausage, peas, mustard crema artichokes, saffron, and…wild rice? Could that distinctly nutty, chewy pseudo-grain (it’s actually a type of grass) stand in for traditional short-grained Bomba rice? Would the kitchen be able to coax it into forming the proper socarrat, the crunchy, caramelized rice layer that graces the bottom of a classic pan of Spanish paella?

The answers to both questions, as I feared, were a resounding no. Rather than socarrat, I found a pool of liquid at the bottom of the paella pan. The dish was altogether too wet, and to make matters worse, the delicate floral zing of saffron was buried under an avalanche of competing flavors.

Disappointing paella aside, El Five certainly deserves its distinction as one of the city’s hottest dining destinations. And the view speaks for itself.

2930 Umatilla St., 303-524-9193

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