The Draw: Skillful, seasonal wood-fire cooking in a modern, cozy space
The Drawback: With such a small menu, every dish should sing—and a few do not
Don’t Miss: Roasted chicken, toasts, salads, breakfast sandwich and biscuit, roasted vegetables, pecan pie
Halfway into my second dinner at Annette, it became clear that home-style hospitality—often claimed, less often delivered—truly is chef-owner Caroline Glover’s North Star. She imbues her 50-seat Aurora establishment with unusual warmth while cooking with a casual precision that has little to do with what goes on in a home kitchen. I was searching for the right word to describe Annette when my wife suggested “humility.” That’s right: absence of showboating, abundant calmness, and generosity of disposition. It’s difficult to pin down, but it’s there and it’s lovely—and it’s rare.
To start, Glover doesn’t make her guests work to decode her food. She calls it “scratch-to-table” but doesn’t pepper her menus with preening notes about the provenance of her produce. Dish descriptions have a welcome concision without venturing into haiku. For example: “Grilled Carrots and Peas: cilantro, charred orange + spiced cream” (Glover likes the plus sign). Also, the menus are short—15 or so dishes at dinner, which run from a few snacks to small plates to entrées meant for sharing.
The offerings don’t so much change with the seasons as roll with them. The meaty chew of a sunchoke gratin becomes a smoother leek gratin a week later; winter veg with charred orange morphs into the above-mentioned grilled carrots (fire-sweetened but not withered) and peas; gnocchi with fennel soubise and mushrooms becomes gnocchi with green garlic, artichokes, ramps, and pea shoots. Those gnocchi were a treat, by the way, finished in a hot pan to give them a light crust, tender without being glutinous, and served with a few dabs of a béchamellike sauce. Glover often dabs rather than pours her sauces, to punctuate rather than drown.
Her cooking is strong on fundamentals. Glover’s brunch biscuit is a tender thoroughbred, fritters are immaculately fried, and salads are exactingly fresh. The best meal at Annette delivers one happy, light touch after another.
Consider the springtime dinner entrée of half a roasted chicken with “PX sherry vinegar, spring onions + dandelion greens,” now on my A-list of Denver chicken dishes. It arrives cut into generous pieces for easy sharing; the skin is lacquered brown and lightly drizzled with a buttery reduction that lets the toasty tartness of the vinegar shine through. The bitter greens are tucked under the leg of the bird in a little heap, the consistency of properly sautéed spinach. It’s a simple plate that relies on poultry prep precision backed by a lively, but not aggressive, sauce. If it were a movie star, it would be Audrey Hepburn without makeup.
The basic green salad we started our meal with, meanwhile, was so good we ordered it again: a hill of impeccable butter lettuce leaves under a powdery cloud of salty-milky ricotta salata, with a creamy dressing that had a perfect acid cut and lots of fresh tarragon. Nibbles of sunflower seed brittle were a bit of uncharacteristic filigree but did no harm.
I suppose the toast trend has been overdone by now, but when the toast is substantial and crunchy, oiled up like a Mr. Universe contestant and then topped with soft, grilled beef tongue, beef marrow, and pickled relish, or with ramps and radish and anchovy and lemon and goat cheese—well, I’m ready to sing about toast as Walt Whitman sang about other things. Almost as good was a bowl of octopus patatas bravas, featuring pieces of tender braised-then-grilled octopus cohabiting with creamy-centered fried chunks of potato, roasted garlic aïoli, and smooth, rich romesco.
Reading Glover’s resumé, it makes sense that her cooking falls somewhere between the studious inventiveness of Acorn, where she was sous chef, and the gusto of the Spotted Pig under chef April Bloomfield, New York City’s gastropub goddess, for whom Glover worked for a couple of years after graduating from culinary school. “She ran me into the ground,” Glover told me about Bloomfield when I anonymously complimented her cooking on the way out the door, “and she changed my life.” It is easy to have such a passing word with Glover; she often works the wood-fire grill in the open kitchen, which is fronted by a counter from which you can watch her preside over her mostly female crew with an easy authority that sets the tone for the whole operation.
The room itself is cheerfully welcoming. Annette is part of the reclaimed-aviation-factory retail project Stanley Marketplace, but its designers, friends of the chef, did much more than simply plug into the Stanley’s industrial vibe. Yes, there’s a wall of windows and plenty of nuts and bolts, steel, and polished concrete, but the entrance hallway is dominated by stacked cordwood to cozy effect. Leaves and flowers punched out of a metal room divider seem to have been blown against a white wall nearby. There are intricate pendant lamps made of wood, and a wall of checkerboard cloth panels looks like sleek aluminum, or perhaps tile work, in evening light. The result is a weaving of modern, organic, and crafty elements, like a gift card from a well-curated paper shop.
Sadly, some dishes are not quite knit together under Glover’s simple approach. The greens in the gnocchi bowl coexisted, but didn’t embrace, the gnocchi. A beautifully roasted whole sea bass came with toasted almonds, bits of roasted cauliflower, arugula, and dabs of a Calabrian chile mixture; while the dish was very tasty, the whole did not exceed the sum of its parts. For $39, one expects a symphony rather than an orchestra tuning up.
Beyond these quibbles, a few dishes just don’t work: “Spiced Lentils + Burrata” suggested that lentils have no business in the presence of the blessed gooey cheese, at least not if they’re mushy and bereft of spice. A panna cotta was rather chewy, which, for panna cotta—all about the wobble—is a mortal sin.
Lest you fear that sweets are a weakness, however, Annette’s pecan pie was exemplary, all buttery crust and not-too-sweet crunchy pecan business with a dab (yes, another dab) of salted whipped cream. I’d put it up against any pecan pie in the Deep South. Another nonpareil, this one savory, was the breakfast sandwich, consisting of “bacon, romesco aïoli, eggs, arugula + house English muffin.” It’s an Egg McMuffin for the gods.
Annette’s wine list is short but broad, representing 16 grapes in just 29 reds and whites. It’s a bit pricey, however, and not much is available under $50. I’m inclined toward a glass of the $9 Languedoc, if you want a red, or the reliable $10 Grüner Veltliner, if a white makes sense. Consider starting the meal with a cocktail from the brief but well-thought-out list. The winner, of four cocktails tried, was the Creole Contentment, a proper balance of fire (from cognac) and winey dark notes (from Madeira). At brunch and happy hour, Annette’s rhubarb- and strawberry-inflected sangria ought to be the new definition of the drink: lively, bright, and boozy.
I haven’t tried lunch yet, which included, at last look, a grilled cheese sandwich with charred onion and apricot preserves on sourdough and a pork sandwich with raclette and pickled mustard on rye. I’m hungry and happy just reading about those dishes. I intend to go and eat them, or whatever replaces them as the seasons turn. Sweet anticipation: That’s the net effect of Annette, the polished little jewel of Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace.