Dining

Reviews: Twelve Restaurant

Rethinking your culinary expectations in the Ballpark neighborhood.

September 2009

Twelve Restaurant
(out of 4)
2233 Larimer St., 303-293-0287

The Draw An ever-changing monthly menu built around seasonal ingredients; knowledgeable and attentive service.

The Drawback The upscale food seems out of place in the understated saloonlike atmosphere—not to mention the transitional Ballpark neighborhood.

Don't Miss Roasted mushroom soup, veal sweetbreads, chocolate dessert trio—or whichever seasonal dish your server recommends.

Vegetarian Options Options change monthly, but might include dishes such as a flaky-crusted wild mushroom tart or an earthy ratatouille.

We'd just finished our entrées and were contemplating dessert when our server at Twelve walked up to the table. "Is that your car?" he asked, pointing toward the windows facing Larimer Street. I nodded. "I'm putting some money in the meter," he said, "so you don't get a ticket." A half hour earlier, the same waiter topped off our glasses of Chardonnay, free of charge, because he didn't see any sense in leaving just a little bit in the bottle. And when we first sat down, before I'd even arranged the cutlery the way I like it, he asked if we'd prefer pricey osmosis-filtered still or sparkling water, both of which were available on the house.

Giving diners a lagniappe of extra service is a smart strategy for Twelve because this is a restaurant that asks for something in return. This is a restaurant that challenges you to rethink your expectations when dining out.

The eatery, which opened last fall in a spare, saloonlike space in Denver's Ballpark neighborhood, is the vision-come-to-life of Jeff Osaka, the 45-year-old chef-owner who earned his toque working for such California culinary legends as Bradley Ogden and Wolfgang Puck. A Los Angeles native and Denver newcomer, Osaka brings a Californian's awareness of seasonal eating to the Front Range. Twelve is so named because Osaka changes his menu monthly to reflect the availability of fresh, local ingredients. It's a noble strategy, but also a risky one when people are accustomed to ordering peach cobbler any time they darn well please.

Osaka, like many of his contemporaries, is committed to sustainability, and if that means asking diners to rethink what they can eat and when, so be it. This means no fresh corn in December and no stone fruit in January. The constantly changing monthly menu challenges diners in another significant way: Except for a salad created with seasonal greens and a wickedly delicious chocolate trio, there are no old-standbys on the menu. No reliable, roast-chicken fallback for nights when you don't want something new; no signature mac and cheese to entice repeat customers. Picky eaters may resent this. But the bottom line is that you don't go to Twelve because you know what's on the menu—you go because you don't.

Osaka calls his menu "Modern American" because it reflects this country's stewpot blend of cultural influences. One month, you might choose for your appetizer the bacalao, Spanish for dried salt cod. Osaka blends the fish with mashed potatoes and shapes it into a brandade coated with crunchy panko breadcrumbs and topped with bright-green pea shoots. The creamy-crunchy fish-potato combo, along with the accompanying vegetable mirepoix, is French comfort food.

The next month, you might opt for Kona Kampachi, a rich, sustainably farm-raised fish. Osaka prepares the fish both seared and sashimi-style with a Japanese-Hawaiian flair that combines sour mango, creamy avocado, and smoky red harissa sauce.

Another visit, you might take a more all-American approach and choose the beef strip loin and short-rib combination, which pairs several thin slices of tender loin with a mound of shredded, melt-in-your-mouth short rib. The dish is served with pretty, sunset-colored red and yellow beets and a potato-morel tart that would have benefited from more mushrooms.

Osaka's multicultural approach appeals to a diverse crowd. On my first visit, I saw a large table of professorial types in rumpled jackets and reading glasses, several hipster duos, and one lone woman eating at the bar. But I use the word "crowd" loosely. Over several visits, Twelve was never more than half full. Whether that's the result of the surrounding real estate—the ballpark boom stopped just short of this stretch of Larimer—the persistently gloomy economy, or the limited-by-design menu (six starters and six entrées) is hard to tell. But the food definitely deserves a bigger draw.

Take Osaka's mushroom soup, for example, an earthy purée of slow-roasted Bella mushrooms that's so richly smooth you feel as if you're wearing a red velvet cloak. His veal sweetbreads, served in a scramble with oyster and shiitake mushrooms, are so delicate you won't want to share. And the loin-cut lamb, served in three sweet, pink medallions, comes with an elegant, postmodern version of tabbouleh: nutty bulgur wheat served cold alongside a chunky cucumber, lemon, and parsley salad. The taste-and-texture combinations are so finely wrought you'll feel as if all your culinary needs have been met.

Yes, there are instances when Osaka flops. The white and green asparagus starter—served warm with black truffle butter—was, in a word, boring. There wasn't enough truffle, wasn't enough butter, wasn't enough salt. The snapper, served with potatoes three ways, was profoundly underseasoned, whereas the romaine salad, served in fashionable-but-annoying long spears, was drippingly overdressed.

Of course, one advantage of the ever-changing menu is that you know these disappointments will disappear within 30 days. Then again, the good stuff vanishes as well—and that includes desserts like the frosty, feel-like-a-kid root beer float, and the vanilla budino, a dense vanilla pudding served in a round white ramekin with a quarter-inch-thick layer of salty caramel. Maybe the budino will come around again, maybe it won't. That's just the way it goes at Twelve. But if you're willing to give up a few expectations, take what Osaka's offering that month, and put yourself in the hands of one of Denver's best waitstaffs, you'll be rewarded.