An up-and-down experience in LoHi.
(out of 4 stars)
1600 W. 33rd Ave., 303-993-4200
The Draw Highly creative, seasonal eats served in a super-hip environment.
The Drawback Service can be spotty, and execution is lacking on many dishes.
Don't Miss Build your meal around small plates like organic beets three ways, the three-sided salad, and zucchini and goat cheese Charlotte. Leave room for the banana crème brûlée pie.
OK, I'll admit it. I've been guilty of following the crowd. Yes, I have an iPhone. Yes, I read the Da Vinci Code. And yes, when I hear people talk about groovy new restaurants, I can't wait to snag a reservation. This, of course, means I followed the swarm to Root Down, the hip LoHi eatery that's been a fount of foodie gossip since it opened last December.
When I walked in the first time on a Saturday night, the place was packed, the bar unnavigable, and the noise deafening—even though it was barely 7 p.m. As I waited for a table, a pair of skinny designer jeans quick-stepped this way, a skin-baring halter top flounced that way, and freshly muddled cocktails whizzed by. Instantly, I could feel my hipness quotient rise.
Chef-owner Justin Cucci, 40, spent a year and a half turning the site of a former 1950s gas station into Root Down, and he's proven he knows how to blend extremes. The restaurant is located in an up-and-coming neighborhood that affords one of the best views of downtown in the city. The space is filled with midcentury-modern Craigslist finds such as vintage scales and rotary phones, and exudes over-the-top trendiness. It's the kind of restaurant that feels like a secret, even though it's slammed with people night after night.
And therein lies the problem. Although I understand the restaurant's popularity, I also believe it's suffering from it.
On my first visit, the server arrived, gave us a warm welcome, and then overloaded us with tortuously long descriptions of the menu that confused more than clarified. Then she disappeared. For 15 minutes. When she finally took our order, the salad came quickly—but long before our cocktails. Then, when our collection of small plates began to arrive—we'd followed her recommendation to sample several—no one replenished plates and cutlery in between, meaning that vinaigrette from one dish was allowed to sully the next. Before long, I was too annoyed to pay attention to how much fun I was supposed to be having.
This would have been forgivable if it were an isolated incident. But the routine repeated itself the next time I had dinner at the restaurant.
These slips and oversights also play out in Root Down's dishes. Cucci takes a layered approach to cooking, frequently blending sweet with savory and crunchy with smooth, and risking surprising combinations such as baked sweet potatoes with lemon and mint.
When they work, they do so beautifully—as in the cherry tomato and blueberry pastry appetizer, which combined sweet cooked fruit with slightly sour goat cheese, tart balsamic sauce, and savory caramelized leeks and arugula, all perched atop a flaky pastry crust. The dish was comforting in a sweet, dessertlike way, yet savory enough to accelerate my appetite.
The zucchini and goat cheese Charlotte was another impressive bit of handiwork. Thin shaved strips of zucchini were layered in a bowl and then wrapped around a generous round of goat cheese to create a light-green flower-petal effect. The appetizer was then topped with peppery arugula and dressed with lemon, roasted red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and mint. The dish—one of many small, vegetable-based plates on the menu—represented a near-perfect blend of flavors, colors, and textures.
Desserts also build upon Cucci's layered approach. A favorite was the banana crème brûlée pie, in which he topped a crunchy peanut butter cookie with banana custard, a Matterhorn of whipped sour cream, and a generous toss of chocolate shavings.
When Cucci hits the sweet spot between taste-and-texture extremes, magic happens. But all too often, Root Down's dishes overreach or underwhelm. The tuna sushi appetizer was seared into tastelessness and served with far too much rice vinegar. The grilled pork tenderloin arrived sweet and tender, but was obliterated by the mound of mustardy braised leeks. And the expected smoke and spice of Jamaican jerk seasoning was indiscernible on the jerk chicken. The cold cucumber raita served on the side only added insult to injury—the chilled yogurt didn't work next to warm meat.
Missteps like these make me think that being blasted by crowds night after night has caused Root Down's kitchen staff to substitute haste for finesse. So often just a little more of this, like salt on the panna cotta, or a little less of that, like vinaigrette on the Bing cherry salad, would have produced the magic Cucci aims for.
The other problem could be that, five months after opening, Cucci canned his executive chef and took over responsibility for producing the menu (in collaboration with his chef de cuisine and kitchen staff) as well as managing an insanely busy restaurant. By this point, Cucci's energy and attention are flagging—and it shows.
While the things that drew Denver to Root Down initially—the buzz, the vibe, the approach—remain intact, execution is lacking. And now that I've followed the tide, I'm going to swim against it...at least for a while. Root Down may be hip, and it may be crowded, but it's also a victim of its own success.