Dining

Review: Satchel's Market

September 2010

Satchel’s Market

 (out of 4)

 Food
 Service
 Ambience

5021 E. 28th Ave., 303-355-2137, www.satchelsmarket.com
The Draw A comfy-casual neighborhood cafe whose upscale cuisine rivals the best downtown has to offer.
The Drawback Service is inconsistent, and the in-transition neighborhood might be a turnoff.
Don’t Miss Gnocchi, braised short ribs, Satchel’s burger, Valrhona chocolate–chile truffle, the Saturday night chef’s table dinner.
Price $$$ (average entrée price $17)

For weeks, whenever I mentioned Satchel’s Market to friends, I was met with the same puzzled expression. “Satchel’s what? Never heard of it.” While it’s refreshing in the overblogged foodie-sphere to find a place that’s actually underhyped, it’s also a shame because Satchel’s is dishing up some serious, rave-worthy cuisine.

I suspect part of the reason Satchel’s is unknown is its location: 28th Avenue and Fairfax Street in a transitional section of Park Hill. Here, you’ll find a weathered strip mall and a sketchy liquor store—and, on top of that, the place is a little difficult to locate. You have to go to Satchel’s looking for a restaurant, or you’ll miss it.

Andrew Casalini opened Satchel’s Market in 2005 as a cheese, coffee, and sandwich shop, gradually morphed it into a brunch and lunch spot, then added dinner to the mix in December 2008.

Inside, the small space is funky-cozy, with green and red paint, exposed brickwork, and local artwork on the walls. A garage door completes the bohemian, coffeehouse aesthetic. It looks like a place best suited to Beat poets on open-mic night. But once you’re handed the menu, any thoughts of Allen Ginsberg will fade.

The chef, Jens Patrik Landberg, 34, was born in Sweden, began his career in Stockholm, and arrived in Denver last December after cooking stints in Greece, New York, and Florida. His menu, which changes weekly, is as organic, contemporary, and eclectic as it comes.

His ahi tuna tartare, for example, is a simple round stack of cubed tuna, topped with chunky avocado and basil, and surrounded by a salty-hot soy-Dijon sauce. Five main ingredients. That’s it. But the flavor suggests more. Same goes for his heirloom tomato salad: juicy hunks of red and yellow tomatoes tossed with kalamata olive halves, peppery arugula, and slivered onion, and coated with a light dressing. While both dishes have become cliché menu staples, Landberg’s execution transports them beyond the trite.

If your appetite leads you toward a heartier starter, opt for the juicy, braised short ribs. The dish arrives with three, fatty-in-just-the-right-way ribs, atop a bright green pea purée and drizzled with a meaty osso bucco sauce. The sweet peas are an unexpectedly fresh counterpoint to the beef, and the combined flavors will have you licking your fork long after the sauce is gone.

Regardless of what you order, Landberg’s appetizers do what they’re supposed to: rev up your palate for the main course—and it’s the entrées that rock this joint. Here, you can go fancy with a center pork chop drizzled with an elegant, port wine demi-glace and served with a tangy Gorgonzola tart and sweet pear purée. Each of the ingredients is rich, but not overdone, and the flavors complement rather than compete. If you’re more in the mood for comfort, try the grass-fed burger served with dill aïoli, roasted red peppers, and pickled onions on a brioche bun. I’ve eaten at several of the trendy burger joints, and this creation surpasses them all, yet it doesn’t feel like Landberg is trying too hard.

For my money, the unheralded gem is the Saturday night chef’s table, a prix-fixe, multicourse meal where diners sit at a community table. I visited with a group of friends and over the course of three-and-a-half hours, we worked our way through seven courses, only five of which had been advertised. At the time, the extra courses made us feel like the chef’s chosen people. I’ve since learned it’s typical for Landberg to surprise chef’s table diners with extra courses.

We started with a summery tomato soup made from puréed yellow and red tomatoes, a dash of balsamic reduction, and a bit of red pepper whose heat offset the sweet acidity. Then, we dove into an oversize antipasto platter laden with thinly sliced prosciutto, ripe cantaloupe, sweet cherry tomatoes, and two impressive additions: an apple-and-caramelized-onion purée and an eye-rolling Amish blue cheese.

Next in line: A warm, soft gnocchi prepared with a touch of earthy and aromatic truffle oil—a dish so inherently satisfying, if I’d had nothing else to eat that evening, I would have gone home happy. But still there was more: fried octopus with a vinegary tomato sauce. Crispy, skin-on sea bass with artichoke purée, green lentils, and cubed bacon. An organic New York strip steak served with roasted fingerling potatoes. And finally, zabaione—a light custard which Landberg drizzled with framboise and topped with plump raspberries.

Total cost for the multicourse menu: $45 a person. We added the wine pairings for each course, and still the tab came to just $80 per person.

By 11 p.m., as we finally roused ourselves to leave, we felt like we’d become part of the place—something that was both good and bad. Good, in the sense that it didn’t feel like a restaurant so much as going to a friend’s house for dinner. Bad, in the sense that had the service been better, the meal likely would have ended an hour earlier.

Indeed, this is the one inconsistency in an otherwise synchronized restaurant. I’ve visited when the service was spot-on, but more often than not, I’ve found myself wondering where the servers disappeared to, and why, when they reappeared, they didn’t know more about the menu.

And yet in a weird way, the spotty service matches the spotty neighborhood—and both allow Landberg’s cooking to become your focus. This isn’t the kind of place you go to elevate your own sense of self-worth; it’s the kind of place you go when you want creative cuisine without all the fuss.