Dining

Review: Chinook Tavern

Chinook Tavern brings German tradition to the Tech Center.

November 2011

Chinook Tavern

6380 S. Fiddlers Green Circle, Greenwood Village, 720-266-6000, chinookdenver.com

The Draw A well-crafted menu that blends traditional European dishes with lighter, more contemporary cuisine; a welcoming atmosphere.

The Drawback Waitstaff struggles with timing and lacks finesse.

Don’t Miss Baked wild mushroom strudel, veal jaeger schnitzel, mint-marinated rack of lamb, Snake River duo of pork, rote grütze (a German red berry pudding).

Price $$$ (Average price: $23 per entrée)

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

I’m convinced most of us can pinpoint the exact moment we learned there was more to food than the dishes we were raised on. For me, that moment arrived while seated on floor pillows and eating with my hands at Ibrahim’s, a tidy, nondescript Middle Eastern cafe located just outside Chico, California. I don’t recall deciding then, at age 19, to become a more adventurous eater, but at some level I knew my Rice-a-Roni days were over.

From that moment on, I can almost carbon-date the specific instances my tastes matured. 1985: chicken tikka masala in London’s East End; 1992: siu mai and har gow, San Francisco’s Chinatown; 2005: puréed peas and carrots, frozen with liquid nitrogen and served Dippin’ Dots style at Moto in Chicago.

We all possess a culinary genealogy that has shaped our tastes, but few of us are as aware of our revelations as chefs must be. After all, those influences—and how they’re used—are what causes customers to return…or not. It’s one thing to have been born in Germany, raised in Colorado, and cooked for the glitterati in Vail, as has Markus Georg, executive chef of Chinook Tavern. It’s far more challenging knowing how to seamlessly integrate those influences into one menu. But Georg does all this—beautifully.

At Chinook, you see Georg’s German origins in the jaeger schnitzel and apple strudel, both of which come from family recipes. You see his European training in dishes such as calf’s liver and glazed rotisserie duck with cabbage. You see customer favorites like shrimp cakes from the restaurant’s original location. (Chinook was a 14-year resident of Cherry Creek North before closing to relocate to the Landmark in Greenwood Village. When those plans fell through, the restaurant opened in its current location.) You also see Georg’s appreciation for contemporary high-mountain cuisine in his mint-marinated rack of Colorado lamb.

The menu isn’t the only place Georg’s lineage is on display; the entire restaurant functions like a Georg family gallery. His father was the architect of the expansive, 9,000-square-foot space; he turned what could have been another loud, impersonal restaurant in a suburban office park into an inviting space surrounded by warm woodwork and soft lighting. His mother is the artist whose playful paintings inject color and energy. His brother, Clemens, is the sociable general manager. Just knowing that Chinook is a family affair gives it an extra layer of comfort. Even so, this is not a linger-until-late setting. Blame it on the close-to-light-rail, office-park location, but every time I’ve dined at Chinook the dining room has cleared out significantly by 9 p.m.

Start your meal with the mushroom strudel, a sautéed mix of shiitake, cremini, and button mushrooms blended with creamy goat cheese and rolled inside crispy phyllo dough. The resulting cylinder of strudel is then cut on an angle and placed vertically atop a pool of rich and sweet Madeira sauce.

For something lighter, begin with the roasted vegetable terrine. The colorful dish stacks thin slices of seasonal vegetables in alternating layers. Yellow squash atop seared portobello atop red bell pepper atop orange carrot. The result is a three-dimensional rectangle of vegetables whose thin bands of color suggest a bright edible version of geologic strata. Because it lacks the gob-smacking taste of the strudel, treat the terrine as a palate-cleansing accompaniment.

My advice: Avoid the escargot entirely. The snails are too chewy; the garlic in the accompanying macadamia nut butter too overpowering. I know an abundance of garlic is obligatory with escargot, but the dish simply doesn’t showcase Georg’s talent.

That talent is most obviously on display in entrées new to the lineup. (About 40 percent of dishes are carryovers.) This includes the rack of lamb, which has been marinated overnight in mint, lemon juice, and garlic. The tender cut is served with an herby cherry tomato gremolata and rosemary-Merlot sauce. The dish looks simple—but it’s tremendously satisfying.

The Snake River duo of pork, which pairs pale, pink rounds of Kurobata pork tenderloin with two crispy cubes of pork belly, is another new dish in which straightforward presentation belies the layers of taste communicated by the accompanying apple cider demi-glace and creamy sunchoke mousse. Like all of Georg’s creations, this dish blends the comforting simplicity of his Old World past with a New World focus on fresh, clean flavors.

For traditionalists looking for a taste of the old Chinook—or, more accurately, old Germany—try one of the schnitzels. Of the two classic presentations on the menu, I prefer the veal jaeger schnitzel, swathed in a wild mushroom cream sauce, over the classic, lemony weiner schnitzel. Both are competent takes on the traditional, but the jaeger schnitzel exudes more elegance.

While the whole of Chinook Tavern functions relatively smoothly, that is not the case in the Zermatt Room, the restaurant’s specially designed room for Raclette and fondue. I applaud the thinking that went into creating a space with separate ventilation and stovetop heating for cheesy fondue pots and Raclette grills, but the recirculated air was chilly, the grill was dirty, and the service abysmal. Among the lengthy list of transgressions: a 25-minute wait for water; a server who lacked both polish and knowledge—she explained the menu to our table and another one at the same time; and a lack of coordination between the waitstaff, bar, and kitchen. I suspect (or is it hope?) that once the restaurant has been open for awhile, these kinks will be worked out. For now, I suggest skipping the room altogether.

The service issues experienced in the Zermatt Room also showed up, albeit to a lesser extent, in Chinook’s main dining rooms. My sense is that the front of the house is understaffed, leading all servers, at one time or another, to forget, neglect, and rush.

One detail that must go: the metal food service carts on which meals are delivered. Their existence diminishes the overall dining experience. Would it be so difficult to coordinate timing so that a group of servers could work together and professionally deliver all meals—by hand—at the same time?

Service issues aside, everything else about Chinook suggests forward momentum. The menu has evolved, the space has grown, and the decor retains the warmth of the old Chinook but with added sophistication. These factors make dining here an object lesson in how chefs and restaurants—and by extension the rest of us—evolve.