Dining

Review: Linger

With Linger, Justin Cucci fills a niche Denver didn’t know it was missing.

December 2011

Linger

2030 W. 30th Ave.
303-993-3120
lingerdenver.com

The Draw A high-energy restaurant with stunning downtown views and an affordable, meant-to-be-shared menu of global street food.

The Drawbacks Inconsistency—some dishes are overseasoned, others lack punch.

Don’t Miss Mongolian barbecue duck bun, masala dosa, carrot and lentil kofte, Moroccan chocolate flan

Price $$ (Average price per small plate: $10)

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

Justin Cucci knew one thing when he signed the lease on the garage inside Highland’s old Olinger Mortuary building: He wanted to keep the giant blue neon sign, drop the “O,” and name his new restaurant Linger. After that, he didn’t have a plan. No concept for the menu. No theme for the design. While it would have been tempting—and relatively easy—to create a junior version of Root Down, his perennially popular restaurant located a few blocks away, that would have felt like cheating. Absent any plans, Cucci set to work on the space and hoped something would come to him.

Over 21 months, as the Olinger building was refashioned from a hearse garage and mortuary offices to an “eatuary” (as the sign now proclaims), Cucci’s vision slowly came into focus. The large, open space would take full advantage of downtown views. There would be playful riffs on the mortuary theme. And the menu, which didn’t crystallize for more than a year, would be decidedly anti-entrée and anti-French. Instead, Cucci’s menu would reflect what he likes to eat: small plates and street food.

Cucci makes the development of Linger sound almost happenstance, but one thing is certain: This 43-year-old chef has a gift for creating buzzworthy, be-here- now restaurants. Within a month of Linger’s June opening, it was difficult to nab a table. Within three months, the spot was booking 30 days out. There’s now a pretty woman with a clipboard stationed at the front door to manage the bar crowd. And every night, every table is filled—not just with two diners, but with groups of four or six or eight.

Regardless of whether you believe Cucci’s claim that Linger was nothing but a series of happy accidents, there is a lot that works well here. Much of it reveals itself slowly, in the same way it did to Cucci.

First, you’ll notice the stunning views of downtown—not to mention the giant silver milk can from neighboring Little Man Ice Cream. The wall of windows in both the upstairs bar and the main restaurant space make Denver’s skyline your dining companion and lend Linger a distinctly urban vibe.

Next, you’ll notice the subtle mortuary-esque touches—the stainless steel medical chart holders for the wine list. The toe tags that list dessert. The images from the funeral-centric 1971 film Harold and Maude. Cucci gets high marks for keeping the death motif in check; you scarcely notice it, and it’s more amusing than macabre when you do.

All of this is merely set design, however. Linger’s star attraction is the menu of global street food organized by roadway and region. Listed on the menu below Karakoram Highway (the high-elevation road that links China and Pakistan) are Asian dishes such as pad thai and Korean pork. Under Avenue of the Americas (the busy Manhattan thoroughfare) is a cross-section of North and South American favorites, including tacos and sliders. The Bhendi Bazaar (a popular market in South Mumbai) features samosas and other Indian selections. Don’t think you need to stick to one region; part of the fun is mixing and matching regional flavors.

Topping my list of favorites are the Mongolian barbecue duck buns. In them, shredded duck and pickled cucumbers are nestled inside a fat, steamed bun made almost buttery thanks to the addition of tahini. A close second is the carrot and lentil kofte—three crispy chickpea-and-cashew falafels served with slices of pickled shiitakes and tomato, and eaten inside butter lettuce wraps with creamy lemon-tahini yogurt. Turkish chile injects the dish with a fair amount of heat, but the spice is easily tamed by the yogurt.

Cucci and his team of chefs, including operations chef Daniel Asher, are hardly purists where street food is concerned. Although each dish respects regional ingredients, the creations themselves fall on a continuum from authentic to ersatz.

The masala dosa and bhel puri, both from India, lie on the more traditional end of the spectrum. The dosas are large rice and lentil crêpes filled with Brussels sprouts and masala potatoes that have been spiced with cumin, black mustard seed, and green chile. Cucci serves the dish with two chutneys: a sweet tamarind-date and a complex coconut. The bhel puri, a warm and crunchy salad of puffed rice, lentil noodles, chickpeas, cashews, and tomatoes, provides the perfect spicy-sweet accompaniment. Both dishes showcase the elegant alchemy of flavors Indian cuisine is known for.

No less traditional, but not quite as successful, were the Vietnamese goi bo (a spicy beef salad) and Korean barbecue pork. In the goi bo, the salad was overdressed with pungent fish sauce but the beef was under-seasoned. On the other hand, the Korean barbecue pork was well-cooked and succulent but suffered from too much Chinese five-spice powder.

Linger’s menu also includes genre-bending, nontraditional dishes such as saag paneer fries, an innovative take on the traditional Indian spinach dish. In this version, paneer cheese is cut into thick (perhaps too thick), french-fry-like planks, coated with spices, and fried. It’s served atop spinach purée with a side of sweet-and-sour rhubarb ketchup. The dish is certainly creative, but the fried, tofulike cheese was dry and tasteless. The whole combination felt a little off—as if paneer isn’t the right vehicle for fries, after all.

If you’re unfamiliar with items on the menu—and you likely will be—ask for advice. Every time I’ve dined at Linger, the servers have offered reliable answers to my questions. Plus, there is an army of them. One night, no less than six members of the waitstaff visited my table, and the coordination between them was seamless. After a while, I forgot who my main server was, but it didn’t matter.

If anything, Linger’s steady-but-unobtrusive march of servers allowed me to focus more fully on the overall experience, from the setting sun reflecting off the glass towers downtown and the large photo of a hearse above the open kitchen to the water served from brown glass laboratory bottles. No matter what mood you arrive in, these details and other subtle attention-grabbers will revive your spirit—something the building’s original inhabitants would likely have approved of.