Eat & Drink

Shape Shifter

Satchel’s on 6th searches for an identity.

January 2012

Satchel’s on 6th

1710 E. Sixth Ave.
303-399-2560
www.satchelson6th.com

The DrawA laid-back, come-as-you-are neighborhood restaurant with a diverse, seasonally driven menu.

The DrawbacksThe kitchen is inconsistent, and the atmosphere is a confusing work in progress.

Don’t Miss Goat cheese sticks, butternut squash risotto, venison shank, bread pudding.

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

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

You could argue that all restaurants, on some level, are works in progress. Menus evolve. Chefs come and go. The server who always remembers your name gets lured away by bigger tips downtown. But these are minor tweaks in the major scheme of things. Smart restaurateurs know that most diners don’t like change. Once customers find a spot with the perfect cassoulet, boutique wine list, and flattering lighting, they want all three elements to remain the same, thank you very much.

This is especially true in dining markets where new and noteworthy restaurants open with astonishing regularity. Simply put: If diners don’t get what they’ve come to expect, they ain’t gonna come back.

This is the uncomfortable challenge Satchel’s on 6th faces. The restaurant, owned by Andrew Casalini, 39, has great bones—a five-year history of success in its previous incarnation as Satchel’s Market in Park Hill, an inviting, exposed-brick, glass-front space, and a Country Club/Cheesman Park location filled with enthusiastic diners accustomed to finely wrought cuisine. Barolo Grill and Fruition, two of Denver’s best, are located just blocks away.

But while Satchel’s bones are good, its body has yet to fill out. Some dishes arrive with fresh and flawless execution. Others feel like last night’s leftovers. One night, the walls inside the tiny, 10-table restaurant are self-consciously bare. Two weeks later, there’s art for sale! Pulsating music! A video projector showing French films! It’s like watching your teenage daughter trying to decide if she’s the pale brooding type in skinny black jeans, or a girly girl who loves Uggs and emoticons.

Casalini admits Satchel’s is evolving, that he’s constantly tweaking lighting and acoustics, and that he’s not entirely sure whether the films will remain. A little dialing up or pulling back is fine—even expected—in a new venture. But a restaurant should not be an ongoing project, especially when you’re asking diners to pony up $23 for an entrée, or about $100 for a typical meal for two. Something else that’s a no-no at this—or any—price: allowing the chef’s 10-year-old daughter to race around the restaurant, occasionally stopping to play server. She came to my table twice one busy Friday night and, as cute and engaging as she was, I wasn’t about to tell a 10-year-old that one entrée had been forgotten or that we needed a second glass of wine.

The missteps in atmosphere put the responsibility for luring repeat customers on chef Kurt Boucher and his menu of seasonally driven cuisine. Conceptually, he’s up to the challenge. The menu contains a mix of the mirthful (an appetizer of duck fat french fries tossed, East Coast style, in salt and vinegar), and the mature (a fork-tender venison shank slowly braised in red wine). I especially admire Boucher’s willingness to take standard menu items such as goat cheese and duck confit into unexpected territory. One of my favorite dishes— the crunchy, panko-coated goat cheese sticks—combines these very ingredients in an appetizer that is both tangy and succulent, and is offset by the sweet acidity in the accompanying tomato sauce.

Boucher, 40, is new to the Mile High City, having spent the last 20 years cooking at various high-altitude spots in the Roaring Fork Valley. At Satchel’s, he’s clearly enjoying the availability of seasonal Front Range produce. His fall menu took full advantage of autumn favorites such as butternut squash (in the creamy and flawlessly al dente risotto), mushrooms (a mix of local chanterelle and lobster mushrooms in the light crêpe appetizer), and apples (in the cinnamony apple sauce used to top the pork tenderloin).

But although the thinking behind each dish is solid, execution is another story. While I liked most every dish on the fall menu, I didn’t love them because every hit was accompanied by a miss. The pork tenderloin was well cooked, but the bacon-and-panko coating overwhelmed the meat with a layer of crunch so extreme it was almost painful to chew. The scallops were dusted with a fragrant, house-made pumpkin powder, but they were overcooked and gummy. The carrot purée served with the venison shank was sweet and colorful, but so thin it dripped through the fork. (Perhaps it should have been called carrot cream?) One week the roasted beet salad came with a tantalizing, peppery farmers’ market arugula; the next week, I could barely taste the greens, causing me to wonder if Boucher had substituted a commercial variety for local produce.

You get the idea.

When Boucher does strike the right balance—as he did with the poblano pepper stuffed with a colorful mélange of cuminy black beans and square-cut zucchini, squash, and red pepper, and topped with light crema fresca—the effect is hugely satisfying. But this culinary symmetry doesn’t happen often enough.

For their part, the Satchel’s waitstaff does an impressive job trying to overcome these deficiencies and make diners feel welcome. In fact, servers were the high point of every visit—which is something I’ve never written in a review. All too often in Denver restaurants, the kitchen and concept are working, but the servers can’t pull it together. At Satchel’s, it’s just the opposite.

When you combine the inconsistency in the kitchen with the indecisiveness at the front of the house, the net effect is impatience—and impatient diners can easily take their business elsewhere.

Fixing the flaws is far from impossible. With a bit more focus, confidence, and care, the cozy and reliable neighborhood joint Casalini is striving for could become a reality. The question is: How long are diners willing to wait?