Eat & Drink

Urban Cowboy

Within Row 14’s sleek downtown space, chef Jensen Cummings works to find culinary harmony. 

February 2012

I confess: I love the click of concrete under high heels. The thrill of jaywalking in the middle of the block. The silent triumph of finding a parking meter, nearby, with time remaining. I know Coloradans are supposed to love the wood smoke smell of the backcountry—and I do. But I also celebrate whenever a grown-up restaurant like Row 14 opens in the asphalt center of it all.

Row 14 is the kind of restaurant where you feel the city buzzing around you. Walk a block east and you mingle with badge-wearing out-of-towners streaming from the convention center. Head west and you encounter the silk-stocking, heavy-coat theater crowd. Check in with Row 14’s host and you’ll see, through a long wall of windows, the Times Square–size video monitor that floods the restaurant with splashes of light and color.

Owner David Schneider, 41, has a notable history of owning and managing urban hot spots like Bin 36 in Chicago. Although relatively new to Denver, he knows how to create a space that gives city dwellers what they’ve come to expect: low pinpoint lighting, exposed ductwork, and a trendy urban-enviro aesthetic that blends details like concrete columns and beetle-kill paneling. Throw in some gold tones (in the leather booths and lacy chain curtains that separate the bar from the dining room), and you’ve got a backdrop wherein the simple act of sitting down at your table is accompanied by an uptick in energy.

That energy is especially appealing to wine lovers and others who may have grown weary of the craft cocktail trend. Row 14 has a seductive selection of more than 60 wines by the glass, as well as ever-changing red- and white-wine flights. A choice of either three- or six-ounce pours makes it easy to experiment with something unusual, such as a dry Riesling from New Zealand, or a Calea Fiano, a crisp aromatic white from Italy. And once you do, you’ll anticipate something spectacular—perhaps even a little daring—from the menu.

Fortunately, chef Jensen Cummings, 29, is an eager innovator. He takes a familiar dish like mac and cheese—complete with Kraft-brand cheese—and tops it with Korean short ribs. He riffs on the supremely American Philly cheese steak—rib-eye, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Cheez Whiz—and packages it inside delicate empanada pastry dough.

Cummings, a self-professed food and history geek, takes his inspiration from “Pangean cuisine,” his phrase for food modeled after the hypothetical supercontinent that existed approximately 250 million years ago. His idea: to playfully mix different cultures in each dish and throughout the menu. Listen to Cummings wax rhapsodic about food and cuisine, and you’ll like him because it’s clear he cares.

But although the creativity and cross-continental thinking that goes into Row 14’s menu is impressive, the dishes themselves rarely reach the point of transcendence. Some are simply too timid. The tiger shrimp ramen, a giant bowl of warm soy dashi broth filled with noodles, shrimp, kamaboko (a pressed white fish cake), and pickled cabbage, should have delivered far more punch. The crispy-on-the-outside barramundi served with potatoes cooked risotto-style was more interesting to read about than to eat. The fried tilapia in the fish and chips was generously portioned, but beige in both presentation and taste; the faint drizzle of red pepper rémoulade was not enough to relieve the monotony of the dish.