Charlie Palmer scores with his first Denver venture, District Meats.
District Meats, 1625 Wazee St., 303-623-1630, charliepalmer.com/Properties/DistrictMeats
The Draw A modern steak house menu whose bright flavors, nontraditional combinations, and colorful presentation create a long list of crave-worthy dishes.
The Drawback The enormous televisions and distracting music can decimate the atmosphere
Don’t Miss Justin’s stuffed peppers, veal and ricotta meatballs, pepper-crusted culotte steak, braised pork shoulder and confit pork belly, roasted duck breast, banana split
Price: $$$ (Average price per entrée: $24)
If you aren’t already familiar with chef Charlie Palmer, here are a few things worth knowing about him: Among name-dropping foodies, he’s big. Big like super chefs Thomas Keller (the French Laundry), Joël Robuchon (L’Atelier), and José Andrés (Minibar, Jaleo). Like his contemporaries, Palmer is a chef with exacting standards, immense ambition, and an ever-expanding culinary empire that—to date—includes 11 high-end hot spots around the country, the most famous of which is Aureole in Manhattan. But perhaps the most relevant detail is this: Charlie Palmer is the driving force behind LoDo’s District Meats, making him the first of his ilk to fire up the burners in Denver.
Despite its corporate provenance, District Meats is not a slick, overproduced, Vegas-style restaurant. Instead, the Palmer team has created a space that is uniquely Denver—it’s casual, contemporary, and unconventional—in a good way.
The modern steak house menu combines classical French technique (such as braising and confit cooking), with comforting American favorites like brisket and baked potato, and brings them together with a mash-up of tantalizing ingredients. Red onion jam. Smoked bacon fingerlings. Sherry-soy gastrique. Apple horseradish. Intense and unexpected flavors like these are a hallmark of Palmer’s cuisine. Take the veal and ricotta meatballs: The two spheres were light—airy even—and served with a cumin-scented polenta so creamy I was tempted to smooth my finger across the plate to nab the last traces of flavor.
Justin’s stuffed peppers, three small red piquillo peppers filled with juicy threads of beef brisket and sprinkled with bright microgreens, were not only beautiful, but the peppers’ (the name means “little beak” in Spanish) sweetness also offset the dense meat inside. District Meats’ menu is filled with items like this—dishes that pair sweet with heat and crunch with cream to create a pleasing yin-yang of taste and texture. Tender slices of duck breast arrive with tart orange kumquat halves. A pepper steak crusted with the savory heat of black, green, and pink peppercorns is tamed by a side of creamy cippolini onions. A smooth, lightly smoked salmon belly sits atop a cloud of crème fraîche; both rest upon on a delightfully crunchy potato-shallot cake.
Part of the reason the food at District Meats works so well is that the menu is locally driven by executive chef Jeffery Russell, 31, who spent the last five years working at other Palmer properties. Although Palmer sets the parameters and gives the final nod on all decisions, the day-to-day creation and execution of the menu is in Russell’s able hands.
Service, too, is easy and comfortable, and I was impressed by the servers’ ready answers and eager accommodation. In fact, every time I mentioned that I’d like to split a dish with a friend (portions are generous), the servers had the kitchen do the dirty work. Once we were charged for the effort; twice, we were not. But in all cases, the split portions were ample and artfully prepared. Yes, this is a small detail, but it’s also one of the subtle niceties that increases the likelihood of return visits.
Furthermore, while a fair amount of groupthink has, by necessity, gone into the making of District Meats, this isn’t your typical restaurant created by committee. If it weren’t pointed out to you, you may not notice that the menu, built with meat as its centerpiece, does not feature the traditional line-up of rib-eyes, T-bones, and filet mignons. Instead, you’ll find teres major, a soft but seldom-used shoulder cut; culotte steak, a flavorful cut from the sirloin; and braised pork shoulder.
You also may not notice the select, midcentury roadhouse touches—the bar top made from thin strips of reclaimed boxcar wood, the galvanized aluminum light fixtures, or that the bar menu features local and organic spirits. (Try the face-warming, smooth old-fashioned, made with Breckenridge bourbon.)
Which brings me to the one glaring, unsubtle, out-of-place feature: the billboard-size television screens (which are left over from Big Game, the restaurant that previously occupied the space) lining the wall above the back bar. The frameless trio of TVs is larger than many multiplex movie screens, and it’s almost impossible not to fixate on them. I’m sure a large part of the after-work bar crowd—and this place packs ’em in—yearns for the mind-numbing daze produced by the music videos, ski films, and sporting events they feature. But I found them a ghastly diversion from what is otherwise a rewarding dining experience.
The food here is well prepared and visually impressive, and I wish the Palmer team members had more confidence the cuisine would be enough. Because it is. Even so, the arrival of District Meats proves what those of us who live here already know: Denver’s food scene is booming, sophisticated, and worthy of investment. Let the rest of the country fly to Vegas for brand-name sizzle. I’d rather stay put and let the big guys come to us.