Eat & Drink

Review: Coohills

Coohills has the looks, the location, and the crowd, but the French-American menu underwhelms.

May 2012

Coohills, 1400 Wewatta St., 303-623-5700, coohills.com

The Draw A gorgeous, grown-up space in LoDo that shows just how sophisticated downtown dining has become. Its location alongside Cherry Creek alone is worth a visit.

The Drawback Though well designed, the menu is not well executed. Flavors and textures compete rather 
than complement each other. 

Don’t Miss The lively bar scene and innovative cocktail list, house-made pâté platter, rustic apple tart with cinnamon stick ice cream.

Price: $$$ (Average price per entrée: $24)

Oh my, but Coohills is good-looking.

Walking in the door of the LoDo restaurant for the first time, I found myself falling in love. Coohills is sexy, with its warm chocolate tones, crisp modern decor, wall-to-wall windows, and lively bar scene. It’s smart, with a well-designed menu of French-influenced dishes. It’s got the right pedigree: Chef Tom Coohill, 47, founded Ciboulette restaurant in Atlanta, which Esquire named a Top 25 restaurant in 1992. And Coohills’ hip, urban location next to a train trestle on Cherry Creek puts it at the epicenter of the blossoming LoDo dining scene. This was the one! I knew it! A place I’d be more than proud to introduce to my family.

But alas. Now that I’ve gotten to know the six-month-old Coohills better, now that we’ve shared meals together, the infatuation has worn off. Though I still think the space is smart and sexy, and though I still desperately want to love the restaurant, there’s something missing. It’s not chemistry; it’s a matter of taste. Which is mystifying. 

Tom Coohill has designed a thoughtful menu that combines seasonal ingredients with timeless preparations, such as sweet butternut squash stuffed inside agnolotti pasta shells, and carrot purée nestled against a juicy lamb porterhouse steak. His menu acknowledges the staples (duck confit, seared scallops), but he also pushes diners toward less-clichéd choices such as grilled octopus and whipped brandade. Plus, his lineup includes all-time favorites like coq au vin, braised beef short ribs, and grilled strip steak. I like this menu; it aims to please without pandering.

Furthermore, when you talk to Coohill you learn of the time and toil that goes into each dish. Coohill trained under Michelin three-star chefs and has extensive experience inside seriously French restaurants; in short, Coohill is devoted to multistep, multiburner cuisine. 

Consider his blue crab flan. On the plate, the dish—a circle of plump blue crab sitting in a pool of rich cream sauce and topped with micro-celery—looks relatively straightforward. Peek into the kitchen and you’ll find it’s anything but. For the appetizer, Coohill begins with rich scallops. Then he creates a white fish purée that is chilled and then sautéed, and then embellished with a long list of ingredients, including cream, wine, tarragon, and shallots. Then there’s reducing and the addition of more ingredients including Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce, and then, finally, ultimately, he folds in fresh crab. (For the purposes of space, I’m omitting several fancy details.)

It’s the same way with many—if not most—dishes on Coohills’ menu. The salt cod brandade is a four-day dance of soaking, cooking, cleaning, creaming, simmering, whipping, and mashing. The chicken liver pâté—a silky standout on the menu—is a two-day effort that is equally arduous and involves liver, onion, cream, eggs, brandy, onions, port Madeira, pork back fat, a chinois, and a water bath.

Learning about the care that goes into Coohill’s cuisine is impressive—but it also creates a disturbing culinary dissonance. How could food with such thoughtful preparation not be stellar?

The vast majority of dishes I tried—and I’ve eaten my way through most of the menu—suffered in one way or another. The grilled strip steak, ordered medium-rare, arrived well-done. The cauliflower purée that accompanied the spot prawns was tasteless. The seasoning atop the Scottish salmon was salty and overbearing. The gnocchi was bland, the agnolotti too chewy, the short rib undersalted. 

Two things are going on here, I suspect: One, choreography is missing in the kitchen. With space for more than 200 diners at a time—and even more on the patio—Coohills packs ’em in, and the kitchen crew may be focused more on fulfilling orders than finessing the final details. After all, overcooking and underseasoning reflect problems in execution, not design.

The second issue is related to balance—or lack thereof. More often than not, the flavors and textures on each plate competed with rather than complemented one another. The rich cream sauce overwhelmed the delicate crab it accompanied. The octopus, chewy by nature, needed additional richness to make up for the aggressive texture. And although I don’t mind light gnocchi—I typically regard it as a vehicle for the accompanying sauce—the sauce better be damn tasty. Unfortunately, it wasn’t: A toss of herbs and olive oil was too subtle to compensate for the lack of flavor in the gnocchi.

Such expectations are not unreasonable, especially in an upscale restaurant like Coohills, where an average dinner for two, with two glasses of wine and tip, will set you back about $150. At this price, I expect each dish to be finely tuned and well wrought.

The service at Coohills is adequate, but again—at this price—I expect more than just good enough. I expect servers to be able to answer basic questions, I expect to be able to hear them, and I expect them to check back frequently. On all fronts, I was left wanting.

Coohills’ pretty space goes a long way in making up for these missteps, and I suspect this will be doubly true on warm summer evenings when the restaurant throws open its vast windows and creates a sultry, al fresco experience throughout the restaurant. But good looks just aren’t enough. To forge a lasting and meaningful relationship, I need substance I can depend on.