At Trillium, chef-owner Ryan Leinonen serves crisp, beautiful Nordic flavors.
So it was probably only a matter of time before the Scandinavian influence began to appear on local menus. That time arrived last December with the opening of Trillium in the Ballpark neighborhood. While other local spots, such as Charcoal Restaurant and Bittersweet, have been giving subtle nods to northern European cuisine, Trillium is the first to build an entire menu around it.
Chef-owner Ryan Leinonen, 35, whose resumé includes local standouts Colt & Gray, Root Down, and the Kitchen, was not merely exploiting a fad when he opened Trillium. A native of Michigan who grew up eating his Finnish grandmother’s traditional dishes, Leinonen’s interest in Scandinavian culture is lifelong, and, perhaps because he is married to a Swede, heartfelt.
Fans of farm-to-table cuisine will find much to like about Trillium (the name comes from the three-petaled blue flower native to both Michigan and Sweden). The menu, inspired by traditional Scandinavian ingredients and preparation, relies heavily on seasonal produce, and emphasizes fish from the Great Lakes region and meat from local ranches. Aromatic seasonings like fennel, cardamom, and citrus are woven throughout.
Clean, pure flavors are a hallmark of Scandinavian food, and the best representation of these can be found in Trillium’s small plates. Choose the smooth and slightly herbaceous aquavit-cured salmon; the tender pickled shrimp lightly coated with fresh lemon and dill; or the cool gazpacho served in a bar glass with a tangy dollop of sour cream and cornbread croutons. The balance of sweet and sour in the latter is simply exquisite. All three of these dishes—four, if you want to add the paper-thin slices of cured beef served with whole-grain mustard—show restraint. Leinonen lets simplicity star over pretension.
Making your way through the menu, the dishes grow more layered, but the straightforward flavor remains. The steelhead trout raaka—Finland’s version of tartare—is silky smooth and needed only small bits of cool cucumber, sharp shallot, sweet fennel, and a shave of horseradish to come alive. The apple, potato, and beet salad was similarly satisfying and unassuming. In lesser hands, the combination of chopped pickle, shaved cabbage, cubed potatoes, beets, apples, and sour cream dressing might come across as the kind of thing thrown together at the last minute for a Lutheran Church social. But Leinonen takes his grandmother’s recipe and elevates the peasantlike ingredients into something far more memorable. Order this salad if you’re not hungry enough for a complete meal; it’s filling.
At the turn of the 20th century, many Scandinavian immigrants settled in the Great Lakes region, and Leinonen honors this aspect of his heritage by regularly flying in Great Lakes whitefish and serving it skin-on and grilled with a delectable char. Although the accompanying circle of chive mashed potatoes was gummy, the lemony dandelion greens and the lipstick-colored beet vinaigrette helped repair the damage.
Trillium’s menu also features steelhead trout from Lake Michigan. The fresh, pink trout is a fatty cold-water fish that, on its own, lacks charisma. But Leinonen sets his atop a congregation of fresh leeks, dill, celery, radishes, and carrots, and unites them all with a buttery mussel broth. The richness of the broth balances the lightness of the fish—and vice versa.
Although Trillium touts its clog-wearing inspiration proudly, the place is actually very American—and Denver—at its core. The restaurant resides in a 121-year-old building that hosted a pawnshop for decades. Today, an original red brick wall and lodgepole pine beams remain, but they are juxtaposed against flat white walls, contemporary European light fixtures, and shiny metal accents. Combining old Denver with modern design creates a space where the Keen-wearing crowd will feel just as comfortable as those tottering around on sky-high Jimmy Choo platforms.
Trillium’s menu of meat dishes also appeals to local tastes, especially those used to heartier fare. The pan-roasted chicken breast, served with floppy house-made egg noodles and a smoky, bacon-mustard vinaigrette, is comforting—the kind of dish you might order for a pal who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend. The crispy, skin-on duck breast is equally soothing, thanks to the toasted caraway spaetzle it’s served upon. The short, twirly dumplings provide just enough surface area to hold the luscious juice of the bacon-braised cabbage and buttery mascarpone.
It’s not often I’m surprised by items on a menu, but the caviar listing on Trillium’s menu did arrest my attention. If you’ve just landed a lucrative contract and want to celebrate in high-altitude style, order 30 grams of the Black River Russian Osetra—for $165. Yes, it’s pricey, but there are not many places in the entire country where you can procure true caviar from Russian sturgeon raised in a sustainable and organic operation. (Black River is, interestingly enough, based in Breckenridge.) Order the shiny black caviar with Trillium’s signature cocktail—a stunning purple blend of gin, St. Germain, blueberries, lemon, lavender, and the most Scandinavian of all spirits: aquavit. Or, skip the cocktail list altogether and knock back a straight shot of cool, house-infused aquavit. The distilled, high-alcohol spirit (think of it as Swedish grappa but made of either grain or potatoes) will put you in a celebratory mood even if you didn’t land that contract.
Whichever route you choose, straight shot or cocktail, caviar or no, the overall Trillium experience is like watching a Scandinavian documentary on the Travel Channel. You get a sense of the region, a taste of the culture, and a wistful sense of longing, but you don’t have to endure a security line to get there. And to that, I say, “Skol!”