Eat & Drink

Parallel Universe

The Kitchen Denver searches for its identity.

November 2012

The servers will attempt to make up for missteps with niceties—free glasses of wine, a surprise order of chocolate truffles—but these gestures are like flowers after a fight; lovely, but not pretty enough to repair the original damage.

Simply put, I’m disappointed. I’ve been a fan of the Kitchen Boulder and chef-founder Hugo Matheson’s simple, ingredient-driven approach. “I try to make food as simple as possible and not hide any ingredients,” he explains. But in Denver, while the philosophy remains, execution is unpredictable.

Ironically enough, the dishes that work best are those that are more nuanced, where one ingredient doesn’t command all the attention. The merguez sausage, for example, is a spicy, succulent take on the traditional North African sausage dish—and the exact opposite of the bowl-of-kale approach you often find at spots espousing farmers’ market values. Made with ground lamb, hot pepper, fragrant coriander, and fresh garlic, the plump sausage is a delicious meld of flavors served atop a bed of lentils and drizzled with a heady cumin yogurt sauce.

That same aromatic cumin yogurt sauce accompanies the pan-roasted chicken smeared in smoky harissa. In this dish, the straightforward flavors of the chicken are beautifully balanced by a cool and demure couscous and cucumber side salad.

The Bolognese—which I ordered with house-made tagliatelle—is another masterful amalgamation that combines pork, lamb, and beef in a comforting long-simmered sauce made from sweet tomatoes, hot chiles, wine, and cream. Here again, it was the blend of flavors, not any single ingredient, that allowed the dish to top my list of favorites.

So where does Matheson’s simple, straightforward philosophy shine? Definitely in the smoked mussels. In this dish, the glossy black shellfish have been smoked over alderwood, chilled, and then dressed with sliced red rounds of fresno chile and a lightly tangy olive oil with parsley. The campfire smell is so seductive you’ll raise the bowl to your nose, inhale deeply, and be tempted not to eat a single bite. But when you do, you’ll be amply rewarded by the smooth, cool taste of the mussels and the wide-eyed heat of the chiles.

The lamb loin, served medium rare on the inside, roasted on the outside, and thinly sliced, is another simple presentation that offers several layers of forthright flavor. The lamb is sweet, the anchoïade—a blend of rosemary, anchovies, garlic, and lemon juice—is salty-herby, the sautéed greens are slightly bitter, and texture is provided by chubby white runner beans. Four elements. Four flavors. One unified and satisfying meal.

Successful dishes such as these make me hopeful that the Kitchen will be able to grow into its new, larger Denver space. Years ago, when I remodeled and expanded my own kitchen, it took me a while to understand the flow, perfect my rhythm, and get used to hosting larger dinner parties. I suspect the same may be true here. As I told my friends and family back then, and I’m suggesting to you now, just give the Kitchen some time.