Eat & Drink

Parallel Universe

The Kitchen Denver searches for its identity.

November 2012

The Kitchen Denver
1530 16th St.
303-623-3127
thekitchencommunity.com 

The Draw  An inviting and energetic modern space in the heart of LoDo; an unpretentious menu that emphasizes fresh, high-quality ingredients.

The Drawback  On busy nights, both the kitchen and waitstaff are easily overwhelmed.

Don’t Miss  Cold-smoked mussels, house-made merguez sausage, pan-roasted chicken, seasonal lamb loin.

Price  $$$ (Average price per entrée: $23) 

Food - 2 1/2 stars

Service - 1 1/2 stars

Ambience - 3 stars 

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Write the word “kitchen” on a flip chart, ask a group of adults to free-associate, and you’ll likely hear words like “dinner,” “nourishment,” “gathering place,” and, of course, “mom.” It’s a simple word, “kitchen,” and it nicely captures the welcoming spirit of the Kitchen Community, a group of restaurants that began in 2004 with the Kitchen in Boulder and this spring added a fourth restaurant, the Kitchen Denver, in LoDo.

Just as a kitchen is the central gathering place in a home, the Kitchen restaurants aim to be gathering places in the community. There are community tables and community dinner nights, as well as early lunch and later evening hours. The implied message: “Come on in, get to know us…and each other.” This approach has succeeded in the three small Boulder restaurants, where the intimate space makes you feel like you’re part of the inner circle. That’s not the case in Denver, at least not yet.

The new Kitchen is much larger than its Boulder progenitor—almost 200 seats to Boulder’s 75. There are more tailored jackets, more diners setting phone alarms to make that meeting after lunch, and they are spread across an expansive bi-level, three-roomed space on the kinetic corner of 16th and Wazee streets. The vibe? Urban. The decor? Restoration chic—black oak floors, white walls, original brick, groovy-cool light fixtures. The upshot? While the Kitchen Denver shares a name with its Boulder counterparts, it’s an entirely different restaurant.

Yes, the emphasis on approachable dishes such as pasta, roasted chicken, and rib-eye remains, as does the commitment to seasonal ingredients and high-quality vendors. But the cozy familiarity, the feeling that you are in on a secret, did not survive the commute.

Given the size, it’s no wonder. Large restaurants place great demands on both the kitchen and the staff. One lug of fresh produce becomes three; three servers become nine; timing issues multiply; training issues escalate. More bodies waiting on more tables mean more opportunities for things to go wrong. And at the Kitchen Denver, they do.

You’ll arrive thirsty after work, order a cocktail, and wait an interminable amount of time for it to appear. You’ll choose salmon on the recommendation of your server, it will taste fishy, and you’ll send it back. You’ll eagerly order the burrata and peach bruschetta because it’s peach season and there’s nothing that compares to the drippy sweetness of a ripe Palisade. But the fruit that arrives will be tart and crunchy.

The list goes on. You’ll wonder why the candied pecans aren’t sweet, why the spicy greens aren’t spicy, why the strawberries in the chantilly are hard, and you’ll be searching for your server throughout your meal. He’ll be slow to take your order, slower to ask about dessert, and by the time you’re ready for the check, he will have vanished entirely, turning what should have been a pleasant two-hour meal into a three-hour ordeal.

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.