Eat & Drink

Dinner Theater

The new Squeaky Bean is a fully realized restaurant that commands your attention.
January 2013

The Squeaky Bean - 3 1/2 Stars

1500 Wynkoop St., #101 

303-623-2665

thesqueakybean.com

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The Draw A nothing-quite-like-it menu that takes seasonal, ingredient-driven cuisine to a creative new level.

The Drawback This is a place for diners who seek novelty, adventure, and a bit of theater with their meal. Those looking for familiar dishes may be disappointed.

Don’t Miss Mushroom and pine appetizer; beet appetizer; carrots small plate; One Potato, Two Potato; fried chicken ballotine; Fluffernutter dessert 

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

FOOD: 3 1/2 stars

SERVICE: 4 stars

AMBIENCE: 4 stars

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{Act I, Scene I}

Wednesday night, late fall. Two women settle at a table inside the Squeaky Bean, a stylish new restaurant in Denver’s Lower Downtown. Halfway through cocktails their conversation begins to grow animated.

First woman: I don’t think I should take this new position. The politics. The visibility. I’m not sure I’m up for it.

Second woman: Is there a way you…

At this instant, the server arrives with a rectangular wooden plank heaped with mushrooms, several small chocolate-colored sponges made of who knows what, and a few crumbly mounds of something that looks like dirt. Flower petals top the dish. The women stop speaking and stare down at the plank, and then up toward the server.

Server: This is the mushroom and pine. What you’ll find here are…

The server proceeds to describe each element of the dish, but it’s too detailed for the women to remember. All they can recall is the fact that matsutake mushrooms, pine nuts, sponge cake, and pine syrup are somehow involved. The server departs.

First woman: What did he say?

Second woman (taking a bite): I have no idea, but this is amazing…

I’ve dined at the squeaky bean three times now. I’ve ordered 18 different dishes. And every time a new item arrived, some version of this script repeated itself. A conversation about the Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum was interrupted by a plate of pigeon—artfully arranged with a knobby black claw jutting skyward. A chat about family politics was stopped by the “fried chicken,” in which the only thing obviously fried was a stiff, flat placard of chicken skin. A discussion about acceptable day rates for consultants ceased the moment the carrot cake arrived, looking like something a child had gotten ahold of, torn apart, and scattered with orange gummy worms. Welcome to the downtown version of the Squeaky Bean, a restaurant where the overall experience commands your attention like a night at the theater. 

The new Squeaky Bean barely resembles its predecessor in Highland, which closed in June 2011. There, the neighborhood space was small, the vibe funky-casual, the decor playfully vintage. While chef Max Mackissock’s creative ambitions were apparent, they were limited by the cramped space and lack of a professionally equipped kitchen.

Fast-forward 18 months. Today, the restaurant lives in an upscale space inside a 100-year-old building that once housed a saddlery. Hints of the building’s history remain in the exposed red brick and heavy wooden beams. But thanks to oversize windows, Mad Men–style lighting, and a shiny, stainless steel, open-view kitchen, the Squeaky Bean now resides firmly in the 21st century.

About the only thing that remains from the old location is the sense of play. Menus arrive clipped to vintage cookbooks. Cocktails are grouped under categories named after old films (The Longest Yard, Rocky III) and include a choice of Jell-O shots, like the Paloma, a gelatinized taste of grapefruit and tequila. An electric bingo board peers down from a wall above the dining room. But these touches are subtle, understated, part of the set design. The food is what takes the starring role. 

The Squeaky Bean’s menu is built around seasonal ingredients—Mackissock often sources produce from the restaurant’s one-acre farm—but this is hardly the straight forward seasonal cuisine you’re used to. Yes, each dish starts with a focus on a single ingredient. But like a jazz riff built around a single chord, Mackissock bends and stretches those ingredients in a multitude of ways.

 

Consider the carrot dish, which takes carrots in four different directions—raw, roasted, dehydrated, and puréed into a warm, orange broth poured tableside. (The dish also includes a cool scoop of kaffir lime and ginger ice cream that melts into the broth.) Here, the various layers of texture, temperature, and sweetness break the monotony typically associated with carrot-centric dishes. 

The Choked Out appetizer is similarly free of cliché. Mackissock starts with baby, Jerusalem, and Chinese artichokes and then puts them through the equivalent of boot camp—searing, poaching, braising, frying. He then arranges the transmogrified remains in a bowl filled with an artichoke milk. Like the carrot dish, the final pouring and filling takes place tableside, and it’s easy to imagine the detailed stage directions the servers have been given: Wait until conversation stops and you have the full attention of your guests. Then, lift the carafe slowly, tip it, and let the liquid cascade dramatically into the bowl. Timing is important. Don’t rush the scene. Diners dig this.

Mackissock loves the tableside pour—fully half of the plates I ordered were accompanied by this bit of theater. Watching the final assembly of a dish was fun the first time. But by the third visit and eighth pour, the routine had begun to seem tired and overdone. 

My favorite dish was the One Potato, Two Potato, where the only obvious drama was in the preparation itself. This dish takes all the best parts of a traditional stuffed
potato—cheese, chives, bacon, broccoli—and turns them into something new and barely recognizable. Holes carved into a slice of sweet potato are filled, alternately, with a green chive–leek sauce, crème fraîche, and a light orange potato purée. A sphere of whipped potato “ice cream” sits off to the side flanked by two fried potato crisps, and the plate is anchored by a glistening cube of pork belly and a few delicate stalks of heirloom broccoli. The visually arresting dish—the potato looks like something from outer space—combines sweet with savory, warm with cool, and chewy with smooth to create the most novel potato presentation I’ve ever encountered.

Novelty is, of course, what drives the Squeaky Bean. The menu often changes weekly, if only partially. The plating makes heavy use of dots and drizzles and foliage and flower petals. Ingredients such as tendon, tongue, and gizzard push local boundaries.

As someone who gets bored easily, I like this kind of improvisation, especially on nights when I need to get outside of myself. But not everyone will, and likely not every week. The Squeaky Bean is a special-occasion restaurant—the kind of place you go when you want to add to your dining repertoire and where it becomes apparent, as Shakespeare said, all the world is a stage.