Eat & Drink

'Round The Corner

With Corner House, Matt Selby takes on the neighborhood restaurant.

October 2013

Corner House
2240 Clay St.
720-287-1895
cornerhousedenver.com
2 1/2 Stars

THE DRAW
A snug dining room of reclaimed Centennial State lumber and a commitment to local beer, spirits, and pantry items make Corner House a true Colorado restaurant.
THE DRAWBACK
Inconsistency, both in the food and service.
DON’T MISS
Bloody Mary, chilaquiles, French-toast bread pudding, house-cured duck bresaola, mussels in tomato cream
DETAILS
Sandwiches at lunch, $8 to $12; appetizers at dinner,
$3 to $15; entrées at dinner, $10 to $24. Street parking. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, with brunch beginning at 9 a.m. on the weekends. Reservations accepted.

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Last fall, when chef Matt Selby announced he was leaving Josh Wolkon’s restaurant triad of Vesta Dipping Grill (Selby’s home base of 15 years), Steuben’s, and Ace Eat Serve, the Denver restaurant community raised a collective eyebrow. Together, this chef-restaurateur team helped rehabilitate LoDo, cemented the Uptown corridor as Denver’s restaurant row, propelled the city’s food truck scene, and published a cookbook. During his tenure at Vesta, Selby cooked at the legendary James Beard House and was credited by some with helping to put Denver on the culinary map. Needless to say, when the news broke of Selby’s departure, many quickly assumed that the longtime partners had a falling out. And yet, both repeatedly made the case that there was no discord—only that Selby simply “wanted to focus on one restaurant.”

Selby’s decision to simplify and serve a single dining room of 55 seats wasn’t curious to me. Nor was the 39-year-old chef’s choice to commit to a kitchen without a hood system. (Working with only three induction burners, a panini press, and a TurboChef oven is a cinch for someone who has cooked for as many as 75 off-site charity events in a single year.) It wasn’t even his choice to commit to the little-known Jefferson Park community that gave me pause. What caused me to raise my eyebrows was the fact that a chef of this caliber would dub his new place a “neighborhood eatery,” a descriptor that’s welded above the restaurant’s door.

While a universal definition of “neighborhood restaurant” is elusive, industry friends who obsess over the intersection of food and word choice as much as I do agree on a few things. A neighborhood restaurant is one that is cherished by locals within walking distance; is absent destination diners who are probably eating at a similar place in their own part of town; and is a “go-to” spot that’s consistent and dependable, even current, but never too ambitious. Over the course of six visits, I learned that consistent is precisely what Corner House is not.

My best meal was brunch. It included an addictive Bloody Mary—with pitted Castelvetrano olives, a good dose of horseradish, and a dusting of black lava salt—and a bowl of warm almonds tossed with rosemary and chiles de árbol. My friend and I moved on to a colorful salad of crisp arugula, warm, griddle-marked avocado, juicy pieces of navel orange, and pickled slivers of Fresno chile. I devoured the chilaquiles, a bowl of breakfast nachos with tender chunks of beef short rib, a perfectly poached egg, and lime crema. We made dessert of a French-toast bread pudding, which arrived with a slab of maple butter and fresh berries. But on that same visit, a notably restrained prosciutto eggs Benedict came with breakfast potatoes that were overcooked and sticky. And our server, pleasantly cheerful and able to pace our many dishes comfortably, was more endearing than exemplary. She told us the ciabatta was from Denver Bread Company (Selby uses City Bakery), and she splashed the tomato cocktail on my shoe.

During a lunch visit, I grabbed a stool under one of the windows and pictured myself making the minimalist-yet-comfortable Corner House a go-to spot of my own. The warm panino of Madras curry–flecked chicken thigh, scallion mayonnaise, sliced Bosc pear, and melting Fort Collins Camembert was worthy of another visit. But alongside it, during peak greens season, was a mesclun salad that looked like the contents of a prewashed supermarket bag you might find in a forgotten corner of your fridge. The sous chef himself delivered the plate with browning and battered pieces of lettuce, some of which had even taken on the slimy appearance of kelp. The lunch menu touts a “fresh-baked cookie,” but instead of the warm decadence I expected, the treat (which Selby procured from City Bakery) was nothing more than an outsourced disappointment.

One evening, a happy hour visit was riddled with more consequential issues. Water and a menu arrived quickly, and bar manager Gerard Collier’s showcase of Front Range beers and Colorado spirits made me eager to share the restaurant with out-of-towners. The Crowded House cocktail, a tequila take on the Negroni, was a welcome apéritif. But I was surprised when—just as I was ready to order the polenta with asparagus ribbons and roasted fennel—Collier abandoned his post for a barstool to affix tape on the backs of posters promoting an upcoming event. When he finally returned to the bar, three men were debating another round. “Your wine list is really limited,” one of them said. “My space is really limited,” Collier shot back as he turned to another task. The trio of guys quickly passed on another drink and went elsewhere for dinner. (Needless to say, I was not surprised to learn, at press time, that Collier had left the restaurant.)

The men’s early exit was a shame because there’s plenty to get excited about on Selby’s compact dinner menu. Evening visits, tucked underneath wallpaper of black and white aspen trunks, have included memorable mussels bathed in sweet tomatoes, butter, and cream. There was house-cured duck bresaola served atop a piece of grilled bread that Selby smartly smothered in a purée of roasted artichokes to give each bite complexity without competing fat. One meal included a chile-braised short rib, appropriately fork-tender and lightened up with the bright crunch of coriander-
pickled watermelon rind.

However, our enthusiastic waitress told our table it was the avocado that was pickled—an inventive detail that excited us enough to order the dish. She also was unable to explain that rock shrimp “sunomono” means “steeped in vinegar.” In this case, there was so much vinegar that the first bite launched me into a coughing attack. And while she was happy to get the bartender when she was unable to tell my date anything about the Gewürztraminer and Riesling on the wine list, Collier was annoyed to have been gotten. (We later spotted him at the restaurant’s communal table on his laptop.)
During my most recent dinner, a friend and I were debating between the Manila clams and a pimento lobster ravioli. The server steered us toward the $22 ravioli, which was a mistake. The pink, triangular noodles were dry, the lobster filling tasted like it had baked on the end of a dock all afternoon, the beurre blanc was thin and broken, and shreds of Meyer lemon overwhelmed anything redeeming. In a follow-up interview with Selby, I learned that one of the line cooks hatched the short-lived entrée when a faulty heating element prevented them from serving another dish. I also learned Selby was out of town that evening, cooking at an off-site event. And this is when that raised brow of mine finally relaxed. I realized why a simple neighborhood restaurant was a good fit for such a credentialed chef: Ideally, it should give him more time than he previously had to focus on something equally important to him.

Ask Selby what his biggest career accomplishments are, and he will talk to you not about awards and accolades but instead about his relationships with vendors, the community, and mentees. Ask Denver peers what they respect about Selby and they will tell you about such selflessness. Selby volunteers his time to Project Angel Heart, SOS, Urban Peak, Children’s Hospital, FACES, Work Options for Women, and a neighborhood school, among other noble causes. Last fall he received the first-ever Noel Cunningham Award for his humanitarian endeavors. Selby spends—during “peak events season”—50 percent of his time at Corner House and 50 percent on outside events. Part of the beauty in “only” doing a neighborhood place is that—in theory—Selby should have more time for these long-standing priorities.

It should, however, be equally important to Selby that Corner House is the kind of consistent and reliable experience that defines a good neighborhood restaurant. For this to become a reality, the chef might have to do something that doesn’t come naturally to him: turn inward. If Selby can be “selfish” enough to focus exclusively on his restaurant for a span of time, it can become the kind of staple that the fast-changing Jefferson Park needs and deserves. Until then, it seems doubtful Corner House will become the banner neighborhood eatery one would expect from such a celebrated chef.