Chef-owner Justin Brunson amassed a dream team when he opened Old Major. Although many of the players have changed, the experience hasn’t.
3316 Tejon St.
3 1/2 Stars
An elegantly rustic dining room; informed, passionate service; a menu that feels both luxurious and comforting.
Despite carpet tacked under the tables, the dining room is loud; the bathrooms are strangely detached from the main space.
Modern Savage cocktail, smoked fish sampler, grilled octopus, “nose-to-tail” pork plate, pork-fat fries, ricotta fritters, seasonal French macaron cookies
Happy hour snacks, $2 to $7; small plates and salads, $7 to $19; entrées, $25 to $60; three-course vegetarian tasting menu, $30. Complimentary valet parking. Open daily for happy hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and for dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted.
Union square cafe. Blue Hill. Quince. Le Pigeon. These are but a few of the nationally exalted restaurants that grace the staff resumé at Old Major. Even the general manager (whose job it is to crunch the restaurant’s numbers) is a graduate of Harvard. Chef-owner Justin Brunson, who worked at Michael’s at the Citadel in Scottsdale, Arizona, before landing in Denver at Mizuna and Fruition, has called his colleagues “the best team in the country.” And the group’s stripes show: Together, these longtime professionals have created what is easily Denver’s most lauded restaurant opening of 2013.
Given the buzz surrounding Old Major (including a nod from Bon Appétit naming it one of the country’s 50 best new restaurants), my husband and I picked the LoHi spot for an impromptu date night a few months ago. The space, built of reclaimed lumber, reminded us of a fairy-tale barn—one where paintings of the characters from Animal Farm hang (the George Orwell satire inspired the name), diners are equally comfortable wearing sequins or flip-flops, and guests ogle a $250,000 open kitchen and a glass-walled charcuterie room. We were seated beneath light fixtures made from refabbed tractor parts when the “nose-to-tail” plate arrived. Brunson, a six-foot, 325-pound Iowa native, and Galen Kennemer, his chef de cuisine, butcher heritage-breed hogs from the towns of Brush and Hotchkiss every Wednesday. That night, their iconic dish featured city ham, confit rib, cured belly torchon, a pork chop, and crisp shavings of ear. The seductive mound of meat came with barbecue beans, coleslaw, and a petite cornbread muffin topped with a pat of still-melting butter. I’ll never forget the confit rib, with crisp little shards of pork that shot off the bone the way hard candy explodes in your mouth when you bite into it.
Four glasses sat in front of us that evening. Cicerone (i.e., beer master) Ryan Conklin had enthusiastically split a cider and a Belgian quad between us so we could taste the way different pairings worked with the dish. When the waitress asked if she could take our near-empty plate, I instead requested a second muffin to sop up what remained of the baked bean jus. I didn’t want the entrée, those beers, nor the evening itself to end.
That entrée was just one of many unforgettable dishes I’ve eaten at Old Major. A small plate of expertly grilled octopus, paper-thin green tomatoes compressed in white balsamic, a Marcona almond purée, wilted frisée, and a house-made Sriracha was among the most clever flavor combinations I’ve had all year. A fish charcuterie trio included plump mussels smoked in a sweet, Swedish mustard sauce. I smothered bite after bite of beef tartare, discretely flavored with truffle oil and topped with a quail egg yolk, on house-made potato chips. I folded whole leaves of mixed heirloom lettuce around a salad of cherry tomatoes, quinoa, and pistachios generously dressed in a dried cranberry and sherry vinaigrette. Three colossal scallops were seared and crowned with garlicky ribbons of yellow carrot, pink radish, and translucent baby turnips plucked from the kitchen garden that investor Ben Parsons houses at his RiNo winery, Infinite Monkey Theorem.
Desserts at Old Major are equally memorable. I love that 24-year-old pastry chef Nadine Donovan has the unbridled confidence to stand up to a waning food trend: bacon with dessert. On a girls’ night out I hogged almost every bite of the bacon jam that adorned the crème caramel. And Donovan’s delicate ricotta donuts with cylinders of lemon semifreddo rival any of Denver’s more celebrated desserts. Her savory contributions are just as noteworthy—those cornbread muffins, the pretzel knots that begin each meal, and an airy flatbread that envelops a pork gyro.