Chef-owner Justin Brunson amassed a dream team when he opened Old Major. Although many of the players have changed, the experience hasn’t.
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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.
But the food at Old Major isn’t perfect. Threaded throughout otherwise exceptional meals have been subtle but important mistakes. Pickled green beans tasted oddly of the sea. Peas arrived uncooked. Tater tots reminded me of the gluey consistency of Japanese mochi. A salad of puffed barley and sprouted lentils demanded crostini or chopsticks or some vehicle other than my knife and fork. A lamb chop cooked sous vide needed the charred flavor and rendered fat of an open flame or, as prepared, more dollops of the creamy preserved lemon dressing. And I’m all for tasting the Western Slope grass on which a steer feeds, and I welcome raw foods, but a 24-ounce dry-aged rib-eye was so rare that my knuckles were sore from sawing through it, even with a serrated Laguiole knife.
On every visit stellar service quickly mitigated such imperfections on the plate. At Old Major, servers—unified by vests but otherwise dressed in their own designer jeans and, say, hot pink button-downs with neon yellow Nikes—always inquire before they remove even a bone-dry piece of stemware. They ask how customers would like less obvious selections coursed. They are eager to arrange any special requests and gracefully fix mistakes. When a dinner date noted in her reservation a preference for a table in the front half of the dining room, yet arrived to find all the two-tops were taken, the staff quickly split a four-top to correct the gaffe and went on to offer an amuse-bouche of foraged porcini carpaccio. Servers insist on swapping out a beer when your face reveals your selection isn’t as saisonlike as you were expecting and smartly hint that a sweet cocktail is better on ice. With the exception of a rogue newbie, runners present dishes with enthusiasm and pride. Moreover, when you ask them a question they cannot answer (which edible flowers decorate your plate), they are genuinely curious themselves and anxiously race back to the kitchen for the answer (violas from the garden).
The beverage program is equally first-rate. On another visit, sommelier Bruce Conklin poured a crémant into the Bordeaux wine glass that was already a part of my place setting. As wine lovers know, a red wine glass is better than a flute for nosing and tasting sparkling wine, and it was a great way to make bubbly feel like an informal, everyday sipper. Another evening, the soft-spoken whiz asked my friend and I if we were interested in trying a white wine with the rib-eye we’d ordered. I enjoy turning color stereotypes on end and often drink red wine with fish, but I’ve never been offered white wine with steak. It was sublime. The Viré-Clessé AC, a Chardonnay from Burgundy, amplified the beef’s creamy ribbons of fat.
These collective experiences support what Brunson calls elevated farmhouse cuisine. “There is a fine line between great food and pretentious food,” he says. “We are trying to find that line.” To offer luxuries such as site-butchered pork, house-hung charcuterie, and a $60 steak without airs, Brunson’s astutely lists “Hellmann’s mayonnaise” (instead of aïoli), “baby pickles” (cornichons), and “pork butter” (rillettes). But there has been one glaring exception to this veil of modesty: the recurring public drama that seems to follow the very staff that makes Old Major sing.
Four weeks into the restaurant’s life, assistant manager Jim Soulier was let go. A few weeks later, his boss, Jonathan Greschler, was fired. The restaurant picked up former Fruition maître d’ Paul Attardi for a portion of Greschler’s duties but generated more negative headlines soon thereafter when Brunson and a cook found themselves in a late-night bar brawl. Most recently, Brunson and co-bar manager Ryan Conklin parted ways (Courtney Wilson now helms the bar program on her own), one of my favorite servers left, and there was talk at press time about more exits. Interestingly, the net effect has revealed itself not in the front of the house but the back. It’s as if Brunson’s role of manager-in-chief—worrying about his next hiring and firing, the restaurant’s related public relations strategy, and health insurance regulations—is distracting him. (The kitchen has been more consistent on nights when he’s been traveling.)
Despite these observations, however, I have found myself repeatedly suggesting Old Major to visiting food lovers. In recent weeks I’ve sent a national wine editor, a San Francisco–based travel writer, a New York City finance friend, and a Colorado native who was home between bicoastal restaurant jobs. My recurring recommendation is evidence that outstanding service, an informed beverage program, and a well-conceived menu are every bit as important as a restaurant’s food. The oversights I’ve experienced from the kitchen are entirely fixable. It’s my hope that Old Major’s team settles into a more mature routine so that the restaurant can grow to become the four- or even five-star experience that I’ve glimpsed.