Carbondale’s talented Mark Fischer tries to shake things up in Cherry Creek with Harman’s Eat & Drink.
In Aspen’s roaring fork valley, Mark Fischer is as revered as the area’s silver-screen residents. He isn’t just the owner of the most celebrated restaurants in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs (Town, the Pullman, Phat Thai, and the late Six89); this skillful chef is also credited with initiating the valley’s farm-to-table movement. He is an ardent philanthropist and hosts events that benefit Slow Food and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Fischer is a respected employer and expanded his restaurant empire in part to give some 130 teammates room to grow. And he’s an all-around nice guy with a keen sense of hospitality. (As if taking a page out of Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table—suggested reading for his staff—this is a man who once invited a puppy into his white-tablecloth dining room on a negative-temperature night.)
Even among Fischer’s mountain brethren, the chef could be called a risk taker. He races down Snowmass Mountain at Olympic speeds (until recently, without a helmet). He knows the ins and outs of seemingly every backcountry route within the shadows of Mt. Sopris. Despite repeated warnings that Glenwood Springs wouldn’t appreciate his food, Fischer forged ahead with the Pullman anyway—an elevated bistro concept that opening sous chef John Little calls “a gateway drug to the foodie world.” The gamble paid off: The Pullman is consistently packed with area regulars and has garnered national acclaim. But quite possibly the biggest risk of Fischer’s professional career was opening a 6,000-square-foot restaurant in Denver’s well-heeled Cherry Creek North.
Some 170 miles from the safety of his Roaring Fork Valley following, Cherry Creek is a neighborhood that has been dubbed a “restaurant wasteland” by food bloggers and industry insiders. Only one (Mici) of eight restaurants that opened in 2009 is still alive to celebrate its five-year anniversary. Yet Fischer bravely entered the scene in December 2011 with a second outpost of Carbondale’s popular Phat Thai. The Asian eatery faltered and closed in June 2013. Fischer blamed the space, which he said wasn’t intimate enough for the concept. With help from Little—whose resumé includes the Little Nell and Blackberry Farm—the persistent duo reopened as Harman’s Eat & Drink a few weeks later. Named for 19th-century Cherry Creek founder Edwin Harman, the restaurant is modeled after the Pullman and offers an all-Colorado beer list, in-vogue protein choices such as goat and rabbit, and details like Concord jam made from a friend’s backyard vines. In a neighborhood that loves its kale smoothies and chia seed pudding, the venture is a noble risk that has yet to pay off.
Chef de cuisine Little’s comfortable, tavernlike menu reads like a food lover’s dream. It’s all the things that have become cliché—local, seasonal, artisanal—but remain important. Little’s goat tostada (with tender white beans; firm, tangy, pickled red onions; a crisp chili-powder-dusted tortilla; and a cooling cumin crema) was memorable for its many textures and for its celebration of an underused meat. A salad of arugula, crispy-yet-soft roasted fresh artichoke hearts, sprouting sunflower shoots, and raw sliced sunchokes was yet another textural coup, even if the sunchoke was underseasoned. During a lunch, I loved the silky chicken liver mousse, served with a jam made from Palisade peaches, but tempura pickled green beans were over-steeped in steaming vinegar. During a dinner, my date and I agreed the citrus aïoli, which came with an otherwise laudable bowl of crispy Brussels sprouts, was oversweetened with agave.
Entrées were equally varied, demonstrating Little’s skill on the one hand and the young restaurant’s myriad hurdles on the other. A butternut squash agnolotti successfully featured the winter star two ways: mixed with mascarpone to fill thin pillows of house-made pasta and in roasted chunks resting alongside toasted hazelnuts, julienned apples, and fried sage in a velvety fennel purée. An oval gratin of macaroni and cheese loaded with fragrant Gruyère, fresh herbs, and the crunch of mustard
breadcrumbs was one of the best takes on the comfort classic I’ve ever had. And during a lunch visit, I was impressed by a sandwich of red wine–braised short rib and melted fontina set between two monster slices of house-baked bread. But a bowl of (one too many off-tasting) mussels was topped with French fries that needed a little more time in the fryer. A braised pork shoulder was served over dry spaetzle. During one brunch, the stewlike salsa on my chilaquiles was not at all “fresca.”
The beverage program at Harman’s is as thoughtful as the food, if equally inconsistent in execution. Bottles of red wine, all priced under $100, are listed before whites since they pair best with the menu. Market-inspired cocktails are balanced, and their clever names ignite an evening with interesting conversation. (The Baby Doe, a drink made with Colorado’s CapRock Gin, is labeled for a flamboyant woman of Colorado’s silver-mining era.) But Harman’s smart beverage program would be even stronger if it looked the part. A pale ale came in a stemless wine glass, and cocktails came in hefty water tumblers instead of sexy coupes or slender Collins glasses.