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A view of Morin’s dining room from the mezzanine. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Does Morin Deliver on Its Promise of Serving “Super Dope French Food”?

The stylish LoDo restaurant has everything it needs to spark a French cooking revival in Denver, but inconsistency mars what is otherwise an exciting and modern dining experience.

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Morin

2.5 Stars

The Draw:
French dishes with a contemporary touch, plus a deep list of natural wines.
The Drawback:
Uneven execution.
Noise Level:
Modest.
Don’t Miss:
Chef’s tasting menu, tartare, fresh fish entrées, potato beignets, desserts, wines.

The venerable Wazee Supper Club on 15th Street in LoDo was transformed last fall, after a substantial makeover, into Morin, a French restaurant from prolific restaurateur Juan Padro and chef-partner Max MacKissock. They’re part of the team behind LoHi’s Señor Bear and Bar Dough, both of which I like a lot. But unlike Pan-Latin Bear and jazzy Italian café Dough, Morin isn’t an easy restaurant to decode.

To start, Morin’s dining room avoids Gallic gestures. My first impression put it more in the company of other bar-and-grill-ish places that hustle for foot traffic in the Union Station area: There are high windows, leather banquets, the inevitable brick and wood accents with an open ceiling and black ductwork, and a groovy soundtrack. Apparently, the huge sculptural object suspended above the racetrack-shaped bar represents an inverted Mont Blanc in the French Alps, though to me, from below, it resembles the ribs of a sunken galleon or perhaps a Brobdingnagian whalebone girdle.

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Which means you can walk into Morin without a clue that you’ll be eating “super dope French food,” as its Instagram bio promises, that “plays at the intersection of contemporary cuisine and traditional French technique,” as its website promises. Crack the menu, though, and the dishes are resolutely titled in French: “poulet au vin jaune,” “pain au lait,” “carrot salade” (well, that last one is Franglais). The drift is toward retooled country comfort rather than Michelin-star tweezered fussification (thank goodness), so, at Morin, you’ll be eating beef marrow custard, radishes with butter, and potatoes au gratin. Caviar, foie gras, and truffles are offered as supplements, like upgrades on a Peugeot. Modern notes are sounded but not fetishized—there’s egg yolk confit and whey caramel—and there are occasional international inflections, such as roti with lamb tartare.

Halibut with yuzu. Photo by Sarah Boyum

One recent midweek evening, I sat at the bar, gobsmacked by how good Morin’s six-course, $67 chef’s tasting menu was turning out to be. A small rectangle of halibut was beautifully cooked and paired with sweet fresh peas, a buttery pea sauce tinged with yuzu, and thin dimes of radish. The bartender, who was also my server, had been right about a glass of 2017 Singulier, a Riesling-Pinot Gris blend from a small Alsatian winery called Vignoble du Rêveur, listed at a hefty $22. It’s one of those intersectionalist wines that thrill the vin naturel crowd: orange-hued with off-piste, oxidized flavors almost like a Normandy cider, produced by an experimental biodynamic winemaker who probably howls at the full moon when the vines begin to flower. It was a perfect match for the fish.

As the meal progressed, every course but one proved top-notch. An earlier puck of veal tartare was a small masterpiece: bits of meat diced to just the right size and bound with a subtle green peach cream, topped by acidic slices of pickled green strawberries and served with buttered toast. Another dish featured a single carrot, roasted to candy sweetness and an almost fudgy texture, dotted with chopped peanuts and drizzled with a sharp Vietnamese fish sauce dressing whose counterpoint notes were as clear as the ting-ting of a glockenspiel.

After the halibut came “boeuf molokhia.” Google informed me that molokhia is an Egyptian leafy green known for its okralike, mucilaginous texture; Morin presented it, deliciously, with saag-esque spice and consistency and bone marrow richness. The meat was a ropy, rare spinalis steak napped by a syrupy Bordelaise sauce that was not marred by too much salt, as reduction sauces too often are.

The penultimate course was the only misstep, in which a too-large scoop of fromage blanc sat on a pool of melted butter that gave the soft cheese an odd movie-theater-popcorn flavor. But the kitchen, led by chef de cuisine Charles Mathews, recovered with a lovely dessert of thick mango pudding and coconut sorbet.

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Morin’s veal tartare with buttered toast. Photo by Sarah Boyum

That tasting menu proved Morin could deliver on its culinary promises. But it took me three meals to get there. An earlier lunch and dinner, both chosen à la carte, were uneven. For every crudo of razor clams—ocean-fresh and brightened with yuzu and pickled shallots—there was a disappointment, like the pain au lait, a sweetbreads-filled take on the super-trendy Japanese “katsu sando”; the Morin version was custard-y with no requisite crunch. And while I praise Morin’s lobster “consummé” (though not its spelling) for shell-flavored purity, the pseudo-shrimp-toast accompaniment was pretty but rather bland.

I liked a simple, zingy salad with frisée, Little Gem lettuce, and preserved lemon but found a celery root salad with truffle and parsley “pistou” (a pine-nut-free cousin of pesto) lacking in truffle aroma or pistou vibrancy. Potato beignets were fantastic—soft little mashed potato cakes with a tangy black garlic vinaigrette—but a main course of lamb chops with a fava bean ragout was marred by spongy meat.

The aforementioned “poulet au vin jaune,” traditionally a country dish from the Jura region featuring chicken, morels, cream, and white wine, was made with great cooking-academy effort: The chicken skin was cooked separately; the meat was arranged into a multilayer terrine; and both were served with a winey sabayon sauce and a woodsy, eggy mushroom hash. Yet the technique heavy plate fell short of the classic it’s modeled after, ending up more complicated than delicious. Dessert returned to form with a lovely mandarin posset with sticks of meringue and a shortbread crumble, but at lunch (which has been discontinued, so I won’t go into detail), similar wobbling occurred.

Morin’s coconut sorbet and mango pudding dessert. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Morin’s beverage program keeps pace with that tasting menu. Managed by McLain Hedges and Mary Allison Wright of RiNo Yacht Club fame, its cocktails lean on French ingredients, making use of cognac, Pineau des Charentes (a cognac-esque apéritif), cider, and the like. The Picon Punch, for example, combines “pommeau” (a blend of Calvados and fortified apple juice), cognac, and lemon juice with house-made Picon-style orange bitters to produce an intriguing flavor rather like the San Pellegrino soda Chinotto. Alternatively, try the Provence mocktail from Morin’s “sans” list; the refreshing fizz reminded me of a Vietnamese salty lemon soda.

The soul of the program, though, is a diverse collection of globally sourced, mostly natural wines. The list is strewn with runelike symbols that told me a $78 bottle of 2017 Táganan, a white wine from Canary Islands producer Envínate, was “crystalline, rustic, and eccentric,” which made it sound like an aging hippie. I found the wine fully fruity but dry, tangy, almost viscous, and funky on the nose. In other words: good and interesting.

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In the end, Morin is a tale of two restaurants. One—exemplified by the tasting menu, bar service, and beverage list—is ambitious, focused, friendly, and rewarding. The other, based on à la carte meals and table service that was personable but not crisp, feels uncertain about the point it’s trying to make about French cooking. Such food in cities like New York has undergone a recent renaissance, with places like Le Coucou and Frenchette confirming the appeal of traditional techniques paired with modern exuberance. It would be nice if Morin sparked a similar revival here. In spirit, it’s all there; in consistency of execution, pas encore.

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