- The Draw:
- Cheerful bistro space serving farm-to-table food and well-chosen wines.
- The Drawback:
- Some dishes are beautifully realized, others are pedestrian.
- Noise Level:
- Don’t Miss:
- Soufflé, vegetable plate, seafood appetizers, pork and chicken entrées.
The cooks in the open kitchen and the servers on the floor at 22-year-old Potager have a call-and-response routine that counts down the availability of limited-production dishes. “Three peach crumbles!” shouts a cook. “Three peach crumbles!” reply the servers. The theatrics of this fall somewhere between the “oorahs” of Parris Island Marine recruits and a Bud Light “dilly dilly” ad. It’s just one of several endearing Potager quirks that made me like it even more than some other local restaurants that are arguably better.
Potager is a Denver farm-to-table pioneer, but I have to confess that I hadn’t eaten there before it was sold by its longtime chef-owner, Teri Rippeto, this past April. Paul and Eileen Warthen—who were and remain Potager’s executive chef and beverage director, respectively (Eileen is also now director of operations)—are the new owners, along with Nik Brand, Potager’s chef de cuisine. (Paul grew up on a large Maryland dairy farm and has managed the culinary side of an 800-acre organic farm in the Shenandoah Valley, too, so he has serious seasonal cooking cred.) The changeover made me curious, especially given the outsize affection some of my friends have for Potager, who speak about it as one does of a beloved, reliably entertaining old movie.
So, one late-summer night, my wife and I went. Our timing meant that Potager’s overgrown, woody, planter-strewn, vine-festooned back patio was open; we scored the elevated table at the rear, which had a pergola vibe that felt tuned for coziness by a hobbit. We were put in an excellent mood by a server who exclaimed with delight that the Jura wine we ordered was her absolute favorite. And wow, what a drink: Domaine Pêcheur Côtes du Jura Poulsard makes a brilliant case for the virtues of red wine in the lightest style—almost rosé-pale in hue, zingy, verging on tart, slightly bitter, chock-full of fruit, and utterly refreshing. Potager’s wine list, with 15 options available by the glass and a bottle selection that shows attention to lesser-known terroirs and off-piste grapes, offers many pleasures like that one.
With the wine, we shared four small plates: a charred corn and tomato tostada; zucchini bread falafel; a salad of compressed melon and tomato; and a sweet corn cake with blue crab. Only the corn cake fully matched the wine in excellence, with its buttery-crisp edges, airy interior, fresh corn flavor, and topping of sweet crab and fresh oregano. The melon salad was fine with tomatoes, cucumbers, lime, mint, and a dusting of dried Basque red peppers, but the main component of chile-compressed melon showed little signs of compression or chile heat. The tostada had a shattering shell, but the rest was ho-hum and lacked the promised char. And the zucchini-bread falafel suggested that maybe falafel shouldn’t be made from zucchini bread batter after all; the little balls were too chewy and served on a honeyed, milky slurry as if for brunch.
Lest it sound as if Potager’s food often leans to disappointing, there were two standouts on another night. One, with the tongue-twisting name “gargouillou,” was a riff on a dish invented many years ago by French chef Michel Bras, who is reported to have arranged as many as 60 vegetable and flower ingredients into a gorgeous rebuke of the obligatory, boring vegetarian plates of yore. Potager’s version was less fancy but still multifaceted. There was a “soil” made out of dried kalamata olives; an avocado cream; a tiny, succulent fried Japanese eggplant; a miniature braised carrot with a long mane of chewy greens attached; a turnip shaved into supple slices; and so on. Potager’s menu listed 16 farm suppliers on that night, and I would have believed it if I’d been told that all of them were represented on that splendid plate.
Equally tasty was the restaurant’s signature appetizer, a twice-baked soufflé with fennel and chèvre. Twice-baking is a way of stabilizing a deflation-prone dish, and I prefer Potager’s less cloudy, less eggy result, which is more like a flan, properly balancing salty notes of goat cheese against licorice hints from fennel and sitting on a verdant pool of cucumber-dill sauce. The one misfire on the plate was a topping of pickled cherries—there was no need for the electric-shock contrast of vinegary fruit on a soufflé so beautifully subtle and creamy.
But that’s another idiosyncrasy about Potager and its globe-trotting menu: In some dishes, there’s a relaxed sophistication suggesting a fine French bistro (perhaps one in the Bay Area, because Potager’s slightly chaotic main room has a funky Berkeley-circa-1990 feel). In other dishes—for example, the Mexican street pizza with crumbled chorizo and Cotija cheese, which was big and crisp but rather dry—you get a good-enough feel, as in, good enough for an after-work sort of place that’s not very food-focused.
Yet at its best, that’s not the sort of place Potager really is; there is deep skill in the kitchen. For instance, a pork chop on polenta with collard greens and a sticky pan sauce was delicious: The polenta, reminiscent of grits, was as creamy as any I’ve had in Charleston or Nashville; the greens were chewy, with a masterful hit of vinegar. (The sole letdown was the chop itself, which was cooked properly but lacking in fat.) Another entrée, with chicken thighs and a ranch-dressed summer salad, was similarly satisfying.
My third meal at Potager summed it all up: oddities, misfires, home runs, and the perpetually charming vibe. It was a Saturday night and the place was full, but we snuck into the last two seats at the bar. The restaurant had a relaxed buzz about it. From the bartender to the servers to the chanting cooks to the customers, it truly felt like the cheeriest restaurant in Denver.
We opened our meal with a citrusy, dry German Gilabert rosat cava, glad for once to have no cocktails to review (there are no cocktails at Potager—just wines, beers, and homemade shrubs and sodas). We ordered the soufflé again because I’d heard the Potager kitchen can be inconsistent, but it was even better than before, sitting on a mild tomato-peach emulsion and topped with a peach salsa far more gentle than the acidic cherries had been. We ate roasted potatoes with a gloppy mixture of sour cream and onions that was meant to evoke chip dip, but the potatoes, while nicely creamy, were too large, and the cream itself lacked intensity, putting us back in that good-enough zone. When the “dilly dilly” routine foretold the imminent disappearance of peach cobbler for dessert, we put in a “please hold” order; the cobbler was nice, if not a star. But then an excellent second dessert of a decadent chocolate peanut butter “candy bar” with cherry jam and soft whipped cream proved once again that the kitchen has finesse.
We chatted with the bar server about the dessert wine list; I had a glass of Vin Santo, wishing only for a crunchy biscotto to dunk in it. Then we departed, confident that if we hadn’t eaten the best food in town that night, we had certainly dined in one of the happier places—a very fine thing in its own right.