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Cavatelli with peas, guanciale, and a soft poached egg. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Restaurant Review: Is Fruition a Pandemic-Defying Wonder?

With a new chef in the kitchen, the farm-to-table pioneer impresses and delights.

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Fruition

3.5 Stars

The Draw:
Fun, inventive, precise seasonal cooking and a relaxed neighborhood vibe
The Drawback:
Pricey wine list; small space with limited outdoor seating
Noise Level:
Low
Don’t Miss:
Small bites, perfectly cooked fish and meats, rustic pastas with impeccable vegetables

Fruition was the last restaurant I visited in March, just days before the spring coronavirus dining shutdown. The venerable farm-to-table pioneer, which local star chef Alex Seidel opened between Capitol Hill and Cherry Creek in 2007, had hired Jon Lavelle (formerly of the Way Back) as its chef de cuisine the summer before, and I wanted to see how he was doing. The two meals I had then confirmed that Lavelle was busy elevating Fruition to the top ranks of serious Denver kitchens. I tasted almost everything on the concise menu, and many dishes were delightful and surprising. The pork chop was the best I’ve had in years. It was going to be a celebratory review.

Then: quarantine. Fruition transitioned to a takeout model. When it reopened in mid-June, I returned with the intention of writing an update—though probably not a review—willing to cut slack to any restaurant struggling to regain its footing.

But happily, this is a review. I report with no small amount of glee that in the first week of its reopening, Fruition was so polished, so confident in its service, and so fully back in fighting stance, that it earns the huzzahs I planned on dishing out before the shutdown. The experience of dining there now is surprisingly congruent with pre-pandemic meals: impeccable ingredients, vivid flavors, lovely presentation, spirited service, and compelling wines.

I visited for the third time on a hot, blustery night in June. Diners at Fruition’s new outdoor tables leaned into strong winds and peered up anxiously at speeding clouds. But we were inside, at our socially distanced table (one of five), enjoying starters, which included little green pancakes sprinkled with sesame seeds and zigzagged with tahini sauce. The green hue derived from a mash of nettles (more flavorful than spinach but in the same zip code), barely held together by a light batter, then fried until crisp: tender, tangy essence of garden.

We also dined on a bowl of roasted fava beans in their pods, lightly oiled and dotted with crunchy salt, the beans so young you could eat them whole. It was the sort of summery stuff that matched perfectly with the bright zing of Cruse Wine Co.’s sparkling Valdiguié from California, made from a trendy red grape and recommended by Fruition’s general manager and presiding wine geek Andrew Schlapinski.

Shrimp and grits at Fruition. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Lavelle’s cooking traces a canny line between rustic simplicity and haute technique. Vegetables and herbs are impeccable, as befits a restaurant that sources ingredients, in part, from its own farm. Presentation is careful but not overly fussy. Sauces are crafted with precision. Fruition’s menu, divided into bites, midsize plates, and entrées, is often cryptic, but the extra details shared by cheerful servers provide insight for the choices that lie ahead.

A small bite listed as “Shrimp: Old Bay, horseradish, lemon,” for example, turned out to be a masterpiece of whimsy, with chopped crustacean meat rolled inside a magically supple sheet of pressed shrimp, the whole a sea-sweet roulade capped with horseradish-infused cherry tomato preserves and a flag of celery leaf. It was so joy-inducing that we ordered another. At $7, I can confidently say that most three-star joints in New York City or Los Angeles would charge three times as much for the same treat.

“Tater tot,” meanwhile, was another tiny beauty consisting of three little cuboids of riced potato, fried to a deep brown and crisp about the edges, sitting on a swipe of crème fraîche and generous spoonfuls of popping trout roe. They were to standard tots what a Chris Craft cigarette boat is to an old rowboat, yet all the Platonic tot-ness was there, too.

The wedge salad was a midsize plate that spectacularly over-delivered, pairing charred escarole with green-garlic ranch dressing, fried cremini mushrooms, tart pickled cauliflower, and homemade chile crunch.

On and on the meal went, transporting us through confident, bright flavors, carefully cooked ingredients, and new takes on familiar melodies. A branzino entrée was perfect, with the fillet sporting the sort of crispy skin I can never manage to achieve at home and the flesh done to a moist turn, sitting on a pool of vermillion, shrimp-flavored sauce américaine and festooned with a lemony succulent herb called ice lettuce. Contrast that fanciness with a comforting bowl of cavatelli with green peas, ramps, slivers of asparagus, a poached egg, and guanciale; the fatty pig-jowl bacon cost a $3 premium and was well worth adding for all its porky funk.

Chef de cuisine Jon Lavelle and chef-proprietor Alex Seidel. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Lavelle is eclectic in his choice of flavors and ingredients, using toasty Sardinian fregola pasta in a spicy, brothy bowl of redfish and octopus or XO sauce to infuse lamb tartare that is then smothered with a “crispy mix” of rice puffs, chicharrones, and fried tendon. There is playfulness afoot, too, as in a dish of “hot sweetbreads” that turned out to be a mini chicken-fried offal slider on a Hawaiian-style sweet bun with pickled mustard seeds for acid and aioli for richness. And no matter the season, Lavelle shows a delicate hand. The ’nduja that flavored a springtime bowl of clams and creamy, fat white beans did so subtly, without too much spice or salt.

Such food demands distinctive wines. The list at Fruition features a good number of bottles made from lesser-known grapes in styles that emphasize varietal flavor rather than heavy oak or alcohol. Schlapinski, a debonaire sommelier who has worked in the vineyards of Sonoma, balances the restaurant’s list between California and Europe. He’s a listener as well as a talker, so share your tastes and budget and let him guide you. The aforementioned Cruse sparkler ($78) was almost piercingly dry, with fine bubbles, generous fruit, and a faint pink hue. A 2014 sparkling Vouvray from Domaine Huet ($68), a winery in the Loire Valley, layered hints of sherry bitterness on top of perfumed, peachy Chenin Blanc fruit.

Two Pinot Noirs at another dinner, one German and one from the Sonoma coast, differed in concentration but, as promised, were both light on their feet and showed proper Pinot earthiness. One caveat: At a restaurant where you can dine on three à la carte dishes for a reasonable $50 (or a five-course set menu for $55), the wine list could use a few more bargains; I counted only a handful of bottles costing south of $60. There are several options by the glass in the low teens, though, and a lot of compelling beers and ciders. Cocktails deserve a look as well. One called My Sherry Amour, with fino sherry, pomegranate, and orange bitters, had a salty, citrusy edge that made for a perfect aperitif.

If you leave room, Fruition’s desserts (along with those soft Hawaiian rolls) are made at Seidel’s wholesale bakery, Füdmill, and tend toward elevated classics, such as twists on lemon meringue pie and red velvet cake. The former arrived as a long bar on a graham cracker crust with a tart, lemon-oil-infused filling and an extravagant topping of scorched meringue and blueberry compote.

One might ask how Lavelle, Schlapinski, and crew manage such quality in the middle of COVID-19 chaos, but the explanation is buried in the attention to detail, training, and creativity that marks Denver’s best restaurants. Truth is, that’s their business. Ours is to dig deep, if possible, even when wallets are thinner, and thank them for their service.

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