12 at Madison

3.5 Stars

The Draw:
A modern but neighborly restaurant; contemporary American food and drink with global touches and lots of finesse
The Drawback:
A few dishes fail to wow like the rest
Don’t Miss:
Rabbit rillettes, lamb shoulder, radishes, calamari, the margarita

I wrote this review on the last day of a month spent in Tokyo, the best possible place for deep swimming in the pleasures of restaurant and bar culture. I won’t go into detail about the top-grade wagyu sukiyaki a friend treated me to, or the eel-on-rice restaurant that offered just three choices: big eel on rice, small eel on rice, and extra eel on rice. The quality, specificity, and conviviality of Japanese restaurants would break your mile-high heart. But here’s the thing: Being in Tokyo actually boosted my excitement about the booming food scene back home in Denver.

The modus operandi of Tokyo’s restaurants—make the customer comfortable and know exactly what you’re cooking—got me thinking about our city and all the happy, urgent, accelerating energy now devoted to advancing Denver’s food culture. The civilizing effect of each new, good restaurant, coffeeshop, bakery, bar, or market cannot be overstated. Each strengthens the fabric of urban life. And outstanding additions, like Jeff Osaka’s nine-month-old 12 at Madison, are becoming less rare.

To begin with the conviviality dimension: I encourage first-timers to eat at 12 at Madison’s long bar, either on the quiet yet friendly far end where the creative cocktails are made or in the busy middle, where you can watch the cooks at work in the narrow kitchen of this modern (but not overly cool) space. The staff is chatty, but not too chatty, on both sides of the counter.

On all three of my visits, owner Jeff Osaka was working the dining room—tidying up plates before handing them to servers or running food to tables himself, chatting with customers and staff—while chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady managed her crew about six feet away. The presence of both is important, and I hope it persists.

Counter Service You can dine at the bar or across from the cooks. Photo by Aaron Colussi

What this team is serving up is difficult to boil down. Osaka calls it seasonal, and I guess that’s broad enough to cover a small-plate strategy that includes a brioche toad in the hole, rabbit rillettes, hamachi sashimi with yuzu, English pea and vanilla soup, and a quinoa congee.

I won’t say the menu is coherent. It hops from the U.K. to Italy to Portugal to India to Mexico and then to some mid-Pacific refueling station. But the best dishes perch playful exploration atop solid technique, and almost every dish feels figured out. There is careful intent here, not wanton mixing and matching.

Osaka and McBrady are doing two interesting, if opposing, things. The first is transforming classic dishes into lovely expressions of their essences. The radicchio salad (now off the menu, but I hope they cycle it back), for example, was an elevated Caesar, its yolky dressing thick, creamy, garlicky—just right. Bits of cured egg, bright yellow, dotted the heap. Fried capers lent salt shock and a cut of sharp green flavor. Two “boquerones” (white anchovies) on the side did their meaty, pickle-y work, and there was lots of shaved pecorino. The bitterness of the radicchio enhanced this dish, as did its chewiness.

The quinoa congee was something else altogether—frisky, risky fusion, which is the second thing Osaka and McBrady are dishing up. It was not a pretty plate; quinoa grains with their little tails have a tadpole aspect, and they swam in a soupy mixture of ochre hue below dabs of curried carrot purée and splotches of black currants. Roasted cauliflower was piled on top. But it tasted really good. The quinoa had a subtle al dente crunch. The soupy stuff and the curry and the currants seemed to be exchanging flavor messages between Mumbai, India, and Jerusalem or Beirut. I would have enjoyed a bit more char on the cauliflower, but that’s a minor complaint. This was not a dish that felt familiar, but neither did it seem lost in translation.

Ditto a bowl of “calamari and Israeli cous cous fricassee, crispy guanciale, and parsley-garlic sauce.” Like the congee, it was brazenly inelegant: An armada of crispy pork jowl bacon rafts floated on a lurid green sea, with squid rings and tentacles rising to the top like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. But again, it’s a brilliant dish. The parsley was vibrant, and the sauce had a rounded, buttery aspect that made me want to drink from the bowl. The squid was perfectly tender, and with the smoky bacon it became something delicious and rustic—and difficult to pin down.

I struggle to explain why dishes like that work, but that’s one of the many appeals of 12 at Madison—just go with it. Another is the finesse of plates like braised lamb shoulder on a socca pancake. I often find Colorado lamb a bit weak-kneed in flavor, but this little heap of juicy meat reminded me, in the best way, of the depth of New Zealand or Arabic mutton. The pancake, made with chickpea flour, was like a lacy-edged buckwheat crêpe. Cucumbers, yogurt, and dusty cumin spice hinted of a Middle Eastern souk.

The rabbit rillettes—two succulent pucks of crisp-edged minced meat with a salad of butter lettuce, sautéed onions, and asparagus—were also delicious. Here, as with the hamachi appetizer and several other dishes, the plating was uptown elegant. On the side was a spoonful of pickled mustard seeds and some sliced cornichons. You break up the rillettes and stuff meat and bits of all the rest into the greens to eat it like a Chinese lettuce wrap. As you do, several varieties of crunch mingle with richness and tang. It’s perfect.

This level of creativity is not limited to the kitchen. The bar produces fine cocktails, including the (sadly no longer available) Fizz, one of my favorite drinks of the past year. Rather than torment you with a description, I’ll suggest ordering the excellent riff on the margarita, cleverly enriched by the creaminess of avocado that’s shaken into the drink. As there must be in a current Denver restaurant, 12 at Madison has a thoughtful list of beers, too, but I highly recommend a cider instead: the Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché de Normandie (if it’s still on the menu)—a gorgeous drink with a whiff of European barnyard funk.

Cool As Custard 12 at Madison’s coconut panna cotta is a creamy treat. Photo by Aaron Colussi

The thread that holds everything together is Osaka’s playfulness. He’s a busy man—what with his ever-expanding ramen and sushi joints, Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama, and a role in the Denver Central Market’s success—and that experience plays out here as a light touch girded by veteran technique. There are signs of mastery at work (a plate of roasted root vegetables with a browned compound butter) and gestures of well-considered fun (the aforementioned toad in the hole, which marries a frisée salad with the pleasures of an egg cooked into a thick slab of toasty brioche). The worst I can say is that a few dishes didn’t clear the high bar set by the rest, including a rather ordinary baby lettuce salad, some butter-drenched Parker rolls that were a bit dense, and a plate of grilled carrots that was good, not great.

For dessert, I had to try the panna cotta because I’m determined to find a decent version in town. Most I’ve sampled lately have been overset, lacking the jelly-wobble that is the point of this sweet. Osaka’s version—gilded with burnt sugar, toasted coconut, and pink peppercorns—was actually under-gelled, more like clotted cream, but nonetheless better than most. I also liked the poached apple cake, which resembled an English steamed pudding, ringed by salty caramel sauce and finished with a spoonful of cardamom ice cream.

My delightful meals tell me Osaka has a winner here. 12 at Madison is not just a fine restaurant, but one that points the way forward. It’s modest in size, neighborly in warmth, ambitious in scope, and playful but disciplined. This is where Denver is headed, folks, so eat up.