2 Stars

THE DRAW: Good cocktails from friendly bartenders, a pleasant room, and ambitious cooking

THE DRAWBACK: Overly festooned plates and food combinations that don’t always work

DON’T MISS: Brunch-time potato pancakes, lunchtime sandwiches, dinnertime steaks, terrines, and vegetarian plates

DETAILS: Small plates $10 to $14; entrées $18 to $28. Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday brunch, 9:30 a.m

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Towns like Golden that exist in the orbit of hot food cities like Denver have a gravitational problem: The odds of pulling customers out of the city are low, and the chance of losing customers to a night out in Denver are high. And getting locals to change their lunch habits is, as a bartender at Abejas told me on a recent visit, “especially hard because people have their favorite places and like to stick by them.” The truth of that statement hit me not long afterward, when I met a couple of corporate chaps in their offices a few miles from downtown Golden. They had vaguely heard of Abejas since last August’s opening but hadn’t yet bothered to visit.

To banish any skepticism, let me assure you this isn’t one of those restaurants where a chef, in thrall to the high cuisine of a neighboring city, serves up the farce and tragedy of unrealized ambition—it’s not, in other words, a Waiting for Guffman restaurant. The owners, Brandon Bortles and Barry Dobesh, worked in New York City, and executive chef Nicholas Ames cooked at Spuntino in Denver. Abejas would be taken seriously in Highland or Boulder, and it elevates the dining scene in Golden considerably.

To begin with, the room is a pleasure, combining reclaimed barn wood, climbing ropes, air plants, and botanical prints into a whole that is in no way wacky. It’s warm, modern, cozy, and smart—as if it were decorated by someone from a Western offshoot of Anthropologie. That vibe continues at the bar, which, if you’re a party of one or two, I suggest you approach immediately. Tao Stelmachowicz, one of three bartenders (she told me her hippie parents’ other name choice was Peaches, so we’re happy for her), radiates the relaxed, friendly confidence you want at a neighborhood joint. There are several memorable drinks on the list, most notably the Left at Albuquerque, one of the best cocktails I’ve tasted this year. Its flavors fuse so well that you’d be hard-pressed to figure out that carrot syrup, rum, lemon juice, and egg whites are in the mix. When my wife asked for her Damson gin fizz to be made a bit tarter than usual, this was not received as an offense against the code of mixology. The drink was simply made to order and subsequently drunk with joy.

Bartender Tao Stelmachowicz mixes one of Abejas’ many “memorable drinks”

With a drink in hand, you can now contemplate the dinner menu. It’s not overly long—one page, eight small plates, eight entrées—but a quick read tells you that Ames is going for it, not only for Coorsville, but for the whole region. Duck is served with forbidden black rice and pistachio butter; lamb with salsify milk curds and lentil sprout granola; foie gras with gingerbread crust and huckleberries.

I have to admit I was apprehensive after reading Abejas’ ingredient combinations because they hinted at trouble: Some American chefs have lately been pushing the farm-to-table thing into baroque territory. I had just returned from eating at a well-regarded Austin restaurant called Foreign & Domestic, where I had basil-fed snails and local quail with flaps of gelatinous mushroom, rutabaga, barley, and a cloying béarnaise. The dish, oily as a late-night TV preacher, spoke in tongues. It turns out, however, that many of Ames’ combinations at Abejas are less weird than confusing. But before I get to that, I’m pleased to say the restaurant serves some very good food, especially when the chef points in a straightforward bistro direction.

purple potatoes and sweet potatoes
Peruvian purple potatoes and sweet potatoes lend color to Ames’ salt cod and celery root appetizer

His pig trotter and sweet potato terrine arrived as a slice of chewy, piggy pâté, unusually dark and flecked with sweet potato, and was absolutely delicious. It only required crusty bread and a vigorous mustard to thoroughly succeed; why I failed to ask for them is a mystery. My dining companion judged the flat iron steak—fanned over charred broccoli rabe and served with a rich bordelaise sauce—perfectly cooked. At brunch one day, potato pancakes were crisp, light, potato-y, and not greasy, served with crème fraîche and a cranberry mostarda. Sausage gravy that pooled around cheddar biscuits had the milky smoothness of a Southern mama’s kitchen. At a lunch, the tuna melt signaled simple diner intentions: a big wallop of tuna salad and crunchy slaw between two slices of toasted, supermarket-sourced marbled rye bread. Like the pâté, the sandwich lacked something tangy to be fully self-actualized, so this time I asked for, and received, a nice ramekin of house-made mustard.

The seared scallops

When Ames gets fancy, he shows he can combine interesting ideas with careful execution. Black cod came with flash-fried kale stems, which were small lances of crunchy, slightly tannic “essence of kale.” Little pearls of persimmon with a foie gras torchon were carved from perfectly ripe fruit—tangy, not mushy, and just right with the liver. A brilliant vegetarian plate called Winter Squash and Pear Dauphine (I think it should have been “dauphinois”) was a square of gratin-style veggies, served with Brussels sprouts, cipollini onions, pine nuts, and a white wine reduction—a complex, savory masterpiece.

The problems begin when the chef fusses. Ames favors fruits and nuts, purées, and crumbles, and they pop up everywhere, like eccentrically dressed guests who’ve shown up at the wrong party. If gingerbread bits are going to dust a torchon of foie gras, as they did on that dinner appetizer, it shouldn’t lead the dish in a conga line into dessert territory. (The liver itself was oddly bland, as if cut with Crisco.) Meanwhile, the dabs of nutty and fruity purées that came with my pig trotter terrine seemed to have wandered in from a first-year culinary arts course.

There can be basic errors, too. All the bitterness had been cooked out of the braised endive (walnut-crusted, of course), which was served with a heap of king crab. Bitterness is the point of braised endive, which otherwise consists of watery gray matter; the dish needed a pungent kick. A deboned lamb shank was a tough—rather than sticky-gelatinous—knuckle of meat, not to mention oversalted and served with beluga lentils that may or may not have been intentionally left crunchy. A pork T-bone, which I was assured came from a pig of good local standing that was broken down in the kitchen, was overly chewy. Similarly, my slow-roasted black cod, despite the intrigue of those kale stems, curiously lacked the fish’s signature fatty, smoky succulence.

Abejas’ vibe—friendly, casual, and rustic—fits Golden

And yet…the cheery ambience of Abejas can make one overlook a lot of cooking flaws, starting with that warm reception at the bar. The casual vibe works especially well at brunch (egg and potato combinations, a tasty duck confit hash) and lunch (porchetta sandwich, house-made sausages, striped bass with an heirloom bean ragout). It extends to the main dining area come dinnertime, too, though our server for two meals was an over-explainer who not only described each dish at length while we were ordering, but again when the dishes were delivered. I don’t mind the explaining instinct—some diners appreciate a tour of the menu, especially when there are salsify milk curds to ponder—but it needs to come with a good eye for guests who squirm.

There’s a robust beer list, an admirable 18 wines by the glass, and a couple of nonalcoholic coolers I recommend, especially the fiercely gingery blackberry-ginger version. Desserts are hit and miss: A lovely carrot-walnut cake was exactly the right size, with luscious crème fraîche frosting and cinnamon ice cream, while a fig-and-honey semifreddo was altogether too freddo and lacked much figgy-ness.

As a Coloradan living in the gravitational field of both Denver and Boulder, I like Golden’s un-Boulderness. I pass through town often on the way to other places, and I intend to set aside extra time for another stop at Abejas to try whatever is new on the cocktail list and see if the chef has calmed down a bit and tended the rough edges. I’ll lean toward the bistro-style dishes—the ones that promise the least amount of fussiness. I’d advise Denverites to do the same.