Somebody People

3 Stars

The Draw:
Ambitious yet relaxed vegan cooking and natural wines.
The Drawback:
Dining room is not as refined as the food; wine list could use a few bargains.
Noise Level:
Don’t Miss:
The Sunday Supper, mushroom toast, pastas, juice concoctions, desserts.

Somebody People offers Denver eaters proof that vegan cooking can be just as interesting as any other sort of restaurant food. It’s subtle about its veganism, though. You can be well along into a meal there without realizing what exactly you’re not eating. The menu, while obviously meat- and seafood-free, makes no noise about its dairy or egg restrictions. Servers offer no philosophy unless asked, and the website only promises a “vegetable-forward dining experience.” But I don’t think co-owners Tricia and Sam Maher are being coy. They and their crew simply set food on your table with a smile: Eat, enjoy.

One of the seven-month-old restaurant’s polestars is Vedge, the Philadelphia fine-dining establishment that reset my perspective—and countless others’—on plant-only cooking several years ago. There, vegan fare is inventive and satisfying on its own terms, with vibrant flavors born of scorching and smoking and caramelizing wrought from modernist techniques that produce dairylike mouthfeel and meatlike umami. At Somebody People, the nut-based tzatziki, for example, contains no yogurt, yet it is as good as any dairy iteration I’ve tasted. Its pesto has no Parmesan, but its version with arugula and basil managed the texture of a creamy emulsion and was intriguing in its relation to the classic cheesy sauce, like a knight’s move on a pesto-flavor chessboard. And you’d swear that Somebody People’s dense, deeply cocoa-bitter mousse with crunchy sea salt is loaded with heavy cream. You’d be wrong (it’s all about nut fats), and you wouldn’t care, it’s so good.

The first thing you may notice about Somebody People, however, is the decor. If the cozy front room, which offers a happy perch for brunch, coffee, or cocktails, is a fairly convincing nod to the lobby bars in tiny South Beach art deco hotels, the main dining room, watched over by a sea creature mural that looks as if I might have painted it, suggests a recreation center in the general vicinity of Boca Raton. The restaurant’s equally awkward name is derived from a David Bowie lyric; there’s a huge, spacey painting of him on one of the bathroom walls.

However, I come not as an art critic but as an eater—mostly—and a fine introduction to Somebody People’s culinary approach is its Sunday Supper, surely also the best deal in town: five courses for $25 per person (there’s also a $35 fixed-price menu on other nights as well as à la carte options). The Sunday we went, the room was packed and happy. Every dish shone. A kale salad with salt-roasted beets was notable mostly for the kale itself—supple and oiled as if for a body-building competition, chewy but not earthy or raw—and also the swipe of rich skordalia upon which the salad sat. Skordalia, typically a whip of almonds, potatoes or bread, garlic, and oil, is vegan to begin with, and this carb-free take on it was exemplary.

Sweet potatoes with caramelized onions and blood oranges. Photo by Sarah Boyum

For value, flavor, and texture, the king trumpet is the greatest farmed mushroom. At that supper, stem pieces of fungi the size of scallops were scored and browned and slow-cooked until they had a succulence between that of firm tofu and tender squid. Candy-sweet cipollini onions accompanied, and at the bottom of the bowl was a pool of green-leaf vegetable emulsion, a sort of ode to chlorophyll as if by Walt Whitman. Pickled mustard seeds added spiky high notes.

What followed was a hymn to starch, composed of creamy golden ratte potatoes and bits of celery root, some roasted until soft and others fried to a crisp, all offset by smoky harissa. The farinaceousness was beautiful with a sprightly 2017 Alberto Nanclares Paraje Mina Albariño ($82), which proved an intense, steely, virtuoso version of the Spanish white.

The wine list, which focuses on bio-dynamic and otherwise natural-leaning wines, is a diverse, if pricey, delight. When I was there, it featured a 100 percent Pinot Meunier Champagne from French producer Bérêche et Fils for $130; dear, yes, but fair for this cult sparkler. There was also a Chenin Blanc from a biodynamic producer in Saumur, France, called Château Yvonne ($90) and a Corsican red made by Domaine Giacometti ($63) from Nielluccio grapes grown on a vineyard so rugged that wine god Kermit Lynch terms its producers “heroic.” I want to go back and drink them all.

Somebody People owners Sam and Tricia Maher. Photo by Sarah Boyum

For those on the wagon, Somebody People offers frothy and refreshing non-alcoholic smashes made from fresh-pressed juice blends. There are also full-octane cocktails using the same, including a light-on-its-feet Greyhound with gin, Lillet Blanc, strawberry cordial, and grapefruit juice.

The last savory dish from that Sunday Supper was wonderfully understated: a small heap of hand-cut pappardelle with a silken, barely there mushroom sauce that our server confirmed was made by emulsifying starchy pasta water with olive oil, a technique adapted from dishes such as pasta alla griccia. The only other ingredients were specks of fresh oregano, paper-thin slices of garlic, and toasted pine nuts. It was as lovely and restrained a noodle dish as Denver has to offer.

Another à la carte dinner at Somebody People reinforced my impression of a generally surefooted kitchen, made all the more remarkable because the Mahers were transitioning to a new chef, Artan Burnayev, when I was there, with Sam often working the stoves himself. A dish of charred broccolini with smoky eggplant purée was done just right, rather like a Punjabi baingan bharta, accompanied by a golden raisin gremolata that had added crunch from crushed, toasted almonds. There was just one failure: a pasta with a simple but botched and almost flavorless tomato, garlic, and chile sauce.

For dessert, a reimagined pavlova hit all the notes of the classic Australia/New Zealand meringue-and-cream business but was pure modernist deconstruction: little blobs of tangy passion fruit mousse; big blobs of cashew cream whipped to a rich mousse consistency; tiny meringues made from “aquafaba” (garbanzo water, which behaves like egg white); slices of macerated strawberries; and a punchy dusting of freeze-dried cranberry powder.

The pavlova is a deconstructed masterpiece. Photo by Sarah Boyum

But the main satisfaction of Somebody People’s menu does not lie in fancy kitchen chemistry; this is not a restaurant built on faux-food trickery. For every deconstructed pavlova, there’s a simple treat like creamy grilled Castelvetrano olives in a warm, citrusy pool of olive oil. Or a plate of Mushies on Toast, in which scorched king trumpets and creminis sit on chewy bread from RiNo’s Reunion Bread Co with lightly pickled fennel, hazelnuts, microgreens, and an almond-based ricotta that, if not milky (sorry, only milk is really milky), was a rich, smooth accent to an otherwise hearty dish.

Somebody People is an endearing, quirky restaurant with promising culinary chops. It doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t need to. I imagine that many thoughtful bacon eaters struggle as I do to find a coherent moral defense for killing animals, an important issue in a country that maintains crazy-low meat prices through manifestly cruel industrial feedlot and slaughter methods. Nothing about dining at Somebody People demands such reflection, but when you can eat this well without harming any creatures, it does get you thinking.