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- The Draw:
- Pan-Mediterranean tapas in a buzzy room with fabulous views
- The Drawback:
- A few dishes slide into fussiness
- Don’t Miss:
- Patatas bravas, goat cheese croquettes, shrimp and calamari a la plancha, shawarma lamb ribs, cauliflower yufka, sausage paella
When you arrive at El Five, a slow elevator takes you up five floors to a restaurant that only the people at Edible Beats have the chutzpah to pull off. (Edible Beats is, of course, the restaurant group behind the bonkers “gastro-brothel” Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox as well as Root Down, Linger, and Vital Root.) And whatever Pan-Mediterranean mashup cuisine El Five’s “Tapas de Gibraltar” might be—I’ll get to that—chef/impresario Justin Cucci and his gang serve it up in a seven-month-old penthouse space festooned with blown-up vintage Egyptian movie posters. There are mirrors, tiles, and elaborate steel sculptural shelving along with dark banquettes and gleaming wood counters and tables, all wrapped up in a self-described “Moroccan aesthetic.” If Edible Beats dressed Santa Claus this year, he’d be down your chimney in Jean-Paul Gaultier boots, a vermilion smoking jacket, and a Turkish fez.
I’ll concede that El Five’s glitz does remind me of certain over-the-top establishments I visited in Casablanca many years ago—vaguely. But it’s also situated in a typical LoHi building: all glass, concrete, and rectangular effects. Before even a bite of food is served, this is the sort of restaurant that would give a dour student of cultural appropriation theory enough material for a doctoral dissertation. But you may as well accuse the Venetian casino in Las Vegas of cultural appropriation. El Five is camp, not theft. Cucci says that he likes his restaurants to have “intentional misalignment,” whatever that means, but the real theme at El Five is, “Party on, señor!”
Here’s the thing: I like Las Vegas, and I like El Five. This past summer, its high-top terrace perches, backed by a lively bar and facing the sunset-illuminated city, made my wife and I, walk-ins, feel like we’d scored the catbird seat. We sipped a bright Greek Moschofilero Boutari white wine and nibbled creamy goat cheese croquettes, which were delicate globes of fried cheese served with a swipe of spicy honey and bits of crisp bacon. It was a moment of tapas satisfaction: small and savory food, whetting one’s appetite for the next thing. Ditto the patatas bravas, round pucks of crisp potato with garlic aïoli. The addition of a sherry gastrique and shards of chorizo elevated that dish to semi-fancy without losing the simple, salty, perfectly oily plot.
Both of those dishes came from the first of three categories of tapas—Traditional, New School, and Middle Eastern—that form the heart of El Five’s menu. That sounds clear enough, but the categories prove maddeningly porous. For example, the Traditional list includes chicken kofta. I’d have thought that “albóndigas,” those ubiquitous Spanish meatballs usually made from beef and pork, would be featured there, rather than bland, dry balls of poultry skewered with peach slices, of all things. I’ve eaten kofta a zillion times, and this had none of the spice-market richness one finds everywhere from Turkey to India. And the Diablos, also a Traditional item, although tasty, were basically a gussied-up version of devils on horseback, combining the flavors of Serrano ham, prunes, blue cheese, piquillo peppers, and feta. Isn’t that a British dish? (Gibraltar is British, I suppose. But I suspect that the whole Tapas de Gibraltar thing is a way of avoiding the overused Pan-Mediterranean label.)
From the New School section, the standout was the shrimp and calamari cooked on a “plancha,” or flattop grill. Turns out tender, charred squid, small shrimp, and rich gigante beans are a marriage made in heaven; there were also sugar snap peas, papery dried pork, and pil pil, a Basque sauce of olive oil, garlic, and chile. It worked, much better than another New School offering of ash-roasted carrots. The problem there, aside from a confusion of seed granola, fennel fronds, and dabs of spiced yogurt, was that all three renditions of carrot—ochre purée, pickled discs, and roasted chunks—possessed not a trace of carroty sweetness or earth. The dish was fuss run amok.
That said, over in the Middle Eastern section are two of my favorites from the entire El Five tapas playbook. The first was cauliflower yufka. Google tells me (our server didn’t, though the generally attentive servers are well informed) “yufka” is a Turkish wheat dough that is rolled so thin one can read a newspaper through it. At El Five, it’s folded around an aromatic cauliflower mash to form diamond-shaped bites somewhere on the continuum between spanakopita and the egg-filled brik I used to swoon over at breakfast in Tunisia. Back at El Five, you dip the crunchy pockets in a cumin rouille that tastes like romesco. I’d happily eat three plates’ worth, but I’d also leave room for my other Middle Eastern list favorite, the shawarma lamb ribs. They’re deliriously succulent and sweet, served on an “Israeli salad” of greens, tomatoes, and fried chickpeas.
The other house specialty is paella, a tricky dish for a 280-seat restaurant to master. I bring mixed reports. A large $68 seafood version—loaded with properly cooked shrimp, squid, mussels, and more in a serving big enough for four or five people (if it follows a fleet of tapas)—was marred by burned, bitter, limp socarrat. “Socarrat” is the layer of rice at the base of paella, rendered crunchy over fire, prized by fans. Burning it is like doing a face-plant at the end of a gymnastics routine. Nor did the kitchen achieve socarrat success a few nights later with the sausage paella. Nevertheless, it was one of the best things I’ve eaten in months. Though not crusty, every grain of the rice was differentiated, chewy but not powdery, with a nice oil sheen and deep flavor perfumed by saffron. And oh, the bounty of meat: tender, funky, garlicky lamb sausage, porky Basque salami, lomo ham, and chewy little wedges of chorizo. The whole dish was drizzled with aïoli and spiked with Padrón peppers. Two of us enjoyed a $33 small order and had plenty left over for lunch the next day.
El Five’s best work is exuberant—like a dessert of goat-cheese ice cream on a nest of toasty shredded phyllo—but not done up as if for a Carnival parade. With an Edible Beats joint, however, Carnival-esque is the tendency. A plate of two cheeses, for example, from a meze list—another part of the menu—was dressed up like something from Andrew Lloyd Webber. There were two huge upright crackers stuck like foresails into the cheese. There was quince and whipped honey and almonds and sherry vinegar. I expected the cheese to roller-skate around the plate as if in a scene from Starlight Express. The cheese was on point. The rest was a bit much.
Still, El Five’s energy is irresistible. Staring at the Egyptian movie posters while drinking a Spanish Scaffa—a sort of sherry-inflected Manhattan—I had a thought. What would my Jordanian friend from our high school days in Afghanistan think of these Arabic images splashed all over a Colorado restaurant, with their vintage glam, mustachioed leading men, and dishy femme fatales? American appropriation? I sent her photos. She was delighted to see the El Five treatment: “I think it’s a great idea to have these posters up! They are all from the golden age of Arab cinema, mid-’50s to late ’70s. Hind Rostom was the Marilyn Monroe of the Middle East!”
In that spirit, I will go back and enjoy El Five’s chaotic reminder that, in these often dark days, cultures are deep and multivariate and change in waves, even within our memories. Let’s raise a glass of sherry to the Marilyn Monroe of Arabia, who died in 2011 but whose image lives on, if you know where to look, in an exuberant Denver restaurant.
Photography by Matt Nager