Hedge Row

2.5 Stars

The Draw:
Modern yet warm space; convivial service; bistro comfort via wood-grilled food
The Drawback:
Vegetarian dishes are a bit weak; portions can be small for their costs
Don’t Miss:
Steaks, chops, Little Gem salad, fish tacos, wood-roasted carrots, pot de crème, brunch

It was Hedge Row’s doughnut that made me a whole helluva lot less cranky. This particular brunch-only specimen was a hefty paragon of the frying art. None of the blinged-out fuss you get at places like Glazed & Confused and Voodoo Doughnut. No, this was a classic cake version, moist and chewy, its crunchy-crusty exterior rendered deep brown by a long hang time in impeccable oil and lightly glossed with a shiny maple glaze. Doughnut making, like catfish frying in the Mississippi Delta, is a particular skill, not something you expect to see mastered on the first weekend that a restaurant tries out its brunch service. But masterful it was.

The classic old-fashioned doughnut is a brunch must-order. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Thus, my first impressions of Hedge Row began to fade. You see, brunch happened a few weeks after a Hedge Row dinner that left me drifting between skepticism and feeling bored silly. The problem resulted, in large part, from the food: a vegetarian bowl of roasted sweet potato and quinoa with a jumble of other stuff that was bland and unfocused and felt 15 years out of date. A cocktail with pomegranate liqueur that had cloying Jolly Rancher notes. Shrimp hushpuppies that were well-fried but scant on shrimp—two golf balls rolling about on a plate for $5. A $7 side of spicy eggplant that, though succulent and properly seasoned in a vaguely Chinese vein, was painfully stingy. Yes, the Little Gem salad with delicata squash was nigh on perfect—amazing what well-toasted nuts and truly fresh greens can do—and buttery pan-fried trout on celery root purée was textbook French bistro. But it didn’t help that the dining room was half empty, service a bit desultory. I left casting a “meh” vote.

Apart from the food, my remaining grump was existential. Does Denver need a restaurant that feels more the product of algorithm than inspiration? Hedge Row is the latest from Kimbal Musk’s the Kitchen restaurant group (whose flagship Boulder restaurant, genteel and consistent, I greatly admire); it is, at its heart, a brand extension. The menu pulls in favorites from the Kitchen such as pasta Bolognese, tomato soup, and sticky toffee pudding, then toggles between Americana comfort (hush puppies, collard greens, strip steak with mashed potatoes) and safe global standards (hummus, ceviche, beef short ribs with mole). No one can object to the Musk-ian ambition, so described on Hedge Row’s website, to create an “American bistro” with “wood roasted real food from American farmers.” But I get a little itchy when a website reads like a prospectus. Hedge Row feels like a strategy as much as a restaurant.

Then, one Sunday morning, came that brunch doughnut, served with above-average coffee. It was followed by custardy scrambled eggs under intensely roasted shiitakes on toasted brioche, with a lemon-dressed green salad. We also had a bowl of earthy, creamy grits with salty andouille, shrimp, and a pair of eggs that had been poached to just-so doneness, a dish that ended as you want it to, in a puddle of yolky business to be sopped up with a side order of grilled sourdough. This was spot-on brunch food. I appreciated the bracingly tart Bloody Mary with fresh dill, too, made with a generous whack of vodka, judicious heat, and none of that over-garnishing that marks the drink’s baroque period.

Pork chops with pear and grits. Photo by Sarah Boyum

All this goodness only a week after Hedge Row began serving brunch suggested a crack and caring kitchen team. Sun poured through the windows, and I relaxed at the bar with my wife, noting, at her instruction, that the restaurant’s modernist design (high ceilings, big windows, post-and-beam geometry) has a lot of warm touches: luxe tile work, lots of pleasing wood, basket lights, and colorful accents like mint green coat hooks drilled into concrete pillars.

Expansive and sunny was the mood on both sides of the bar that morning, as if neighborhood and staff had jointly discovered a humane refuge in Cherry Creek, which is, after all, a rigorously generic upscale retail zone. Thanks to this conviviality quotient, I recommend telling the host or reservationist that you’d like to sit there, on the right-side half of Hedge Row, where service is genial and attentive.

The about-face continued at dinner the week after that memorable brunch. After a few apps—the lettuce-wrapped fish “tacos” come with rockfish fried as tenderly as any tempura in Tokyo—our party of four charged into the meaty heart of the menu, which consists of chops, ribs, and steaks priced from $28 to $38. The dominant flavors came from aggressive but precise cooking over a wood fire. The pork chop, for example, had exciting char and a mahogany glaze. Cooked thus, one might expect dry meat, but it was moist and just faintly pink—not, as is often the habit these days, undercooked. The chop came with roasted pears, salad, grits: a comfort plate. My wife’s dry-aged strip steak was also cooked just right, an oversize portion on superrich, cheesy puréed potatoes à la Joël Robuchon. The thing dripped with a beefy demi-glace and was festooned with roasted carrots. A serving of the aforementioned braised short ribs in mole spices, meanwhile, combined sticky, falling-apart meat and robust, almost chocolatey spice. It came with roasted butternut squash and—a clever touch—tomatillos for acid. My only gripe that evening was over a dish of too-dry roasted salmon.

Hedge Row’s wild mushroom toast is a brunchtime beauty. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Sides included excellent double-cooked garlic fries (another favorite from the Kitchen) and house-made hummus with radish, heirloom carrot, toasty lavash, and a sweet relish of caramelized fennel. Roasted carrots came on Fruition Farms ricotta topped with a tangy gremolata made with dill.

The precision of the kitchen extended to the bar staff, too, with many cocktails sporting the now de rigueur giant ice blocks that look carved by a Tiffany diamond man. The rye- and rum-based selections (Fall Cardigan, Forgotten Rose, Ginger Sazerac) edged out the sours for balance and intensity—bitter and sweet flavors went well with Hedge Row’s wintry food. (I assume the menu will turn to spring soon, and I look forward to seeing how grill and fryer are adapted to a lighter approach.)

My favorite Hedge Row desserts, namely the lemon hand pie and butterscotch pot de crème, are fine winter fare, too. The pie is actually two crimped, rectangular pockets of crisp, buttery pastry around a bracing lemon curd under a thick, melty sugar glaze. (The accompanying nut-and-marshmallow ice cream was blatant lily gilding.) If you prefer a classic French sweet, the decadent pot de crème draws heart-clogging inspiration from Paris, including a disk of salted cashew brittle that’s a crumbly cross between tuile and shortbread.

In the end, you can call me a Hedge Row convert. It may be a brand extension, but Musk & Co. seem to have a formula for pushing teams above the corporate ordinary. The menu needs massaging here and there, but the focus is on well-turned-out food, well served. Nothing daring is afoot, but bistro values, properly realized, create a restaurant a neighborhood can love. Management should keep an eye on the prices, which run a bit high if you’re not a Cherry Creeker. If you are, I recommend seeking doughnut sanctuary there once a month, minimum, and a steak or chop dinner just as often.