2.5 Stars

The Draw:
Chic, urban space; refined, Italian-focused food with American touches and plenty of flair
The Drawback:
Can lack focus; a few dishes fail
Don’t Miss:
Green aquacotta soup, pickled mushroom appetizer, ignudi dumplings, Caesar salad, grilled lamb chops

First restaurants rarely have the scale, breadth, and surefootedness of the Bindery. Most chefs start small after honing their skills in someone else’s kitchen, often in the same city as their envisioned launch. Not Linda Hampsten Fox, who made her debut with a combination bakery, market, brunch spot, and fine-dining restaurant in LoHi this past October.

Hampsten Fox’s path to brick-and-mortar was unusual: She cooked in European restaurants and lived in Italy for more than a decade, then opened a culinary school in San José del Cabo, Mexico. Most recently, she’s worked as a private chef, caterer, and culinary consultant in Boulder and Denver. It’s not the typical track to owning a restaurant—and maybe that makes sense, because the Bindery is not your typical restaurant. Hampsten Fox’s menu majors in Italian (Roman-style fried artichokes), minors in Mediterranean (charred asparagus on almond cream with pistachio dukka and preserved lemon), and has chosen electives in American eclecticism (smoked rabbit pecan pie) and neoclassical regional riffing (a Colorado variation on baked Alaska) for extra credit. That’s a lot to absorb on one menu, but the results are, more often than not, successful.

Chef-owner Linda Hampsten Fox. Photograph by Sarah Boyum

The space itself is impressive—a bright, high-ceilinged, modern hall, with walls of windows as well as wine bottles, the latter accessed by a steel library ladder. Pendant lights hang from the open-ductwork ceiling, and a complex interplay of stone, concrete, tile work, steel, and wood surfaces elevates the space. Hampsten Fox spent more than most during the build-out on a long list of environmentally sound materials; the Bindery has the only menu I’ve seen that discusses its energy-saving dishwasher equipment. And there are various ways to experience the room, from standard tables to a high-top for communal dining to a chef’s table set in the center of the kitchen. A scrum of young men bellowing around one of the bigger tables like Wall Street walruses in bonus season one busy spring night notwithstanding, the noise level is typically conducive to conversation.

Talk will inevitably turn to Hampsten Fox’s best dishes, which are surprisingly refined and rooted in technique. The green aquacotta soup, for example, was a minor masterpiece, though less rustic than the bread-thickened original. Its umami-rich Parmesan broth had the depth of a clear French stock. There were licorice grace notes from fennel, and the dish was enriched by spooning open the luscious yolk from a poached egg: a soup, in short, that could hold its own in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Treats like that dot the menu, from small plates to entrées. For one starter, a gaggle of beech mushrooms sat in a tiny jar, bathing in a light brine flavored by garlic confit, orange zest, and chile. To eat them, you scoop the slippery fungi onto thin slices of bread; I only wished the wan bread had as much character as the mushrooms on top. But the flavors went nicely with a bright cocktail called the Syzygy, made with rye, Aperol, peach liqueur, green apple, and “agua fava” (which I took to be “aquafaba,” the juice of cooked garbanzo beans). Spelling aside, it was a balanced and tasty drink. The almond-lemon-dukka treatment in the aforementioned grilled asparagus yielded a rich, nutty, smoky dish. Chicken liver pâté, actually a lovely, unctuous mousse, was served with sturdy house-made lavash and orange-flecked shredded duck confit.

The milk and honey lamb entrée with quinoa salad. Photograph by Sarah Boyum

Also on the must-try list are the “ignudi.” In art, the word refers to the 20 beautiful nude men Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, causing considerable papal ire; the Bindery’s dumplings of spinach and buffalo-milk ricotta indeed sat naked in a splendid, lemony meat sauce reminiscent of demi-glace, bolstered by bits of bone marrow and showered with feathery Parmesan.

The meat mains can be equally good. Exhibit A: the milk and honey lamb chops. Three long-boned pieces, like baby tomahawk chops, were charred but tender, with a tangy, aromatic, somehow creamy aspect. The lamb was set atop a quinoa salad with crunchy cucumber that popped between the teeth. And a beautifully cooked, spatchcocked Boulder hen—skin dark and roasty—was complemented by smoked and grilled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (though the bird didn’t need the odd, beet-red hibiscus sauce on which it nested).

Brunch at the Bindery is inventive and transporting. I liked the Hunter’s Eggs: meaty king trumpet mushrooms, angel hair pasta, and Parmesan broth with, as requested, eggs poached beyond the near-raw state now in vogue. I remarked to my wife that the broth was “confidently buttery.” Her order of avocado toast broke away from the mob with an added fried egg, Aleppo pepper, and aged cheddar. (I look forward to another visit to sample such curiosities as a carrot ginger waffle and croque madame tartine.)

What made those dishes work was a combination of fine ingredients and precise execution. Even when Hampsten Fox dabbles with deconstruction—an approach that often works as well as reducing an airplane to its constituent parts and then pretending it can still fly—she can pull it off. The Bindery’s Caesar salad, for example, consists of crunchy-fresh grilled escarole with edges of char, whole pickled anchovies, and shavings of raspadura (an aged cheese, similar to Grana Padano, that’s scraped from a massive wheel) on a bed of thick, garlicky cream. It refreshed a salad often assassinated by innovation. All hail this new Caesar!

But riffs can flop at the Bindery, too, as happened with that smoked rabbit pecan pie. Succulent pulled meat filled a too-sweet tart crust, bizarrely topped with a scoop of “mustard gelato.” Yes, mustard, as if the Good Humor man had returned from a tour in hell bearing a pint crafted by Beelzebub himself.

The Bindery’s industrial-chic dining room. Photograph by Sarah Boyum

Less weird but still off base was a spring cassoulet of “soubise” (traditionally a buttery, slow-cooked onion reduction) with white beans, escarole, carrots, and celery. The herbal, rather watery soup qualified as cassoulet only in a parallel universe in which Donald Trump is president—oh, wait…never mind. And the strip steak, though cooked rare as ordered, needed an assertive sauce of some sort. The baked Colorado (“tres leche cake, cinnamon ice cream, bitter caramel”) was made with cold, overly firm Italian meringue that I’m guessing was torched hours earlier. The retro magic of entombed ice cream set afire was missing.

Most of these missteps were conceptual errors, if interesting attempts. If I have a cavil after four meals, it’s that the cooking at the Bindery can lack the sharp, personal focus you can find in a more modest launch, such as Annette in Aurora. That’s one reason the Bindery’s menu may not read as well online as the food tastes in person—you have to be there. I’m still mildly confounded by the ambition of the restaurant, although charmed by its sophisticated congeniality. The Bindery doesn’t stray into finicky modernist territory, thank goodness, but Hampsten Fox seems to intend it as an idea lab of sorts. I hope she can refine her ideas, pushing harder into new territory—and that Denverites will follow.