The Preservery

1.5 Stars

The Draw:
Bright urban-industrial space with good lunchtime sandwiches and evening music
The Drawback:
Transition to dinner marred by uneven cooking and inattentive service
Don’t Miss:
Salads, cocktails, octopus appetizer, chicken entrées, lunchtime open-faced Cubano sandwich

Housed in a big, bright, brick urban-industrial space in RiNo, the Preservery is another play in the “multiuse restaurant gambit”—a place trying to be several things at once, morphing from casual sandwichery to full-on full-service dinner with weekly music. In a corner there’s a sort of deli counter and a microshop of chocolates, preserves, and other goodies.

The problem is that multiuse is a tricky act. Even if you get the food right, it’s not easy to shift from $10 tuna sandwiches at the counter to $35 wagyu steaks on a table menu. A stew of details come into play after dark: greeting, seating, flow, service, and, to bring up that hoary word, ambience. If you’re the Preservery, you don’t want puzzled customers to ask—as a friend did after joining me there one Saturday night—“What is this place trying to be?”

There’s a lengthy explanation at about what owners Obe and Whitney Ariss are up to. Words about community-building, New Orleans, meaningful jobs, musical tradition, Denver real estate brokers, and the “wild adventure of entrepreneurship.” But it’s drink and food that speak loudest, so my friends and I decided to just start ordering.

The bar, alas, was out of crucial ingredients for my first-choice cocktail and my second-choice cocktail, so I ordered the Colorado Sazerac: Leopold Bros. whiskey and absinthe, along with Peychaud’s bitters. It was a mild, pretty version of the classic, though I would suggest that a Colorado bitters or something homemade in the Peychaud’s style might make more sense here. Other order-worthy drinks included the Manhattan-like Walnut and the Tricky Martini, which plays with celery bitters and caper brine in a surprisingly delicate way. The wine list, on the other hand, is really quite basic.

Points to the server who brought two rosés to taste before my friend settled on a favorite. But those are about the only points she earned that evening, since mild slacker friendliness does not trump sporadic inattentiveness, failure to clear a dish, or failure to close the bill. (Service another night was better, though again marred by a sort of wandering-cat inattention one does not associate with $35 steaks and high-end cocktails.)

There are five entrées on the Preservery’s concise dinner menu, four salads, and about a half-dozen appetizers. They range across a Northern Italian–ish octopus dish, a Spanish-y ceviche, a fall squash and Burrata salad, wagyu sliders, and for dessert, banana fritters with tahini caramel. It adds up to a farm-to-table eclecticism that is, ironically, now generically urban-American.

What I ate that evening and on a subsequent night ranged from very good to disappointing and settled, ultimately, in a slightly confused middle. A roasted asparagus salad was brilliant—it included bits of bacon and a slow-cooked soft egg with a crumby crust in the style of a Scotch egg, along with little rolls of pickled cantaloupe shavings, some nicely dressed greens, and even a springlike anointing of little flowers. The dish sounds chaotic, but it was delightful.

Also good were tiny octopi served in a little tin can with one beast peeking from the lid as if trying to escape. Inside were more octo-critters in a smoky/creamy tomato sauce that paired nicely with brûléed lemon and charred toast.

Crab cake croquettes, another appetizer, were well described—more about the nicely fried and crusty, potato-y filling than the crab—but the habanero hot sauce on the side left the dish bland. Grilled scallop ceviche, meanwhile, was fishy and lacked any hint of the intriguing promised grill notes, while vegetable samosas—more like tiny empanadas with curry flavoring—came with a cilantro-honey sauce that was stabbingly tart.

Entrées tended to favor Yarmony Ranch wagyu beef—often braised, sometimes grilled. And so rears the wagyu debate: If the meat isn’t spectacularly fat-marbled, what does wagyu actually mean? The steak I tried one night, a tenderloin-style cut, was rare, as ordered, but not especially tender and certainly not rich. The braised tri-tip, a big knob of meat served with a triangular Parmesan cracker that could have been lashed to the mast of a model sailboat, was beefy but not especially tender. The wagyu short rib was better but not particularly succulent or collagen-sticky, and the braised-wagyu sliders—basically, pulled beef on little buns with a cheesy sauce—lacked the satisfaction of, say, a freshly ground 20/80 beef patty.

Co-owner Whitney Ariss’ background is in pastry.

We also tried chicken and fish. Ling cod was plated with nicely charred leeks and black lentils on a lemongrass tomato broth. The little beluga lentils were cooked to a creamy state, and the sauce was luscious and tangy, less a broth than a silky reduction. But the fish was dry. As for the chicken, a braised leg for $24 had me wondering what kind of wagyu poultry this was. However, it came with a thigh attached, and the tender quarter-bird sat in a creamy, lemony broth that gave great comfort with grilled bread and tepary beans, a Southwestern variety. It was a very nice idea, but the little white beans were as undercooked as the fish was overdone. A few cornichons had wandered into the bowl, too, as if lost while hitchhiking to a Paris bistro.

Which highlights the key flaw in a lot of what comes out of chef de cuisine Brendan Russell’s kitchen: failure to integrate textures and flavors on the plate. Roasted white turnips came with raw plum, doing no favors to a nicely cooked bit of Niman Ranch pork tenderloin (though a smoked cherry agrodolce was exactly right). A mushroomy stew of Anson Mills oats was a smart use of whole grains alongside braised beef, but then, what was another steak doing on a bed of dry, shredded Gouda? This sort of thing just puzzles the palate.

Desserts like the ricotta cheesecake show great finesse.

Desserts were a bright spot. The banana fritters were bits of molten fruit encrusted in a coconut-sesame crust, perfectly fried and light, though the tahini caramel was not the tart, sesame-redolent sauce I expected but a bland cream, served in blobs. The oddly named Pan-Cake was a rather elegant sponge cake in a Viennese style, marred only by mousse filling that was frozen solid. It was served with a brilliant, intense passion fruit sorbet.

In the end, I need more consistency and attention when a restaurant bill for three runs more than $200, a number that caught my wife’s attention. I pointed to the menu: No tip required, hospitality included.

I verified with our server. “This is a tip-free restaurant, right?”

The look I got was…lawyerly.

“In a manner of speaking,” she replied.

On that night, I favored the manner of speaking that took “no tip required” quite literally.

—Photography by Aaron Colussi