The Wolf’s Tailor

3 Stars

The Draw:
Precisely cooked Japanese and Italian dishes; exemplary desserts and cocktails.
The Drawback:
The ambitious kitchen loses its way with the large-format menus.
Don’t Miss:
Skewers, composed salads, house-made pastas, fish and veggies off the grill, semifreddo.

Posted outside some yakitori restaurants in Tokyo, you’ll find hand-drawn gustatory maps of the chicken. These can be almost comically detailed, for many Japanese chefs are beak-to-tail completists. In one yakitori joint, there may be up to 30 poultry offerings, including skewers of grilled coccyx, spleen, and even the fatty pope’s nose.

It’s this deep particularity that partly explains the post-sushi obsession American chefs have with Japanese cuisine. Our best cooks are pushing the boundaries of technique and flavor—ingredients like yuzu, sansho pepper, and miso fit right in—while also doubling down on tradition and discipline. Exhibit A in Denver right now is seven-month-old the Wolf’s Tailor, from chef Kelly Whitaker (of much-loved Boulder Italian bistro Basta). Inside his Sunnyside restaurant’s back door sits a yakitori grill, burning super hot with Japanese white binchotan charcoal. And if there’s no spleen on the Wolf’s Tailor’s menu yet, there are about 10 chicken parts, including skin and liver.

You enter the Wolf’s Tailor around the back, through a fenced-in yard furnished with long community tables and a fire pit. But if you’re expecting even a hint of old Sunnyside grit inside, you won’t find it. The restaurant’s aesthetic is part steel-and-glass modern, part vintage brick storefront, the whole space crisply accented with concrete and wood.

As for those skewers, all show delicious familiarity with the Japanese method. Proper yakitori involves careful portioning and tight threading of the chicken parts onto the skewers for optimal char outside and succulence within. At the Wolf’s Tailor, a light hand with fermented sauces and/or fresh herbs lends notes of sweetness, salt, and spice, but never to the point of obscuring the animal flavors: Yakitori-style beef is anointed with tallow and scallion; steelhead trout is gently bathed in soy.

Dinner with a kitchen view. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

Fire is Whitaker’s favored flavor generator. On one visit, cauliflower was roasted almost black before being dressed in an agrodolce sauce enriched with barrel-aged soy sauce. A grilled fish collar, served with a sauce of black garlic and a bit of fiery, salty sansho pepper paste, was the sort of izakaya-style dish that demands you pick the thing up and suck fatty pearls of meat from the bones. Rice cakes, stuffed with flaky fish bits, were grilled before being plunged into a tangy dashi broth.

But the Wolf’s Tailor is more complicated than a straightforward Japanese homage. At times, the kitchen, led by chefs Kodi Simkins and Sean May, tacks far westward to Italy with rustic pasta entrées. Whitaker is a well-known champion of heritage grains, milling them daily at both of his restaurants, and the farro “casarecce” (a split, tubelike shape), dressed in mid-winter with pecorino and black pepper, was the finest dish I had at the Wolf’s Tailor. Its cacio-e-pepe-like sauce had a silky, reduced-broth consistency, and the noodles showed how far al dente can go without being at all starchy.

Whitaker and Co. are also adept with vegetables and get a little fancy with composed salads in a style that could be called “refined American.” A dish called Radish was an artsy composition of pink and white bulbs on a black plate, with a swipe of sunchoke purée that tasted of browned butter plus a plop of radish-leaf pesto that added welcome acid and garlic cut. The finishing touch was a sprinkle of properly toasted hazelnuts. A salad of endive, candied citrus peel, and fresh citrus segments was overlaid by an ethereal vinaigrette made with French exactitude.

Casarecce and the Rosada cocktail. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

Toasting, emulsifying, charring, portioning: These are the touches that elevate the food at the Wolf’s Tailor. On the Japanese side of the ledger, for example, a “kampachi” (amberjack) crudo excelled because the fresh fish was sliced to a thickness that highlighted, rather than mitigated, the firmness of the flesh.

That said, the kitchen tripped a few times, most egregiously with an entrée of duck breast, rapini, and black rice. The meat, resting under flabby skin, was overcooked and resisted my fork with the sort of pushback you’d expect from Sean Hannity at a lefty fundraiser.

But the real oddity was the “family dinner,” an $85-per-person feast (since discontinued in favor of a “family-style tasting menu,” which is basically a greatest-hits meal chosen by the chefs from each night’s offerings). Our meal for four centered around a large wagyu beef brisket (still on the menu as of press time) slow-cooked in a Japanese clay donabe braising pot with koji, the mold that converts rice into soy sauce. The meat pulled into tender strings and packed more umami than seemed possible, as if the whole thing was enrobed in concentrated pan drippings. So far, so good.

Like David Chang’s famous Momofuku “bo ssäm” (pork shoulder) dinners—which the Wolf’s Tailor was referencing—the meal eccentrically featured oysters. Alas, the Puget Sound Fat Bastards we were served were more like Tiny Buggers and were perhaps past their sell-by date. There were lettuce leaves to wrap hunks of the meat in and pickles—again, per Chang—but the Wolf’s Tailor’s pickles and kimchi-ish napa cabbage were underpowered, no match for the brisket’s abounding richness.

Then began a colossal carbo-loading session. We were served thick, grilled piada bread, stuffed with mushrooms and sitting on an unnecessary mousselike mushroom purée. There was a bowl of boiled potatoes, miraculously creamy and sweet inside, sprinkled with crunchy salt and daubed with tallow. Next was “chef’s rice,” topped with an egg and slick with drippings. The meal wasn’t unenjoyable—especially with a bottle of bright 2014 Moric Blaufränkisch red—but it could have fueled a training run to Breckenridge.

Rice cakes in dashi broth are pure comfort. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

When a large mound of chewy, coconut-milk-rich black rice pudding arrived for dessert, we threw in the towel. It was a disappointing finish, whereas I had been promising my friends one of pastry chef Jeb Breakell’s delicate treats. Breakell worked at three-star joints in Manhattan before moving to now-shuttered Emmerson in Boulder; at that restaurant, he wowed me with savory-sweet desserts of remarkable refinement. Now, apart from that rice pudding, his favorite flavors—matcha, soy, yuzu, buckwheat, dark chocolate, even bonito-flavored caramel—have found a natural fit in Sunnyside.

In one sweet ending at a different meal, a long slice of banana with a pane of scorched sugar lounged above a mildly salty red miso panna cotta. The pudding was a shade firm, but lovely. In another, a delicious, subtle black sesame semifreddo was dusted with matcha and served with a blob of whipped cream enrobed with slightly charred soy-caramel corn.

With yin-yang themes running through the food menu, good drinks are essential—and the Wolf’s Tailor abides. A short list of meticulously made cocktails ranges across several styles, from citrus refreshers to hard-core brown-liquor sippers. The wine list isn’t long, but with Slovenian, Austrian, Portuguese, and intriguing French and Italian choices, it’s good.

I was excited by the best food and drink at the Wolf’s Tailor, and I think it marks another sign that Denver’s restaurants are moving into a higher orbit. My advice: Proceed, persist, and perfect. If Whitaker can do that, the Wolf’s Tailor will soon stand among the Mile High City’s best.