Colt & Gray

(out of 4)
(Food | Service | Ambience ) 1553 Platte St., #120, 303-477-1447,

The Draw Creative, playful dishes in a space that blends rustic farmhouse with modern chic.
The Drawback The kitchen can have a heavy hand with salt; some of the seating can be confining.
Don’t Miss The tender braised Colorado lamb shank; frisée salad with crispy poached egg; potted cheesecake with salted caramel; bacon-cashew-caramel corn.
Price $$$ (average entrée price $16-$25)

I’d be lying if I said that I eat out only for the food and flavor and presentation. All these elements are essential, of course. But often, what I crave is an experience. A meal that takes me someplace new. A meal that taps sides of myself that usually remain obscured by busyness and routine.

It’s no small order, I know. But in the hands of the right chef, a chef like Nelson Perkins from Colt & Gray, transformative dining is a nightly event.

Colt & Gray, which opened last August, operates from a snug spot on Platte Street in the Riverfront neighborhood. It’s located at the base of the Highland Bridge, a strategic, walkable location that attracts LoHi hipsters from the west and LoDo lawyers from the east, both of whom you can find dining here on any given night. The place is almost always packed. That’s partially because the restaurant is small, and partially because it offers a range of options from $5 bar snacks to a $34 rack of venison.

But mostly, it’s because Colt & Gray is the kind of place where one doesn’t just dine, one experiences the meal. This is a place where each dish and drink subtly demands your attention and generates a response.

The first indication of this is the bar menu. Unusual cocktail combos are nothing new these days, and Colt & Gray delivers the refreshing sips we’ve come to expect from master mixologists—but it tops its competitors in presentation. Months ago, I tried the Winter Solstice, a warming shot of Stranahan’s whiskey surrounded by a cool, floral-citrusy blend of flavors, which arrived in a heavy tumbler with an enormous chunk of ice that looked as if it was just pick-axed from a local glacier. More recently, I ordered the Colonial Fizz, a sweet combination of dark rum, Yellow Chartreuse, apple brandy, and grapefruit soda served up in petite, Champagne-style stemware. Both drinks, like just about everything on Colt & Gray’s menu, caused me to affect an attitude without even realizing it. With one, I became the hearty Arctic explorer; the other, an effete intellectual.

The attitudinal shifts and shimmies continued when the bar snacks arrived. The small bowl of bacon-cashew-caramel corn, a perfect blend of salt, sweet, crunch, and chew, puts you in a playful mood, one in which you’ll happily realize you’re not too grown-up to enjoy such a treat. Then, when the soft, bite-size blue cheese-dusted gougères are placed on the table, you’ll become a sophisticate once again.

Order the roasted beet salad with wilted greens and a warm, generous round of herbed goat cheese, and you’ll feel like landed gentry. Try the potted peekytoe crab blended with beurre blanc and you’ll become a kid who plays with her food. And with the house-cured duck prosciutto, you’ll become more analytical, because Colt & Gray maintains its own in-house charcuterie. You’ll puzzle over whether the rim of fat on the thin slice of duck works (mostly), and whether the Dijon served alongside is too overpowering (yes).

I don’t think messing with a diner’s psychological makeup is something chefs should strive for. Their role is to provide a good, satisfying meal. But when you can surprise and delight diners in an era in which diners have come to expect just this, well, then you know you’re onto something. What makes Perkins’ achievement even more impressive is that, at age 40, this is the Colorado native’s first full-time stint as chef, not to mention restaurant owner. He spent the first 15 years of his career as a stockbroker, before moving his young family to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute. “I guess you could say I’m a perfectionist,” he says, while admitting how demanding and time-consuming perfectionism can be.

That perfectionism pays off in several other standouts on his menu: the frisée salad, in which he uses only the sweet white fronds, served with a plump poached egg coated in crunchy panko crumbs; the gold potato gnocchi: tiny, tender bites of potato mixed with roasted butternut squash, savory sage, rich brown butter, and Parmesan; and the dish that’s inching toward the top of my cravings list: the braised, fall-from-the-bone Colorado lamb shank, served with creamy mascarpone polenta and a crunchy broccoli rabe that provides just the right note of bitterness.

As for dessert, the potted cheesecake with salted caramel is a must. Colt & Gray’s is cloudlike in its lightness, and I much prefer the gooey salted caramel topping to the cliché graham cracker crust.

So, although the Colt & Gray experience is mostly sweet, my main quibble—and it’s not an insignificant one—is that the kitchen oversalts many of the dishes. The ricotta ravioli, the cioppino, the free-range chicken, the garlic chile Hawaiian prawns—all were dishes with enormous potential, but each had me and my dining companions reaching for our water glasses, and I say this as someone who has been known to wax rhapsodic about salt. My other, more minor, issue is with the seating, which can be confining. On two occasions the server had to help move our table so that we could exit, all the while apologizing to the diners next to us. During another meal, my sister’s chair kept getting bumped by servers trying to squeeze between her seat and the one behind it.

In everything else he does, Perkins pays extraordinary attention to detail. From concept to presentation to delivery, Colt & Gray is a winner. In fact, his waitstaff contains some of the most knowledgeable, least intrusive, and highly responsive servers in the city. If he can pull back on the salt, and somehow introduce a bit more breathing space in the dining room, this will become a place I’ll return to again and again—not only for the food, but also for the sheer fun of finding out all the different people I can become during one meal.