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(Food: 3.5 | Service: 2.5 | Ambience: 2)
1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131, www.cafeaion.com
The Draw Fresh, seemingly simple preparations that explode with flavor; a casual, elbows-on-the-table environment.
The Drawback Although the menu is designed around small plates and platters meant for sharing, some of the dishes are difficult to split.
Don’t Miss Moroccan spiced pork, hand-cut capellini with basil pesto, fried cauliflower with saffron yogurt, grilled beef kabob with quinoa salad and spiced yogurt.
Price $$$ (average entrée price $18)
In the restaurant world, there are two very different kinds of chefs. There’s the look-at-me variety: the chef whose name is above the door and on the menu; the chef who serves artsy food on large, geometric plates; the chef whose restaurant has been designed to wow, down to the last sparkly napkin ring.
Then there are the food-first chefs, the kind who prefer to keep their cooking clogs behind a stove; the kind who make food to be eaten, not stared at; the kind who existed before the Food Network made celebrity wannabes out of everyone who’s ever stirred a sauce.
Dakota Soifer, the 29-year-old chef-owner of Cafe Aion in Boulder, is one of the latter. His informal, understated approach to food makes his restaurant the kind of place where the meal and environment subtly adapt to your whims and moods—not the other way around.
Aion, which opened in April, is located on the Hill, half a block from the university in a neighborhood filled with fraternity and sorority houses, sandwich shops, coffeehouses, and bookstores. The space, formerly occupied by Burnt Toast, is unfussy in a way that perfectly fits its collegiate environment. There’s a horseshoe-shaped bar, a few wooden tables, a wall of windows, and—for decoration—a few oversize black-and-white photos of the mountains. That’s it. And yet, the understated decor is comforting. Because it doesn’t promise much, you don’t expect much.
Instead, you settle in, are handed a menu on brown recycled paper that lists a variety of small plates and platters to be shared, and negotiate with your friends which dishes to order. Then, over a glass of wine—Cafe Aion has a small but impressive list of unusual wines from Hungary, Spain, Greece, Italy, and France, as well as a selection of artisanal spirits and craft beers—you wait for the first of the small plates to arrive.
And when they do, they seem, well, rather ordinary. There’s a small bowl of olives, a platter with alternating disks of red heirloom tomato and shiny white house-made mozzarella, and a round dish of garnet beets sprinkled with feta and crumbled pistachios. You pause just long enough for the dishes to be set on the table, thank the server, and pick up the conversation where you left off.
Then, you plop an olive into your mouth and it registers: Hmm, good. You take another one and puzzle over it for a second or two. You taste rosemary and bits of preserved lemon, and that, combined with the briny firmness of the olive, causes you to immediately drop your end of the conversation. You look at your friend across the table. “This is good,” you say.
But she’s too busy enjoying the caprese salad to acknowledge you. “Have you tried this?” she asks, pointing to the bright tomato on her plate. “This is really good.” So you take a bite that combines the sweet fruit and creamy mozzarella. You quietly ponder the freshness of the cheese, the ripeness of the tomato. “Wow,” you say in agreement. Then, at the same moment, you both turn your attention to the beets, which ultimately receive the same unanimous approval.
More small plates arrive. An inviting mound of house-made pasta tossed in a fresh pesto that tastes as if its fragrant basil had just been plucked moments before. A small bundle of pulled pork, spiced with a heady Moroccan blend of cumin, coriander, cardamom, honey, and cinnamon. The range of flavors and textures is mind-boggling in its simplicity. Crunchy fried cauliflower with a silky, citrusy yogurt. Soft marinated lentils with wilted bitter greens. There’s not a fancy sauce or a fussy presentation in the bunch.
This, as it turns out, is exactly the kind of experience Soifer is going for. Having grown up in rural Maine with self-described “back-to-the-land” parents, Soifer learned about flavor-packed, garden-fresh food early on. Cooking stints at Zuni Café in San Francisco (owned by a contemporary of Alice Waters) and the Kitchen and Meadow Lark Farms, both based in Boulder, reinforced his appreciation for ingredient-driven cuisine, sourced locally, or made in-house.
Soifer shops Boulder County farms for produce, manages an in-house charcuterie that produces salami, mortadella, and other cured meats, and supports Colorado fish farms and ranches. As a result, Cafe Aion is the kind of place where you’ll actually feel good eating meat, the kind of place where you’ll forget that chicken can be boring. In fact, Soifer’s half-chicken platter, served with a smoky harissa jus, actually tastes like meat, not some chewy, tasteless white thing designed to hold up a sauce.
If you opt for the fish platter, you’ll find Soifer’s farm-raised Colorado bass, served whole with head and skin intact, to be another conversation stopper. It’s tender, stuffed with aromatic herbs, and the salsa verde on the side will have you flagging down the server and demanding to know its ingredients so you can make it at home. The answer: parsley, mint, capers, garlic, anchovies, and olive oil.
The only complaint you’re likely to have will be about presentation. Although the chicken and fish are served on platters meant to be shared, both dishes require quite a bit of awkward tabletop fumbling—deboning the fish, cutting the chicken—to get the shared portions just right. For a menu that emphasizes simplicity and sharing, it would be simpler, in cases such as these, for the kitchen to help make sharing a little easier.
Fortunately, this little bit of grumbling will subside by the time dessert arrives. It won’t matter whether you choose the spongy angel food cake with fresh cherries and whipped cream, or the sweet, round peach galette with honey yogurt, or the house-made chocolate truffles. Your dessert will be just as simple and satisfying as the rest of the meal. And that’s exactly the point. Cafe Aion is the kind of place where you can gather with friends, put your elbows on the table, and enjoy the excellent work of a chef who concentrates more on his food than his fame.