(out of 4)
719 E. 17th Ave., 303-861-5050, www.olivearestaurant.com

The Draw Creative upscale bistro cuisine and exciting wine list inspired by southern France, Italy, and Spain; attentive service.

The Drawback Tables are crowded together, and conversations from nearby diners can interfere with your own.

Don’t Miss Jack Rabbit cocktail, fried chickpeas, cauliflower flatbread, duck meatballs.

Price $$$ (Average entrée price $16-$25)

When I first went to Olivéa it was a chilly Sunday night—the kind of night that encourages one to stay curled up on the couch with a bowl of soup. But plans had been made, so I went. Head down against the wind, attention focused on the sidewalk below, I wanted nothing more than to get inside, find my friends, and stop frowning.

Then I opened the door to Olivéa, felt the warmth rush at my cheeks, smelled a meaty plate of something—short ribs, maybe? a pork chop?­—and immediately forgot how reluctant I’d been to leave the house. The place was packed, with the roaring noise to prove it. Olivéa may not be very large—just 46 seats inside—but this was a Sunday night. In Denver. And it was cold outside. I’ve had the same feeling walking into tiny hideaway restaurants in New York City. Outside, the world may be empty and dark and still, but inside, life still thrives.

Chef and co-owner John Broening, 46, who is also executive chef at the ever-popular Duo Restaurant in Highland, clearly has the right touch when it comes to creating neighborhood restaurants with pull. At Olivéa, that pull comes from his ability to take classic Mediterranean cuisine—pâté and pappardelle, mousse and mussels—lighten it up with the use of seasonal ingredients, and weave in something surprising. The rich pork belly, for example, made at Olivéa’s in-house charcuterie, comes brushed with a bright and citrusy tangerine glaze. The pappardelle Bolognese is made not with the expected beef, but with sweet lamb. Yes, Broening offers the kind of trendy dishes modern diners have come to expect—the arugula beet and goat cheese salad, the collection of flatbreads—but he’s not afraid to push his diners toward something more surprising, like seared octopus or duck meatballs. As a result, Olivéa is the kind of place where comfort and creativity coexist, making it possible for just about everyone to choose something they like.

Here, as with almost any new restaurant these days, those choices begin with the cocktail list. In the post-Cosmopolitan age, mixologists have gone artisanal, and there seems to be an unspoken competition as to who can offer the most fanciful blend of spirits and house-made mixes. At Olivéa, the light, refreshing Ophelia, an on-the-rocks gin sipper made with rosemary syrup, a spritz of fresh lemon, and soda, stands out. The herby-citrus blend goes especially well with a brown-paper cone of Broening’s crunchy, pop-in-your-mouth fried chickpeas, served with a smoky pink harissa aïoli.

If you’d rather start your meal with something more grown up, order the Jack Rabbit, served up with Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, sweet ginger liqueur, and…carrot juice. The whiskey’s smooth heat is nicely offset by the sweetness of the carrots. Pair this with the crispy cauliflower flatbread, topped with the sliced white veggie, salty olives, chewy pecorino cheese, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. After several visits, this seemingly humble flatbread remains one of my favorites. It succeeds, like so many of Broening’s dishes do, because he doesn’t reach too far.

His less-is-more philosophy is especially evident throughout the entrées. The duck meatballs—three pingpong ball-size meatballs spaced in a row atop creamy polenta—are stellar comfort food. The grilled skirt steak, two thin slabs topped with a garlicky, Spanish romesco sauce, is equally fulfilling, as were the crunchy cubes of fried potatoes served on the side with a splotch of aïoli. And Broening’s pork porterhouse, served with gigante white beans and bitter escarole, was all the things a good cut of meat should be: savory, tender, and large enough for leftovers the next day.

There are times when Broening’s adherence to simplicity backfires. Take the seared octopus. Although he gets high marks for encouraging diners to try something new, and although it arrived with the promising smell of smoked paprika, the octopus itself was devoid of any discernible flavor— the dish was all texture and no taste. Broening’s salt cod fritters were similarly tasteless, and the too-salty tapenade on the side made matters worse. The scallops, too, were surprisingly flavorless, perhaps because they were seared on only one side, minimizing their flavor potential.

Fortunately, if you hit a dish that is disappointing, you’ll forget about it once dessert arrives. I’ve made my way through Olivéa’s entire dessert menu and would happily do so again. Broening’s wife, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, is the pastry and dessert chef, and her chocolate and salted caramel tart is an extravagance worth pursuing. The warm apple crostata, a rustic apple tart topped with melty fromage blanc gelato, will make you feel loved. And the cool honey-almond semifreddo with apricots is the perfect, last-bite palate cleanser.

To fully appreciate Olivéa from appetizer to dessert, you’ll want to reserve a good two hours for dinner. But you’ll also want to choose the right occasion, because this isn’t a place suited for an intimate tête-À-tête. Olivéa is small and crowded with tables, and it’s easy for the conversation at the adjoining table to compete with your own.

The service station located at the back of the restaurant also makes the list of annoyances. One evening, I dined with a friend and quickly became absorbed in conversation. At least, it was engaging on my end. The next day he said what he most remembered from the evening was watching the servers at the busing station bundling up garbage. While I was spared this view, several other diners no doubt shared the same line of sight.

Which is a shame, especially since Olivéa is so transformational otherwise. When you walk into a restaurant cranky and are immediately charmed by the smells, the food, and the camaraderie, there should be no reason for the sour mood to return before the walk back to your car. At that point, of course, you’re on your own.