Review: Lower48 Kitchen raises the bar in Denver
Danielle Lirette Charred octopus at Lower48 Kitchen.
2020 Lawrence Street, Unit A
My first thought when I saw the opening section of the menu at Lower48 Kitchen was, "I want one of each." So it's no wonder that the column of small bites, with temptations such as a beignet filled with whipped tarragon and a potato omelet with ham and smoked mayonnaise, is headed "each." My second thought -- which speaks to my years as a journalist in the digital age -- was, "Oh, I see: He's charging for content that used to be given for free," since it seemed like chef/co-owner Alex Figura was charging for amuse-bouches, those fancy tidbits traditionally sent out as a gift from the kitchen.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Lower48 Kitchen
But that was in the restaurant's early days, when night fell in late afternoon and crocuses were snuggled deep in their beds. It was also before the narrow white platter of the most delicious appetizers I've had in a long while was set before me, appetizers each well worth two bucks...and more.
Dehydrated and fried celery-root coins became supports for a tower of smoked ricotta, shiitakes and honey that was balanced not just in structure, but in flavor, with a gentle interplay of smoky, earthy and sweet. That beignet split open to reveal a tarragon emulsion as bright in flavor as its green color. Crackers made of melted Gruyère were propped like a wheel, glued together with a whimsical mix of sunflower-seed butter, feta and greens. (They're now served open-faced.) Though made with many ingredients, each "each" had a dominant flavor -- lemon in the yogurt drizzle over chickpea-flour fries, smokiness in the mayo in the gratin-like omelet -- that harmonized with the ensemble. These were much more than amuse-bouches; they were open invitations to hang out with a talented group of chefs. And while I enjoyed the rest of my dinner that night, I was hardly out the door before I was plotting a return for a larger assortment of small bites as my first course, using the menu's small plates as my entree.
I must not have been the only one who felt this way, because as winter waned, Figura dropped the large plates in favor of a freewheeling selection of dishes that are called "small" but really come out somewhere between small plates and entrees. "From the get-go, [co-owner Mario Nocifera] and I talked about the 'each' category and how it was a great way to taste flavors and temperatures," says Figura, who overlapped with Nocifera at Frasca Food and Wine in 2011 before heading to a Michelin three-star restaurant in Spain, then returning to open Lower48 in a brand-new building in the Ballpark neighborhood late last fall. "As we were working through the menu over the past three months, I thought, 'Why not carry that over to smalls?'" That way, he explains, guests "can try various items and get a good range of what we do." The move was a good one -- not because there was anything lacking in the entrees, but because Figura's food is so multi-faceted, you want every opportunity to see what he can do before the pastry chef takes over.
At restaurants of this caliber, salads are often given all the attention of a pre-glass-slipper Cinderella. At Lower48, though, they receive royal treatment. The wild-mushroom salad, a new addition with the menu revamp, juxtaposed four kinds of mushrooms -- pickled and confited shiitakes, roasted maitakes, braised chanterelles and smoked oyster mushrooms -- over a sophisticated, hummus-like purée of pears and walnuts that deserves to be an appetizer in its own right. Pickled carrots, braised and raw radishes, celery and wisps of raw pear completed a dish that -- like much of Figura's cooking -- makes a strong case for why "cerebral" and "comfort food" are not mutually exclusive terms.