DINING OUT | WILLIAM PORTER
Restaurant review: Squeaky Bean in LoDo wows crowds with stylish room, big flavors
**** STAR REVIEW (out of 4) | Exceptional
[Semple Brown Design were Designers & Architects of Record for The Squeaky Bean]
The Denver Post
Squeaky Bean general manager Johnny Ballen serves as ringmaster behind the wraparound bar in the restaurant's new home at 15th and Wynkoop streets in Lower Downtown. Denver cocktail maven Sean Kenyon designed the drinks menu. (Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Kona Kampachi (a relative of yellowtail tuna) comes with a drizzle of clarified melon gazpacho.
Max MacKissock and Johnny Ballen created a serious following when they opened the Squeaky Bean in the LoHi neighborhood several years ago, turning out craft cocktails at a cozy bar and top-drawer food in a kitchen that had less equipment than a college freshman's dorm room.
So when the two closed the Bean in June 2011, with promises of reopening in a grander space a year down the road, there were two reactions: Disappointment at the loss of the venue, but great anticipation at what might come.
Well, the restaurant is back, opening about a month ago in the historic Colorado Saddlery Co. building at 1500 Wynkoop St.
I will say this right up front: This is one of the finest restaurants to open in Denver in a long time. Beyond the vibrant space and polished service, the food is exceptional.
Not to take anything away from the many excellent chefs in the area, but MacKissock, the executive chef, has raised the bar on Mile High dining. He has done this with great creativity and attention to detail, and his passion shows on every plate.
This is why the Bean has earned the first four-star review since former dining critic Tucker Shaw devised our rating system in 2005.
Ballen, who worked behind the pine at Solera before hooking up with Mac-Kissock, is the Bean's impresario and all-around ringmaster. He works the room, made up of middle-aged food fans and young professionals, in a pompadour Roy Orbison would admire.
The new space, with a wraparound bar anchoring the room and 76 seats on the floor, mixes contemporary touches with the patina of the old saddle manufacturer. Because it's a historic building, the massive 8-by-12-inch ceiling beams were left intact. Large windows flanking Wynkoop and 15th streets give the room air, as does the vaulted ceiling. There are some clever decor notes, including chandeliers crafted from scores of vintage teaspoons.
MacKissock, a former ski bum who honed his cooking skills in New York, Italy and Keystone, stays in the exquisitely appointed kitchen, which in both equipment and number of line cooks is a quantum leap from the cramped galley he had worked
The Squeaky Bean mixes contemporary touches with the patina of an old saddle manufacturer in LoDo. (Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
The dishes that emerge struck me as much for what they were not as for what they were. MacKissock's food is masterful, but not show-offy. Dishes are not overcooked or, just as important, overworked. Ingredients are superb, but they feel only lightly enhanced, allowing their essence — especially in the case of vegetables — to shine through.
MacKissock also shows a willingness to reveal the possibilities within an ingredient on the same plate. A grace note of peaches will be both stewed and sliced raw. Carrots might appear roasted and in an emulsion. He asks you to think about what you're eating, though not in a way that feels like algebra homework.
The small menu rotates monthly, allowing the crew to push seasonal foods and flex their creative muscles. July's menu featured 16 items divvied between vegetables, fish and meat.
MacKissock has a particularly sure hand with produce — the restaurant has its own farm — and the sunny season's bounty appears on every plate.
A mix of bright green peas and favas ($14) included fresh shelled peas and their tendrils, plus the beans and their leaves, studded with lamb lardo and beech mushrooms. The ingredients were clustered mid-plate like a cup, a bright green shout-out to summer that mixed cool and crunch.
Summer squash "head-to-tail" was a vegetarian take on the snout-to-tail pork dishes seen in so many restaurants of late. Thinly sliced roast squash was draped over a
Server Caleb Cole readies the cheese cart with 11 varieties.
tube of burrata, the classic Italian mozzarella ball with creamy curds on the inside, along with a squash caponata, a fried blossom, and a puree. At $14, it worked as either a shared plate or free-standing entree.
Another visit saw a beet salad ($10), four roasted beets and their greens with a dollop of creamy, aerated gouda, plus a pale shellac of pureed basil. Like the other vegetarian dishes, there was complexity here: layers of flavors at once deep and bright.
Bone marrow and octopus ($14) was a novel nod to surf-and-turf. The Bean exercises portion control — these plates aren't for trenchermen — but on the evening I ordered it, the cleaved bone arrived as a small canoe, with the buttery marrow topped with chopped, chargrilled tentacles laced with a tomato vinaigrette. Yes, there was toasted ciabatta bread on which to spread the marrow. Octopus tentacles can be chewy, but despite the finger-size girth of the Bean's, these were tender.
Wagyu beef came as a teres major, an uncommon but premium cut extracted from a cow's shoulder muscle. Resembling a small tenderloin and cooked to the medium-rare request, it was paired with a marinated mushroom salad, a potato pavé, and a bone marrow and red wine emulsion. The meat was fine-grained and only lightly marbled, but bore true beef flavor. At $31, it was by far the menu's most expensive item, and a worthwhile investment for any beef fan.
Carne salata ($12) was a salad where the bits of meat played second fiddle to a 100-year egg, the restaurant's interpretation of that Chinese dish. The poached egg, lightly cured, bore a near-orange yolk, and was paired with peas and what appeared to be hominy; the latter was revealed to be potatoes spheres extracted by a mini-melon baller, all topped with purslane, its minute, delicate blooms still intact. You stuck a fork into the egg, and the yolk oozed out as an unctuous binder to the veggies. Again, a testament to the importance of texture in a dish.
Berkshire pork loin ($25) was a succulent reminder of why the other white meat has become such a star at restaurant tables. Two chunks of pork were combined with peaches, both stewed and raw, plus a burnt onion jus and corn panna cotta flanked with mustard greens and dusted with marcona almonds. A lot of ingredients, yes, but it never felt busy. With apologies to Shelley, pig thou never wert.
MacKissock also enjoys marrying veggies with fish. A king crab tortelli ($20) was paired with corn and roasted shishito peppers; the kona kampachi ($15) came with a melon gazpacho.
Service is prompt and knowledgeable, with each waiter schooled in how to explain and plate the array of cheeses that are wheeled around the room on a cart — always a nice dessert option. They are also quick to recommend wine pairings and know not to upsell; the smart list boasts good value, with many options in the $8-$9 range.
The artful construction continues with sweets. On one evening my companion opted for the gilded cherries, which were neatly arrange on a wedge of chocolate.
Nifty touches abound.
On one evening, servers approached just-seated tables to pour an aperitif of orange-ginger wine from quart milk bottles. The one-page dinner menu arrives clipped to a period cookbook (one of mine was "Grande Diplome Cooking Course Vol. 15.) Wine is poured from lab beakers. Steak knives are elegant Laguioles; the claymores you get in some restaurants stay sheathed here.
Red-hot restaurants come and go, but the Bean feels like it is here for the long haul, awkward name and all. Lucky us. If you are serious about food, this place should be a destination.
William Porter: 303-954-1877, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/williamporterdp
THE SQUEAKY BEAN
1500 Wynkoop St. 303-623-2665 thesqueakybean.net
**** - Exceptional
Atmosphere: Hip, vibrant
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable
Beverages: Wine, beer, cocktails
Plates: $9-$31, with a number of dishes in the $12-$15 range.
Hours: Open daily at 5:30 p.m.-until closing
Details: Street parking and area lots
Our star system:
**** - Exceptional
*** - Great
** - Very Good
* - Good