The buzz around dinner at The Populist in Denver includes that it is a hip place you go dressed in all black, that dinner seating is community style, and that you have to be a fan of house music. To be on the safe side, this former New Yorker did wear all black, but that put me in the minority of a foodie crowd of all ages who happened to be wearing nearly any color but black. We did have reservations at one of the smaller private tables, but most of the diners settled in to the handful of community tables that made strangers friends. Everyone feasted to the techno beat of house music.
The tasting menu was priced nicely at $35.00 per person; wine pairings were an additional $20.00. It was an excellent introduction, especially to the impressive wine list that could take a few visits to navigate. Fortunately the chef made it easy by selecting the wine pairings to complement the courses.
The wine list includes bottles from France, Italy, Austria, Spain, South Africa, Macedonia, Lebanon, Argentina, Chile, Corsica, and Slovenia. How cool is that?! The handful of domestic wines are from California, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico. Colorado’s own Infinite Monkey Theorem Merlot and Riesling/Viognier blends are on tap and available by the half glass, glass, or bottle.
A few years ago a chef took the time to teach attendees of a wine dinner how to taste wine and food. He instructed us on the importance of putting every element of a dish (e.g., protein, sauce, starch) on the fork, because the wine pairing was designed either to emphasize or complement all of the flavors in a dish, not just one or two elements. Handy information to take to any wine pairing!
First up: a glass of François Montand, Brut Rosé, from France. This pour, served in a Champagne coupe, was a power-match with the first two courses. The starter was a sushi-grade white fish and ponzu sauce with grapefruit sections, jalapeno, and fennel. The crisp, dry bubbles brought out the subtle flavors and airy textures of fish and citrus.
The second course was a cauliflower and pear soup with pickled cauliflower and crumbled egg yolk. This pairing took the same delightful bubbles and offered a contrast of textures and flavors that complemented the acidity in the wine.
A glass of La Salita Sangiovese from Tuscany, Italy, made for umami when paired with the third course, a chickpea pancake with pickled beets, yogurt sauce, and greens. The wine had a floral, strawberry-scented nose and a good balance of fruit, acid, and tannin. Everything came together in a perfect match of savory and rich when all of the flavors began to blend. Nice.
Next up, butternut squash agnoletti with toasted hazelnuts. This pairing was less successful than the hit-the-mark pairing with the savory chickpea pancakes. Simply, the pasta dish was superb and the wine was delicious, but they were not a good match.
The intermezzo was a lemon-ginger-thyme sorbet with candied ginger. Pretty amazing. It cleansed the palate very well, as intended.
A fresh palate was needed for the unusual wine from Chateau Musar, from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It was tannic, hot, and dry, with a sun-baked palate and nose that smelled of tree sap. Its austere qualities paired very well with the relative decadence of lamb in a pastry – a sort of Lebanese Beef Wellington – with salsa verde, served on a bed of risotto-style cauliflower and roasted carrots. A power match indeed.
A glass of Moscatel Dorado followed, with some pungent cheese and homemade bread. The Spanish dessert wine was made in a Sherry style from the Moscatel grape. Simple and direct.
The final course was a taste of duck mousse and grapefruit sections paired with a dry Lambrusco, a mildly fizzy red dessert wine from Italy that is making a comeback after its sweeter cousin was a trend in the United States in the 1970s.
It was a fantastic meal. Can’t wait for the next opportunity to swirl, sip, and sample the inventive offerings from The Populist.
The tables fill up quickly during the dinner hour, so call ahead to request a reserved table, or risk a wait for a seat at one of the community tables.
Until our next adventure in Colorado wine and food…
3163 Larimer Street, at the corner of 32nd Street
Denver, CO 80205
Neighborhood: Northwest Denver/RiNo
Photograph captions: (top) Main Entrance, (center) Chick-Pea Pancake, (bottom) Lamb in a Pastry Shell