Aspen Times Weekly: Mile High Club |

Aspen Times Weekly: Mile High Club




1215 20th St., Denver

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WHEN CHEF DANIEL ASHER conceived the menu for Ophelia’s, a funky new restaurant, bar, and music venue in downtown Denver, his main objective was clear: Make it damn sexy. After all, the 8,000-foot space on two floors of an 1889 Victorian brownstone is dubbed a “gastrobrothel” in homage to its former life as a hussy boarding house and an “electric soapbox” for eclectic programming spanning concerts to weekly burlesque. At the same time, as culinary director of Edible Beats, the group behind Highlands hot spots Root Down and Linger, Asher is committed to environmental responsibility, sourcing alternative, sustainable, and organic ingredients for Ophelia’s high-volume kitchen.

Clearly Asher’s seduction skills are on point: Diners were so eager to feast on barbecued ostrich that he was forced to find a substitute meat for the Brothel Burger just a few weeks after opening. The dish—gussied up with miso-candied bacon, ponzu onions, and pickled vegetables on a pillowy pretzel bun—was so provocative that it inadvertently caused a nationwide shortage of the prehistoric bird meat.

“There was a huge push toward ostrich meat about a decade ago as the new, evolving protein, and a lot of people invested in ostrich farming,” Asher explains of choosing the high-protein, iron-rich, lean meat, which costs far less than beef to produce. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t get cool. The family of ostrich is called ratite, a very attractive term that has turned people off. Ironically, we put the ostrich burger on the menu and it was wildly successful.”

Ophelia’s signature burger replacement—freshly ground yak raised in Byers, Colorado—has been an encore hit. As has just about everything else on the menu of contemporary American cuisine that showcases a multilayered mash-up of bold European flavors and focuses on fresh produce with an array of lesser-used animal proteins and sustainable seafood.

“A lot of attention to resources are going to raising the wrong animals,” Asher says, railing on our country’s twisted food system. “Why isn’t America full of farmed yak instead of cows? It’s like someone made the wrong decision a long time ago and everyone’s just following along. Our goal is to promote a vegetable-focused diet and highlight ethical animal proteins that support our local agricultural economy (and) alternative animal proteins that are not only delicious but a much more intelligent decision.”

Despite revealing this philosophy, Ophelia’s menu reads like a bow-chick-a-wow-wow parade of food porn: Peppadew poppers with spiced cream cheese, horseradish mustard, and blood orange marmalade; stout-teriyaki duck wings with beer nuts, chives, and sesame ranch; Skuna Bay salmon with fregola sarda, watermelon radish, snap peas, horseradish, and date molasses; bourbon barbecued oysters with chipotle butter, grilled lemon, and microgreens; Peruvian arepas topped with queso fresco, plantains, and strawberry pico de gallo; roasted heirloom carrots over frisée and radicchio with carrot-top pesto, pine nuts, crystallized ginger, and golden raisin-miso dressing.

The Spring Cheese Incident is an ode to owner and rock star restaurateur Justin Cucci’s twin passion for live music and seasonal produce: a cast-iron pan of asparagus, nettles, fiddlehead ferns, blistered cherry tomatoes, zucchini pistou, and Marcona almonds smothered in three cheeses and served alongside flatbread.

Of four flatbread pizzas made from organic, stone-milled semolina flour dough and fired at 750 degrees in a beautiful stone oven, Asher is most proud of one topped with quail eggs from Harvest Mountain Farm Gardens in Lakewood, local organic asparagus, earthy pumpkinseed pesto, prosciutto, and pecorino cheese. “That pizza itself represents at least a dozen different food sources,” Asher says. “We try to be hyper-seasonal and hyper-local. As a chef you’re only as good as your worst ingredient.”

In fact, an impressive 75 percent of the menu is sourced organically, even spices, which are milled locally. Edible Beats works with a network of small farmers and ranchers, along the way ensuring that livestock experience a good life and respectful slaughter.

Still, the food is playful. Colorado Wagyu beef sliders are topped with Merkts spreadable cheddar, spicy tomato jam, and butter lettuce. A board of house-made sausages boasts a dozen different mustards—a nod to the Airedale Building’s original owner, the Bavarian proprietor of Kopper’s Hotel and Saloon. Duck meatballs get down with lingonberry jam, hempseeds, and Medjool dates atop parsnip heirloom grits from Anson Mills.

“Ophelia’s executive chef Jeremy Kittelson is Scandinavian, so he likes to bring out his inner Viking whenever possible,” Asher quips. “We wanted food that’s enticing, entertaining, and sharable, because going to see live music is all about catching a great vibe and being with people you love. Ultimately, that’s about keeping people captivated when there’s no one on stage.”

Saucy, repurposed décor helps set the mood, harking to past tenants including an adult bookstore and peep show. More than 500 old transistor radios line the back wall of the stage, and vintage sex show booths, movie posters, and marquees celebrate sin. The upstairs bar top is a mosaic of painted glass from sultry old pinball machines; 4000 Jägermeister bottles collected by a single guy in Key West create a glowing green backdrop to the basement bar. Hundreds of wooden yardsticks cover nearly every inch of the bathroom interior. The Moroccan-inspired subterranean lounge with sunken stage has a top-notch sound system—a club atmosphere modeled on Belly Up Aspen.

Just like the ostrich-turned-yak Brothel Burger, the other burgers at Ophelia’s—named after Cucci’s muse for the project: a vampy pinup in a black-and-white photograph hanging in the basement bar—are sex on a plate. One is a thick bison burger topped with mushroom duxelle, caramelized onions, gooey Comté, poblano peppers, and Turkish chile aioli. The crimson beet and millet burger topped with apple slaw and served on a gluten-free sweet potato bun will charm even the most bloodthirsty of carnivores, even though it’s vegan. Wash ’em down with a craft beer or The Sex Machine (mezcal, Ancho Reyes, cayenne, and lime) and hope to snag one of 24 seats in the dining room balcony for a bird’s-eye view of a live show.

“Without a doubt, that’s our mission: Provide an experience that is memorable and pleasurable,” Asher says. Food, music, and sex—nailed it.

On her next jaunt to Denver, Amanda Rae will snooze at Hostel Fish, an upscale hostel opening soon in the Airedale Building above Ophelia’s.