The last time I sat down to a meal at Row 14, it wasn’t even open yet; my sneak peek for Denver Magazine took place smack in the midst of 11th-hour pre-opening chaos. A month later, it’s the magazine that’s closed, while the restaurant’s off to a smooth start. On both occasions, however, the graciousness of co-owner David Schneider & chef-partner Arik Markus proved unwavering. No matter that they’d hardly slept in days on our first meeting. No matter, on our second, that I was now just some goofball as opposed to a goofball listed on a masthead. They had told me during our interview they envisioned Row 14 as a cornerstone for what they hoped was an emerging neighborhood; it showed in their & their staff’s amiably attentive approach to every table (not just mine; I watched).

To be acknowledged, treated with kindness & respect, remembered with kindness & respect. In times of crisis—in the midst of my own midlife chaos, when the past appears a wasteland, the future a void—that means so much. I think of “Late Fragment,” the last recorded poem by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Of course, I also want to be well-fed & liquored up (so did Carver, for that matter, especially the latter) in the company of dear ones like my friend Mo. Thanks to her, at high noon on a Wednesday I was sipping that superb Spätburgunder (German pinot noir) I’d been so taken with during my tasting. Then, it was paired with classic steak & mashed potatoes in red wine sauce with root vegetables;

this time, it accompanied a side of juicy, almost neon-flavored rapini—buttery & sauteed with pancetta, it still smacked very much of itself, like a cross between broccoli & spinach—which I requested as a starter,

& a salami sandwich, can you beat that? Of course, ’twas a super-fancy salami sandwich, on nice chewy bread with pungent, naturally oily salsiccia con finocchio (fennel sausage), fresh ricotta, chunky tomato marmalade, basil, & what must be the first decent tomatoes of the season.

Mo’s lasagna, meanwhile, was flat-out remarkable, the housemade pasta so thin & delicate that it emerged from the broiler semitranslucent & crackling beneath an unusually light besciamella. Even the pork ragù was relatively delicate.

In short, that sneak preview was no fluke—& thanks to Google Cache, I can partially recreate it here.

***
The materials: reclaimed lodgepole pine, wood-grained porcelain, exposed carpet tiles. The colors: silver and gold, slate and bronze. The focal points: gleaming metallic fixtures on the one hand, a cheeky black-and-white photographic mural of a crowd of workingmen circa 1940s France, whooping it up over bottles of wine, on the other. And the gents overseeing all this—owner David Schneider and chef-partner Arik Markus—blend right in: one dark, the other blond. There’s a yin-yang aspect to Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar—coolness juxtaposing warmth, sleek lines in the midst of rough edges—that reflects its surroundings perfectly. At once a gritty construction zone and the heart of Denver’s glittering theater district, 14th Street is a site of contrasts, and Row 14, opening in the Spire Building on Tuesday, is in the middle of it all.

“Being part of this renovation, we’re at the 50-yard line of the way this town is moving,” observes Schneider. “We want to become the cornerstone of the neighborhood” for locals and visitors to the convention center and adjacent hotels alike. Adds Markus, “The word that came up from our very first meeting was ‘accessibility.’ It’s all about fun. Nothing on the menu is over $24. My background is in four-star French restaurants in New York”—in fact, the Manhattan native got his start working under Daniel Boulud at Daniel, which he calls “my cooking school”—”but that’s not the experience I want Denverites to have. I want to take familiar experiences and flip them.”

It’s a rare moment of calm reflection for the two men on Saturday night, who have been blowing and going since receiving their certificate of occupancy at 3:45pm the day before. “I literally sprinted out of here down to City Hall” to file the paperwork before closing time, laughs Schneider. Their first deliveries began arriving the next morning, giving them mere hours to prepare for the mock service that’s beginning as we speak. Both new fathers, “we recently went through the process of giving birth,” Markus says, “and now we’re doing it all over again—the tension of labor, the sleeplessness, the exhilaration and anxiety. By the way, do I have food on my face?”

He doesn’t, but I’m about to. In the whirlwind of a wine-paired, nine-course tasting at the bar, I get a clear—and exciting—glimpse of the sensibilities Markus described. The menu is Exhibit A in the case for casual, contemporary American dining: stylish yet comforting, savvy yet simple, its global accents enhancing rather than overwhelming the big picture. Think brandade (salt cod-and-olive oil) fritters with beet relish, roasted chicken pot pie, and cannelloni that showcases housemade sausage and ricotta. Lunch features sandwiches like a pan bagnat with house-cured salmon and griddled smoked turkey with Brie and roasted pear; Sunday brunch offers the likes of horchata French toast and the “Hangover Helper,” a charcuterie-and-cheese sampler accompanied by a bloody mary and a can of PBR. And for dessert, there’s an array of ices, also housemade—honey frozen yogurt, pineapple-serrano sorbet—as well as classic tarte tatin made new with Thai basil crème fraîche and black pepper.

Finally, Schneider’s list of wines by the glass—appropriately enough for a place that bills itself as a wine bar—is even more extensive than the bottle list, and smartly designed to encourage discovery. Offered in both 3- and 6-ounce pours, the selection is rife with choices to pique the interest of the burgeoning oenophile: a South African Chenin Blanc here, a Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain, there, even a Verdelho from cult California winery Scholium Project on tap. If you spring for a bottle, don’t miss Markus’ personal favorite—a wonderful Spätburgunder (a/k/a Pinot Noir) from Pfalz, Germany, redolent of raisins, leather, and earth.

If this has been one of “the hardest days of my life,” as Markus—whose most recent stint was as chef tournant at Frasca Food & Wine— wryly claims, it sure doesn’t show on the plate, nor in the relaxed, polished manner of the bar crew who serves me (some of whom you may recognize from TAG, The Squeaky Bean, and Corridor 44). Schneider may have had “an easier time naming my children” than settling on Row 14, but we think the name will be dropping from locals’ lips for a long time to come.

The signature parsnip-walnut soup’s a winner—a lusciously earthy backdrop against which tart cranberry coulis sparkles, & duck cracklings tease.

I like a thoroughly dressed salad—the sweet spot between dry & drenched—& heirloom chicory salad in a textbook red-wine vinaigrette is just that. Tossed with matchstick-cut apples, raisins & walnuts (“Waldorf relish”) & soft nuggets of blue cheese, it’s at once hearty & refreshing—a neat trick, since those qualities are usually mutually exclusive.

Hiramasa crudo has itself an almost citrusy quality; while a drizzle of lime is a given, vanilla adds a bit of creaminess & fullness to the delicately tangy whole. Pumpkin seeds, of course, add toasty crunch.

Now that’s some pork belly; Markus eschews the usual precious cubes of pure fat to present a full-on bacon filet, no less melt-in-your-mouth for being so meaty alongside nutty braised lentils & a soft-boiled egg.

Of two tomato-based shellfish soups—bisque & bouillabaisse—the former is the one that still resonates with me, elegantly smooth & subtle, each spoonful yielding chunks of sweet lobster & diced, olive-oil-poached fennel & potato.

From a sampler of Colorado cheeses & house charcuterie, I still recall the texture of the chicken liver mousse, one of the airiest I’ve ever had, alongside chunky, funky ciccoli (Italian-style pork rillettes).

As suffused with warmth as the service, this is food to soothe a weary soul.

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