You can sit anywhere you want at the midsize restaurant in downtown Denver, but with the magic tricks being pulled at the five-month-old Squeaky Bean, there's nothing like seeing behind the curtain. So ditch the main dining room, if you can, sidle up to the open seating in front of the kitchen, and breathe deep: It's about to get interesting.
You're greeted with a loaf of spongy bread painted with parsley, garlic butter and Parmesan. Your steak knife is a skinny, switchblade-looking (but expensive) Laguiole. Your menu's probably clipped to an antique cookbook.
Off a drink menu divided into subsections named after movies like Rocky III and Up the Academy, maybe you order a cocktail rocking a hand-cut ice cube and laced with the insistent French liqueur Chartreuse. Maybe your server's Bean co-owner Johnny Ballen himself, wearing a Broncos-orange tie and, as William Porter of the Denver Post called it in his four-star review, "a pompadour Roy Orbison would admire."
And if you're seated where I'm saying, maybe you'll look to your right and see 34-year-old executive chef Max MacKissock manning the pass, and minding the plates. Ballen and MacKissock have been teammates since the Bean first opened in the Highlands in 2009 — a far cry from this new spot on Wynkoop Street, with warm tones filled with quirks like a chandelier of teaspoons, and an old, lit-up bingo scoreboard.
"It started out as this little, tiny café with no kitchen or anything," Mac-Kissock says in a phone interview a few weeks after our meal. "There was no hood system, there was no nothing. It was like cooking in a garage. But it was just fun — I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the creative freedom, the fact that it was the most fun restaurant that I'd ever been in."
Never mind that the menu — divided into "vegetables," "fish" and "meat" — rotates almost weekly. With the creativity you're likely to see, boredom is out of the question, anyway.
In fact, the names of some entrées almost mock the imaginative precision to come. Carrots ($12), a gorgeous homage to Thai food, finds a bright-orange pool of carrot purée in the bottom of a large, white bowl. Joining it are long chunks of carrot roasted in ginger, lime and lemongrass; the caviar-looking pulp of a tiny finger lime; and kaffir-lime ice cream, topped with nuts rolled in a powder of dehydrated Sriracha and lime, the latter having been baked overnight in a 200-degree oven then ground into tangy ash.
Or Beets ($10), wherein the chef uses medical tongs to place beet leaves individually around a cluster of the purple and red roasted root vegetables cut into cylinders, then adds a pile of aerated, bubbly Gouda and smears of pale basil "pudding." Interestingly, the latter is made possible by blending the herb with the gelatinizer agar-agar, a hallmark of the movement around molecular gastronomy — a term with which MacKissock, who calls his food "progressive seasonal," hates to be associated.
"Pretty much any technique there is, we wanna explore it," he says. But "some people get hooked on the term 'molecular gastronomy,' and they pretty much put anything that they don't understand into that catchphrase. People forget there's natural stabilizers, and things like gelatin."
Rest assured that no one in Squeaky Bean's kitchen forgets much of anything. Ticking off a list full of Michelin-starred temples of food, MacKissock humbly says he has sous-chefs with experience at Ubuntu in Napa, Calif.; Bacchanalia, in Atlanta; and at Thomas Keller's Per Se and The French Laundry.
More genius drives the Scallop & Mango ($14) plate. A study in negative space when arranged, a half-moon of pale pink cuts of lightly cured scallops are interspersed with curled slices of mango sporting a black coating of lime ash. Plops of white Noosa honey yogurt and minced piles of banana-yellow mango sit among it all, with a garnish of sunflower petals and roasted seeds from the restaurant's garden.
Oh yeah — the restaurant has a 1-acre garden on Colfax Avenue.
MacKissock hopes to expand it into an even bigger operation, with chickens and bees and even larger animals, like the one in the Whey Poached Lamb ($26), an exciting blend of salt and savory, crunch and tongue-puckering tang, and definitely the most flavorful meat dish I've eaten this year. Like the name says, the lamb is slowly cooked in the cheese byproduct and its tenderizing lactic acid. It's then sliced and covered with crunchy garbanzo beans, smoked grape sauce and halves of pickled Thomcord grapes.
Even my least favorite dish, the New Caledonia Prawns ($13), was impressive, with two sashimi-grade crustaceans swimming in a pale green stock of shrimp, leeks and cream, garnished with a brunoise of apples, celery and chives. It just ate pretty quick.
But the food that best sums up the Squeaky Bean experience — that feeling that this club is cool, and they're dying to make you a member — is a whimsical bit of pastry. Foie Longjohns ($14) are éclair-like tubes of fried dough filled with a thick mousse of foie gras that melts down your throat like salty butter. Topped with powdered sugar, fig jam and halved figs, it's a ridiculously rich expression of the joy of cooking that comes, appropriately, in a small, wooden treasure box.