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A shrinking feeling



Rarely have I been as excited for a restaurant to open as I have for the Rabbit Hole Dinner and Drinks. Co-owner Joe Campana's preview menu promised immensely creative, locally sourced dishes, local beers — from Bristol Brewing Co. and Colorado Mountain Brewery — and an interesting wine list. Meanwhile, a deep level of social networking built buzz on Twitter, Facebook and the location-based foursquare.

In short, clearly this was going to be a restaurant sensitive to the times, in a hip downtown location — the underground former home of Metropolitain — that would go to where its customers were and communicate with them on their terms.

Of course, expectations will only get you so far. So we descended the stairs into a busy dining room one recent rainy night to sample chef Josh Beemer's wares. White tablecloths, wine glasses and silverware covered the pre-set tables, and fanciful paintings from Phil Lear and Brett Andrus, who curates the space, filled the brick walls. All in all, the Rabbit Hole's ambience perfectly walks a line, allowing you to dine as dressed up as desired, or slum it during a post-work drink.

Pig and pepper

Offered the "Eat Me" and "Drink Me" menus, the latter led us to two perfect cocktails: the signature White Rabbit ($12) and the coffee martini ($12). The White Rabbit, a mix of vanilla vodka, Malibu rum and cream, proves pitch-perfect in strength and tastes like Motif's crème brûlée cocktail, but with a coconut kick at the end. (Don't eat the Bacardi 151°-soaked flaming marshmallow.) The coffee martini, featuring cold Barista Espresso, does its best boozed-up vanilla Frappuccino impression.

Apéritif in hand, it was time to taste the talk of the town: the Juicy Lucy ($11) burger. Steaming hot and rich, the all-ground-bacon patty proved subtler than expected, while the herb mustard and jalapeño marmalade, not to mention the soft bun, were great complements. A sweet potato cake topped with crème fraiche and a smear of ketchup rounded out the transcendent experience.

Campana says the Rabbit Hole makes an effort to include Colorado produce and meats in many of its dishes, but when asked earlier this week, wasn't sure of specifics. (Beemer was unavailable for an interview.) So I can't tell you whether the Juicy Lucy was local, or for that matter, whether the four fried duck wings ($9) were. What I can tell you is that the latter, a little larger than chicken wings, featured oily dark meat and a thick and mildly tart plum purée, and were definitely good, though served lukewarm.

The grilled Colorado beef filet ($20), meanwhile, was a triumph: beautifully plated, over an orange mound of mashed truffle sweet potatoes. It arrived cooked as requested, and was wonderful with a Rainier cherry demi-glace, even if it could have used a harder sear and a little salt.

Nicely salty, though, and impressively inventive, was a dessert of three thick, chocolate-dipped maple bacon ($5) slices, with chocolate chips. God herself couldn't have done better.

Completing our first visit, the not-as-good, also-lukewarm carrot ginger bisque ($6) felt too simple. It was smooth, but pure carrot remained the dominant flavor, unless my spoon found a hidden pool of melted candied ginger in the large bowl. Any attempt at ingredient integration would've helped.

If only such small tweaks could've brought our second visit to a satisfying level.

Curiouser and curiouser

In The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller writes, "When you cook lobster violently, the meat seizes up and becomes tough, and you can't get any flavor into it."

That in mind, I'm guessing the poached lobster salad ($15) we ordered during our midnight Friday visit must have been beaten within an inch of its life. Maybe we were just unlucky, but the half-lobster-tail, deliberately served cold, remained in its shell against almost all effort. Once pried off, it tasted like gum that had already lost its flavor. The greens, at least, were bright and fresh — though the included arugula was bunched in one place at the bottom — and the pickled onions, and Indian-spiced golden beets were brilliant.

Elsewhere on the menu, the creative yellow chile chicken "lollipops" ($8) — crispy drumsticks with the end left bare — danced sweet and sour, though they were cooked too long. The mojo chicken chicharrónes ($8), with an onion dip, were almost baffling: Served as lettuce wraps, the dense, deliberately charred tangy chunks were tasty enough, but messily destroyed the thin leaves.

Also confusing was the saag paneer ravioli ($12), featuring a nice, but quiet, saffron-chive sauce. Nothing on the menu says the raviolis will be (over-) fried; they come off more like an Italian bread crumb empañada with a mild spinach-and-cheese filling.

Our late-night visit was further hurt by an otherwise attentive server filling and refilling a cup with lukewarm coffee. It's a temperature we ran into a lot, and, unfortunately, sums up my overall impression of the samplings from the Rabbit Hole fairly succinctly.

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