Though my first visit to Conscious Table began with a hollered "Hello?" into an empty dining room around 10:30 on a Thursday night, things got better when co-owner/chef Dave Cottrill — who along with chef Aaron Retka is a minority partner in Brent Beavers' new restaurant — came out from the kitchen with hand raised in greeting. It only continued to improve until I found myself, during a return visit the next night, finishing the ultimate self-indulgent dessert of tart, gooey Colorado cherries squeezed between two house-made biscuits topped with a dollop of pale and sugary crème Chantilly.
That marked the end of a two-day exploration of a menu that would lead you to believe a farmers market sits just outside the kitchen's back door: grapes, apples and those cherries from Paonia's Austin Family Farm; potatoes, beets, onions and lamb from Fountain's Frost Livestock Co.; arugula and garlic from Avondale's Hobbs Family Farm; pork and short ribs from Ranch Foods Direct; coffee from Barista Espresso; beans from Milberger Farms, butternut squash from Country Roots Farm — both in Pueblo; and on and on.
And nearly everything was as you'd hope organic or local would be. It was definitely one of the only times I've ever enjoyed a vegetable medley (grilled squash, sweet potato, zucchini and rich purple carrots, all firm and juicy) as much as I did something like beef short ribs ($27) braised in coffee and cola (from the Boylan Bottling Co.), surrounded by a beet-molasses reduction.
With all that locavore motion, I asked Beavers, who's fresh off a stint at the now-closed Giuseppe's Depot Restaurant, if he worried about coming off as trendy.
"To me, it's way more than a trend," he says. "I raise my own animals; I have an 1,100-square-foot garden; I usually have a chicken flock. I've got two pregnant goats that I'm hoping will hurry up and have their babies so I can try to make cheese."
Late and great
Multi-course chef's tables at the East Kiowa Street spot are $65 per person, and entrées routinely run in the $20 to $35 range. With prices like these, you shouldn't have to ask to place your first drink order, or have your server fail to clear unneeded place settings and deliver bread sans plates. (Don't get me started on the screaming ice grinder in the dining room.) Otherwise, service actually bordered on over-attentive, though that probably had something to do with everybody in the restaurant knowing who I was and why I was there.
But let's get back to dining, where a late-night menu (served after 10) offers tasty treats for $8, like the Fruits de Mer du Jour. Conscious Table rotates ingredients through this dish; mine packed fat scallops and plump shrimp, each with a flavor-concentrating hard sear, over a mound of grilled zucchini, carrots and onions swimming in a brain-meltingly good red-curry broth.
Two other stars: a lovely, light sandwich of chicken-and-pork house-made pâté, with a red-onion marmalade on house-baked apple and coriander bread; and the shrimp corndog, where rolled ground shrimp in a crispy cornbread batter pairs with Sriracha-laced ketchup and lime-juice-pumped yellow mustard. The Sencha Salad — named after Beavers' most beloved restaurant stop, where Retka also served — was perfectly balanced, too, if a little oversaturated with the goddamn addicting lapsang souchong smoked tea dressing.
Only the Mountain McMuffin failed, with its overcooked fried egg, burnt spicy pork sausage and murdered English muffins, which couldn't be cut with knife or fork. (Biscuits have since been swapped in.)
The option of a chef's table offers the best test of the kitchen's ability, as no diner that night will see the same dish as another.
Ours started with a killer amuse bouche of salt-cured butternut squash, onions and candied ginger on a crostini, and moved to a pillow-soft crêpe packed at the center with apples, candied bacon, Gorgonzola cream and strong arugula. A really fun, dark-pink risotto followed, mixed with cooked cherries, green onions and grapes. Bites of micro-green parsley — grown, along with basil, in the front window — popped.
After that, a single Gorgonzola-stuffed, wild-caught Atlantic scallop, ringed in a sunburst pattern with sliced mushrooms grilled in a saute of butter and smoked tea, was the highlight of the night, if not my life. Still to come, however, was a light lavender honey slush-cone intermezzo and, most creatively of all, pork "napkins": soft, hollowed potato rounds filled with savory shredded pork, next to a fan of sliced sweet potatoes.
Including the aforementioned dessert, the series of courses was breathtaking, made only more so by the restaurant nailing the wine pairings all night. And then, of course, there's the enjoyment of just thinking about where the food came from.
"People who think [local food's] a trend ... It's the way things were, for a long time, and it's the way they should go back to," says Beavers. "It's important to have well-raised food. You are what you eat."