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Mood Tapas Bar, district elleven and Bird Tree Café open in style as separate concepts tied by a shared kitchen

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Our Rick & Mordy breakfast sandwich strikes us as perfect hangover food. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Our Rick & Mordy breakfast sandwich strikes us as perfect hangover food.
I’ll give them an “A” for Ambition. Anyone who opens three bar/eateries nearly simultaneously is either a little nuts or just damn brave and confident. Crystal Byrd and Mike Thompson, to their credit, have successfully operated T-Byrd’s Tacos & Tequila downtown for more than three years (as well as being co-owners of Manitou Springs’ Emerald Fields recreational marijuana dispensary).

Before the recent launch of neighboring Mood Tapas Bar, Bird Tree Café and district elleven, they’d told the Indy last May, when they first announced their plans, that they saw each business as a very different concept, something they hadn’t seen around the Springs. Though I’m unsure of that — given that we do have TAPAteria, many coffee and casual sandwich spots, and more than one moody, whiskey-centric bar — I will confidently say we haven’t seen anything stylistically quite like these. Each does sport is own character, creating unique atmospheres to enjoy anything from an expensive bourbon pour to a shared appetizer to a Cortado.

Unifying the three spots, aside from the shared central kitchen out of which former occupant Wahid Hafsaoui ran Paris Crepe and Cafe Roma, is culinary direction from consulting chef Dan Latham, a one-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef, who also consults for Saint Leo in Oxford, Mississippi, a JBF 2017 semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Kevin Grossman, who hails from Atlanta-area restaurants, functions as the executive chef, supported by sous chef TJ Curry, whose résumé includes work at The Broadmoor. So: a competent crew capable of managing a three-headed monster in terms of prep, quarterly menu updates, and daily service that’s only dark between district elleven’s closure at 2 a.m. and Bird Tree’s opening at 8 a.m. Which isn’t to say we find everything we sampled yet dialed into perfection. They’re all good in various capacities, but greatness awaits the refinement of some basic chef techniques, the kind that sort the ordinary from extraordinary.

Location Details Bird Tree Café
218 N. Tejon St., #110
Downtown
Colorado Springs, CO

Let’s start at
Bird Tree Café, the most modest spot as decor goes, with modern black-and-white vinyl chairs, a rough-hewn wood bar top, and light wood half-wall wainscoting below cream and dark teal walls. White subway tile lines the back of the open sandwich and coffee counter and a roll-up door separates the dining area from a small enclosed patio facing Acacia Park. Sunlight floods in midday and a simple bi-fold menu offers four breakfast sandwiches and five “later day” sandwiches (all an easy $7), a couple salads, soup and a yogurt bowl. There’s roughly half-a-dozen each beers (from craft to hip-and-cheap) and cocktails ($6 to $10 save for a $14 bottomless mimosa option), and an espresso menu that runs an oddly expansive four cold brew options, utilizing local Building Three and Hold Fast coffee beans plus Denver’s Corvus roastery.

My barista Allie — who also moonlights as my bartender at Mood another night — gives excellent service (having come from Till, Garden of the Gods Gourmet), making me both a totally proficient cappuccino and enjoyable sweeter drink, a dirty chai with velvety oat milk foam. From the breakfast selections, I grab the Rick & Mordy, an English muffin stacked with seared, unctuous mortadella, a fried egg and sweet caramelized onions, all lathered in a punchy horseradish aioli. It feels like ideal hangover food. By contrast, my Vegano eats light, with an (over)charred (to mushy consistency) Mexican cauliflower “steak” seasoned by guacamole and a hot sauce vinaigrette (I could use more), with sprouts adding a fresh edge but making bites messy (they’re long-stemmed, catching like floss in the teeth; a couple knife chops would help). Its thick, toasted bun absorbs a lot of the flavor. Better are my housemade strawberry cream cheese scones, with a lavish smear of creamy vanilla icing atop.



Bird Tree was the third of the batch to launch, and seems ready to rock, aside from a large section of unfinished front ceiling, with exposed particle board revealing insulation at its corners, like there was a push to get open before the last renovation touches were realized. The trio’s websites and social media pages, too, have dead links and unfinished pages and misspellings, suggesting the overall launch and training-wheel phase remains in process. Understandable, when we’re talking three entities in one. These things should be easily smoothed in time. With attention toward to-go service for busy downtowners, Bird Tree should perch just fine park-side. By day, I dig it, but come nighttime, I’m personally more likely to head to Mood or district elleven for the more expansive drink menus.
Location Details district elleven
218 N. Tejon St., #120
Downtown
Colorado Springs, CO
district elleven’s walls draw the eye. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • district elleven’s walls draw the eye.
Despite their names, district elleven actually out-moods Mood itself, with an unmarked alleyway entrance as its primary access, though you may also pass through a door in Mood to reach it. The lighting’s super dim, with warm bulbs gifting an orange glow to cozy booths and a short bar area that backs up to whiskey lockers, one of the spot’s distinguishing characteristics. Basically, for a not-cheap annual fee, members can store whatever whiskeys they wish. Perhaps some of the rare ones their membership gains them access to at a reasonable cost, and they and their friends may drink out of that locker, just paying a $2 per-pour fee, much like a corking fee on a bottle of personal wine brought to a fine-dining restaurant. Another new-to-town feature: break-even bottle events, where the bar buys pricier bottles that may dissuade an individual from purchasing them, but broken into 20 sampling tickets, the group pays for the bottle at the bar’s cost, sans upcharge, in the spirit of access for all. Byrd told the Indy those bottles may run as high as $5,000 or $10,000, though the first event on Jan. 16 only featured Kentucky Owl Confiscated with tickets going for an everyman $5.

district elleven’s most notable feature, though, is the tall south wall area opposite the bar that features an assembly of comfy chairs, creating a swank lounge feel, and odd artworks and tchotchkes that clutter the wall skyward, salon style, as if telling some great historical story, even though they don’t. Mirrors mix with nautical drawings and landscapes and still life paintings and black-and-white photography and portraits and there’s candle holders and sconce lights and one creepy suspended doll. It’s as if a consignment store and antique gallery ran amok, replicating artifacts. Prior to my visit, some friends had hailed it as the coolest damn installation they’d seen, while others felt a hollowness to it all — one said it felt like an upscale steampunk chain restaurant, where the walls are crammed with shit just to be crammed with shit, even though it lacks meaning. I don’t feel too passionately one way or the other and am more curious about the scientific gadgetry behind the bar.

There’s a rotary evaporator (Google it because I can’t concisely describe it) and a centrifuge (like for blood work) and I spy a giant-sized Erlenmeyer flask I think (the big-ass conical beaker thingies — I wasn’t a student of science in college). Our bartender says Thompson studied chemistry and had this equipment already and that they’re trying to figure out how to play with it to make drinks in the future, leaving my dining mate to quip quietly to me “so you’re saying it’s clutter?” Like, is this a science bar or antique bar or whiskey bar or what exactly? All of the above, we surmise. Let’s drink.

The mood of district elleven feels more moody than the mood at Mood. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The mood of district elleven feels more moody than the mood at Mood.
One thing district elleven is doing with at least some of that equipment is making fat-washed cocktails, which other bars in town aren’t doing, to the best of our knowledge. That’s the technique where you take a fatty substance like melted butter, for example, and add it to a spirit, then chill it so the fat re-solidifies, after which it’s skimmed off, leaving the flavor of the fatty substance and typically a little velvetier texture. For the Lord of Bones, the fat washes whiskey with bone marrow, finishing the concoction with sugar and barbecue bitters. We’re skeptical, but then quite pleased by the drink, which tastes both a little sweet and spicy on the back of the palate; kudos to bar manager David Frink, who also joins the venture by way of The Broadmoor. His Saint of Lost Causes also proves rewarding, as an olive oil-washed gin, that with dry vermouth, olive bitters and a black pepper tincture, tastes like a dirty martini minus the brine, so it’s more subtle and purely olive-y.

For eats here, we nab a plate of thick-jacketed fried cauliflower oddly plated atop its habanero-influenced buffalo sauce (something we also find at Mood on another plate), which proves enjoyable enough otherwise — if you eat it quickly so it doesn’t have too much time to sog on the bottom. Crispy, spicy fried chicken sliders on a sweet bun with tangy pickle and lettuce garnish are pretty bar-food awesome, and our bartender also nabs us a side dip of guajillo mayo into which we dip both the slider and cauliflower. for a little extra pepper flavor. We do note the fryer oil should probably be turned hotter or changed out, based on our greasy fingers, and another plate at Mood in which we detect an off flavor.



Location Details Mood Tapas Bar
218 N. Tejon St., #100
Downtown
Colorado Springs, CO
Some plates at Mood prove particularly hard to share, like this pork belly cube. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Some plates at Mood prove particularly hard to share, like this pork belly cube.
Mood, the tapas concept, actually launched the whole venture creatively. We were originally told of an “upscale, modern Spanish fusion” goal and Mood’s website notes Mediterranean small plates, which accounts now for everything from rabbit to lamb treatments. It’s Mood’s menu with which we find the most problems — having been warned by others who visited before us about missteps from cold food that should have been hot, to meager portions for the price.

Staring at the bar, though, we’re almost in need of sunglasses given how bright the faux-marble acrylic bar top glows. It’s cool, making for great photos of illuminated drinks, but if you put your menu down it becomes quite difficult to read as the writing from the backside shows through to the front. Style at the cost of function in this case; I can forgive it because it lends a chic, big-city vibe to Mood’s front area, where modern chandeliers reflect off another roll-up door facing Acacia Park and shiny black two-tops with dark leather nailhead bar chairs invite couples to be seen by other couples and maybe be schmoopy publicly. It’s a neat space, designwise, which continues back toward district elleven with a long brick wall with plaster accents opposite a simple cream-colored wall with dark black lower wainscotting, black vinyl booths on an elevated platform in half of the room, and low four-tops with gray-upholstered modern chairs on the lower half. With a long sight-line, it feels empty if it’s not bustling with guests; there’s a mood to that too.

During 4 to 6 p.m. happy hours we happen to catch, we find $5 and $7 plates and $5 Buffalo Trace Old Fashioned cocktails, hard to beat, and well-made. A house-infused saffron gin drink shows a great concept but failed execution, with the saffron being so overwhelming (too much, oversteeped we surmise) it buries the described honey notes. Once we request a couple balancing splashes of orange bitters for balance and order a big square ice cube brought up from district elleven for dilution, it drinks better. (But nobody should need to play bartender to fix a drink for which they’re paying $10.) My friend sends back another cocktail so overwhelmed by mezcal and underbalanced that we may just as well have ordered a neat pour of the mezcal; he just re-ordered an Old Fashioned after that.

To the eats, we actually start off with a bang, with a pretty perfectly executed plate of pan con tomate, toasty thick bread topped with diced tomato spiked with ample garlic and seasoning. Admittedly, that’s an easy dish to not eff-up, as patatas bravas should be. Mood deviates from the classic take with fingerlings instead of russets or larger white potatoes, which is fine, except they’re desperately in need of salt. They taste pretty strongly of smoked paprika and we again aren’t sure why the saucing’s on the bottom of the plate instead of atop the spuds.

A cabbage and kale salad is just that with some grated cheese and smoked trout, plus the lazy garnish of halved grapes, which belong in kids’ lunchboxes more than on a modern tapas bar menu; the sweetness isn’t even complementary to the fish. A bowl of bucatini doesn’t show much elevation as basic boxed pasta with some tomato sauce and pork jowl, which sounds alluring, but ours indeed arrives less than hot on the plate, lending a little flavor, but also somehow tasting faintly like sardines in the finish. A coffee- and chile-braised pork belly cube (hard to share as tapas go, feeling more like a center-plate dish) could benefit from a much more gooey interior.

Neither the coffee nor chile show up much flavorwise and though a garnishing honey comb segment shows a fun touch for a pop of sugar, the underlying Spanish rice “grits” are kinda just a starchy mush, with scant grain texture left and no outstanding seasoning. It feels like a good idea that’ll work with better execution.

So again, “A” for ambition on the whole, but there are still tweaks to be made, now that most of the stress of opening is in the rearview mirror. Still, Thompson, Byrd and crew should be commended for such an expansive undertaking; there’s a lot for diners and drinkers to explore among the three entities.

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