In April, Food & Wine magazine bestowed its "highest honor," the annual Best New Chef award, to 10 U.S. culinarians "who represent every frontier of cooking in America today." One of those was 36-year-old Alex Seidel, co-owner and chef at Denver's 3 1/2-year-old Fruition Restaurant.
While some greeted this news with surprise, others surely found vindication: Back in May 2007, not long after Fruition's opening, Westword food critic Jason Sheehan predicted, "Someday, this place [is] going to affect the gestalt, alter the scene in which it exists, change the boundaries, shift a paradigm or two." And the Denver Post, in February of this year, named Fruition one of 10 restaurants that "define Denver's culinary momentum," calling Seidel the most "careful, consistent, precise cook in Denver."
Whatever the guy's been doing, it's been working famously. In late June, we ventured north to find out just what's behind all the acclaim, and to see how Fruition could measure up to the hype.
The seersucker suit said it immediately: These guys aren't futzin' around.
We'd stepped in off of East Sixth Avenue, where nearby mini-mansions offered a scenic walking tour while we awaited our reservation. Immediately inside the threshold stood Seidel's business partner and Fruition maître d' Paul Attardi, looking dapper enough to either deliver a Southern-style sermon or conduct a symphony. Peering over a reservation book jammed with competition for Fruition's 50-odd seats nightly, he exuded an orchestrator's solemnity.
Seidel will later tell me by phone that Attardi is a "big reason this restaurant is successful," calling him a "consummate pro" with "a Denver following" and infectious personality (unseen by us) to which people naturally gravitate. The two, with roughly 50 years' restaurant experience between them, hopped ship together from another recognized Denver eatery, Mizuna. That brought to fruition a dream of "a restaurant to call our own" — hence the name coined by Seidel's wife, Melissa.
Attardi showed us through a tight concentration of seating to our table, dressed without pretension over naked, polished, dark wood. Low ceilings furthered the quasi-claustrophobic vibe, as did servers yielding to one another and squeezing through narrow corridors that would easily deny an airline drink cart. Beware the stray elbow.
Snug and ready to feast, we were greeted by our server, who represents a second level of Fruition's achievement. All the waiters have been with the outfit since opening, which is unusual, if not unheard of. Seidel guides them through eight to nine menu changes annually, on which he invites their input and ensures their full comprehension.
Our server, aside from dutifully wrapping and re-presenting our napkins each time one of our party left the table, answered all our menu questions in exacting detail, but also maintained a relaxed, casual tone, reminding that haute cuisine need not be uncomfortable.
Our first appetizer featured a third insight into the eatery: ingredients grown at Fruition Farms in Larkspur, which Seidel purchased in May 2009 and now commutes to five days a week. The land also grows greens for 40 other area restaurants (under the name Verde Farms), and in addition to chickens, it'll soon house 45 sheep that will produce cheese for the restaurant.
From the farm, a pea tendril and leek salad joined ocean trout caviar and an English pea mousse as garnish to a spectacular Vichyssoise (a classic leek soup, $10), which delivered velvety love under the accents.
"That is really what our whole philosophy is: to take comfort foods, foods people know or have memories of, and spin it into our own little version," says Seidel. Echoing a methodology described to me last year by five-star Penrose Room chef Bertrand Bouquin, Seidel adds, "Our menu is about the ingredient — not muddling the plate with a lot of ingredients, but keeping it simple but well-executed. If you start with good things and your execution is done right, you're gonna have a good product."
Exhibit B for this argument: our second app, a gorgeously presented fistful of crispy soft-shell crab ($14) suspended elegantly between a grilled haricots verts mix and a fingerling potato salad whipped with crème fraîche and a pricey Pommery mustard. (Tagline: "Served at the tables of French kings since 1632.") Each element was expertly crafted.
Before dissecting our entrées, let's visit the fourth and most crucial element of Fruition's superiority: the kitchen capable of executing Seidel's vision. Like the wait staff, all of the opening-day crew remains, and Seidel says he considers four members to effectively be sous chefs. The team gathers for brief, daily meetings to maintain solid communication; individuals are encouraged to experiment, create dishes, and make mistakes (from which to learn); each person preps his/her station for the night (there are no prep cooks otherwise); and almost all are cross-trained between stations and rotate often.
"It goes against every grain of any kitchen I've ever worked in," says Seidel, insisting that the entirely unique — and aggressive, innovative, and let's just agree, half-mad — system keeps everyone challenged, builds pride and forces responsibility from start to finish.
Lastly — and this is key — Seidel insists he isn't the stereotypical screamer.
"I'm probably the most chill chef you'll ever meet," he says. A fact that's even more surprising considering he regularly works 80- to 90-hour weeks between the farm and restaurant, on top of helping Melissa raise two children.
So, secrets shared and magic formula on the table, let's talk about walleye pike, specifically one seared flaky with soft gnocchi, delicate Fruition Farm micro fennel confit and fava beans in a lovely escargot and clamshell mushroom fricassée (stew, $25). The dish pays homage to the Friday night fish fries of Seidel's Wisconsin upbringing. (He puts some version of pike on at least one menu annually in tribute.) With this version, though the escargot is a natural fish pairing, the spin comes with the fennel as a twist on traditional anise, garlic and parsley, or use of herb-rich Pernod liqueur.
The mushroom component is a fungophile's dream — unless said fungophile would prefer the transcendent grilled trumpet mushrooms that help elevate my personal favorite item of the evening: pan roasted diver scallops ($24). Timed with this summer menu to ensure peak sweetness, the scallops join the mushrooms, homemade orecchiette pasta — mini ear-shapes, which allow the sauce to adhere to the pasta better — and sweet corn succotash in a truffled corn beurre fondue.
It's totally stupefying — think rich and buttery meets earthy meets starchy meets sweet meets the last best thing you ate times five.
Next up, Fruition's signature entrée, which has remained on every menu since opening: the Maple Leaf Farms Duck Breast ($24) served on a creamy mound of carnaroli risotto flecked with pine nuts and arugula pesto. More arugula and a thin sliver of house-smoked duck prosciutto provide garnish, as does a playful outline of a sweet, syrupy red onion marmalade. Seidel says the plate speaks to Fruition's basic belief in easy-to-identify-with comfort food, left simple, but spiked by interesting technique. The sauce and risotto sing together, and the fatty, tender duck realizes the protein's potential.
Lastly for savories, we ordered the Grazing Vegetarians two-course entrée ($22), a nightly special designed by the cook on the hot appetizer station and the person working the seafood spot. Seidel gives his crew full rein on these, and our dishes showed just how capable and creative that team is.
We first received a caramelized cippolini onion bread pudding peeking out from under a hill of shaved fennel and apple salad in a pistachio vinaigrette; thin coins of roasted red pepper and balsalmic-marinated figs lay interwoven at the base. A slightly acidic and biting sweetness pervaded, but the multitude of flavors and textures married delightfully.
Another relative skyscraper and color bomb (not to mention an alliterative ode to the letter P), the second course consisted of a baby food-like, but not off-putting, carrot purée under sweet corn polenta en croute and a salad of carrot "fettuccini," pea, peashoot and pickled red pepper. Naturally sweet tones again led the charge, muted a bit by the greens and vinegar hint.
Did I mention that Fruition doesn't employ a pastry chef?
To everything I said before about the self-prep and cross-training, add the fact that each station is also responsible for one dessert item's prep and plating each night.
"I believe it's important for all chefs to understand pastries," says Seidel, who never rehired the position after his initial pastry person left to have a baby. His staff met and mutually decided to take the challenge on as a group.
Judging from the dessert lineup we sampled (all $8), they're succeeding fine.
On the not-too-sweet side, we cut into a delicate honey-pistachio mini-soufflé accompanying a single, long-cut mission fig and wedge of Vendéen Bichonne, a western France cow cheese regarded for a salty nuttiness. A side splash of Banyuls (a $20-plus-per-bottle specialty vinegar) vinaigrette completed the tidy plate.
Next, a cupcake-like flourless chocolate cake made with high-end, French Valrhona cocoa, was joined by caramel mousse, peanut brittle and salted peanut butter caramel. No further description needed — this is the must-get.
Lastly, three soft, gooey double-fudge cookies accompanied a small ramekin of caramelized banana pudding under whipped cream. Again, classic comfort food items, almost completely unostentatious in composition. But the "careful, consistent" precision showed all the way.
Inasmuch as a single restaurant can alter an entire scene, Fruition is doing just that. Beyond farm-to-table practices and well-executed, classic techniques, Seidel and crew are demonstrating just how far ingredients can be pushed. In their culinary realm, complexity and simplicity hang in perfect balance, allowing even minor accents to leave you breathless.