Prior to paying a proper visit to downtown Denver’s sexy modern saloon, the name “Hearth & Dram” may not illicit distinct feelings of excitement. After all, in a serious restaurant scene abounding with ampersands and wood-fired flavors, it is easy to overlook this unassuming gem. Coyly hidden on the residential side of Union Station, Hearth & Dram’s modest exterior is proof that one should never judge a book by its cover — especially if the “book” contains over 300 whiskeys, innovative whole-animal feasts, impossible-to-find cheeses, impeccably fresh seafood, house-made tofu you may actually fight your herbivorous friends for — and — well, house-made just-about-everything.
With high ceilings, pop art accents, edgy black paint and a gleaming wall of whiskey, Hearth & Dram’s ambiance is both modish and comfortable — an interesting habitation for a pair of chefs who pride themselves on “making people uncomfortable” with their adventurous approach to food. In fact, it seems as if the creative and charismatic duo — executive chef Adam Vero and chef de cuisine Jeff Hickman — may have sold parts of their souls for extra hours in the day. There is no other explanation as to how this stellar team manages to make nearly everything on the menu from scratch. To put it simply — the two obviously give a damn. Despite loosely identifying with the broad and painfully over-replicated category of cuisine designated as “rustic” or “new American,” Hearth & Dram proves to be so much more. Vero, who formerly worked for TAG Restaurant Group, joined Hearth & Dram 11 months ago, bringing along Hickman, who also worked for TAG, shortly after. Together, the collaborative culinary talents have reimagined Hearth & Dram’s menu, “figuring out the beast” and incorporating global influences into a variety of brilliantly executed dishes.
Striking up a conversation about rare cheese will illuminate passion in these chefs’ faces. Even recognizable items such as charcuterie, scallops, lamb and gnocchi offer more than meets the eye. First, the charcuterie is consciously created over a multi-day process. Oxtail dumplings which accompany the Maine diver scallops ($34), are made from scratch, along with the complex xo sauce. The grilled Colorado rack of lamb ($39) is perfection. Beet gnocchi with smoked golden beet puree, pistachio and local feta? ($12) — okay, vegetarians, we get it.
While “hearth” and “dram” already suggest smoking and distilling, consider the fact that a couple seemingly straightforward plates may have materialized after hours of curing, brining, pickling, dehydrating and rehydrating — among other intricate steps. Even the ultra-satisfying H & D burger ($15) — a Denver Burger Battle peoples’ choice winner with thick-cut bacon, cheddar and umami aoli is a masterpiece in itself. Diners may relish in the fact that everything from their fresh steamed Hawaiian rolls to complemental condiments, with the exception of ketchup — Vero is still partial to Heinz — are all masterful products from the Hearth & Dram kitchen. Ultimately, the labor and love put forth in each dish is apparent within the flavors. Listening to Vero and Hickman describe the profusion of cooking techniques utilized in the production of each plate will undeniably precipitate respect. It may also make you exhausted on their behalf.
A couple more standout dishes? Try the yellowtail crudo ($13) — delicate, buttery hamachi with pickled green strawberries, cashews confit in avocado oil, white shoyu and ponzu. Or just ask for the dessert that tastes like an Almond Joy.
Amazingly, the beverage program does not fall short for this already impressive restaurant. Whiskey flights are available for the indecisive drinker as well as refreshing cocktails to sip throughout spring and summer. If the phrase “unicorn blood” strikes up feelings of snow cone nostalgia, as opposed to fantasy-fueled anxiety, say the magic words and a sweet, strong, cocktail shall appear before your eyes. Not convinced? Go ahead and inquire about any appropriate beverage or wine-pairing. For Hearth & Dram, there are no limitations to the menu’s accessibility and flair.
Hearth & Dram is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7 days a week. Oh yeah, check out happy hour and a weekend brunch buffet as well. 1801 Wewatta St., Denver.