There’s no denying that when compared with coastal giants like New York or Los Angeles, the Denver food scene is peripheral. Though, it’s an easy mistake to confuse peripheral with provincial, with many critics and consumers implying that when things exist outside of the center they must lack the same kind of quality or sophistication that can be found amidst the bustle. Denver has quickly been dispelling this notion. In just the past few years several of Kelly Whitaker’s restaurants and plenty of the concepts from the Culinary Creative have been helping to put the city on the map as a place capable of serious cuisine. Not to mention the growing number of chefs from both near and far who are now approaching the local market with palpable hunger. Even so, it seems like we’re a long way off from a Michelin nod.
Much in the same way that Denver has been considered an outsider by the nation’s food scene at large, Colorado’s Western Slope has long been regarded as while not necessarily a culinary backwater, certainly not a place where serious food lovers go to dine. And while there’s been a shift occurring for some time, only recently have a growing number of producers, restaurants and wineries been legitimately snowballing their way into visibility. There has never been a better time to make the drive across the continental divide, book a stay and indulge in an area that is finally embracing its own singular character.
Palisade is a good place to start. The tight-knit agricultural community has forever been famous for its peaches and has for many decades been responsible for producing a fair chunk of the state’s wine. In the past few years, the texture of the town has started to shift, with new blood imparting the place with not only superior products but accommodations set to attract a younger crowd. The Wine Country Inn has been joined by the Spoke and Vine Motel, with the dozen-plus nearby wineries giving the area a real wine country romance fit for unruly bachelorette parties and flirty weekend getaways. One of the real leading forces for this community in transition is Sauvage Spectrum.
The young winery from long-time grape and tree fruit grower Kaibab Sauvage and winemaker and Infinite Monkey Theorem alumni Patric Matysiewski quickly gained acclaim for its Sparklet, a series of affordable sparkling wines that quickly drew enormous praise from the likes of Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator. Both founders believe that much of their continued success has come from embracing the kind of grapes that flourish in the region, opting to grow and bottle a growing list of what has been up to this point underrated varietals.
“Colorado was trying to be California, they weren’t embracing their own identity,” said Sauvage. “We don’t want to compete for that shelf space when we can just be authentic and be ourselves,” added Matysiewski, noting that the whole valley has been trending away from the mediocre cabernets of yore. The winery recently released Piquette, a canned natural wine spritzer that uses spent grape pressings to create a low ABV alternative to the unending list of seltzers that continue to flood the market.
On top of producing exceptional wines, Sauvage and Matysiewski both seem to have a knack for community building, both cheering on their cohorts and establishing legitimate links between both budding projects and established staples. The nearby Colorado Vintner’s Collective is a small tasting room turned local hangout that serves wines exclusively from the Western Slope. Sauvage Spectrum can be found there, alongside a rotating cast from some of the region’s best producers. “If we do it together it kind of elevates everyone,” grinned Matysiewski. Even more directly is the winery’s connection to Taste of Palisade‘s Ashley McGee, who produces a series of fabulous charcuterie boards made almost entirely from local ingredients available to be consumed at Sauvage Spectrum’s tasting room and even directly amidst the connected estate’s grapes.
Further west there’s Josh Niernberg. The fourth-generation Denver native grew up in the city’s restaurants, beginning with a cooking position at the now-shuttered Old Chicago on Market Street while still in high school. He’s since worked for Kevin Taylor, helped to open some early stalwarts including Vega, Chama, Tambien and Sketch after working with Sean Yontz at Tamayo. While many of the restaurants have since closed, they all represented a vanguard that paved the way for the city’s current flourishing.
Niernberg moved to Grand Junction in 2007, opening the original Bin 707 Food and Wine in 2009. In 2011, it changed locations, reopening as Bin 707 Foodbar, seemingly the beating heart of a growing downtown. The menu has many of the trappings of more traditional upscale restaurants — seared salmon and cured duck breast abound — but a closer look will reveal the kind of creativity that warps each and every dish into something downright sublime. The atmosphere is also decidedly casual — pastels and wall hangings indicative of the region fill the brightly lit space. “It’s more of a slow dining experience than a fine dining experience,” said Niernberg. Though the food is fine indeed. Starters like the chicken liver mousse “PBJ” ($15) — which comes ornamented with strawberry, pistachio and apricot butter — give a good indication that while the interpretations are playful, this is serious food. “It’s like the best dessert for a first course ever,” smiled the chef.
Directly down the street from Bin is Taco Party. Opened in early 2017, the fast-casual taco joint is reason enough to visit Grand Junction, with tacos like the pork belly al pastor — laced with adobo aioli, salsa seca, onion escabeche and corn shoots — displaying Niernberg’s unyielding inventiveness. Find a way to eat this taco.
The menus at both Taco Party and Bin are based on keeping things hyperlocal, with Niernberg continuing to develop his cooking style around a developing Colorado cuisine that he likens to a fluid language.
“The menus at the restaurants are always evolving, they inform each other and our seasons inform them. As the menus evolve and develop through time they kind of become alive. As that happens the way we talk about the dishes and plan the menus becomes its own language which we all have learned to speak. The more fluent we get as a team speaking this menu language, the better the menus become and the more complex the stories and flavors of the dishes themselves become,” he said.
The Western Slope, much like Colorado itself, is proving to be a strong case against any notion that the outskirts are unavoidably inferior to the big dogs. With a growing number of players exhibiting boldness, a distinct vision and an unwavering commitment to the surroundings, there’s no arguing that the region is ultimately carving a new and admirable lane of its own.
Sauvage Spectrum is located at 676 38 1/4 Rd., Palisade. It is open Monday – Thursday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday – Saturday from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Bin 707 Foodbar is located at 225 North 5th St. #105, Grand Junction. It is open Tuesday – Saturday from 5 – 9 p.m.