As a teenager growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, Josh Oakley was a drummer in a garage band with aspirations of making it in the music world. Thankfully, for patrons of Avelina, a popular downtown Denver eatery, that didn’t work out.
“I was in my senior year in high school and my dad was saying you need to find something you’re passionate about where you can actually make money because otherwise you’ll be a broke musician,” says Oakley, Avelina’s executive chef. “I knew I needed to graduate with another credit and that’s when someone asked, ‘Why don’t you try home ec?’ So I did and I found it fascinating.”
That spawned the idea of attending culinary school, which came with a $40,000 price tag. Instead, a family friend that just so happened to be a James Beard Award-winning chef at Christopher’s and Crush Lounge, an acclaimed Scottsdale restaurant, offered the teen an apprenticeship. Over the next two years, the culinary boot camp taught him well.
“I didn’t know thyme from rosemary or parsley from cilantro,” explains Oakley. “I got yelled at a lot, I got made fun of a ton, but I stuck it out and by the time I was 19, I was working grill at a very nice restaurant.”
His next job was as a sous chef at the Wrigley Mansion, one of Phoenix’s best wedding banquet halls, followed by a move to Colorado, where he ended up working for Mark Fischer at The Pullman in Glenwood Springs and two other Fischer enterprises, one called Town (formerly Six89) in Carbondale and Harman’s, a Denver restaurant. Looking for a break from the grind associated with 55 to 60 hour weeks, in 2015 Oakley ventured to the south of France, where he studied at the Gastronomicom Culinary Academy.
Under the tutelage of two Michelin star chefs he enriched his culinary skills over the next three months, learning more about French cooking techniques and pastries. Returning to Colorado recharged, he learned of Avelina’s impending debut, applied for the executive chef position and was hired. When it opened on Labor Day 2016, Avelina, which means “little bird” in Italian, had patrons immediately flocking to the place.
“We were supposed to be more of an Italian restaurant, but at that time there were a lot of other restaurants opening up with that same kind of idea,” says Karen Pence, general manager. “With New American (cuisine) the trend, that pretty much meant we could do whatever we wanted.”
Pence, who gave up her partnership in a successful restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, was able to convince Kevin and Stacey Jennings, the principals of Urban Food Group, to put their energies and resources towards adding Avelina to their portfolio of restaurants. Browse reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor and it appears the gambit paid off. The restaurant averages a 4.5 of five stars possible on TripAdvisor with guest comments like “Fantastic Service, Delicious Food,” “Fun and Trendy Brunch,” “My New Favorite in LoDo,” and “Can I Rate It a Six?”
Dine there and you’ll appreciate the accolades. The food, which Oakley characterizes as “approachable,” is prepared using fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced largely from Colorado purveyors including Rebel Farm in Denver, Rocky Mountain Fresh in Longmont, Acres Farm in Lakewood and Littleton’s Mile High Fungi, and farmer’s markets, as well as regional ranches and farms. The menus include proteins like beef, poultry, pork, lamb, seafood and fish, as well as veggies, cheeses, eggs, fruits and nuts. To keep things interesting Oakley and Pence typically change the menus six times a year.
“We’re always thinking about how the food is finished and the how the cooking technique, seasoning, brining or curing, how all those extra steps really help elevate the food without making it pretentious,” adds Oakley. “We try to have something for everyone and that's where the New American concept really comes into play here.”
Peruse the shared plates menu and you’ll see items like Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Pork Belly and Artichoke Flatbread. Sounds ho-hum until you add cilantro, cumin lime vinaigrette, toasted hazelnuts and apple to the Brussels Sprouts); artichoke, cotto salami, ricotta cheese and basil to the pork belly); or compressed melon, feta, herbs and cashew butter to the Artichoke Flatbread.
Straightforward sounding entrees like Agnolotti, Pork Tenderloin and Trout come to life when you invite vichyssoise, English peas, serrano ham and Parmesan cheese (Wild Mushroom Agnolotti); polenta cake, chorizo, summer succotash, black garlic reduction and tomato jam (Pork Tenderloin) and carrot purée, lentils, sweet peas and horseradish crema (Steelhead Trout) to the party.
Patrons can enjoy their menu selections while seated in the main dining room, at the bar, on the sidewalk patio or in the private dining room. Though the decor feels somewhat formal, Avelina’s personality leans towards casual where jeans and a sweater share the space with suits and high heels. One of the coolest attributes of this restaurant is its open kitchen.
“People that have never been in the restaurant business find it fascinating to watch the kitchen at work,” explains Pence. “I say it’s like an orchestra, where the kitchen can be putting up 20 different items that all come up perfectly at the same time. I love guests having that experience.”
If your friends ask how you heard about Avelina, just tell them a little bird told you.
1550 17th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Kim McHugh, a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer, is a “foodie” of sorts whose wife is a fantastic cook. Though he’s enjoyed a number of Avelina’s tasty menu items he still has the Colorado Lamb Meatball on his ‘to do’ list. Oh, and then there’s brunch and the Smoked Salmon Benedict.
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