Citizen Rail may be a Denver infant, as restaurants surface hereabouts, but it’s got a lot of old, venerable Denver to it, too.
The name is a nod to its location, a chip’s toss from Union Station, the city’s transportation wheelhouse since 1881. Citizen Rail’s dining room and bar interior is 21st century saloon, all dark wood, burnished metal, and camp-lantern lighting. And the entire space circles the fire and heat of a mammoth open grill, home-on-the-range way.
The food is driven West, too, in its emphasis on hearty, hefty things, charred, to chomp.
Its address is about as “Denver” as could be. The city wouldn’t have become the center of the Rocky Mountain empire had not the Denver Pacific Railway, in 1878, dropped down a line from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and two years later built Union Station.
In the late 1870s, the great Overland Route girded the United States in iron, but it did so well north of Colorado Territory. Noting the lack of rail activity in Denver, railway man Thomas Durant pronounced Denver “too dead to bury.” A mere 100-mile spur from Cheyenne to Denver changed all that.
Citizen Rail—its place, its look, and its menu—is a darn good example of Colorado roots come modern. In his choice of foods especially, the executive chef Christian Graves both honors his new hometown’s past as well as rubs in the polish of today.
In a bit of a reverse of “Go West, young man,” Graves came to Citizen Rail from prior kitchen work in San Diego with most of his ideas for what Citizen Rail would become already under his toque.
While at San Diego’s Jsix restaurant, Graves says, “I tried for two years to make this concept to a T. We would forage a lot of stuff; there was a live grill. But it never really penciled out completely.”
A move to Boulder, an offer from Kimpton Restaurants (“chef-crafted, seasonal menus … local farms and purveyors”) and an historic footprint was all the list of ingredients that Graves needed to fashion that long-standing wish into reality.
His menu is a paean to the past of frontier, at-home butchery, preserving food from season to season, and cooking with what’s at hand because, simply put, that’s what was there to cook.
But you can tell, from the design of the place, to the layout of the menu, to the tone of his voice, that Graves’ favor is for his fire.
“Open fire cooking just puts more control in our hands,” says Graves. “We can raise or lower the grills, stoke the fire, move embers around, cook in the coals if we want, put pans on the coals or not.
“It’s upwards of 900 degrees on that grill,” he says. “You’re staring Satan in the face.”
And so, what issues from the fire are dishes such as wood-grilled oysters; crispy artichokes and crab with “ember-blistered” lemon curd; a salad of grilled escarole; even desserts with “ember-melted” apples.
Citizen Rail barman Chris Burmeister stares into Satan’s face, too, and dresses drinks with elements such as grilled pineapple or smoked cinnamon sticks. The restaurant rarely misses a chance to tie a ribbon from the Old West onto something that it serves today.
Of course all manner of meat—red, pink, white—sees fire too.
Not only does Citizen Rail butcher its meat in-house, it ages much of it on premises too. “Dry-aging meat concentrates flavor,” says Graves, “but it also helps tenderness. Twenty-eight days hanging is ideal for us, but we also have cuts older than that, even up to 65 days.”
Because Graves is an aficionado of curing, preserving and aging meats, his larder also sports ranks of different charcuterie, sausages and salami that he has crafted, all left to hang and age into a greater deliciousness.
(Graves carries over his favor for fermentation into house-made pickles and sauerkraut.)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the reason Citizen Rail sports a breakfast menu is that it’s tied at the belly button to the Hotel Born, another Kimpton property.
“Well, we are attached to the hotel,” says Graves, “but I would have a breakfast menu anyway.
“Grilling, sautéing, it’s a brute force sort of cooking. I’ve got that down. But breakfast is a different kind of cooking; it’s a ballet, delicate, lighter, in and out of the oven, touching all points.”
He says cooking an egg and cooking a piece of meat are two different cookings.
“Can’t have one without the other,” he says.
Bill St John has written and taught about restaurants, food and food & wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine.
Mussels with Dijon and Tarragon
Serves 3 as a starter
3 pounds of fresh mussels
2 Tbsp of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tbsp of garlic chopped
2 Tbsp of Dijon mustard
2 cups white wine
2 Tbsp of rough chopped tarragon
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
2 tsp fennel pollen
1 Tbsp of aioli (garlic mayonnaise)
1 cup of hand cut fries (just make sure they are gluten free if store bought)
Dash of salt
1 Tbsp butter
Place a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When pan is very warm add Mussels and olive oil. Quickly add garlic, mustard and dash of salt. Add the wine and reduce by half. As the mussels open place them one by one in a serving dish. Had half the herbs and swirl in the butter. When the sauce is just under half the wine pour over the mussels and top with fries. Drizzle the aioli over fries and dust with the fennel pollen. Then add the other half of herbs as garnish.
Grilled Albacore Tuna in Olive Oil
4- 6 oz pieces of Albacore Tuna
1 pint of cherry tomatoes in olive oil
½ cup thin sliced zucchini
¼ cup thinly sliced yellow summer squash
¼ cup sliced fennel bulb
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp chopped thyme
1 cup nice extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp dry white wine
1 tsp fennel pollen
2 cloves garlic sliced paper thin (Good Fella’s style)
4 basil leaves torn
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
This is a great summer dish and is great on its own with crusty bread or with a bowl of pasta, risotto, or salad greens. The best part is how easy it is!!
Turn on your grill and let it get nice and hot. Season the tuna with a little olive oil salt, pepper and reserve until you are ready to cook. Take the tomatoes, squash, zucchini, fennel, lemon, thyme, wine, fennel pollen, and garlic together basically everything except the basil and parsley. Place it in a metal bowl that you can place on the grill. Season the vegetables with a little salt and pepper. Remember you can add more salt but you can’t take it away once you’ve added it. Let all the ingredients sit for at least 10 minutes together. When you are ready to cook place the bowl with the vegetables on a warm part of the grill. I use the top rack on my home grill. Then start to mark the tuna as you would with a steak. I like mine rare so I grill each side for about 1 minute on each side. When the pieces are done place them in the bowl of oil and vegetables. Add the chopped parsley and basil. Stir with a spoon and mix thoroughly. You are now ready to chow down! Serve it a bowl or with one of the sides mentioned earlier.
Hickory Braised Oxtail + Rice Porridge
A perfect plate for a cold day
Water, milk or stock
Ground rice (or white rice)
White Cheddar cheese
Marinade: Salt, pepper, thyme
1 celery stalk
2 onions, halved
Spices, to taste: bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, sage
For the porridge: Add 4 parts water, milk or stock to 1 part ground rice. Blend white rice until it’s the size of grits in a bar blender. Boil water and add the rice like polenta. Keep it just below a simmer and stir with a whisk so it doesn’t clump. Add grated cheese until desired texture is reached (Chef recommends ¼ cup of rice and about the same of cheese per person).
For the oxtail: Use about 2 large pieces per person and marinate in pepper, salt and fresh thyme. Traditionally this would be seared before braising, but in this case, grill hard over hickory to get a crust on the outside and seal the piece of meat, if possible. After it has a crust put it in a large cast iron pot for braising.
Add 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk and 2 onions (halved). Cover with heavily reduced veal stock. Add your favorite spices like bay, thyme, peppercorns and sage. Cover with foil and braise for about 4 hours at 250 degrees.
Let sit on stovetop 30 minutes before serving.
For garnish, add some root vegetables like sautéed baby carrots, celery root or turnips.
To serve, in a deep bowl ladle a big spoon of the porridge. With the back tip of the spoon drag it through the porridge to make a well for the oxtail. Place the oxtail in the well and ladle a spoonful of the smoky sauce over the oxtail to glaze it. Add chosen garnish and enjoy.
Grilled Whole Bass
To debone fish:
Turn fish so that bottom side is up. With kitchen scissors cut from the collar down to the tail on one side of spine and then again on the other side of the spine. This will free the ribs. Using a kitchen knife cut along both sides of spine up to the top of the fish. This will cut out all the internal bones. Then cut out the belly flap. Or just eat and avoid bones.
For the Bass:
1-2 pounds scaled and gutted striped bass (available at Whole Foods)
Corse salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 pound Persian cucumbers cut into coins on a mandolin
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
½ Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 lime cut into very thin coins/rings (as thin as you can get it and still be intact)
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Sprinkle with salt
Herb and Citrus Salad:
¼ cup picked cilantro sprigs
¼ cup parsley leaves
¼ cup chervil sprigs
¼ cup picked tarragon leaves
Ribbons from 2 lemons (blanched)
Ribbons from 2 oranges (blanched)
Ribbons from 2 limes (blanched)
1 tsp Maldon Sea Salt
1 tsp of extra virgin olive oil
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 tsp toasted coriander seed smashed in mortar and pestle or spices grinder
Turn grill on high. Season fish with salt, pepper and oil. After grill is hot start fish. This takes the longest amount of time and needs to be done first. Allow to cook for 4 minutes and then turn 45 degrees on grill to get nice crass marks and cook evenly. Allow to cook for 3 minutes and turn. Place on a less hot spot of the grill and return to kitchen for other prep. After 10 minutes just turn the grill off and get the fish when you are ready. Mix all quick pickle ingredients together and allow to sit until ready to use. Toast and crush the coriander seeds and mix with yogurt and set aside as well. Mix salad and place on the side. Place the fish on a large platter with the accompaniments around it. Flatbreads and tortillas are always a good vehicle to put everything on.
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