If you’ve never experienced cuisine associated with the Iberian peninsula, hold off on redeeming your air miles and instead pull up a chair at Ultreia. Opened in December 2017, the eatery is the latest addition to the portfolio of Crafted Concepts, whose restaurants include Euclid Hall, Stoic & Genuine, Bistro Vendôme and Rioja. Occupying a space on the northeast corner of Denver’s Union Station, Ultreia was inspired by visits business partners Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch took to Spain and Portugal.
“Beth and I had done a few trips through Spain, and as I got to know the country more, I fell in love with the food, and how dining at a tapas restaurant was so inviting, communal, casual and fun,” says Jasinski. “Also, since everyone thought Rioja was Spanish, I wanted to finally open up a place with our twist on Iberian cuisine.”
Study the menu and you’ll appreciate that the James Beard award-winning chef and executive chef, Adam Branz, did their homework. Among the variety of Iberian-influenced items patrons can enjoy are Chorizo Picante y Manchego, spicy chorizo sausage with manchego cheese; Gildas, a bite-size snack comprised of olive, anchovy and Basque chiles; Croquetas de Jamón, ham croquette; Pescado Conservado, tinned fish such as Trout en Escabeche with potato chips; and Pico Pau, marinated beef flank steak, assorted pickles, caraway aioli and mint.
Branz, whose helmed the kitchen since Ultreia’s debut, came to Denver by way of St. Louis the day after he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in 2010. Accompanying his wife, who had then just been accepted to University of Denver law school, the rising chef first put his cooking skills to work after landing a job at Rioja in Larimer Square.
Springboarding from that experience, he expanded his culinary knowledge at a number of Denver restaurants before heading to San Francisco, where he worked at Benu, a recipient of three Michelin stars, as well as restaurants in Chicago, Portland and Austin. Returning to Denver, he stepped back into his life at Rioja before transitioning to Bistro Vendôme, where he was named chef du cuisine in 2014 and eventually executive chef before moving over to Ultreia.
Guests entering the restaurant, which serves lunch, dinner and brunch, are wowed by a bar whose collection of spirits are displayed nearly to the ceiling with bottles on the higher shelves accessed by a tall ladder that glides along a metal rail. Notable aspects of the decor are the murals. Inspired by a painting originally done by 17th century Dutch landscape artist, Aelbert Cuyp, the enlarged wallpaper panels make a statement.
Indoor seating accommodates upwards of 50 patrons who can choose a table on the main floor or, for more intimate dining, on the second level mezzanine. The outdoor patio, which seats 50, is open year-round with heaters keeping guests warm during winter months. An open kitchen invites main floor patrons to watch the goings-on as dishes are prepared.
“It’s really cool when guests first walk in and they get to see the energy of the kitchen,” explains Branz. “It’s really interactive and guests can be very engaged in that world. You’ll hear the cooks calling out food orders, there is a lot of back-and-forth and the energy really carries through the restaurant.”
Similarly to all of the Crafted Concepts restaurants, most of Ultreia’s cuisine is prepared using fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced primarily from Colorado purveyors including Acres Farm in Lakewood, Boulder Lamb & Meats, FoodMaven in Colorado Springs, Toohey & Sons near Hygiene, Rocky Mountain Fresh in Longmont, and the Union Station farmers market.
Ham afficionados find a sublime choice in the Cinco Jotas Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Aged 4 years and imported from Spain, it is a delicacy. True to traditional Spanish and Portuguese fare, the restaurant serves many of its pintxos (pronounced PEEN-chos) using fish and seafood packaged in tins.
“That is something that is so celebrated in Spain and Portugal, but we wanted to test the idea because it’s kind of expensive to import canned fish from Spain,” adds Branz. “It just took off and now guests come in specifically for (those dishes). It’s really fun, we serve it in the tin with potato chips and just a little bit of aioli so you can build your own bite.”
Contrary to the United States, Spain and Portugal put their premium catch in the tins, which come packed in oil, water or pickled brine. The restaurant has roughly eight canned fish and seafood items on the menu at all times, though it rotates slightly. Among the choices are tuna, mackerel, stickleback, mussels, sardines, anchovies and trout.
Enjoying as many accolades as the pintxos are the gin-based cocktails, beverages that are also widely popular throughout the Iberian peninsula. With an inventory of 65 (and growing) gin brands, the bar offers patrons the ability to experiment with Berry Nice, the Voyage, Flower Power, One in a Melon and the Real Dill, each crafted using specific gins, tonics and creative ingredients.
“I was not a gin drinker, but after spending time in Spain and Portugal, I was intrigued by the care and ritual behind serving their gin and tonics,” Gruitch says. “After all these years, I just hadn’t had the right gin! I also became a huge fan of sherry!”
In the mood for small plate dishes with bold flavors and innovative gin cocktails? Journey to Ultreia.
1701 Wyncoop St. (Union Station)
Denver, CO 80202
1 oz puro olive oil to toast bread on the plancha
2 each (30-35g) slices ciabatta
½ garlic clove cut in half to rub on toasted bread
¼ oz Nunez de Prado extra virgin olive oil (or other high quality Spanish extra virgin olive oil)
5g Maldon salt
2 oz tomato puree (see below)
Grill the ciabatta in olive oil until perfectly, evenly brown. Rub with raw garlic.
Serve with 2 oz of tomato purée.
Drizzle the olive oil into the tomato puree and scatter with Maldon salt.
Remove the core from heirloom or vine ripened tomatoes (skins and seeds remain). Pulse in a food processor until smooth.
1 pound of raw tomatoes will yield approximately 1 cup of purée.
4 cups chicken broth
3 tbs olive oil
2 oz chorizo picante, sliced thin
5 oz boneless, skinless chicken thighs
½ onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 tomato, grated on a box grater
¼ lb green beans, preferably romano beans
2 cups bomba rice
6 large shell-on, head-on shrimp
8 mussels, beards removed and scrubbed clean
Aioli, on the side
Lemon wedges, on the side
Bring the chicken stock and saffron to a boil in a sauce pan. Reduce heat to keep just warm until ready to use.
Heat olive oil in the paella pan over high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and put into the hot oil in a single layer. Reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until well-browned, about 5 minutes.
Add the chorizo and cook for 30 seconds. Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes while stirring. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds. Add the red bell pepper, tomato puree and green beans and let simmer for 1 minute.
Add the hot chicken stock and bring to a boil. Season to taste with salt. Sprinkle the rice evenly in the pan. Stir it a little to make sure its evenly distributed and submerged in the liquid, but then don’t touch it again. You don’t want to activate the starches and make the mixture creamy. The goal is to have the grains cook separately from each other. Boil for 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the rice is al dente, about 10 minutes. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add to the rice, pressing down into the rice. Cook for 2 minutes and flip the shrimp. Add the mussels to the pan, pressing down into the rice. Cook until all of the liquid evaporates and the rice forms a crispy crust on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cover with a dry kitchen towel. Let sit 5 minutes. Garnish with aioli, parsley and lemon wedges and serve directly from the pan.
1 1/2 oz añejo tequila
½ oz watermelon shrub (see below)
Splash of soda
Fresh slice of jalapeño muddled into drink
Serve over ice
1 cup watermelon
¼ cup brown sugar
5 allspice berries
½ cup Champagne vinegar
Cube and dice watermelon and cover with brown sugar and allspice berries. Let sit in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Macerate fruit and sugar together and refrigerate for 24 hours. Add vinegar and refrigerate for 5-7 days, stirring every day.
Strain through cheesecloth and store in a clean jar for up to a month.
Kim McHugh, a recipient of the Lowell Thomas award for travel writing, has authored articles on Colorado restaurants and chefs for decades. After discovering this eatery, he and his wife have a new affinity for Spanish and Portuguese cooking. And gin.
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