Dining

Review: LoHi SteakBar

Sean Kelly does neighborhood dining right.

May 2010

LoHi SteakBar
(out of 4)
(Food | Service | Ambience )
3200 Tejon St., 303-927-6334

The Draw An affordable, high-quality neighborhood bar and steak joint where a wide range of diners feel at home.

The Drawback Reservations aren't accepted, and the crowds can be overwhelming.

Don't Miss Filet with blue-cheese butter, roasted chicken, anything with French fries, the banana split.

Price $$-$$$ (Steaks run $17-$24; most other dishes fall in the $12 to $18 range.)

It's Friday night at 8:15 and LoHi SteakBar is a cacophony of shouted conversation, shaking cocktails, and rowdy music roaring from speakers overhead. A gauntlet of diners blocks the passageway to the dining room. And when we tell the host there will be three of us, he glances down at his handwritten list of names, looks back at us with a bit of fearful desperation, and says the wait will be 45 minutes. Knowing it would take at least that long to land a table at another restaurant, we steel ourselves and squeeze our way to the bar for a drink.

And then the tide turns. The bartender sees our pleading faces and muddles up sweet and limey Caipirinhas without a wait. The noise turns from annoyance to energy. And within seven minutes, the host signals a table has just opened up.

"Already?" we ask.

"Yeah," he says, rolling his eyes. "I suck at my job."

Instead of being put off by his candor, we're charmed by it because he's not trying to be anything more than he is—a young kid attempting to manage an insanely busy restaurant on a Friday night. And this, we realize, makes him ideally qualified to work here. You see, LoHi SteakBar is not one of those stuffy, overpriced, prerecession steak houses of yore—the kind of place where everyone aspires to be a little bit more than they are. Instead, LoHi is keenly suited to today's sensibilities. It's casual, affordable, and somehow makes you feel hip enough, young enough, and wealthy enough, no matter where you fall on the demographic spectrum.

Within 10 minutes we're seated, dipping soft triangles of flatbread into a big mound of garlicky hummus, and arguing over the menu. Whiskey butter-glazed pork chop or roast chicken? Steak frites with strip steak...or filet? Wine or more cocktails? And so our evening begins.

LoHi's chef-proprietor, Sean Kelly, 48, has a long history in Denver, managing the menus at such diverse places as the Little Pub Company's outlets (namely the Irish Hound and Don's Club Tavern), Somethin' Else, Clair de Lune, and Aubergine. With LoHi, his goal was to create a neighborhood steak-and-burger joint, the kind of place you'd want to return again and again. Judging from the nightly crowds, the strategy seems to be working.

One of the likely reasons is that Kelly's portions are generous, even among the list of starters. The Caesar salad, for example, is a cool, crisp mini-platter of romaine tossed in a refreshingly light and citrusy dressing. It's the kind of salad where one order easily feeds two. Same goes for the chili, a hearty bowl of slow-cooked black beans pierced by tender strips of steak, and served with a miniature grilled cheese sandwich. You could create a filling meal from these two starters alone. But if you've got room (or several people at your table), add in the savory rosemary almonds and slick herb-marinated olives.

A steak-and-burger joint is ultimately measured, of course, by the quality of its meat, and LoHi uses all USDA Choice sourced from Castle Rock Meats Inc. But instead of overwhelming you, the restaurant offers only three choices: strip steak, filet mignon, and the SteakBar flatiron. All are cooked in a hotel broiler, creating a crusty exterior you can't get from a grill, and served with a choice of sauce. I enjoyed the light smear of tangy blue cheese sauce on the filet, but the blip of Béarnaise that came with the strip steak was thin and undistinguished. The fries served alongside were crusty on the outside, soft and potato-y on the inside, and topped with a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and parsley.

Steaks form only a portion of LoHi's menu, and while they were wholly satisfying, they weren't the ultimate standout. That honor goes to the roasted half chicken. I've almost stopped ordering chicken at restaurants because it can be so dry, but LoHi's chicken is made succulent thanks to an herbed dark jus. Rounding out the dish was creamed spinach prepared with a bit of leafy crunch and an elegant blend of cream and butter.

The house-cured pork rib chop, glazed with Stranahan's whiskey butter, was also a juicy surprise, as was the liberal side of chunky cinnamon applesauce. However, after I raved about the pork chop to a friend, he ordered it and was disappointed by the dryness. LoHi also serves a selection of house-ground and seasoned chuck hamburgers, but in the one I ordered—the El Tejon topped with a fried egg, chili, and cheddar—the meat was overcooked and the burger simply too large to bite into.

For a place designed primarily for carnivores, LoHi also does an impressive job with fish. The cod special (LoHi offers a rotating list of fish specials) revealed a large white fillet that was fresh, flaky, and not obliterated by cloying sauce. Instead, it was lightly seasoned, allowing the sweet, mild flavor of the fish to come through.

Desserts also shine here, in a filling, middle-America steak house kind of way. Try the silky double-chocolate pudding, one of Kelly's signature dishes and a holdover from his previous restaurants. The pudding is dark, rich, cool, and creamy—and easily shared with a collection of spoons. Better yet, splurge on the banana split. Made with ice cream from neighboring Little Man Ice Cream, and topped with house-made sauces and imported Amarena Italian cherries, this is the grown-up version of the dessert you loved as a kid.

If you're full, save dessert for an evening when you're looking for a bite on the way home—for that's the kind of place LoHi strives to be. This isn't destination dining; it's a pop-in restaurant perfect for people who live in northwest Denver—a place to stop in on your way to a concert, or after the game, or for a quick drink. Although LoHi doesn't take reservations, the service is attentive and the kitchen is quick, so you can get in and out in a surprisingly short amount of time. Even if it may not look that way at first glance.