Eat & Drink

Review: The Village Cork

Even after 11 years, the Village Cork remains a quintessential neighborhood gathering spot.

March 2012

THE VILLAGE CORK, 1300 S. Pearl St., 303-282-8399, www.villagecork.com

The Draw A cozy, inviting space that encourages intimate conversation over glasses of wine, small plates, and comforting seasonal entrées such as beef bourguignonne and mac and cheese.

The Drawback Service can be unreliable, especially on busy nights, and some dishes suffer from timid seasoning.

Don’t Miss Oven-roasted pommes frites, pâté trio, sweet potato Wellingtons, roasted veggie mac and cheese.

Price: $$$ (Average price per entrée: $19)

Food: 2 1/2 stars

Service: 2 1/2 stars

Ambience: 3 stars

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It took just three minutes for a friend and me to consider—and reject—seven different restaurants for dinner. The places were too light, too dark, too noisy, too quiet, too casual, too fancy, and/or they involved chopsticks. Every option was one we’d enjoyed in the past. But on this evening, we were each in a particular mood, and nothing seemed to satisfy both of us the same way.

Mood. So many dining decisions are based on it, but very few restaurants have the ability to morph into the perfect spot for any mood or mind-set. The Village Cork on South Pearl is the rare exception.

Over the course of several weeks, I visited the Village Cork four times with four very different personality types: a laid-back screenwriter, a driven and discerning investment banker, an enthusiastic vegetarian college administrator, and an outdoorsy lawyer who’d rather be in the mountains most nights of the week. Each visit, I was impressed by how well the spot adapted to the various vibes at my table. Depending on the evening (and the guest), that mood ranged from intimate to intellectual to that Friday-night state of mind best described as I’m over it and need a glass of red.

A big part of the draw is the cozy-casual environment, which consists of wooden tables, shabby chic knickknacks, large windows, and a central, open kitchen. Where other restaurants ooze attitude, the Village Cork exudes a quiet confidence, and this self-assurance allows you to feel at home—whoever you are.

The Village Cork opened in 2001 as a wine bar that served soup, salad, and other easy-to-assemble small plates. Full dinner service was added in 2010, but the original centerpiece remains: a thoughtful wine list that combines New World and Old World selections from small producers in prices ranging from $6 a glass to $150 a bottle. The menu, too, continues to feature bistro favorites such as cheese and charcuterie. You can still stop by for a glass of Bordeaux and a slab of ever-popular Brie on a late afternoon and feel perfectly welcome.

But what also draws the crowds nightly—I’ve been on Tuesdays when you couldn’t score a table—is the comforting selection of seasonal entrées sourced from primarily local ingredients. Chef Samir Mohammed, 27, is an industrious and innovative cook. Working with just two burners and a convection oven, he turns out dishes for 70 diners at a time—15 of whom sit on bar stools and watch his every move from the kitchen-view seating.

Given the limitations of the small space, the menu is not extensive: Just eight main dishes are offered most evenings. (The menu changes regularly.) To start with something as comforting as the environment, try the oven-roasted pommes frites. The addictive, slightly oily skin-on potatoes have just the right amount of salt, and the accompanying aïoli has the perfect zing of lemon. A mere hint of truffle oil adds an earthy, come-hither aroma that’s impossible to resist.

The pâté trio is also especially satisfying. The generous starter, which arrives on a square platter guaranteed to crowd your table, includes a light spread of honey-smoked salmon fluffed with egg whites and flecked with tarragon; a silky square of elegant duck and truffle mousse; and an earthy rutabaga creamed with butter and spiked with aromatic cardamom and coriander. Dried apricots, sour cornichons, and slices of baguette complete the dish, which would easily suffice as a light meal. My only objection is to the name: Although advertised as a trio of pâté, the only true offering is the duck liver mousse, and even that is more of a terrine. Reconceptualizing traditional dishes is one thing; misappropriating names (and possibly confusing diners) is another.

Topping the list of must-have entrées is the sweet potato Wellingtons—two crispy, round puff pastry crusts filled with a smooth blend of Colorado sweet potatoes, goat cheese, and sage, and drizzled with sticky-sweet streamers of aged balsamic. I could order this elegant dish every visit and never tire of it.

The roasted veggie mac and cheese is also impressive, and I say this as someone who’s grown weary of the mac-and-cheese madness. Mohammed makes this hearty dish with thick, house-made pasta squares, knobs of roasted mushrooms, cubes of sweet butternut squash, and ribbons of green spinach, all folded inside a rich but not overwhelming Brie cream sauce. The shape of the pasta, the blend of roasted vegetables, and the cheek-warming heat of the plate elevate this dish beyond cliché.

All of Mohammed’s dishes are well-conceived and remarkably well put together, especially given the constraints of his tiny kitchen. What’s mystifying, though, is the number of main dishes that often lack, well, flavor. His beef short ribs were short on any distinctiveness, despite being slow-cooked in Burgundy and finished with garlic, lemon, soy, and sesame. The simple addition of more salt would have helped immensely. His roasted chicken was plump and succulent—truly, some of the best I’ve eaten. But the accompanying posole, advertised as a red chile and garlic blend, was missing the essence of either. While his beef bourguignonne was well-seasoned and comforting, it was served with too much, too-thick polenta, which stole the attention from the meaty wine sauce.

Another distraction here is the astonishingly inconsistent service. On slow nights, servers are attentive and congenial. But when the place fills up, they can simply disappear.

Desserts can help erase the memory of such missteps, but take note: Just as the pâté platter was misnamed, so are several desserts. The flourless chocolate cake—although appropriately decadent—was lighter and more mousse-like than the dense cake I’ve come to expect. The chocolate panna cotta, served in a large goblet and topped with whipped cream, was light and frothy, and not at all like the traditional Italian custard. Yes, this is nitpicking. But the Village Cork does such a good job wrapping diners in its embrace that any detraction is quickly magnified.

Misnomers aside, what the Village Cork has is the restaurant equivalent of charisma, that indefinable but compelling charm that inspires devotion. There’s no attitude, no pretense, no overwrought cuisine—just a welcoming place to bring your date, your business partner, or your book club. Each and every one of them will feel rewarded.