Eat & Drink

Date Night

Al Lado, a six-month-old wine and tapas bar in Riverfront, has the right moves.

February 2013

Al Lado
1610 Little Raven St.
303-572-3000
richardsandoval.com/allado

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The Draw
A romantic wine bar in Riverfront serving traditional Spanish tapas that are perfect for sharing.

The Drawback
On busy nights, both table service and valet parking can be unreliable.

Don’t Miss
Tuna crudo, tortilla Española, fideos chorizo y almejas ahumandas, patatas bravas, Rioja-braised short rib, datiles con beicon

Price
$ (Average price per small plate: $10)

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FOOD: 3 Stars

SERVICE: 3 Stars

AMBIENCE: 3 1/2 Stars

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Just for fun, because it’s February, let’s talk about online dating.
Let’s say you’ve completed your personal profile, posted several flattering photos, had a few online chats with someone who may or may not be the One, and have decided to meet Mr. or Ms. Maybe for a glass of wine. You know that coffee, in the middle of the day, is supposed to be safe and noncommittal. But what the heck? You want romance—why not be romantic?
But hmmm…(insert sound of fingers tapping). Where to go?
Allow me to step in as your dating coach and suggest Al Lado, a new tapas and wine bar in Riverfront. Al Lado exudes romance—not in a cheesy, piano bar kind of way, but in a way that makes you feel good about where you are, which makes you feel good about who you are, which then might-maybe-hopefully make you feel good about who you’re with.
Al Lado is the latest local offering from Richard Sandoval, the brand-name chef who owns an international group of more than 30 restaurants, including Tamayo, La Sandía, and Zengo, which is located right next door to Al Lado. (Hence, the name. In Spanish, “al lado” means “on the side.”) Sandoval, who was born in Mexico City, has gained a well-deserved reputation for modern Latin cuisine served in stylish digs. The popularity of his existing restaurants makes Al Lado a relatively safe bet for a first date…or a third…or a 30th.
OK. So let’s visualize how your date at Al Lado might unfold. Walking in—heart aflutter—the space will embrace you with its low lighting and warm chocolate tones, and you’ll begin to relax. Picking up the hefty, 100-plus-bottle wine list, you’ll wonder if your date prefers red or white. Then you’ll decide it doesn’t matter. You’ll order a glass of La Cartuja, a red blend from Priorat, because you love Priorat and ordering what you like will set a healthy psychological tone for the relationship. Should there be one.
Your date will arrive. (Phew! Looks like the photos.) You’ll make small talk. (“Isn’t this a gorgeous space?”) The server will intervene. (“Our menu is built around small plates ideal for sharing.”) So far, so good.
Al Lado’s menu consists of Spanish tapas that have been dialed up for a modern American palate. Although Sandoval masterminded the overall concept, chef de cuisine Clint Wangsnes, 36, who has worked the burners at Zengo for the past seven years, does the day-to-day cooking. Recipes incorporate more heat (from chiles), more bright flavors (from citrus and vinegar), and more artful plating than you’d typically find in tapas in Madrid. But each Al Lado dish is rooted in tradition.
Take the patatas bravas, in which crispy roasted halves of baby potatoes are tossed with spicy chorizo. The potatoes are traditionally served with romesco sauce and aïoli, but Wangsnes adds chipotle to the romesco and blue cheese to the aïoli to create a dish that’s satisfying and smoky.
The tortilla Española (or Spanish omelet) is another classic Iberian dish; the kind of thing you might order late at night in Seville after watching a fiery flamenco performance. But at Al Lado, what is normally a simple potato-and-egg frittata becomes something much more alluring. Served in a pielike wedge, fluffy egg is layered with delicate threads of potato, a thin stratum of spinach, and a thicker band of red peppers, then topped with an aromatic zigzag of garlic aïoli.
As with every dish on the menu, the patatas bravas and the tortilla are meant to be shared, and these are good dishes to begin with—especially on a date—because they’re not overly messy and can be eaten with a fork.
On the other hand, if you’re the kind of unfussy, all-in person who couldn’t care less about cutlery, try the croquetas de jamon y hongos. These fritters are deep-fried, panko-coated béchamel that has been blended with Serrano ham and earthy mushrooms—and they are served alongside a small bowl of chile-spiked tomato sofrito. Pick one up with your fingers, dunk it into the spicy sauce, and take a bite. The bacon-wrapped dates (or datiles con beicon)—plied with roasted almonds, smoky bacon, and blue cheese stuffing—are another flirty finger food.
By this point, if you find yourself ready for a second glass of wine, congratulations. Things must be going well. This probably means you’re also ready to order dishes that require more negotiation—something like the beef and merguez skewers, kabobs that alternate cubes of beef tenderloin and rounds of lamb sausage with thick slices of grilled red pepper and onion. This dish requires all sorts of consideration. “You like lamb? No, please, you take the last bite.” It also requires a love of the slightly gamey merguez sausage, something I didn’t possess when I tried it.
An even safer bet is the Spanish pasta with chorizo (fideos chorizo y almejas ahumandas). The dish, served in a traditional small pot or “cazuela,” is made from angel hair pasta tossed with chorizo, tangy capers, smoked clams, and a spicy-hot tomato sauce made from chile de arbol. The flavors are so well balanced and satisfying, you might forget you’re supposed to be sharing. This is not a bad thing.
Now, to your surroundings: Because Al Lado is new, and because it doesn’t front a street with drive-by traffic, the crowds have been inconsistent and management has had a tough time determining the right staffing levels. One night, you might be waited on with impeccable timing and precision. On another, you might be ignored for noticeably long stretches. And you may not ever find an attendant at valet parking, which means you’ll have to self-park, likely several blocks away. These aren’t deal breakers, just something to be aware of if you tend toward impatience.
That aside, the more I think about it, the more I believe Al Lado to be one of Denver’s best date-night choices. It’s located in a vibrant part of town. The restaurant is striking, fun to interact with, well bred, and designed to please. Here’s hoping the same is true of your date.