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Added vegan plates just one aspect of the rebooted McCabe's 

Appetite

click to enlarge The new $3 small plates of sliders and street tacos illustrate McCabe's fresh new face. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The new $3 small plates of sliders and street tacos illustrate McCabe's fresh new face.

McCabe's is dead. Long live McCabe's!

OK, so that's not exactly what devotees shouted when McCabe's reopened in late May, following a flash renovation and mini re-branding of sorts. More than a few fans, having heard of a coming cavalry of vegan items, were simply relieved that most of their favorite bar-food plates survived the cut.

Yes, shepherd's pie and corned-beef-and-cabbage offerings remain, But also on the entrée list is a grilled cauliflower steak. And that ribeye replacement is good: It's an inch-thick slab sliced off the whole head, seared just under firmness with browned edges and garlic essence, and plated with neutral brown rice, piped dollops of bright carrot purée and wilted celery tips.

Hell, it's even served with a steak knife for aplomb — or perhaps because so many vegan/vegetarian plates creatively mimic carnivorous presentations anyway.

Case in point is the veggie burger, house-made with quinoa, black beans and minced beets bound by potato starch for an eerily raw-beef-looking patty. Daikon radish sprouts gift more nutrition and freshness, with added bleu cheese lending creamy pungency.

Next visit, I want to turn this patty into a salad topper, as it messily squirts out the sides of the toasted bun anyway. I would, though, miss the side sweet potato fries with a cake-frosting-sweet Irish whiskey butter that rivals neighboring Southside Johnny's marshmallow fluff dip for jaw-tingling sugar impact.

The new fried Brussels sprouts and cauliflower appetizer delivers a zingy sweetness, this time from a touch-too-generous ginger-soy saucing that browns individual cauliflowerettes and matches the sprouts' charred leaves.

Char is absent on the fruit segments of our grilled grapefruit and walnut salad, though they're warmed before being plated with restrained candied walnuts and a pleasing Champagne vinaigrette. Where the dish fails us is with the addition of steak slices, which though beautifully pink in the middle and perfectly char-kissed, for some baffling reason taste indelibly burnt, as if dusted with a charcoal briquette or cooked on a grill grate that hasn't seen a wire brushing since pre-renovation days.

Back to that overhaul, owner Greg Howard told me just prior that he and his wife Ari (the vegan-fare force) desired a stronger identity on the food scene, citing many favorite Denver inspirations as well as local shops they feel have captured the right look and vibe. "I grew up a little bit," he'd said, after nine years operating McCabe's and eight prior to that working for Phantom Canyon.

It's worth noting that he already looked pretty mature in his sincere eco-friendly efforts (listed on the back of notably worn, tri-fold paper menus) and strong level of community involvement. But he and Ari lightened up and balanced out the menu, and otherwise executed a makeover for an "industrial pub look": gray walls, a black ceiling and vintage drop lighting to accentuate the exposed brick bar-back, plus a new, tall wood plank half-wall that further separates the bar from most of the dining room.

A new hostess stand, actually an old metal push cart, now advises guests to wait to be seated (so formal!), but there's certainly no stiffness in de-labeled Jack Daniel's bottles as water vessels on tables. And the comfort-food embrace of yonder-year McCabe's still comes through in sandwiches like the Cuban Bird, a Cuban spinoff that ditches the pork for chicken and turkey with Swiss, mustard and pickles on a nice, chewy baguette. I like it, even as I miss the classic mojo marinade that could have made it less dry.

But the moment I really buy in to the new McCabe's is when a long wooden paddle arrives with each of the new $3 small plates neatly aligned and looking wonderful in composition. A fun beet-goat-cheese slider leads into a killer vegan fried avocado taco with cilantro-lime aioli. Then there's the Alaskan cod taco and cod slider, both with earthy chipotle mayo and fresh crunch garnishes. And finally, a delightfully depraved chicken-and-waffles rendition with spicy, beer-candied bacon.

Yes, there will always be a time for the classic fish and chips, with famous curry dip and a pint. But this fresher fare certainly diminishes nothing about the McCabe's experience. In this makeover, the restaurant hasn't lost itself in that empty, corporate, something-for-everyone way. Rather, it's found firmer footing via careful introspection. I see self-improvement informed by inclusion, culinary homage (even in trendy items) and a grasp of a grounding identity that doesn't stray too far.

McCabe's is dead. Long live McCabe's!

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