Executive chef Shane Lyons — he of the youthful Food Network appearances and professional cooking experience in New York and Los Angeles — isn't new. He's been running Nosh since last October, and its menu since January.
But he did something new; something that the Sysco-stocking masses that comprise most of the restaurants in this city don't usually do: He called together some Arkansas Valley farmers and told them that he wanted to buy their produce and highlight it on his dinner menu while at peak freshness in season — as in design plates around the veggies, rather than just putting them under a slab of meat. All he asked for was reasonable notification time; all the farmers asked for was someone to pinch them.
I understood that sentiment when I saw Lyons' new offerings that rolled out on June 2. In summary: If the menu's a Robert Frost line, it's the road less traveled.
"This kind of concept had been rolling around in my brain for about two years," Lyons says. "The horizontal menu, different categories, non-linear style of eating, and releasing people from the idea that [dining] should be a structured experience, rather than a unique experience."
He's talking about a menu that treats you like a thinking — starving — person. There's no appetizer section, because you should order what you want, in the order you want it. There's no entrées section, because if you can't find something on this menu to headline your meal, there's no saving you with name tags. There's no salads section, because local greens are sprinkled throughout.
First, meet the awesomely named Local Something or Other With Stuff and Things ($8 for small, $15 for large), a rotating dish of local foods that changes every couple weeks. On one visit, it was shaved Venetucci Farm asparagus, topped with a perfectly cooked, locally farmed fried egg, and dressed in a French pesto-like herb pea stew, whole mustard seeds and two chili oils. Think salty, sour, crispy, runny, spiced, yolky heaven.
Next, the roasted beet salad ($6 or $11) features large, leafy greens thinly veiled in a tofu-garlic vinaigrette, piled next to mildly sweet purple and golden beet quarters on one side, and a delectably sour, house-made, Middle Eastern-style labna yogurt cheese on the other.
The trio of soups ($9 or $17) lives under "The Lighter Side" of the menu: two hot — spicy coconut lentil, and vegan "cream" of mushroom — and one cold, chilled beet. The coconut lentil is sweet, with great Indian dal-like spice; the mushroom meaty, solid and pleasant; and the beet a zesty combination of horseradish, sherry, onions, garlic, ginger and more.
"This is nothing that I've invented, but it's only just something that I've recently adopted, and been very strict about: You don't rush a soup, or a sauce," Lyons says. "It has to have time — it won't be the same."
Nor I, after tasting Lyons' Colorado Sweetwater bison plates. Firstly, the Tongue Bon Mi Thai sandwich ($9 or $17) layers shred after shred of meat cured for 24 hours and braised for an additional 16, on a toasted house baguette with a tangy basil-carrot slaw. Next, a delicious Buffalo Tar Tar ($8 or $15), a clean, creamy dish, is set off by a slightly sour, mixed-in kimchi purée, and perfectly contrasted against chili-vinegar chips.
Later, four beautifully laid-out squares of buttery wild tuna sashimi ($10 or $19) lined up for a chunky charred scallion topping make a delightful appearance, next to a shaved radish and scallion salad, and a mustardy, Italian, tuna-confit mayo; while the soy sauce-like Korean kochujang sauce pairs incredibly with manchego and candied lemon zest over brussels sprouts ($8 or $15) and a gentle polenta from the "Beloved" menu section.
However, if you get anything from the new menu, get the... well, here's the chef:
"After talking to the staff about it, the initial reactions from people were, 'What's wrong with you?'" Lyons remembers, laughing. "Nothing's wrong with me — it's delicious. Let's do it."
The "it" in this case is the ballsiest move the Springs dining scene has perhaps ever seen: crispy fried trout heads ($13). Layered on top of tender, steaming filets fried with a mild, crunchy cornmeal and served with pickled veggies and a sauce selection, the delicious heads beg diners to leave complacency behind. There's even a "Get Shane" panic button that servers ring-in for the more reticent.
"And I go, and I sit and introduce myself and talk with them, and hear their version, and their hesitations, and try and understand it," Lyons says. "And then I openly challenge it."
After accepting his challenge — because you should — head for the nicely priced desserts.
Get the decadent fudge-like vegan chocolate pudding ($3) topped with raspberries, or the moist and rich orange poppyseed cupcakes ($5). Or try the creamy caramel Oreo cheesecake lollipop ($3), all instead of the Mexican chocolate moon pie ($1.50).
Overall, there's no denying Lyons' vision. He's going to drag the Springs, kicking and screaming, into a world where dinner isn't a daily exercise — it's an experience. In a city of mom-and-pop diners dying to be Denny's, and chain restaurants that offer exactly that, Nosh is more than a breath of fresh air. It's a glimpse at a world we barely know.