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N3 Taphouse only smolders thus far, but ripe to combust 

click to enlarge N3 shows a stylish front, with some follow-through. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • N3 shows a stylish front, with some follow-through.

Beyond any potential dining accolades in the future, someone may want to nominate Johnny Nolan for a historic preservation award.

The longtime local restaurateur, behind the recently retired SouthSide Johnny's, first saved the architectural character of the Navajo Hogan, in 2011. Then, in late 2015, he announced plans for N3 Taphouse in the former Springs Fire Station No. 3, previously a host to several food and drink ventures that failed to achieve longevity befitting the brick bones.

A protracted period of overhauling again ensued, long past initial opening projections, but extensive design work by N3 partner Daniel Romero didn't disappoint when doors finally opened in late April. The space commands attention, full of beefy reclaimed wood features, custom metal accents at every turn, and firefighter-themed artworks created in cutouts of plaster left in place over the original brick. And, as promised, Nolan has matched the style with a more elevated menu than his previous ventures, one not too shy to throw a $30 Steak Diane into the mix and show eclectic culinary fusion points — starters like rice-paper-wrapped Cajun boudin rolls and quinoa kimchi black bean fritters, for example.

To beat basic bar food, he hired Damon Lavigne, a former chain restaurant kitchen manager with more than two decades of culinary experience, including time at The Peppertree (which explains the Steak Diane and Bananas Foster).

Rightfully, he talks up his Korean bulgogi, which we sample atop a $14 pizza with tomatillo salsa and sweet Thai chili aioli, which cools the commendably spicy beef strips a touch. It's a winning pie on a light, chewy crust, better executed than our lavender-asparagus-shrimp-pesto pizza, which hosts gourmet-appropriate underdone shrimp, but arrives oversalted and sans detectable flower essence. Lavigne assures it should be there, as he switched from using essential oil in the asparagus sear to dried buds for garnish; but acknowledges his crew is "still finding their feet."

Which also might explain two plates during our meal (at a non-busy hour) that each arrive with a hair on them. It happens, but indicates lack of attention at plating on a rim-wipe, as well as lack of server attention before the food's run. The same could be said of serving yellowing and dark-edged greens on our tenderloin kale salad and side mango salad, respectively. Otherwise, the first presents perfectly pink filet cuts with soft Asian pear and mango bits bearing chili relish and arugula so potent and peppery it overwhelms the steak flavor — speaking as an arugula grower, I'd still maybe blend with another green to tone it down, and a toasted sesame oil flavor also speaks a little bright. On the mango salad, Belgian endive petals drizzled with Champagne-strawberry vinaigrette show their age with wilting tips, but act fine as scoops for bits of the avocado, strawberry, mango, and balsamic-marinated red onion and tomato hash; it's a colorful, complex affair.

Back to the bumps. At this point service needs work overall. Menu knowledge is lacking; ticket times, particularly upstairs, vary from items dropped all at once, to out of order, to not at all without a reminder. A colleague summed it up best after a separate meal the week before last: "It felt like their first night open." That's not the Johnny-on-the-spot we're used to.

And back to bites, we again encounter mixed success. A portobello cap wows with black cherry reduction, gooey goat cheese and sautéed spinach and onions, a veggie delight of creaminess, big earth and acidic tang, but $9 feels steep for only one mushroom. And $14 also feels a little high for serviceable lemon-garlic-basil mussels in a heavy butter broth, a couple not so fresh. While a Colorado striped bass sees a lovely honey-miso glazing, ample umami afoot, veggie primavera feels like more of a concession than a treat for our vegan friend, with under-seasoned spaghetti squash and some lightly grilled vegetable hunks tasting somewhat as-is with a basic thick tomato sauce.

House licorice ice cream with vanilla bean flecks and sticky bits mixed throughout tastes like eating root beer — not a bad thing at all. And Lavigne's own lemon-ginger kombucha plays citrus-bright and properly effervescent, an appreciated non-alcoholic tap option if some 30 other respectable (and at turns hoity-toity, like a Funkwerks imperial saison or Paradox's High Biscus) craft beer options aren't called for. The idea of a Gingercello Cosmo sounds awesome, were it as gingery as the kombucha, but the cocktail arrives about the same as a regular version of the classic, illustrating the reach thus far of N3's bar.

Provided Nolan's penchant for better-than-average-bar-food and attentive service elsewhere, we can only agree with Lavigne that the outfit's still finding its footing in these early days, and presumably will leverage its strengths, refine its recipes, streamline its procedures and make the most of its slick new digs. But as any firefighter suiting up en route to a call would tell you, time is of the essence, and you don't want to let any fire grow out of control.

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