The Highlands neighborhood in Denver has that newly gentrified, post-industrial gleam to it that causes people to roll their eyes. (Well, me. It causes me to roll my eyes.) But there is something to be said for repurposed warehouses serving chic small plates and offering up hipster haircuts. When you need a little break from Lo-Do but don't want to stray too far, it makes for a pleasant half-day of strolling.
On a recent visit to the 'hood, I dined on an artist's rendition of Asian street food at Linger, then headed over to their sister restaurant, Root Down (more on that later).
Linger's menus offer up creative cocktails and small plates of an almost haute cuisine version of traditional street food from around the world (but really focusing on Asia and the Middle East). Bland, comforting Chinese pork buns become racy, fusion-esque chicken buns with kimchi and maple syrup. A simple tamale gets stuffed with goat cheese and Swiss chard.
We stuck with water--that's right, I declined to drink in the middle of the day. What can I say, I'm maturing. You have your choice of a large bottle of still or sparkling water on the house, which is a nice touch. We started with some small plates to share: the aforementioned chicken bun, chili paneer, and the seasonal ceviche, which was Hawaiin-style white fish with fresh corn and tomato in lime juice. That ceviche was really amazing, as was the chicken bun; the fried white meat was extra-crispy and drizzled with a celery root ranch, a tiny bit of maple syrup, and a lovely little clump of tart, spicy kimchi on top. The bun itself was the usual slightly sweet white bread with a nice glaze on the outside and some sesame seeds sprinkled on the edge, but it was served more like a puffy flatbread folded in half over the fillings, rather than the usual pale dome with hidden treats inside. I have dreamed of these chicken buns since leaving Linger, I really have.
For me, the chili paneer was so close to being a star, but the sauce just wasn't interesting enough. There was a generous portion of paneer, but the sauce was sweet and not much else. More salt, more spice, and a lot more tang were needed.
Dessert was a trio: a corn "puff" (a sweet pate a choux with a sweet corn cream filling and a tender, moist corn-based dough), a chocolate-peanut butter bar (fine, but not adventurous--it was merely a rich little bar of almost-cheesecake, without the extra tang), and a butterscotch pudding. I was not excited about the butterscotch pudding, but I was certainly going to eat it once it was placed in front of me. But here's the thing, and it's a glimmer of the creativity that could be happening all the time in the kitchen: it was the most interesting dessert on the table. It was a cold, soft, mild blob of pudding, but topped with sugared sesame seeds, a ginger cream, and a house-made lemongrass cotton candy. The flavors worked perfectly, the textures created a wonderful layering effect, and I loved every bite. I still don't know how the three desserts fit together, and that's a minor sticking point, but it was certainly fun to eat.
The inside of the restaurant is absolutely beautiful--stunning, minimalist-industrialist decor with small touches of wry humor and a scenic rooftop patio. Our server, Katherine (I hope I'm spelling your name right if you're out there), was personable, mellow, and very knowledgeable about the menu. She also really seemed proud of the kitchen and happy to be working there, which is always nice to see.
Expect to pay for your little plates--we left $54 poorer, and that was with no booze. But the kitchen is generally making true art come alive on the plate, and the adventure of these diverse bites, shared with friends, is a special occasion. The atmosphere is painfully hip while being totally inviting to an under-dressed 38-year-old with dirty hair (was that too much information?), and that's a pretty good test of their friendliness.
I would have stayed longer, but I was stuffed. I really was.