It was a dark and stormy January night in the sleepy little town of Eagle Rock. As we slowly drove west on Colorado Boulevard, we peered through the sheeting rain looking for a restaurant we’d heard about when it had opened the previous autumn. Drivers behind us were annoyed but the place was elusive and parking scarce. Eventually we turned onto a side street, managed to snare a piece of curb large enough to accommodate the car and retraced the 1600 block on foot.
Aha! There it was, Red Herring, a narrow storefront with minimum signage but an impressive though barely populated bar we could see through the window. Drenched but eager, we entered and almost immediately realized from the sounds of conversation drifting down the stairwell at the rear that although the ground floor space was set up for dining as well as drinking, the real action was upstairs.
A local friend had likewise made her way to the venue and was already seated at the bar with her first $14 glass of chardonnay. Upon our arrival, the three of us were pleasantly greeted and escorted upstairs to the main dining room, jam-packed with happily chattering diners. The room was so dimly lit that most of the occupants seemed little more than silhouettes, but sound in the hard-surfaced space was amplified to near cacophony.
Our server was prompt and despite our trouble communicating with her over the clatter of dishes and din, we soon had two Stone Ruination 2.0 DIPAs ($8) and a second $14 glass of wine, this time an albariño, for our companion. We glanced around the room but could make out no details. The only bright color came from beyond the front window — the neon Casa Bianca Pizzeria sign across the street. Menus were presented and we all took out our phones to enable enough illumination to read the sheets and make our preliminary choices.
From Red Herring’s nine starters we ordered house sausage with mustard frill, celeriac pureé, grilled endive and persimmon and pumpkin relish ($13), chicken liver pâté with grilled bread, house pickles and herbs ($12) and butter lettuce salad with local roots, egg, ricotta, bacon, tomato, cucumber and ranch dressing ($13). When they arrived, we attempted to identify the components but were literally in the dark. The lovely hues and plating were impossible to appreciate without, once again, the aid of our flash-apps. (My husband took pictures which only later revealed the kitchen’s artistry.)
We enjoyed the salad (although we could only pick out the bacon slabs and egg halves), the ramekin of mild, finely puréed pâté, paired with pickled cauliflower florets and slices of pickled rutabaga (identified by our server). And we loved the spicy sausage, arranged in a wreath with a garnish of crisped endive sprigs. As for the mustard, celeriac and persimmon/pumpkin relish droplets, we located them by flavor alone.
Our mains were wild mushroom risotto with crimini, shiitake, oyster, chanterelle, maitake and eryngii fungi and parmesan ($28), ricotta agnolotti with wilted kale, pine nuts and corn purée ($21) and buttermilk fried chicken and waffles with butter, maple syrup and a choice of one of six sides: roasted sunchokes, candied bacon, fries, wilted kale with pine nuts, heirloom carrots with caraway and Brussels sprouts with lemon, dates and cashews (each $6).
Again our flash apps were needed to make out details. The enormous helping of chicken (leg, thigh plus breast) was golden brown, served with a fan of similarly golden triangular waffle quarters, a cuplet of butter and one of syrup. But although the exterior of the coating was crunchy, the inside was doughy. It was barely seasoned and was immediately shed by the chicken when we tried to cut it. And the waffles were cool enough that the butter didn’t melt. Very disappointing! As for the Brussels, they were tasty but we couldn’t discern either dates or cashews except by texture. (Sigh!)
Our risotto was creamy, mushrooms multi-shaped and plentiful. And the agnolotti were the best of our entrées, plump little pillows piled high with delicious wilted kale whose emerald hue could be seen even in the pervasive darkness that surrounded us. The kale had been sautéed with paper-thin slices of garlic and morsels of caramelized onion as well as the pine nuts. The three of us concurred that both dishes were excellent.
By the time the dessert list was presented, our appetites had been sated and the cushion-less chairs were becoming uncomfortable. Bread pudding with praline ice cream and caramel sauce, chocolate pots de crème and donuts with pastry cream, cinnamon sugar and coffee ice cream (each $9) were tempting, but they weren’t enough to keep us at Red Herring any longer. Even without dessert, our bill came to $50 apiece before tax and tip.
We left wondering if Eagle Rock’s Red Herring was really what its name implied. The literary term was coined by William Cobbett, English journalist and Parliament member, at the turn of the 19th century. Railing against the press, he told a tale about how as a child he would use a red herring (a smoked fish with an incredibly potent odor supposedly used to train hunting dogs to follow scents) to easily lure hounds away from their prey. His fellow journalists, he asserted, were just as easily thrown off the track.
We followed a heady trail to Red Herring which had been laid down by earlier visitors who in professional and amateur reviews raved about both food and atmosphere. Did they mislead us? Judging mostly by the taste of our dinner items and the later review of our pictures, Red Herring is for the most part a fine restaurant. But we’d like it a lot better if they’d turn up the lights to enhance the in situ experience. We’re planning to return nearer the summer solstice for a brighter look. Or we might try their weekend brunch. Will Red Herring turn out to be a red herring or a real solution to great dining in Eagle Rock? Never fear! We restaurant detectives are still on the scent.