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Thursday, October 20,2011

Tavern fare with a twist

By Clay Fong

Whenever I visit a place calling itself a tavern, I half expect it to be populated by a clientele consisting of Revolutionary War colonists plotting their next move against the monarchy. More realistically though, I anticipate that a self-proclaimed tavern is an unfussy spot where decent brews flow freely and bar food staples are abundant and reasonably priced. Such was the case with the Niwot Tavern, a spot remarkably free of conspirators planning to wreak havoc in Niwot Harbor, during a recent dinner visit with friend Cynthia.

Nestled in a mall near downtown, this eatery looks and feels like a tavern should. Wood paneling and a cozy bar section evoke British pubs, and Cynthia was quick to declare the dining area “cute.” It did possess a noticeable degree of comfort, with muted but not dim lighting emanating from the Craftsman-style lamps.

The Tavern’s menu lived up to expectations and even threw a few surprises our way. Offerings include a slew of burgers ranging from $8.50 to $12.50, with protein choices like beef, chicken, bison, salmon and veggie patties. The basic Tavern version comes with grilled onions, while the more ambitious choices include a BBQ version with applewood bacon and cheddar. Dinner selections include expected choices of fish and chips and linguine and meatballs, along with more unusual dishes such as a Japanese udon noodle bowl with miso broth.

We took the slightly unusual route with two unique starters, a $5.50 plate of deep-fried green beans and a $6.25 hot clam dip. The thickness of the bean’s batter overpowered the legume’s flavor, and the high point was the accompanying dip, an unusual but compelling mix of cucumber, ranch dressing and wasabi. The clam dip drew raves from both of us, as it was a more sophisticated affair than the typical canned clams tossed into sour cream with onion soup mix. This version was more casserole than dip, with plenty of melted cheese and shellfish, and a liberal dash of Old Bay seasoning. Fried pita wedges came on the side, and their heft was better suited to this starter than any mere potato chip.

Cynthia followed the classic comfort food route with a $13.50 bowl of beef Stroganoff large enough for two additional meals. “Definitely American-sized portions,” she said. While additional sour cream and sherry wouldn’t have hurt this preparation, it still possessed hearty flavor and didn’t suffer from oversalting, a common affliction. The wide noodles were thin and silky, and the sauce was noteworthy for its pleasant velvety texture.

My entrée was a rarefied $14.25 plate of shitake mushroom-encrusted ahi tuna, cooked perfectly rare, with an appealing ruby red center. While the side of mixed vegetables didn’t break any new ground, an Asian-inspired side of garlic-infused rice noodles and julienned carrots was surprisingly compelling. A creamy wasabi sauce was almost rendered superfluous, as the briny taste of the fish nicely played off the earthiness of the mushroom crust.

We concluded with an eminently reasonable and filling $4.95 warm brownie with caramel, pecans, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. This dessert captured many of the appealing points of this tavern. While it may not provide fancy gourmet fare, the Niwot Tavern dishes out generous portions of reasonably priced, hearty food in an ideal setting for a cool fall evening.

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Niwot Tavern 7960 Niwot Rd., Unit D12, Niwot 303-652-0200

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