Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
A year ago, chef Ryan Leinonen who worked in some of Denver's best kitchens from Colt & Gray to RootDown and the Kitchen, opened his own restaurant - Trillium - a Scandiavian-inspired eatery in the Ballpark neighborhood. Leinonen sat with Eater to reflect on the last twelve months- the biggest surprises, victories, and challenges.
After one year at Trillium, what would you say was the biggest surprise? I can't say that we had big ones. It has been pretty even keeled. The biggest surprise has been how this neighborhood works. It doesn't matter who you are in this neighborhood, whether you are Twelve or Marco's or us, everyone is busy at different times. We are not all busy at the same time and it is hard to predict busy times and certainly hard to forecast business. The bad baseball season of the Rockies definitely had an impact. The whole neighborhood just did not have that draw that it is supposed to have. Not that many people came down here for games. The other surprise: parking. It got more scarce and more expensive this year. We have a small lot behind the restaurant but our landlord rents it out on game days. That makes it $20 to park there or anywhere else around us.
Speaking of the neighborhood, why did you choose to open your restaurant in this neighborhood and in this particular building? Hmm. I looked at a bunch of spots. This is probably the tenth spot I looked at. I was focused on Ballpark, River North, a couple of spaces by Colt & Gray too. I really wanted something with character. I knew that this neighborhood was up and coming and changing and I wanted to be part of that change. The space was about the size I wanted, it had history behind it and character. It wasn't just a random new building. This whole building was a pawn shop for about 65 years.
Were there any significant challenges after you found your space? Well, after finding the space, it took about two months to negotiate the lease. Then there was the demolition of the space. We finished demo in mid-June but could not start construction for about two months because we didn't have the construction permit. That was hard- sitting on a space that was ready for construction but we applied in a period of transition at the city and things just took longer. We finally started before Labor Day and finished right before Thanksgiving a year ago.
The first week of the doors being open: how was it? Well, we took a break from the restaurant after Thanksgiving then we did three soft openings. By the time our official opening date came around, December 6, we were ready to go, we had a few services under our belt. The three soft openings were hectic. Not only are you doing food but there are photographers and people asking a million questions and you don't really know how it will all turn out.
Where did you get the inspiration for your restaurant? The beginnings of the restaurant idea are on a trip to Europe for my wife's family reunion. My wife is Swedish and I am Finish. No one in my family had been to Finland since my grandmother came to the United States. We spent a week in Finland and a week in Sweden and I ate my way through everything there from farmers markets to eating fish on the dock. I came back very inspired. It reminded me a lot about my grandmother, what she cooked and what she fed us while my parents were working. I am a big fan of Noma and Aquavit and I knew that Scandinavian food was starting to make its way into the country. It started to get big in New York and San Franscico and no one was doing it in Denver. I wanted to create an American restaurant that folds in Scandinavian influences - not just from one country, but from that whole region.
What was your goal and focus when developing the menu? My goal was to make it approachable. I wrote up an American menu that allowed me to fold Scandinavian elements into. I started with things I knew. I really wanted to focus on cold water fish, a good staple of my Michigan upbringing. Everyone eats ocean fish but I think Great Lakes fish is special. It comes from super cold water and has a nice freshness to it. I grew up on that and wanted to bring some of that to Denver. If I focused on ocean fish, it had to be from the Atlantic or mid-Atlantic or the Baltic sea. I tried to stay along the line of cold water fish as much as possible- we fly in our fish every day here and it is great. On the same token, I wanted my menu to still be American. It had to have a steak, chicken, duck, a pork chop or some sort of pork, foie gras, oysters, and caviar too, which people thought I was crazy to do but we sell a good amount of, in spurts mostly. I used all of those things to create a balanced menu that has still changed probably 30 times since opening.
Were there any big menu surprises in the last year - what dish was unexpectedly well-received and what dish did you have to remove from the menu? Our best seller is the open ravioli with blue prawns and I never thought that would be the case. It's based on a dish I had in Sweden on the second night we were there- a cold and rainy night. Our hotel had a nice bistro with a menu in Swedish but luckily our waiter spoke English. We had this lobster bisque soups, probably one of the best soups I have ever had. It stuck in my head. The flavor was deep and clean and there were noodles with it. So, we made pasta sheets here with a lobster bisque. We don't thicken it with a roux- it's just reduced and full of flavor. The vegetables on this dish are always seasonal; right now we have kale mushroom, and butternut squash. The thing that doesn't sell as much as I would hope is the caviar. I wish it sold more. Since opening, we took the portabello fries off the menu. It was a good dish, just hard to keep consistent. It always depended on the size of the mushroom or how much moisture was in the mushroom- it just was not a reliable dish.
How did your wine and cocktail program evolve? We always wanted to champion Riesling so we started a Riesling of the Month program that we still have. We offer a discounted glass of Riesling throughout the month. Recently we brought Parker Ramey on board. He has really changed up the bar here. We kept the path with the wine list just with small changes but the cocktail list has really evolved. Parker is a great mixologist. We are doing French press cocktails now and these are very successful. We infuse our own aquavit and Parker basically does a version of a mulled wine. We seam it with the espresso machine so it gets very hot and steep it in the French press. Our cocktail list is extensive but not overwhelming.
If you were to start all over, what would you change? I would probably change the bathrooms. The way the space worked out, the ladies room ended up too small. If I had a do-over, the big wine rack would move out to make the ladies room a little bigger. And I would probably rearrange the storage space a little.
Will there be any big developments at Trillium in the months to come? Nothing big, just always adjusting. One of the biggest issues we had here was parking, particularly during the baseball season. We had people call and cancel when there were home baseball games because they did not want to deal with parking down here. I am working on valet parking. I want people to know that they have a place to park here.
· All Trillium Coverage [EDen]
· The Word on Ryan Leinonen's Trillium [EDen]
Ryan Leinonen [Photo: Mike Cummings]