First Look: Departure Has (Almost) Arrived

A Portland fave comes to Denver
August 4, 2016
by Ruth Tobias

The gist: At first blush, Peter Karpinski and Gregory Gourdet seem like a bit of an odd couple — one's the high-powered co-founder of Sage Restaurant Group, the other the wide-eyed wunderkind of Top Chef fame. But together they’ve made a smash success in Portland, OR, with their ultra-glam Pan-Asian destination Departure Restaurant + Lounge. As of next week, when their Cherry Creek outpost opens, they're sure to do the same thing here.

The food: From China to Indonesia, from dim sum to tom yum, culinary director Gourdet (assisted by chef Khamla Vongsakoun) serves as a consummate guide to the cuisines of Asia. But something funny happens along the way. It’s not quite fusion; the inaugural menu shows very little obvious Western influence. Yet somehow, even the most traditional dish seems to glow with Gourdet’s own mojo. We like to think the answer lies in the story he tells of visiting a Korean miso farm with Karpinski: “It was the first day of harvest; a shaman was there, and we got to be part of the blessings.” Maybe that magic man cast a spell on him too.

The drink: "We want to do right by the exquisite technique of Japanese bartenders,” says corporate director of beverage operations Brandon Wise about the focus of his program. He was also “inspired by Japanese color theory,” as evident in a glance at the rainbow of ingredients he uses — seafoam, coral and lilac. Beyond the cocktails await a “nice mix of esoteric and familiar” wines by the glass and a list of premium sakes that Wise annotates “to tell their stories”; there’s an extensive bottle list as well.

The space: “The Portland theme is more a seagoing voyage through Asia; here it’s more about air travel,” says Karpinski. Sure enough, the dramatic view from the front door brings to mind some soaring, bustling international airport terminal, centered on a gleaming, streamlined island bar. In back, a sushi counter and binchotan counter (which turns out charcoal-grilled kushiyaki) flank the open kitchen; on either side, murals suggesting aerial cityscapes line the dining rooms. And wait’ll you see Departure Elevated, the panoramic rooftop bar opening at a later date with dim-sum cart service. For more info, take a peek at our photo gallery below. 

249 Columbine St.; 720-772-5020  

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Blue drinks are back, baby — but they’re far smarter than they used to be. The Coral Cityscape, Wise’s twist on a G&T, features Leopold Bros. gin, Fever Tree tonic, melon liqueur, blue curaçao, fresh grapefruit and lime juice. 

The brief menu description can’t possibly do justice to the Power Greens salad — a mighty mix of kale, collards, mizuna, shiso leaf, radishes, carrots, beets, lotus root and hemp seeds in lemon-miso dressing. 

“For a lot of people, the Aviation is a gateway into craft cocktails,” says Wise. But the addition of cloudy junmai nigori sake to the floral-toned classic of gin, crème de violette and maraschino liqueur “turns it into a whole other drink,” which he calls the Lotus Sutra.

Gourdet jazzes up your standard salmon-cucumber roll by smoking the fish over cherrywood, then adding tart, spicy and umami notes via yuzu kosho and miso-sesame sauce.

If you’re a martini purist, stop it right now. Capped off with an olive-oil float and a Castelvetrano garnish, the vodka-based Eightfold Path with house-blended vermouth is one of the smoothest, sexiest sips we’ve had in some time. 

“Fried rice” and “luxuriant” don’t usually appear in the same sentence. Here’s the exception that proves the rule: the funk of housemade Chiang Mai sausage, fish sauce and toasted chiles is balanced by the rich textures of a fried egg and crispy shallots.

Gourmet bibimbap? You bet. Mixed tableside with gochujang Gourdet imports from Korea, it’s a kaleidoscope of nutty koshihikari rice; marinated veggies galore (cucumber, crookneck squash, shiitakes, spinach); cubed Wagyu beef; and not one but two types of kimchi, cabbage and a seasonal variant — right now it’s watermelon radish and daikon.

It’s straightforward enough on paper, but somehow the Vietnamese-style rice-noodle bowl amounts to much more than the sum of its parts, which include lemongrass-marinated and wok-charred chicken, shrimp, peanuts, fresh herbs and nuoc cham.

Wise named this “refreshing little watermelon cooler” with shochu, basil and a chile-salt rim for Tanuki, the Japanese god of restaurateurs, whose persona is “lots of fun and all about mischief.” The implication: just because the Tao of Tanuki goes down like a porch-pounder doesn’t mean it isn’t a punch-packer. 

Two key ingredients, countless sensations. What may be the best dessert we’ve had all summer contrasts ripe, juicy strawberry in myriad forms — ice cream, jam, freeze-dried and candied fruit — with the savory green tea that flavors both shaved ice and crumbled mochi.

top chef
asian fusion
rooftop bar
cherry creek
peter karpinski