First Look: Wood-Fired Citizen Rail Pulls Into Union Station

Chef Christian Graves helms the New American grill at the Kimpton Hotel Born
August 13, 2017
by Ruth Tobias

The gist: San Diego’s loss is our gain. Acclaimed out west for his work at Jsix in Kimpton hotel Solamar, exec chef Christian Graves moved inland about a year ago to prepare for his new role at Kimpton’s latest development: the Hotel Born at Union Station, home to wood-fired New American eatery Citizen Rail. Now the stage — in this case a gleaming exhibition kitchen running the length of the dining room — is set for him to show his stuff at a dual grill that burns morning, noon and night. Combined with a dry-aging cave that doubles as a display case for chops and charcuterie, that grill will naturally be devoted to meat first and foremost. As Graves says, “The idea is that I’ll be working hand-in-hand with our lead butcher on a constantly rotating menu. The butcher will say, ‘Hey, guys, we need to use these necks first. I’ll salt and cure this leg and it’ll be ready in four months,’” and so on through the whole animal. 

The food: That focus is clear from a glance at the inaugural dinner menu, centered around a 11-item section called “The Butcher Shop” that features bison filets, venison chops, pork porterhouses and seafood such as hamachi collars as well as beef cuts. What isn’t so obvious is the thought Graves has put into the fuel that feeds the fires he tends. Mesquite and hickory bring the heat and the flavor, respectively, to red meat, while white oak and fruitwood do likewise for fish — even as they also season everything from roasted eggplant to smoked white beans. “The goal is to have vegetables star” right alongside proteins, Graves says. Indeed, the breakfast menu is notably heavy on vegetarian items like squash-ricotta frittata and quinoa-oatmeal with glazed pears and berries, not to mention hot buttered coffeecake and other pastries. Lunch, meanwhile, skews fresh and fun — think spicy fried-chicken sandwiches with kohlrabi slaw or grilled octopus and shrimp salad in oregano vinaigrette. No doubt brunch will too. "We want to make it a big component," Graves says. Now that this corner of LoDo finally draws regular weekend crowds, "I want Citizen Rail to be a social hangout." 

The bar and lounge. Photo by Ruth Tobias

The drink: Lead bartender Chris Burmeister, who also made his way to Denver from Southern California, takes a similarly ambitious approach to the bar, launching with more than 20 cocktails both classic and creative. And we do mean creative: consider the Long Drifter — in which rum, vanilla gum syrup and banana liqueur get a lift from white wine and Mexican seltzer — or the Titans of Industry, combining Fernet and Campari with reduced Hawaiian Punch, of all things. The cult bent of the beer selection — about 30 total, nearly half on tap — is also sure to lure connoisseurs who know their 750-ml. Casey Fruit Stand Sour from their TRVE Cursed Mixed-Culture Pale Ale (Burmeister's big on steak-and-ale pairings). Perhaps for balance, the wine list doesn’t take too many turns toward obscurity, dominated by favorites from the new world as well as France and Spain.

The space: Just as the name suggests train travel, so does the Semple Brown–designed space. There's a streamlined feel to the long, 74-seat dining room as it flows into the bar, with a series of mirrors mounted over the kitchen that evoke windows in a passenger car, scenery flashing by. Hues of blue, black and taupe with burnished-metal accents further convey a timeless aura, as does the aforementioned dry-aging room, suggesting the storefronts of guild butchers gone by. The patio increases capacity by 36; there's also a private area for 12.  

The details: 1899 16th St.; 303-323-0017. Open Mon–Wed: 6:30–10:30 AM, 11 AM–2:30 PM, 5–11:30 PM; Thurs-Fri: 6:30–10:30 AM, 11 AM–2:30 PM, 5 PM–midnight; Sat: 8 AM–2:30 PM, 5 PM–midnight; Sun: 8 AM–2:30 PM, 5–11:30PM.

Chef's boards will include a wide range of salumi (both housemade and small-producer), from herbed duck sausage to 12-month ham, as well as accoutrements such as coal-roasted eggplant caviar, pickles and grilled bread. Photo by Ruth Tobias

A duo of fried artichokes and Dungeness crab meat, brought together with lemon curd and fennel fronds. Photo by Ruth Tobias

Lamb tartare with summer squash, green onion, orange rind and a smoked soft-cooked egg. Photo courtesy of Citizen Rail

Sophistication distilled down to its essence: The Plunder Road, a clarified milk punch containing mezcal, Chartreuse and cantaloupe plus charred grapefruit for garnish. Photo by Ruth Tobias 

Hickory-smoked oxtail over rice porridge with aged cheddar, a signature appetizer. Photo courtesy of Citizen Rail

Chef Graves in his dry-aging cave. "No thin, weak casino steaks here," he jokes, adding that dry-aged cuts should be darker in color than fresh. Photo by Ruth Tobias

Graves on his technique for grilling chops at 800-900 degrees: "Char hard, dial it back and let it ride." Photo by Ruth Tobias

The 36-oz. tomahawk for two, one of four cuts that are dry-aged in house. Photo courtesy of Citizen Rail

Mixed glassware to show a beer flight in its best light. Photo courtesy of Citizen Rail

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