Photo courtesy of Rachel Adams
Who knew a once-bordello could deliver one of the best meals — and overall experiences — of my entire month-long trip to Denver, Colorado. Opened in April 2015, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox — coined a “gastro brothel” — pays homage to the building’s history as a former cathouse, peep show space and literotica shop, as well as Ophelia its muse and master of the boudoir.
Explains Ophelia’s owner and chef Justin Cucci,”We found this great picture of our muse, a strong, empowered woman who is naked from the waist up. Her name is Ophelia and, over time, that became the name of the restaurant. All of my restaurants, Root Down, Linger and now Ophelia’s share a commonality of taking inspiration from the history and location of their original buildings and mixing in design elements from my reclaimed collections.”
While you won’t be able to buy sex or adult books, you will be immersed in a world reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, a sultry space with just a touch of charming wear.
As soon as my companion and I walk in we step up to the host stand, which is actually a wooden marque sign for upcoming shows, and are promptly brought to a table on the first floor, which looks down onto the subterranean level where there’s a transistor radio-backed stage, DJ booth and projector screen. Currently the Jets vs Buffalo Bills football game is being broadcast, although it will be followed by live Reggae music. Our waitress informs us that events range from hip hop dance parties to burlesque shows to gospel brunch to foreign films and beyond.
Photo courtesy of June Cochran
A Spicy Sip At Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox
We peruse the cocktail menu, glancing at the adjacent bar crafted from pinball machine tops to see the mixologists at work. As I’m a hot head — you all know I love my spicy cocktails — I opt for the “Sex Machine,” made with mezcal, ancho reyes, Leopold Bros. Peach, cayenne and lime (I’m assuming it gets its name from the way it gets your body temperature rising). I tend to find “spicy” cocktails are never as spicy as I hope, but this one has the perfect amount of heat and balance. My partner orders the “Moral Turpitude” with rye, cynar, Benedictine and Angostura Bitters, a boozy concoction with an herbal twist, a single large ice cube keeping it cool but not diluted.
Ophelia’s cocktails. Photos courtesy of Rachel Adams.
Clinking our rocks glasses, we survey the space. There’s definitely quite a few sexual innuendos, from the vintage movie posters that will make you wonder if your bedroom sessions are too vanilla to the sexy boudoir pictures, pinup girl posters, a host of old sex show booths and marquees that celebrate sexuality, and 70s black velvet paintings making up the stage curtain. Against the wall sit rows of crushed velour couches under dangling gold knubbig lanterns, which, against the old movie star prints and vintage movie-theater wallpaper really give the space a touch of Hollywood glamour.
And while the design elements tell the story of the building and its muse, the feeling is welcoming and comfortable, especially with the helpful and knowledgeable staff stopping by to chat and offer guidance.
Photo courtesy of June Cochran
An Arousing Locavore Menu
While the space itself celebrates sexuality, so does the farm-to-fork menu, with atypical flavor pairings and inspiration from around the world arousing all of the senses. Here, ingredients and techniques from global cultures are combined in unexpected and exciting ways.
Says Cucci, “As Chef Owner, I closely collaborate with the Executive Chef Jeremy Kittleson, and Culinary Director, Daniel Asher, and our goal is to make people want to feel comfortable with the food, and above all, try to create crave able dishes-and through our collaboration. I believe we do that. Ultimately Ophelia’s offers approachable, shared plates, flatbreads, skillets, burgers, and entrees that all tie back to our philosophy of local, sustainably-sourced and organic menu.”
The menu is one where everything sounds delicious and unlike anything you’ve ever tried. Even staples like chicken and waffles are made new with a lavash-crusted chicken thigh and a light and fluffy “mashed potato waffle” served with apple butter, bacon, brussels sprout coleslaw and chili-honey for a sweet and spicy surprise. There’s also the signature “Brothel Burger” made, not with beef, but ostrich, topped with miso candied bacon, citrusy ponzu onions and pickled veggies on a pretzel bun.
This all sounds delicious, but my companion and I decide to go the shareable plates route, as the menu has plenty of boards (cleverly titled “Brothel Boards”), skillets, salads and small plates to choose from. We start with a “Mushroom & Truffle Duxelle Flatbread” topped with thick chunks of goat cheese, pickled red onion and arugula. My life motto is everything tastes better with truffle, and this delectable dish certainly proves my point as earth, herb and mushroom notes blend together, a crunch followed by creamy softness.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Adams
We’re apparently craving seafood, as we order the “Scallop Brothel Board” served on a wooden butcher board in a deconstructed fashion with the scallops in a Mason jar next to a grilled lemon wedge, some chive crème fraîche, house-made hot sauce and crispy lavash crackers. The fun do-it-yourself snack offers a bit of education, as I never realized how delicious a garden-inspired crème fraîche can go with shellfish.
Scallop Brothel Board. Photo courtesy of Rachel Adams.
We also welcome a board of “Octopus a la Plancha,” a sort of seafood salad with grilled octopus, Marcona almonds, Fresno chilis for some heat, and a topping of white bean and chorizo ragout, all sitting in a mint vinaigrette.
At this point we’re both pretty full, but can’t seem to say no to one more course (besides for dessert, of course). We opt for something light and highly recommended by our server: the “Roasted Beet Salad.” The salad is simple in its premise; however, typical ingredients are given unique twists, currying the cauliflower and pairing with a roasted butternut squash, puffed millet adding crunch and frisee and arugula providing some garden notes. A creamy goat cheese dressing brings it all together.
There’s Always Room For Dessert
For dessert we opt for a delicious (and adorable!) Mason jar vanilla bean cheesecake, one of the richest I’ve ever tasted. It’s made atypical with a gowning of candied squash, spiced pepita seeds and cereal milk crunch. We push past any food babies that may have been born and finish every last bite, the mix of textures against a sweet vanilla background having an addictive quality.
Notes Cucci, “As we grow, we continue to evolve as food and guests’ palates evolve. I know I’m constantly trying to evolve our menu items that have become standbys—and make sure that they change, however so slightly, so they remain vibrant, delicious, and exciting. There are some things, for example, on our menu at Root Down that have been tweaked a dozen times in five years—a lot of the time it’s slight—but I believe in the end the result is better food. At all of our restaurants, our hope is to stay true to our roots while keeping an open mind to new ideas.”
Have you visit Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox or another recommend Denver restaurant? Share your stories in the comments below.