626 on Rood Is a Grand Junction Refuge
by Seth Cagin
Jan 06, 2011 | 4312 views | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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CHEF THEO OTTO puts the finishing touches on a peach dessert at his restaurant, 626 on Rood. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
You may find yourself in Grand Junction.

You might be passing through on your way to or from Denver. You might have a doctor’s appointment. Or you might be picking somebody up at the airport because a closer airport just didn’t work out this time. Perhaps your spouse, like mine, requires an occasional visit to Ross for Less (GJ is the closest one to our home in Telluride) to maintain herself at her cheerful best.

If it is mealtime, you can eat at 626 on Rood.

Not long ago, on an gray off-season Saturday, Marta and I found ourselves in Grand Junction because we were squabbling in the car en route to Montrose – where we were headed to take care of some irksome chores – and we decided to just keep on driving.

That time it was no accident that we found ourselves in Grand Junction. It was 626 that drew us there; we were subconsciously homing in on the place.

It was lunchtime and I had the 626 burger ($9), Marta a smoked duck salad (half $9, full $16). My burger was dressed with melted Dutch Beemster cheese and served with roasted garlic mayonnaise and irresistible crunchy thin fries, served piping hot. And we had wine. Good wine. Very quickly, we both felt a lot better. We stopped bickering.

This mood swing was thanks to food and drink, even if it was just a burger and wine at lunch, which in and of itself is not so unusual. We all know that the right sustenance in the right place at the right time can do that.

But serious cooking (yes, a burger can be serious) and wine in Grand Junction? A legitimate wine country restaurant? A Grand Junction French Laundry? Without going overboard, because there can be only one French Laundry, only one Thomas Keller, to whom no other chef would like to be compared, and because Grand Junction is still a long, long way from Yountville (north of Napa), really?

I don’t mean to sound so condescending, because, really, I like GJ just fine, even if it’s not Napa. It’s got great medical facilities, a spectacular setting, a lovely downtown, a modern multiplex cinema, some well-preserved classic bungalows in old neighborhoods, and a gorgeous historic train station just waiting for someone to restore it. But if you like to eat out, there’s no percentage in pretending about the dining scene: Though it is at the center of a region that is increasingly branding itself as Colorado Wine Country, and is increasingly earning that moniker, Grand Junction has been a culinary wasteland of endless chain restaurants and the odd taco stand. There’s some decent food at La Dolce Vita, Il Bistro Italiano and the Moulin Rouge, and there are both an Indian and a sushi restaurant (neither of which I’ve tried), all on Main Street; and the “Irish” pub, Naggie Magee’s, just a block south of main, is a wildly happening hangout. I mean no disrespect to any of these eateries, but more often than not, at mealtime in GJ, I make a beeline to 626 on Rood, just a block north of Main and a little east of the mall.

Every time, chef-owner Theo Otto has been present, making frequent forays out of the kitchen in his chef’s whites (or, nowadays, chef’s brights). His partner (in life and business), wine director Brenda Wray, has been managing the front of the house, warmly greeting regulars and newbies alike as if they were all old friends. And really every meal, without exception, has been good.

When I think of the food that comes out of Otto’s kitchen, somehow the salads strike me as a particular signature of his style because of how lightly dressed yet thoroughly tossed they are, with great care given to the carefully selected baby greens and accoutrements. An Otto keyword is “balance.” There’s a delicious roast baby beet salad with toasted nuts, possibly some fresh seasonal fruit and balsamic dressing (half $6, full $10) and a large-plate Flatiron steak salad with paprika marinade and bacon-simmered black beans ($16), and, a little simpler, there are a house salad dressed with Maytag blue cheese and a spinach salad tossed with pomegranate vinaigrette and topped with Parmigiano (both are half $5, full $8).

Otto favors fresh Hawaiian fish like Ono and Marlin, sea bass and scallops, perhaps grilled after resting in a yuzu marinade or seasoned with an ancho chili rub, possibly lightly smoked, served with a fresh pasta (in squid ink!), or black rice, or green lentils and saffron risotto. On occasion, on the menu, there’s been a huge two-pound Wagyu ribeye (around $62) that Marta and Carlos and I have split three ways, served with crunchy truffle-oil-seasoned fries and a red wine-mushroom reduction. This last item also strikes me as an Otto signature, partly because I’ve not seen it presented this way on another menu (so massive, so decadent, though it has been awhile since I’ve been to a top big city steak house, so maybe it’s a burgeoning trend and I just don’t know it), and also because Otto’s gift is to keep it so simple. I like how he comes out to display the impressive steak before grilling it.

626 on Rood aims to make itself accommodating not only for lunch and dinner, but at happy hour, too, when there are wine specials and a wonderful sharing menu containing items like a strudel of seasonal vegetables and goat cheese served with cilantro oil and a sun-dried tomato sauce ($9), lobster mac and cheese ($16), and a savory short rib quesadilla ($11). All three of these are addictive items, so order with care. Or don’t. On several occasions, when the timing and our moods have called for it, we have made a meal out of sharing menu small plates (hold the entrees) and been none the worse for it.

The restaurant’s careful attention to detail may reach its apotheosis in the wine list, with select Colorado wines often offered in a flight alongside a couple of wines of more traditional provenance, as if to demonstrate that the homegrown vintages can stand the comparison. A flight might consist of three Sauvignon blancs, for example, or three Willamette Valley wines, or three red blends, at prices ranging from $11.75 to $16.50. These and many more wines are available by the glass, and very helpful suggestions from the wait staff and from Brenda help you find your way.

Otto and Wray are clearly mindful that they are working to bring culinary sophistication to a town that has lacked it, but that just might become the center of a wine district of wider renown, someday, maybe. If that happens, and if they stick it out, they will have been pioneers. And if the vision of Grand Junction as the next Napa or Sonoma remains a distant gleam in this couple’s eyes, the ambition nevertheless justifies the effort.

When I’m heading in to Grand Junction from any direction, particularly after dark, and first see the lights of the valley below and from a distance, I often find myself thinking of the original Western immigrant settlers – trappers or homesteaders or miners – and imagine how it would have felt to them to arrive at a remote settlement on horseback or foot after months in the outback. The twinkling lights promise the comforts of warmth, food, safety, and companionship. I have the same thought heading into Cortez or Gallup or Gunnison at night. But when you drive into many towns in the rural West, all you can look forward to is a Motel 6 and McDonald’s. (OK, I exaggerate a little: I’ve scouted out good eats in Gunnison and Flagstaff and Durango.)

Now, when you pull into Grand Junction, there it is, precisely that precious refuge of warmth and sophistication of the imagination, waiting reliably, as if Theo and Brenda were expecting you: the real pleasures of 626 on Rood.

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