Setting the gold standard for farm-to-table in downtown Erie
BY KATE JONUSKA | PHOTOS BY PHIL MUMFORD
Sometimes an idea is so perfect it seems inevitable, but frankly, neither Bianca Retzloff or Kevin Kidd had planned to open their own restaurant in 2015. Both young chefs had worked up, down and around Boulder County’s food community, experiencing everything from fabled Pearl Street restaurants to trendy food trucks, when one picture changed their lives—and the direction of a whole town.
“It was a photo of the bar, which was so beautiful that there had to be a catch,” says Retzloff, co-proprietor and general manager of 24 Carrot Bistro in historic downtown Erie. Constructed in the 1940s, the bar top and bar back shown in the leasing listing were solid wood, set against a wall of exposed brick. Though opening her own restaurant was something she’d hoped would happen in the future, “We came out here to check it out and from that moment, it was like everything fell into place. Every little thing.”
A Timeless Blend
That ease is apparent in every aspect of 24 Carrot Bistro, which blends new and old in a way that makes the restaurant seem timeless. The vaulted barn-beam ceiling is hung with Edison bulbs. The pantry is stocked with ingredients from local farmers with deep roots, including Oxford Gardens, Isabelle Farm, Boulder Lamb and Crystal River Meats. Even the menu, with an emphasis on farm-to-table freshness, features dishes that could have been at home on your grandparents’ plates, like organic Brick Chicken ($19), pressed flat for ideal crispness, or the Grilled Grass-Fed Teres Steak ($26)—even if “organic” and “grass-fed” would have been a given back in the day.
“Farm-to-table is how I was trained. It’s really natural to me,” says Kidd, co-proprietor and executive chef, whose restaurant résumé includes Boulder County standouts like Jax Fish House, Chautauqua Dining Hall, SALT and Colterra.
He admits he enjoys the challenge of cooking locally and seasonally. “You do have to think on your toes,” he says. “The farms have [crops] coming in and out really fast and with very little notice, so sometimes you have to change stuff on the fly.” A bumper crop of purple cauliflower may mean a week of the gorgeous veggie, both in specials and as a delicious side dish for regular menu items like the Grilled Lamb T-Bone ($16). This summer, one bumper item was tomatoes—which, in another act of divine alignment, were grown by Retzloff’s mother on the family farm north of Longmont where Retzloff grew up.
“Some of the vegetables my mom grows are like gold,” she says. “They’ve been farming organically for 35 years, and the soil that they have out there—the dirt itself is gold. That’s what we want all the time: that gold-level quality, purity and simplicity.”
Take one of the bistro’s most popular dishes, the Crispy Calamari ($11). From one perspective, the squid is a traditional preparation, perfectly fried and paired with two classic sauces, a basil aioli and a red pepper-almond romesco. What elevates this version is how light and almost fluffy the fresh, never-frozen squid is, and how the sauces and the pepperoncini scattered among the squid pair to burst on the tongue.
Kidd seems to revel in this technique of combining classic with fresh. Perhaps the best example of that fusion is the 24 Carrot Cake ($8), an elevation of the traditional recipe. In addition to cream-cheese icing spiked with cardamom, it boasts coconut three ways—in the cake, toasted atop it, and in a decadent coconut-milk coulis alongside. Every slice is then garnished with a green and crispy fried basil leaf. “I’ve had to develop a to-go program for the cake because of demand,” says Kidd. “People want a whole sheet of it at a time!”
Operating under the banner of New American food, 24 Carrot strives for an upscale experience in a casual environment, and its menu offers some proteins uncommon in the area—like duck, which Kidd calls a “magical animal.” He orders the poultry whole and breaks it down into several popular preparations: a duck-liver pâté special that’s so popular, it’s impossible to keep on the regular menu; the Roasted Duck Breast ($24) served with seasonal sides; and the Crispy Duck Confit ($14).
The latter dish is Kidd’s most common source of compliments, usually shared with him via the window into the kitchen from the dining room, where guests can watch him and his crew in action. Seafood is another unexpected specialty to find in Erie, Colo., but Kidd grew up in New England, born to a family of multigenerational fisher- and lobstermen. He takes pride in his fish, which is always on the menu and is always fresh and of the highest quality. “We have people who come in every weekend just to see what kind of seafood special I’m going to do,” he says.
24 Carrot Bistro (303-828-1392, www.24carrotbistro.com) is located at 578 Briggs St. in Erie. The restaurant is open for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; for dinner 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and for brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations are recommended.
Coming full circle, another aspect of the bistro that customers have responded extremely well to is the bar program, created by bartender D.J. Riemer and hosted at that lovely, warm-wood bar top that kicked off the restaurant. “He’s one of the most passionate bartenders I’ve ever met,” says Retzloff. Surrounded as they are by Erie’s craft breweries, she says the town was screaming for good cocktails. Riemer “makes his own bitters and tinctures, and is making some of his own liqueurs. He’s experimenting with syrups, barrel aging and even making his own ice.” Seriously, the ice in each cocktail is chiseled by hand for a slow, ideal melt.
On the other hand, the service at 24 Carrot works like a well-oiled machine. In two short years, Retzloff says, Erie has embraced 24 Carrot Bistro like family, creating a host of friendly regulars. “For me, the thing that really stood out over the first year was how many people on the way out the door stop and say thank you to me specifically and give me a hug,” she says. “Normally it’s me saying thank you for coming in, but these people are saying, ‘Thank you for being here. Thank you for bringing this to Erie.’”
Kidd agrees, his tone amazed and grateful, adding that because this was their first independent project, “We were prepared for a fight, but honestly, it’s been a joy since we opened the doors.”