In The Game
By Lisa Truesdale | photos by phil mumford
After 13 years as part of the Boulder County restaurant scene, Eric Lee was done.
“I wanted a set schedule without crazy long hours,” Lee says, “and I wanted to spend more time with my kids,” all three of whom were still in school. He became a personal trainer, building up a long list of clients over another 13 years. One day, one of those clients, Renee McDermid, approached him for help.
“She said, ‘I hear you have experience in the restaurant industry,’” Lee recalls. “And I said, ‘I do, but I’m absolutely, positively not getting back into it.’”
But McDermid just wanted some consulting advice. She and her husband, owners of the Hampton Inn & Suites in Gunbarrel, were interested in adding a restaurant with banquet space to a corner of their property.
Lee agreed to help, confident that his involvement wouldn’t extend past the planning stage. He created a full restaurant concept complete with décor and menu ideas, and included plans for the banquet facilities the hotel desperately needed. The McDermids loved Lee’s concept, but in the end decided that they couldn’t proceed without restaurant partners.
Lee still wasn’t interested, but he contacted a friend and former co-worker, Ryan Gaibler, co-owner of Ragazzi Italian Grill in Longmont and Garden Gate Café in Niwot. Gaibler found an investor, Patrick Tornqvist, a successful importer/exporter and avid wine collector, and approached Lee again.
“He said, ‘You laid the groundwork for this, so you need to do it with us,’” Lee recalls.
“And I thought, ‘He’s right. I’ve put too much work into this to just forget it.’”
Element Bistro opened on Aug. 4, 2016, a partnership between Lee, Tornqvist, and Gaibler and his wife, Tiffinie. It features a large dining room, a roomy outdoor patio, an inviting full bar with local craft brews on tap, and a rooftop boasting “the most spectacular Front Range restaurant views in the county.” The rooftop has a newly installed canopy for warm days, two fire pits for chilly evenings, and an “adult playground” equipped with backyard games like ladder golf. The banquet room with mountain views holds up to 120 people for meetings and weddings, and can be divided in two.
Rustic yet elegant touches abound, like a beetle-kill pine divider at the entryway, stone-clad fireplaces, and a 30-foot custom-poured polished concrete bar top inlaid with illuminated glass and fiber optics that shimmer and twinkle in the evening. To find the best furnishings and décor, Lee and Gaibler turned to the import/export knowledge of Tornqvist, who flew them to China for a shopping trip. “We found wave plates, oval plates, square plates, you name it,” says Lee, explaining that each of the restaurant’s signature menu items has its own special plate.
And speaking of signature menu items, there are plenty. The menu has evolved slightly since he initially created the concept, Lee says; the new executive chef, Tommy Harder, added his own unique touches, and he chose to go gluten-free for everything that cooks in the fryer. That means rice flour for anything that would normally be made with wheat flour, and special touches like delicately shredded potato in the batter for the crab-croquettes appetizer ($12). Even the batter for the popular fish-and-chips ($13) is made with gluten-free beer from Boulder’s Shine Brewing Company.
Where the Elk and the Antelope Play
When asked about his favorite menu items, Lee won’t say. “That’s like asking who’s my favorite kid,” he laughs.
But like a proud parent, he brags about the BBQ Elk Tacos ($13), a recipe perfected over many years in his home kitchen, topped with chipotle broccoli slaw, goat cheese, scallions and jack cheese. The menu also features other dishes made with high-quality wild game meats. The Element Burger ($16) is a mixture of elk, boar, bison and antelope with wild-mushroom truffle butter. There’s also Braised Bison Flatbread ($14) with pickled onions, jack cheese, cilantro and BBQ sauce; a Wild Game Sausage Sampler ($16) featuring elk with sweet pepper and mushroom ragout, pheasant with sweet-potato purée, and rattlesnake and rabbit with apple chutney; and Wild Game Lasagne ($11).
If you’re not game for wild meats, though, there are numerous other choices, like housemade soups, fresh salads, Seasonal Vegetable Lettuce Wraps ($9), Chicken and Grits ($14), Lobster Mac & Cheese ($22) and Flash-Fried Chicken Wings ($11/$17). Pastry chef Kim Quick’s desserts include Cheesecake du Jour ($7), Key lime pie ($6) and bread pudding with praline pecan sauce ($6). Happy hour and Sunday brunch each have their own menus.
While Lee is ultimately happy to be back in the business, he admits it takes a lot of work. But, he says, Element Bistro was created with an abundance of love, as well.
In fact, when he asks any of his more than 40 employees, “What is work?” they all know how to channel writer and poet Kahlil Gibran when they answer: “Work is love made visible.”
Element Bistro (303-530-5400; www.elementbistroboulder.com) is located at 6315 Lookout Road, Boulder 80301. Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour is 4-6 p.m. weekdays and brunch is 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.