We ended up cancelling our first reservations at the last minute due to the irresistible appeal of craft beer at Hops & Pie. We stuck to our December reservations though, and met up with another couple for dinner last weekend to figure out why everyone's so excited about Linger.
Linger occupies the space of the former Olinger Mortuary, and plays on that history throughout the dining experience. In fact, the restaurant's name derives from Olinger with a simple subtraction of the "O". As a genius advertising maneuver, the "O" on the giant sign atop the restaurant that bears the former mortuary's name has been unplugged, leaving the brightly lit letters "linger" looming over downtown Denver.
Besides its influence on the restaurant's name, the "dead people" theme pervades Linger, from the decor to the menu to the beer options.
As the sister restaurant to Root Down a few blocks away, I had high expectations. Root Down is one of my absolute favorite dinner spots in Denver. Both restaurants advertise a commitment to environmental responsibility and good food, but Linger certainly seems to be the trendier, hottest-place-in-town restaurant of the two.
Linger specializes in a dizzying array of international street food, divided into world regions on the menu. They claim to be a "tapas-style" restaurant and they mean it. The menu offers only small plates, with each dish costing roughly $6 to $16.
The restaurant makes a point to cater certain dishes to food allergies, vegetarians, and vegans, although no one in our group had any dietary aversions.
The waitstaff recommends two small plates per person, a suggestion I completely disagree with. We ordered six plates between the four of us, and that was maybe one plate too many. Keep in mind that much of Linger's food is fried or at least very greasy, so it's hard to eat large portions.
Our meal started with complimentary togarashi-flavored popcorn. While I like the idea of popcorn as a light meal starter, I thought Linger's popcorn tasted stale and flavorless.
Our six small plates consisted of one "Asia" dish: Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef; three "Americas" dishes: Scallop Ceviche, Strongbow Cider Mussels, and Maple Leaf Duck Wings; and two "Europe" dishes: Devils on Horseback and Crispy Risotto Arancini. Though we hadn't necessarily intended them to be so, our selections were some of the most pedestrian offerings on the menu.
The dishes were served in two rounds of three plates each.
First up were the Devils on Horseback ($10):
|Devils on Horseback|
Linger's Devils on Horseback were comprised of goat cheese stuffed Medjool dates wrapped in bacon. These packed quite a sweet-and-savory punch, with an intense sugary taste from the dates.
While I enjoyed the little devils, Root Down offers a different interpretation of the dish - made with sweet-and-spicy peppadew peppers - that I prefer over Linger's.
Next was the Scallop Ceviche ($11), served with avocado and chips:
The scallops were fresh, light and citrusy, and were balanced with the creamy avocado and salty corn chips. The dish was apparently prepared with habanero peppers, but I tasted no spiciness whatsoever. This was good ceviche, but many other restaurants in town offer something comparable. For $11, I prefer the scallop ceviche at Vesta Dipping Grill or LoLa (just a block away).
Finishing up that round of small plates were the Strongbow Cider Mussels ($13):
|Strongbow Cider Mussels|
Besides the obvious Strongbow Cider component, the sauce included garlic, thyme, celery, and grain mustard. The shellfish were accompanied by grilled spicy cheddar bread. The mussels were tasty, but like the ceviche above, they were not terribly memorable.
It was time for our second round of tapas, starting with the Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef ($10 + $5 for Wagyu beef).
|Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef|
The pad thai tasted a little oily for my taste but was authentically prepared. It wasn't very spicy on its own and needed more heat from the chili sauce served on the side. The Wagyu beef was perfectly cooked, but it had simply been thrown on the side of the dish, with no attempt made at meshing flavors.
We also couldn't resist trying the Maple Leaf Duck Wings ($11):
|Maple Leaf Duck Wings|
I've had a million chicken wings in my life, but never duck wings. I was concerned that they might be too tough and chewy, but the meat was actually impressively tender. The wings were drenched in a sweet and tangy blood orange hot sauce, which made them extremely messy. I realize wings are supposed to be messy, but Linger felt a little too upscale for me to drench my face in wing sauce.
And finally, Linger's menu held one of the high points of my many 2011 dining experiences, the Crispy Risotto Arancini ($11 for three, we added a fourth for an additional $3):
|Crispy Risotto Arancini|
Arancini are apparently a traditional Sicilian food, comprising of fried rice balls filled with meat sauce. I'm afraid the above "as-served" photo makes them look more like the world's most confused donut holes and does not do justice to the their delicious innards. Let's take a closer look at a severed arancini:
|Crispy Risotto Arancini|
There it is: a creamy risotto exterior with a crisp, fried shell, filled with a delicious bolognese sauce. The meaty bolognese sauce was particularly rich and well-seasoned. Every bite of the arancini was outstanding, and they were one the few things I ate at Linger that didn't bring to mind a similar-but-better dish somewhere else in town.
Timing of our various small plates was a bit too fast; we were rushed into relocating food to different dishes and juggling too many items on the table. Also, our individual plates quickly became covered in sauces and straggling bits from various dishes. With the extreme array of foods served at Linger, these turned into a flavor hodgepodge that blended unfavorably with whatever subsequent item we tried to throw on the plate.
We finished off the meal with the dessert trio ($10), which included mini versions of the Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup, the Ovaltine & Oreos, and the Mississippi Mud Pie.
|Dessert Trio. Left to Right: Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup, Ovaltine & Oreos, and Mississippi Mud Pie|
Linger offers a couple more exotic dessert options, but they stuck to close to home with their dessert trio selections (so much for international street food!). The Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup tasted overwhelmingly of peanut butter. Similarly, the Mississippi mud pie was basically a very one-dimensional chocolate cake. The Ovaltine & Oreos dessert was a little more exciting, comprising of a very strongly Ovaltine-flavored Bavarian cream atop an "Oreo" made of chocolate cookies and mascarpone.
I'm disappointed and puzzled that Linger veered sharply away from their international street food theme and instead offers these very tame, all-American desserts. The world flavors that influenced their small plates menu could have easily produced a half dozen interesting and delicious sweet treats, but instead Linger serves boring mud pies.
Other than being underwhelmed by their desserts, Linger basically delivered on an ambitiously diverse menu. All the small plates were tried were well-executed, though only the arancini stands out as a superlative dish. I commend Linger for their commitment to environmentally responsible, quality food, but some of that backbone of substance gets diluted with distractions of the restaurant's trendy feel and the pervasive dead body motif.
Linger felt reasonably priced considering the quality and quantity of food served. As I mentioned earlier, one to one-and-a-half small plates per person is probably the ideal ratio. Visiting Linger with a large group will give you the best opportunity to sample multiple dishes.
As a side note, 5280 Magazine recently published an excellent Linger review in their December 2011 issue. The article discusses Linger's background in depth and reviews many of their small plates. It's well worth reading for more information about the restaurant, and I found myself in complete agreement with the author regarding Linger's food and service.
There are still a dozen or so dishes on the menu that I'm curious to try, and I need to check out the amazing patio views that everyone raves about. Linger is certainly worth another visit, but it may be another couple of months before our busy schedules can align.
Pros: Good food and service, reasonably priced
Cons: Dessert was boring, hard to get reservations