Great food, cocktails mark The Warehouse rebirth

Call it harmonic convergence, divine intervention or the will of the random number generator — some things just line up as if by design. Such are the paths of James Africano and The Warehouse restaurant.

Africano served as chef at The Warehouse for years until 2007, when he left town to take over the kitchen at Ted Turner's Raton, New Mexico, buffalo preserve. In 2015, he decided to move on — and then got the news that his old Colorado Springs haunt had closed. It was time to return, this time as owner and chef, to reclaim his culinary kingdom.

In many ways, today's Warehouse displays the talented Africano many of us remember. But the ever-affable culinarian, now 40, has clearly grown up a bit on the ranch, having further embraced sustainability practices and deployed them in notably more affordable gastropub-style fare.

Take the small-plate rabbit wings with pickled carrots. Africano's wing sauce delivers a deep, dark, fermented flavor that melds with the mild, creamy bleu cheese/chipotle fondue dip for a fine bite. Eating the tender meat without fork and knife feels gauche, and not just because the restaurant still prominently features an art-gallery side.

From the entrées page, the onion-braised pork belly, sourced from Iowa-based Beeler Farms, bears simple seasoning and a perfect brown finish. It's a study in clean and simple cooking, emphasizing the excellence of the meat. The accompanying fennel-forward gratin of potato, winter squash and Gruyère piles layers of flavor into a velvet-smooth package.

Also in that layered style, the quail cordon bleu excels. This perfectly seasoned little bird comes breaded in blue cornmeal and stuffed with Serrano ham and Emmentaler cheese, all served atop an island of ground hominy in a sea of pureed guajillo peppers and cumin. That smoky purée makes pure magic. My sole grievance: too much salt in the side of blue corn jalapeño cheddar hush puppies.

Most dinner plates run $18 to $20, and at lunch you can stay in the $12 to $14 range. The open-faced Croque Madam reads more like an Eggs Benedict than the typical French brunch indulgence, but I'd eat its wild boar ham out of a grubby old boot without complaint — and that's before we consider what's added by the picture-perfect eggs and chard. The chicken and biscuit also stands out, soft and juicy with a whisper of earthiness from jalapeño gravy.

An apparently simple turkey melt smolders thanks to a strip of roasted poblano, all enhanced by Parmesan cheese forged into the French bread. But the true standout is the side of Kennebec potatoes, lightly fried to perfection and exuding heavy salt and oregano. It takes a lot to make a french fry or equivalent that stands up to fine cuisine without losing its essence, but that's exactly what Africano has done.

For dessert, the buttermilk panna cotta sits upon its plate as light as a cloud with a cranberry-port purée, its smoothness complemented by a mighty crunch from walnut-oat crumble. The oatmeal raisin ice cream sandwich, full of egg-nog-thick pumpkin ice cream under butterscotch, is mandatory indulgence.

For a more adult treat, The Warehouse's cocktail list boasts several superlative creations. A little backstory on that: While seeking bartenders, Africano was approached by prodigal twentysomething Stephen Winchell, already a veteran of The Blue Star, the Principal's Office and Urban Steam. Winchell displayed both taste and technique in his interview, and a few days later returned with a full drink menu, already priced out. Winchell now graces the restaurant's copper-topped bars with his own infused liquors, liqueurs and mixers, plus a few rarities like a superlative cachaça aged on Brazilian Amburana wood.

Winchell does the classics proud. His Old Fashioned blends Bulleit rye spice with floral elements from both Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. The Hemingway's Daiquiri honors the drink's history as a straight-up sipper with classy grapefruit bitterness.

As for his originals, they shine alongside the best in our city's cocktail scene. For instance, deep beneath the aromatic absinthe mist that sits, fog-like, atop the Hotel Chevalier lies the jungle funk of Venezuelan Pampero Aniversario rum, plus house grenadine and lemon.

But the Of Smoke and Sand is the crown jewel. Served straight up in a rocks glass, the cocktail expounds upon the notes and nuances an expert could ascribe to a 10-year-old Laphroaig whisky. The resulting blend adds tobacco smoke, Heering, Sombra mezcal and Fernet-Branca to present a dissertation on the whisky any novice drinker can understand.

Tie these drinks to Africano's menu, and you'll note the similarity of the sometimes-subtle and sometimes-brave little details that pervade even the simplest constructs. But The Warehouse today isn't the product of some grand and ineffable cosmic action — it's the deliberately-designed product of talent forged through experience into matured and impressive skill.

The king has reclaimed his castle while bestowing a new knighthood. All is right with the world.