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Where to Eat Now: Arugula

Fine dining, refreshed, in Boulder

Alec Schuler

Sometimes, we want to eat healthy, but what we really crave is a big decadent bowl of pasta. When our healthy intentions win, we’re often left feeling unsatisfied. If pasta cravings emerge triumphant, we feel guilty after we slurp up that last noodle and slip into food coma. The beautiful thing about Arugula, is that you can eat both healthily and decadently without a soupçon of regret. To Chef/Owner Alec Schuler, healthy eating and pappardelle aren’t necessarily at odds. Exhibit A: Seared Ricotta Gnocchi (all pasta is made in-house) with Red Wagon basil pesto, spinach, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, feta, and pine nuts.

This capacity to cook healthful yet indulgent dishes is reason enough to make a reservation soon at Arugula {2785 Iris Avenue, Boulder; 303.443.5100}. Here’s everything you need to know before you go.

Stealthy healthy 

Since the day before Valentine’s Day 2009, Chef/Owner Alec Schuler has been quietly revolutionizing the rules of fine dining with his charming, Mediterranean-inspired eatery. A graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, he rejects the notion that more butter is the secret to great flavor. He is passionate about dishes as balanced in flavor as they are in nutrition and presentation.

Veggie Platter

The Vegetarian Platter (can be made vegan) with a quinoa-stuffed pepper, cannellini bean-tempeh “chili,” roasted squash, house-pickled veggies, nuts, olives, cheese, and fresh seasonal vegetables

Beet Carpaccio

A carpaccio of local beets cut with feta, mizugula, pine nuts, and cucumbers with a red wine vinaigrette

Glancing at Arugula’s menu or even at the dishes once they arrive at your table, you’d have no idea that this is a health-focused spot. Yet if you look closely, each dish is accompanied by a slew of fresh vegetables and herbs. Gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options abound (Arugula and sister restaurant Tangerine just took “Best Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant in Boulder” in our DiningOut Prime Picks contest). And Schuler and Executive Chef Sven Hedenas use only unbleached flour, swap avocado oil and local sunflower oil for canola, and make other nutritious substitutions.

Even happy hour, from 5-6pm daily, showcases healthy dishes that depart from the often fried and fatty fare dominating early evening menus. From Hazel Dell Mushrooms with Gorgonzola and polenta to Spicy Olive Oil and Garlic-Poached Shrimp, happy hour deals allow you to feast without spending a fortune.

This quest for healthy cooking has been part of Schuler’s life for nearly a decade. He changed his eating habits for health reasons and hasn’t looked back since. These days, he eats mostly paleo at home, which powers his biking adventures. “Bike everywhere,” he likes to say, and when we recently met Schuler, he’d just completed a six-hour mountain biking trip on trails from Nederland to Boulder. While digging into a Veggie Platter with a sausage, Schuler told us about his electric tandem bike with the capacity for three children (he has four, including twins).

Local is king 

Risotto

Wild gulf shrimp meet local produce in this Saffron Risotto with peashoots, lemon zest, leeks, Oxford Garden cherry tomatoes, and hazelnuts

Cod

In October, Arugula served this seared Icelandic cod with basil pesto couscous, cherry tomatoes, steamed local greens, red pepper aïoli, and a citrus vinaigrette

While local food inspires and fills many menus these days, seasonal ingredients from nearby farms literally dictate the fare at Arugula. Chef Schuler changes the menu one to two times weekly based on availability, which he stays on top of by attending farmers’ markets, reading regular harvest report emails from farmers, and making use of whatever Monroe Organic Farm, for example, decides to deliver that week. “Things come and go,” Schuler explains. “The focus is on beautiful vegetables, colorful dishes, and fresh food.”

Certain dishes on the menu—like the Mixed Green Salad or the Vegetarian/Vegan Platter—allow Schuler to showcase whatever produce is available without adjusting dish descriptions. Other dishes are weekly inventions, inspired by seasonal beets or green beans, for example. And then there are the staples—beloved creations that always enjoy menu real estate, like the Tomato-Fennel Bisque, the Arugula Salad, a Bolognese, and Ricotta Gnocchi.

Key Lime Cheesecake

Desserts follow suit with the rest of the menu, using fresh local ingredients. This Key Lime Cheesecake showcases spiced cashews and fresh fruit.

Schuler has done the math to discover that about 30-percent of Arugula’s menu is local from spring through fall, while an estimated half of the produce comes from nearby farms. In the winter, Arugula sources about 12-percent of its menu locally. Monterey’s Seafood Watch guidelines steer the seafood sourcing.

A glass of wine a day

Befitting of the Mediterranean/Italian-inspired menu, Arugula’s beverage program revolves around vino under the careful watch of manager/house wine guy Ari Karra. On the dinner menu, Schuler crafts at least one dish designed to pair with a specific wine, indicated by a little wine icon with the varietal next to the menu item. The wine list leans toward the Old World, with additional selections from California, Boulder, Australia, and elsewhere.

On a monthly basis, Arugula hosts wine dinners with menus created around specific bottles. To prepare for the dinners, Schuler, Hedenas, and Karra taste their way through the three or four wines to be showcased at the event. Cross-referencing a seasonal produce calendar from Red Wagon and other farms, they talk through the flavors and brainstorm dishes to pair with the wines.

On Wine Wednesdays, Arugula discounts almost all of its bottles 40-percent, so this is also a great time to go strike matches of your own between grapes and dishes.

Museum of historic cooking instruments

Cooking tools

These gadget art installations decorate Arugula’s space

For years, Schuler collected vintage culinary tools. When he opened Arugula, he commissioned an artist to make installations from these antique finds. The resulting artwork brings a captivating funkiness to the otherwise dimly lit and elegant interior. You might find yourself staring at one of these whitewashed installations, which sort of resemble a three-dimensional culinary version of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Arugula also has a lovely flower-lined sidewalk patio with equal parts shade and sunshine, as well as abundant private dining space for parties and events.

Sister restaurant Tangerine

Next door to Arugula, sits Tangerine {2777 Iris Avenue, Boulder; 303.443.2333}, its early-rising sister restaurant, opened in 2011. The orange walls of this breakfast/brunch-and-lunch spot will have you feeling invigorated before your first sip of Irish Coffee. Tangerine holds the honor of being the only restaurant to have won three awards in the Daily Camera Best of Boulder contest for Breakfast, Brunch, and Gluten-Free.

Tangerine serves breakfast all day everyday from 7am until 2:30pm. Healthy options abound—like Quiche and Salad or a Veggie Omelette—and so do indulgences such as a Monte Cristo Sandwich and Green Eggs and Ham Benedict with Brie. For lunch, Tangerine serves every salad or sandwich you could ever want.

The good news: Schuler is about to ink a deal for a building at 38th and Navajo in the Highlands to open a second Tangerine location sometime in late-2016. Stay tuned for Tangerine: the Denver edition!

By Maya Silver | Editor