Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Around the World in 10 Dishes: Flatbread Edition at Eater Denver

After nearly a year(!), I’ll be returning to this space from time to time to show off a thing or two.

For starters, I’m working on an occasional series over at Eater, Around the World in 10 Dishes, where I’ll be exploring the glorious riches of Denver’s international kitchens in thematic, systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic fashion. First up: flatbreads.

Behold the companion photo gallery to the article, which you should read the crap out of right here!

Manaeesh with za’atar at Amira Bakery

Kulcha at Azitra

Taftoon at Babajoon’s Kabobs

Scallion pancake at Dae Gee

Injera with molokhia at Elsa’s Ethiopian Restaurant

Focaccia al formaggio di Recco at Lo Stella

Huarache con bistec y nopal at Los Carboncitos

Roti canai at Makan Malaysian Cafe

Tlacoyo with grilled chicken at Paxia

Frybread stuffed with shredded bison at Tocabe


Dish of the Week: Roast Beef-Chimichurri Sandwich at Park & Main, Breckenridge

After a terrifying, ice-slicked drive up I-70 to attend the 4th Annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival (of which more later), I arrived in town thinking nothing & no one could soothe me except the 1st distiller to ply me with copious amounts of hard liquor. But I was wrong, thanks to Park & Main, a lively little crayon box of a place dispensing equally colorful modern American eats, where I met a colleague for lunch & got a grip.

This in particular did the trick.

Complete with curlicues of golden-browned, unapologetically fatty bits that clung to creamy blobs of melted fontina, the mound of warm, shaved prime rib came slathered in a chimichurri so rich in garlic I could’ve gotten back in my car & cleared the roads with my breath alone. To its herb-&-vinegar kick, pickled onions added juice & crunch, & the grilled baguette was perfectly textured inside & out.

Nearly its equal was this veggie concoction, also en baguette drizzled with chili mayo: roasted sweet potato, braised kale & caramelized onions brought the soft, earthy bittersweetness, while pickled cukes & carrots brought the contrasting crispness & brightness. Piled so high, it was a bit of a mess, but that’s no complaint—on the contrary.

In fact, I’ve got nothing but compliments for the entire meal. Loved how baby arugula added a peppery bite to roasted-beet sliders generously smeared with tangy herbed goat cheese, laid on the eggy-sweet pillows of sweet-potato buns. But gigande-bean bruschetta, topped with slivers of good parmesan & lightly touched with some sort of fruity vinaigrette, proved an even bigger, heartier mouthful.

Breck has something special in this place, unassuming & casual as it may be—but I guess the locals know that, as it’s been there for a decade. Hopefully I’ll get over my utter dread of driving back sometime in the next 10 years. (UPDATE: My misunderstanding—it’s only been open for a year. For all that, it sure feels like a hometown fixture!)

Park & Main on Urbanspoon

Is the 3rd time the charm at The Avenue Grill?

Because the 1st 2 visits didn’t go swimmingly—which bums me out, since I know this place is something of an Uptown institution for its cozy Continental look; happy hour enlivened by obvious longtime regulars; & truly well-meaning floor staff. Obviously someone is—many someones are—doing something right. And by GOLLY I want to support such an establishment. In fact, that’s my kind of watering hole—on my own time, I tend to seek out the comfy old school over the new.

So let’s address the problems I encountered as quickly & snark-freely as possible.

One: Barcat oysters on the half shell (no photo—I assume you know what they look like). None were detached from the bottom, so you couldn’t just knock them back—you had to wrestle the flesh loose with the little forks 1st. For a former New Englander, that’s a pretty grating oversight.

Two: the skins of the chicken-&-spinach potstickers were too thick & chewy, the soy-ginger dipping sauce too sweet, & the bright-pink pickled ginger clearly some generic, artificially colored store brand.

Three: the base for both the mussel appetizer

& the cioppino

was startlingly thick & sweet, more like cocktail sauce than tomato-based broth. And the “herbed crostini” would be better listed as cheesy bread—not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, just with the menu description. Plus there was fresh shellfish aplenty,

& though (four) the presentation of the Director’s prime-rib special left a lot to be desired in my view—it sure didn’t resemble the website photo or anything out of experience, & I’d have guessed it was overcooked—he said it was fine.

Anyway, it all adds up to the simple but significant matter of paying more attention to technique, even—or especially—if it’s one you’ve executed 1000 times (based on a little research, I gather the menu rarely changes). There’s a difference between doing something by second nature—knowing it in your bones—& doing it on distant autopilot.

So I’m relieved to say that there were still some hits among the misses. The slow-roasted buffalo, for instance: though again the sauce was a bit too heavy & sweet for my tastes, it was redeemed by the chili heat it packed, & somehow it didn’t obliterate the fork-tender meat; also, the dilled potato-carrot salad made for cool contrast.

Similarly, the so-called Chinatown pork chop was positively drenched—but here, the combination of hoisin & hot mustard showed balance as well as zip, enhancing meat that I admit I expected to find dry but instead found just right: moist with the slightest tinge of pink at the center atop well-textured wasabi mashed potatoes. And the veggie eggroll (unlike that unnecessary garnish of more pickled ginger) was a fun touch, the filling nicely seasoned (though the wrapping was again too doughy).

As for the Caesar, you might call it careless—overdressed & topped with preserved anchovies that weren’t even separated upon removal from the jar or tin. But I rarely go 10 days without trying one or another variation on this classic salad, & sometimes I’m in the mood for those that constitute a good old junky mess, so long as its components are basically sound.

Yes, I’ll give Avenue Grill that 3rd shot—maybe for brunch or lunch. Meanwhile, if any of you habitués hold the secret to successful dining here, I’m all ears.

Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: The Universal’s BBQ Chicken Salad Sandwich (& more!)

About a month ago, the nice little buzz The Universal—a downhome daytime joint at the edge of Sunnyside—was generating took a sharper tone when then-chef Seth Gray was let go. Having had just gone in for a snappy little meal, I was suddenly all the more curious to return & see what sort of impact his departure was having on the type & quality of the food served.

The short answer is none at all. That’s no knock on Gray, & it’s certainly not meant to justify or weigh in on behind-the-scenes decisions of which I have zero knowledge. It’s simply a fact that the menu remains the same, & the kitchen’s still executing it with flair.

As I’ve noted many times before, I’m really not big on the American breakfast table—egg dishes, pancakes & the like leave me pretty cold in theory & sluggish in practice; here, there’s not much else to go for—a few sandwiches & salads, a few dishes based on grits (the house specialty). But I appreciate a thing done right. And at The Universal, every thing is.

I hope, for instance, that this sandwich special I had last Friday—so technically the Dish of Last Week—is still available, because it was rooty tooty fresh & fruity, combining succulent, tangy barbecued-chicken salad on a chewy baguette with shaved brussels sprouts, chopped lettuce & tomato in a thick & zippy layer of cilantro aioli; a sprinkling of spiced walnut halves added crunch & a touch of elegance. And the side of velvety buttered heirloom grits—in all their cheesy richness, though they don’t contain cheese—were just as addictive as they were the first time I tried them

in my companion’s Nitty Gritty, with eggs & flavorful, juicy chicken-apple sausage.

My own griddled Brie sandwich with apples and onions cooked in white-balsamic vinegar on multigrain bread brought salt, sweetness & sourness together in a warm gooey, crusty package; a side of chard sauteed with onion wrapped it all in a pleasantly bitter yet silken bow.

In short, if there’s still discord in the back of the house, it sure hasn’t spilled to the front. May all parties find peace & keep the kitchen fires burning.

The Universal on Urbanspoon

Tom’s Urban 24: Looking Good!

Let us count all the obstacles Tom’s Urban 24 had to overcome to impress me at a media preview Fri. morning: 1) American-style breakfasts bore me; most egg dishes leave me cold, and my sweet tooth, limited as it is even come dessert, positively shrinks into the cavity before dinner. Also, bacon shmacon. 2) While I recognize that eponymous owner Tom Ryan’s résumé is remarkable—apparently he invented Pizza Hut’s stuffed-crust pizza and McDonald’s McGriddles before founding Smashburger—my assiduous avoidance of all things franchised means I’ve never experienced any of its highlights for myself. 3) I was resoundingly hungover.

But like that, like that, like that, the Samba Room’s replacement on Larimer Square cleared those hurdles lickety-split. Provided the kitchen can realize the potential it showed today on a 24/7 basis, treating paying customers the way it treated us, this place is gonna be a huge hit.

The look skews retro,

but the mural reveals a thoroughly modern concern for local sourcing (those commodity-shaped magnets can be moved around to indicate where the ingredients are coming from at any given time).

Admirable as that may be, it pales in comparison to the use of that most massive of mass-produced foodstuffs, boxed cereal, as a squealingly delightful topping for warm, fresh, stickily glazed doughnuts whose airy-crumbed texture & lightly buttery savor was utterly dreamy. Flavors will change daily, but I adored the Cap’n Crunch embedded into white icing (ditto Froot Loops); the chipotle-chocolate—rich but not too sweet, the heat filtering through subtly toward the finish; & the maple-bacon, which, yes, even I appreciated for its 2-toned lusciousness. Unresponsive sweet tooth, melted.

All the further by housemade Pop Tarts, whose fillings—both sweet & savory—will also rotate on a daily basis; we tried vibrant apple, strawberry, &, my favorite, the deeply intense, at once dark & creamy fig & goat cheese. But here too, it was the texture of the pastry above all, tender & delicately flaky, that won me over.

Pancake flavors will change daily as well, from red velvet & poppyseed-lemon to pumpkin spice & banana-caramel (pictured); I didn’t try this stack, but Eater’s Adam Larkey was practically swooning.

Pal @MO_242‘s Treehugger Benedict with avocado & (added) bacon was perfectly respectable,

but my 4-egg chorizo-&-green chile omelet was even better, I thought. Yet again, texture made all the difference; the dry ingredients—chorizo, green chile, blue-corn tortilla chips—were chopped as fine as confetti, while the 3 cheeses oozed out from every angle, giving the springy, fluffy eggs an almost casserole-like aspect (as Mo rightly pointed out). The jam is made in house—with butter. What?!

A quick glimpse of the corned-beef hash, clearly chock-full of veggies.

In short, color me happily impressed indeed, and hopeful that quality control will remain a high priority. With the start of the film festival next week, believe you me I’ll be heading back for walnut-bourbon caramel corn, matzoh-fried chicken with green chile gravy, & maybe even a WTF cocktail or 2 just for giggles (look it up). See ya there.

Tom's Urban 24 on Urbanspoon

Larkburger: One Word.

Early on a Sunday evening, Larkburger was packed—just, I suppose, like every other burger-flipping fast-food joint in the whole wide world. It’s a cultural phenomenon that never ceases to confound me, & thus to underscore the fundamental sense of outsiderliness I developed as a child in family-friendly, meat-&-potatoes Oklahoma & have yet to quite shake. My own family wasn’t particularly family-friendly or meat-&-potatoes; my mom & dad loved me lots, of course, but for them that meant teaching me early on to appreciate a wide variety of adult foods in adult environments rather than indulging immature tastes. So while I like a good burger just fine, its status as an icon among culinary icons, a thing to be craved & consumed near-daily amid plastic shapes, cartoon colors & screeching voices—that I still can’t fathom. And though Larkburger’s reclaimed wood paneling is nice & all, the otherwise typical setting—all easy-to-clean surfaces, dispensible (albeit eco-friendly) products, raucous kiddies & harried parents with understandably faraway looks in their eyes—just depresses me to no end.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I got my food to go, zipping quickly home so the Director & I could wash it down with wine & Scotch, the way any god worth believing in intended.

Here’s the other thing about burgers: they’re insufficient fodder for detailed reviews, being pretty well summed up by 2 words: “good” or “bad.” And the word on Larkburger’s signature has been out long enough to make my chime-in almost pointless. Is the patty juicy, flavorful & cooked to order? You bet, semantics notwithstanding—”medium-rare” is not technically an option, though it’s what plenty pink “medium” turns out to be a euphemism for. Whatever. Does the buttered bun taste fresh, slightly sweet & fluffy as all good white bread should? Of course. Are the veggies crisp? Naturally. How’s the house sauce? Nice—an extra-tangy aioli.

Truffle-parmesan fries are pretty much the new regular fries, having long since passed from novelty to standard. (Okay, not literally; Larkburger serves plain fries too, all of the thin, crisp-tender variety.) Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not anti-truffle oil, however ubiquitous it may be, so long as it’s judiciously applied to be aromatic but not overwhelming—and such is the case here. The parmesan, parsley & sea salt, however, are sprinkled on so heavily as to actually clump here & there—& that, in my book, is a really good thing.

The turkey burger, unfortunately, isn’t likely to change skeptics’ minds about turkey burgers. Though made in good faith with lots of herbs & spices, it remains on the dry side—unlike the lettuce I got mine wrapped in. I was curious to see how the low-carb alternative would hold up, & the answer is: it doesn’t. The aioli quickly liquefies, soaking the leaves & making a mess you can’t eat without a fork. (Well, you can, but you’ll have to do it like this.)

A far more pleasant surprise is what I’d call Larkburger’s dark horse: the chili.

As served, it’s a well-integrated, spicy-sweet stew of ground beef, black & kidney beans, & fat hominy kernels swimming in juicy tomatoes & lots of diced red onion as well as fresh cilantro. As reserved for leftovers, eaten cold the next day, it’s thicker but no less balanced.

She says, wiping stray beads of orange oil from her lips after a fine breakfast.

Larkburger on Urbanspoon

Brief, Bright Escape: Second Home Kitchen + Bar

Two years ago, Second Home opened in the J.W. Marriott to somewhat mixed reviews; observing at the time that my own praise for the place & its mod twists on retro comfort food was stronger than most, I wondered if I’d overrated its merits based on 1 visit. And kept wondering, idly, now & then, without bothering to follow up—until a couple of weeks ago, when I met a friend for lunch on a lark & was pleased enough anew to return for dinner the next night.

I’ve always had a soft spot for hotel lounges. Be they the shadowy, lonely haunts of traveling salesmen on the seedy fringes of airports or glittering, tinkling piano bars in the sunken lobbies of downtown luxury high-rises, something about them always feels like a secret, where what happens among strangers stays put. Second Home, of course, falls into the latter category; with its woody, gleaming surfaces, boxy yet plush nooks & spacious patio hidden from street view, it aims for cachet among knowing locals as much as its captive audience of out-of-towners. To that end, it has to play to the neighborhood, to hold the attention of potential regulars—& whether or not it succeeded from day 1, it certainly seems to be doing so now.

Take the chunky, Pernod-scented smoked salmon rillettes.

More like a compound clarified butter than an integrated spread, it showcased a brightly variegated mosaic of flaked fish & diced vegetables that, with a dollop of crème fraîche, outshone the oversalted version I’d had at Lou’s Food Bar a few weeks prior.

This photo of the chopped salad doesn’t do justice to its ingredients—

not only roast chicken & mixed greens but also bacon, gorgonzola, peas, cucumber, red onion, carrots, & “crisps”—bits of fried wonton—in a spunky, refreshing celery-seed dressing. Yay celery seeds, totally underrepresented in American cuisine, along with caraway seeds & poppy seeds! (My theory is that they tend to be used in cuisines in which tartness & bitterness are valued more highly than they are here. In any case, glad to see them pop up.)

Even better, however, was the frisée & watercress salad, with its unexpected combination of duck confit, dried cranberries, & toasted hazelnuts in warm bacon vinaigrette.

It was so satisfying precisely because it was so oddly balanced & strangely restrained; as tired as I am of roasted beets, goat cheese, candied pecans & the like, the left-of-center mixture intrigued with each bite, in its varying proportions of smoke & salt, bitterness & sweetness, chewy bits here & crunchy ones there. I couldn’t help but imagine a different chef adding a little aged cheddar to round it all out, & yet I was glad this one (i.e., Jeff Bolton) didn’t.

The housemade sausage duo consists of spicy lamb with harissa & beer-braised veal bratwurst with a veritable fluffy cloud of mustard sauerkraut;

though both were good, the tender, mild, beautifully grilled brat was especially fine, mingling with the cabbage whose tang was unusually delicate.

I keep bitching about the cliché that is tuna tartare, & I keep encountering exceptions to the rule—maybe to the point of disproving rather than proving it. Among them, the one with tabbouleh & mint chimichurri at Summit at the Broadmoor comes to mind; so does Limon’s version with quinoa, black olive tapenade & avocado-lime mousse. And now, so does Second Home’s very simple, very fresh & very generous portion with wonton chips.

That said, it also made me pine for the seared tuna noodle casserole I still remember fondly from my 1st visit 2 years ago. That dish was a keeper; were it to make a comeback, I’d be returning even more frequently than I intend to now, the lush at the bar regaling passers-through with wild tales of adventure & romance over drinks like this juicy, invigorating blend of Lillet with Meyer lemon, parsley & cucumber,

enjoying the feeling Second Home provides of being far-flung just moments from my real home.

Second Home Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Lou’s Food Bar: The Second Time’s The Big Old Charm

So yeah. Somewhere between the chicken & waffles Steuben’s Brandon Biederman rustled up for the Mixed Tastes lecture at the MCA last Friday night—where my pal Adrian Miller gave a fascinating talk on the history of the dish—& the midnight pizza I’m pleading the Liz Lemon 5th on (more about that when I recover from the shame), I hit Lou’s Food Bar for dinner with Mo & Beth. My 1st impression was that my worst nightmare had come true (or 2nd worst, after the one about sleepeating)—that exec chef–owner Frank Bonanno was finally spreading himself too thin. After all, I figured, it had to happen sometime (with the specter of Boston’s Todd English, who began to lose his mojo not long after branching out beyond his first 2 restaurants, ever looming). If not at Osteria Marco, or Bones, or Green Russell, all of which I wholly heart, then when?

Well, I feared, with the 1st bite of the rillettes du jour—in this case pork. Even granting that, at their most basic, rillettes are nothing but the meat in question, the fat of the meat in question, water & salt (more complex recipes may include other spices, wine &/or garlic/onion/shallots), these were way too salty. Though the texture was gorgeous—as smooth as the cream you’d have applied to your face in circular motions after your evening bath if you were a starlet in the golden age of cinema, or that crazy cousin of my father’s who used to dab butter pats on her cheeks at Furr’s Cafeteria—we had to ask for extra pickled onions to balance out the salt. There’s a thin line between enhancement & compensation; accompaniments should offer the former, not the latter.

By that logic, however, I could justify the equally extreme saltiness of the duck confit under the egg in the salade Lyonnaise, tempered as part of a whole with bitter greens & more pickled onions. (On that score, however, I was outnumbered by my companions, who still found it too salty.)

Things got better, if not mind-blowingly awesome, from there. First of all, as a wink-wink gesture, garlic bread is nonetheless fuckin’ heartfelt! Second, as a serious gesture, the selection of 6 housemade sausages is solid. Bursts of cheddar accentuated the otherwise only subtly gamey aspects of venison—& I like it wild, so those were the best bites for me (though for non-game lovers the mildness will be a plus). And, as I’ve already noted in my most recent Dish of the Week post, the sour-meets-unctuous notes of the accompanying bacon sauerkraut really tied the room together (see: compensation vs. enhancement). Same went for the green-curried potatoes with the Thai pork-&-duck sausage (top left, below), which didn’t taste very Thai but did taste very rich. I like rich as much as I like wild. (That’s not, by the way, a double entrendre—I like my men to mostly watch movies & order takeout with me on an old couch.)

Then there was dessert. Given that the pie was from Bonanno’s own Wednesday’s Pie, we had to have a slice, right? Except that it was Friday. The chocolate–peanut butter filling was great—silky & fully suffused with nutty tang rather than merely swirled here & there, so that it was just sweet enough. But the crust was kinda…I hope I’ll never again have to use this word in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears: hard, perhaps even stale, not flaky in the least. Finally, a quick glimpse (this description will matter later) at the cocktail list made me go huh? Yes, the offerings were clearly craft, containing quality ingredients, but they all swung fruity.

Anywhere else, I would’ve considered a mixed first-time experience a decent experience, a hopeful one. But in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears, a mixed experience is a disappointment. So I had to go back pronto to determine whether it was a fluke on their part, a matter of excessive crankiness on mine—or whether Lou’s would, in fact, be the dent in Frank’s thus-far-shining armor.

OK, enough drama. My 2nd impression, in the company of none other than the aforementioned Adrian Miller, amounts to this: all’s well that ends really, really well.

Even if the rillettes, chunky with salmon this time, were still awfully salty, they weren’t quite too salty, enriched with housemade cream cheese. This time, then, the accompanying pickle—including super-garlicky julienned carrots & pearl onions, which I’m always happy to see—acted as a proper complement rather than a needed supplement.

Now, of course the mahi mahi on my fish sandwich was salty—it was blackened. Even so, the presence of the moist, sweet filet wasn’t lost in the mix of contrasts beneath its spicy coating: fresh, chewy, butter-toasted country bread; lots of crisp lettuce; ripe sliced tomatoes despite the season; & a generous smear of remoulade (which didn’t taste distinctly of the celery root it contains, but garlicky creaminess is garlicky creaminess; I had no complaints).

Speaking of Furr’s Cafeteria—this Oklahoman couldn’t help but be touched by the homely appearance of plate of Adrian’s fried chicken & whipped potatoes, as deliberate, I’m sure, as the wing & 2 legs were textbook: tender & juicy, the batter crunchy, virtually greaseless & judiciously seasoned (i.e. not too salty). Adrian—who is, after all, writing a book that may well turn out to be the book on soul food—observed that he actually likes his breading slightly less crunchy, a bit more “cohesive,” but he also explained that that was a personal preference, not an objective judgment call.

And then, again, there was dessert—warm brownie bread pudding awash in crème anglaise. And finally, my mind was blown.

So simple, yet so profoundly memorable—it was served with forks, but spoons would have sufficed. In a word, it was pure—of egg, of chocolate, of cream & vanilla, with a texture so soft it nearly disappeared on contact.

In the afterglow, I took a second glance at the drink list—& while the signature cocktails still didn’t do much for me, the list of house-infused spirits & syrups caused a double take: lavender, tarragon & black pepper, coffee…Now that’s more like it!

I should note in closing that even as I moved from doubter to potential devotee, I wasn’t once skeptical about the service—I got the same guy both times, & he was an unerring pro: cheerful, knowledgable, attentive, helpful. What I didn’t get was his name—but I discovered that he’s an aficionado of North Carolina barbecue, so there’s a clue to resting assured you’re in very good hands.

Lou's Food Bar on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Bacon Sauerkraut at Lou’s Food Bar

Yeah! The accompaniment to Lou’s venison-cheddar sausage is just so damn good—as soft & thick as pudding, all vinegar tang & bacon grease. It tastes like something you’re gonna regret later.

But you won’t. You’ll be far too busy regretting what you ate before & after you went to Lou’s. Long story—to come.

Freshcraft: If You Say So

To paraphrase Linda Richman, Freshcraft is, at least thus far, neither fresh nor craft. Discuss.

If that’s a little harsh, it’s only because I want to love: the owners are from Iowa, which is where I met the Director, a Des Moines native himself. So I had sentimental hopes they’d be sprinkling a little of that Hawkeye magic all around in the form of hearty home cooking. But based on my first visit, I agree with Westword’s Laura Shunk that at this early date it’s still half-hearted home cooking, not nearly up to par with the excellent craft beer list (which is several pages long). Considering the repertoire is mainly comprised of simple snacks & sandwiches, it shouldn’t be that hard to execute.

Take the appetizer sampler—your choice of 2, accompanied by “spudpuppies.”

We opted for the pretzel bites & the cheese dippers said, somewhat confusingly, to be both “dredged in a strong ale batter & crusted in herbed crumbs.” If virtually herbless & ale-flavorless, the latter were just fine—containing a mixture of cream cheese, provolone, parmesan & monterey jack. The former, however, were stale, & the fried spheres of mashed potato nice & fluffy but bland—nothing salt & pepper couldn’t fix, but that much should’ve been obvious to whomever sent it out. As for the dips: the 4-cheese blend for the pretzels contained the same mixture as the dippers, so it could hardly fail. The smoked-onion ketchup just tasted like ketchup, but the cashew pesto was interesting; it made me realize how carefully balanced classic pesto is between the pinenuts, basil, parmesan, garlic & olive oil. Strong, sweet cashews tilted that balance in their favor, so it was a bit heavy—but pleasing nonetheless.

I wish I could say the same of the cheese-crusted Iowa pork tenderloin.

Looks ridiculously good, right? Afraid not. It was the toughest, grayest piece of meat I’ve been served in some time; each bite took several plate-scraping seconds to saw off. The fries were good, but good fries are easy to come by. (By the way, the menu has 2 sandwich sections: one titled Small-Plate Session Sandwiches & another titled Medium Plates, defined as “lunch-inspired sandwich-style plates”—a phrase so meaningless it’s bound to catch on.)

Ditto the B.A.R.—a Reuben with sauerkraut cooked in bacon fat & “caramelized apple Russian dressing.” Looks great, but the corned beef required more chewing than the pal o’ mine who ordered it had the energy to muster. That’s a problem.

The beef on the French dip wasn’t tough—just lackluster. I didn’t try the French onion soup—(“a trio of slowly caramelized onions & garlic”—??)—which looks as tasty as everything else, but looks are clearly not everything here.

Still, because they’re Iowans, because they’re new on the scene, because the superb beer list suggests they have a genuine vision of “freshcraft,” I’d like to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Besides, a few dishes partaken during a single visit is not even close to sufficient for a final verdict. So I’ll give this place another try, starting with the soup. But my initial experience hasn’t got me lost in lascivious daydreams about a return; for now, I’ll reserve those for the greasy taste of home at Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn.

Freshcraft on Urbanspoon