Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Parts Is Parts: Quail Legs at Lala’s Wine Bar vs. Sticky Wings at Rackhouse Pub

***If you read this blog with any regularity you’re aware of my heavy involvement with the Denver Film Society. With the 33rd Starz Denver Film Festival just 3 weeks away (much more on that anon), The Director’s & my lives are not our own—hence my infrequent posting of late—so takeout’s the name of the dining game around here, of which less-than-gorgeous presentations are a given. For that my apologies; the restaurants owe none.***

From breasts & backs to giblets & feet, there’s almost no part of poultry that isn’t eminently edible. (Halfway through typing that I had to Google “Do birds have ears?” & “Can you eat chicken beaks?” Not among my finer moments.) But it’s the wings & legs that stick out, literally, for most of us when it comes to noshing, at least stateside.

Actually, quail legs don’t stick out much: they’re tiny. But no less delectable for that.

Lalaquail
Drumettes di Italia are new on the menu at Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria (more on which here), & they’re impressive—succulent little roasted chunks of dark meat, strongly coated with herbs, S & P. They come with a supposedly spicy butternut squash dipping sauce, which isn’t spicy at all, tasting of little other than the squash itself—a fresh, sweet, thin puree to balance the seasoning.

In short they’re the elegant, well-integrated counterpart to Rackhouse Pub’s down & dirty hot sticky wings.

RPwings

Baked yet crispy with sweet whiskey glaze (presumably Stranahan’s), the wings per se play 2nd fiddle (heh) to their coating, charcoal-bitter in spots—a plus in my book to undercut the indeed sticky-tangy sweetness of the whole. The meat’s just there to absorb it all, which is generally true of such snacks, & fine in the context of game day. Still, the best wings IMO speak for themselves as chicken; Rackhouse can & does do much better (see here).

They come with 2 dips. First is your choice of blue cheese or ranch dressing; the latter’s homemade, so why choose the former? Buttermilky & on the thin side compared to the bottled stuff gunked up with coagulants & preservatives, it’s quite nice. Much odder, & I mean odd, is the wasabi cream. With a mousselike texture, it’s sweet. Quite sweet. If I were trying to recreate it I’d use mascarpone. It’s like wasabi-mascarpone cupcake frosting. It’s intriguing in its way, but I can’t help but wonder if it was just a fluke, like someone in the kitchen accidentally reached for the sugar instead of the salt that day. I dunno. Spread some on a slice of leftover spice cake & see what you think.

That’s So Cute of You, Pearl Street Grill!

The news on Cafe Society that Pearl Street Grill had gone & had its hair done couldn’t have come at a better time for the Director & me; we’d grown a little sick of the old style (the restaurant equivalent of the Rachel), so we were all over the makeover, coinciding as it did with Celtics’ night out.

Sure enough, the new menu’s all dolled up with adorable little illustrations of veggies & heart-healthy nuts & your daily RDA of wholesome dairy products & all those things you didn’t know constituted food groups at Pearl Street, whose nutritional pyramid heretofore resembled a platter of nachos: chips on bottom, guac & sour cream on top.
PSGmenu

And though the substantive changes aren’t sweeping, they’re certainly noticeable. Take the new array of sides like carrots spiced with ginger, cinnamon & dill (huh) & steamed artichoke with orange-tarragon dip.

PSGartichoke
The jumbo thistle was perfectly tender from the outermost leaves inward; it almost didn’t need saucing, a good thing, since the dip was pretty bad, with the thin, artificial sweetness of those oil-free Pritikin salad dressings of old, when guys with mustaches & gals with Farrah dos (speaking of time-capsule hairstyles) switched to decaf & went jogging in short shorts.

But for a glorified sports bar, the antipasta [sic] platter could’ve been much worse.
PSGantipasti

No, it wasn’t premium fresh mozzarella or prosciutto, but it was decent & generous, with olives & garlicky marinated tomatoes, & a refreshing change from the usual greasy fried suspects.

Granted, enough oil was accumulated somewhere to smear my lens. But isn’t it fitting to view a quesadilla through a haze of fat?

PSGquesadilla

Yet even this old standby has been updated for the new millennium (or at least late in the old one) with a vegetarian filling (black beans, peppers, tomatoes & blended cheese), plus “salsa fresca,” “lime crema” (not, note, “sour cream”) & “avocado relish” (not, note, “guac”). Terminology, as we learned here, can make all the difference between junk food & health food. Really, the changes are neither here nor there as far as either nutrition or flavor goes; the quesadilla’s good, it’s fine, it’s nothing you couldn’t make at home just as well. But then, that’s true of most items at a place like Pearl Street; as I noted in the abovelinked post about Hanson’s, you don’t come here to be wowed by the cooking, you come to be lulled by the boozy neighborhood vibe. The eats just help you soak it up.

Same goes for the Southwest steak salad.

PSGsteaksalad

With avocado, tomato, corn–black bean salad, queso fresco & mixed greens, it’s only a slight variation on the pre-revamp version, with 1 exception: the really good, smoky, tangy, creamy roasted red pepper vinaigrette on the side. If it wasn’t housemade, I sure couldn’t tell.

Ultimately, it’s the same old Pearl Street, just buffed a bit. Why should it be otherwise?

Pearl Street Grill on Urbanspoon

Mighty Decent Grub at Rackhouse Pub

Talk about signs a place is gonna be good:

RP2
If the portrait at the entrance to Rackhouse Pub on site at the Stranahan’s distillery doesn’t indicate the fun to be had amid the whiskey barrels & sheet metal
RP

lining the dining room in a nod to so-called steampunk style, I don’t know what does. Unless it’s the flatscreens tuned into the Celtics game, thank you very much. Or the rotation on the iPod: Beastie Boys & Girl Talk, thank you even more.

Or the menu, a compendium of pub grub done right—with quality ingredients & just enough creative flair to keep it interesting yet real. If there’s 1 thing the gastropub movement has done for the better—besides bring back deviled eggs—it’s up the ante on the neighborhood grill; had Rackhouse opened 10 years ago, it might have been your average corners-cutting, Sysco-sourcing sports bar (minus, of course, the artisanal spirits), but on the much savvier current scene, even a modestly ambitious kitchen had better know its pesto from its panko—& Rackhouse’s seems to be working it, for all the Duderinian (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) vibe the front of the house emits.

The steamed mussels listed as “Blacks,” for instance, are a promising start.

RPmussels
Though the bowl—piled with plump shellfish & thick, juicy coins of chorizo—didn’t contain enough broth, let’s look at it as a sixth full rather than 5 sixths empty; what there was was heady. Made with Great Divide’s Hades Ale, a Belgian-style strong pale ale, it boasted a refreshingly bitter midpalate laced with a downright bracing amount of red pepper; I had to ask for a spoon (which, word to service, should have been offered to begin with) to slurp it up to my satisfaction. After all, the accompanying flatbread, thin as it was, wasn’t going to suffice as a sopping tool—which, really, was to its credit; hot, crisp & bubbly, not dry & crackery, & sprinkled evenly with parmesan & herbs, it boded well for the pizza—which, in turn, actually surpassed my moderately positive expectations.
RPpizza

The white Rustica’s topped with chunks of locally made sausage, mushrooms (mostly portobello & button, I think), & whole cloves of roast garlic, along with decent mozz; it’s a hearty mess atop that crunchy thin crust, perhaps a little too charred at the edges for some, but I’m all for the burnt bits.

No burnt bits on the slab of ribs—not surprisingly, since they’re oven-roasted rather than slow-smoked,

RPribs
but hey, Rackhouse doesn’t pretend to be a hardcore BBQ pit, & as roasted ribs go they were fine, especially where the hoisin sauce was glazed rather than glopped on. The whole shebang I’d call sloppy but generous: the molasses baked beans were too sweet (nothing a little salt pork couldn’t cure), while the coleslaw was disappointingly bland (nothing more cider vinegar, S&P & some caraway couldn’t cure); the corn muffin, however, was a treat above all for being a freebie, unlisted in the dish description.

Anyway, if the worst Rackhouse can do is halfway decent, then it’s doing all right indeed. Three-quarters decent is the Cajun dip,
RPCajundip

which would’ve been all-the-way decent if the garlic bread hadn’t been dry. My rule of thumb is, if it’s going to be crunchy throughout, it shouldn’t be too thick; if it’s going to be thick-cut, it should be soft in the middle. In short, there’s a distinction to be maintained here between toasted bread & flat-out toast. But the dip itself was something else; the portion struck me as a bit small until I tasted it, all tangy cream & gruyère with chunks of shrimp, crawfish, tomato & mushroom. A little went far, quick.

In hopes of mitigating at least some of the caloric damage the Director & I were doing over the course of some killer Celtics action, a couple of salads called to me.

One of them was lying.

RP3cupsalad
The literally named 3-Cup Salad is about 1/3-part lettuce, sprouts & roasted tomato to 1 part egg, feta & black olive to 2 parts good, strong Genoa salami & herb toast in punchy tomato vinaigrette. (That may not add up, but neither does the salad.) It’s a bit petty to complain about error on the side of generosity, & I’m not; it’s a nice take on a chef’s salad, but a few more leaves &/or a slice less salami would solve the math problem & take the guilt out of what was basically a guilty pleasure.

As for the Caesar, Caesars are Caesars, except when they’re extraordinary;
RPcaesar

this one’s just fine, with a couple of anchovies, nice croutons, & a slightly too mild (but still housemade & basically Caesary) dressing. The crab cake, however, is terrific: almost no filler, barely any seasoning, even, it’s all sweet pan-browned crab—for a measly $2 extra, no less.

I’m sorely tempted to postpone publishing this until I can get back to try a burger or other sandwich, comprising as they do half the menu; certainly the upgraded trimmings read winningly, from challah to “whiskey onions,” cracked eggs & cambozola. But better to do an update then & get word out now, because the place is relatively new, with an affable & committed 1st-time owner who’s still finding his way through this bitch of a business. I don’t have too many useful suggestions for him beyond 1) opening a patio (he’s working on it) & 2) improving the wine selection: right now there are only 4 or 5 house wines, & while a) the heavy emphasis on craft beer & spirits is obviously concept-appropriate & b) the price is right for the not-bad grape juice they do have—good-sized pours are $5—I can’t think of a reason not to invest in a couple of easy-drinking but non-generic bottles, say a viñho verde & a carménère or even a dry rosé, whether as additions or replacements. Rackhouse may not be a wine bar, but it’s not a dive either, & throwing us winos a bone only ensures the beer & whiskey contingent will have an easier time dragging us there on a regular basis.

Not that I need dragging yet: until I get sick of the cabernet, I see myself stopping in quite a bit, not least for the free Wifi. Heck, maybe it’s time for that grilled cheese on parmesan-crusted white right now.

***Nota bene: They’re pretty good about Tweeting daily specials @RackhousePub; we were told the chef’s getting softshell crabs in this week, a rarity around here, so keep your eyes peeled.

The Rackhouse Pub on Urbanspoon

Tubers & Boob Tubes Galore at Oak Tavern

I don’t care how glaring the flatscreens, how blaring the dance tracks, how backwards the baseball caps, how bleached the blonde, how Two-Buck the Chuck—if a place serves stuffed spuds & treats my mom nice, I’m in. Which brings me to, of all unlikely places, Oak Tavern—where the GM turned down the loudspeakers for a 67-year-old lady without blinking & our PYT of a server was as exceedingly polite and full of thoughtful suggestions as her hot pants were extremely hot.

I’m not saying I’m recommending the place, I’m just saying.

I’m saying, damn, I love me some stuffed taters, & by extension whoever’s willing to serve me one like it’s 1989, just before the fad faded pretty much everywhere but Wendy’s. Sure, I can pop a potato into mine own oven, but what are the chances I’m going to grill a little steak with onions, peppers & mushrooms, then whip up a Madeira-fortified gravy swirled into sour cream to top it off with, as per the Cattleman (as I believe the current menu calls it, though this older version calls it the Ranch Hand & doesn’t mention cheddar, which I’m sure it also had)? I’ll tell ya: somewhere between nil & zip.

OTcattlemanspotato
The Rockefeller’s a build-your-own dealio, offering roughly 30 toppings; who’s gonna stock up on everything from olives, artichoke hearts & arugula to fresh herbs, the makings for pesto & 5 types of cheese just lest the yen for a home-baked tuber strike, like Mom’s happy hour special with swiss, broccoli, avocado, mushrooms & sour cream?

OTbuildyourownpotato
And the Director’s breakfast potato with 2 eggs over easy, bacon, roasted peppers, cheddar & Tabasco was the stuff of redeye, redneck inspiration. (Actually, speaking of redeye, some gravy over thick-sliced country ham would be the (gut)bomb too.)

OTbreakfastpotato
There are spuds topped with gumbo & layered with salmon, drizzled with truffle oil & spilling with chili—& that’s not all; the kitchen also makes its own chips, both plain & barbecue-flavored.

OTchips
OTbbqchips

Uneven seasoning meant some were way too salty, but it’s hard to find full-throated fault with hot, fresh, greasy, crunchy potato chips, especially when they’re loaded as with the happy hour half-portion below

OTnachos2

& accompanied by sides of

sour cream & decent chili. OTchili

It’s just such unexpected little touches that I most appreciate at any level of dining, from pub grub to haute cuisine. Who’d have imagined the hash-slingers at a sports bar would stuff crimini with the meat of 3 other types of mushrooms, 3 cheeses & 3 herbs, broil them just so, & ring them round with apparently homemade pesto? (It just goes to show the importance of balanced presentation, since the seemingly subtle distinctions between these & the ones I had at The Lobby a while back indeed made all the difference: smaller plate, browner caps, less sauce).

OTmushrooms2

The same pesto, twinned with a rich, tangy sundried tomato pesto, gave the otherwise plain beef & veggie skewers a reason to live as well.

OTkabobs
Not to belabor the point. Oak Tavern is ultimately just a meat market for alpha jocks & the bimbos who bang them. Still, the element of surprise is always worth noting, & the fact that someone back there on the line obviously puts an ounce of pride & effort into his work is definitely a nice surprise in the midst of the cheesehall.

Oak Tavern on Urbanspoon

My Own Private Fern Bar: Pearl Street Grill

Of all the things my generation just missed—the heyday of CBGB, abiding faith in the executive branch, sex before AIDS—I grow perhaps mistiest over the fern bar fad. By the time we came of age in the late 1980s, what had been for about 15 years the type of establishment for newly minted, nubile adults to mingle in—invariably & deliciously while downing daiquiris to the wry yet mellowtones of Rupert Holmes & Randy Newman, or, later, Midori Sours against a medley of, say, A Flock of Seagulls & Heaven 17 —was already ceding ground to New American bistros & warehouse raves.

The definition of a fern bar is a bit shifty (Wikipedia notwithstanding), but mine own mind’s eye scans a split-level expanse of wood panels, stained glass, brass railings, pendant lamps &, yes, a token plant or 2; here, the likes of white zin & tuna melts never left the building—no comebacks, ironic or otherwise, required.

Zoom outward with your own mind’s eye, & you’ll see that this about covers it.

PSGsign

That there’s a detail from the Pearl Street Grill, which opened in 1983, &, I’m betting, has hardly changed since. Why should it? It’s rolling in every ingredient comprising success’s recipe: well-foot-trafficked location; comfy, laidback atmo & service to match; sun-dappled back patio; a repertoire of the kinds of eats that lull us Americans into the sense of well-being only goofy self-indulgence fosters (if I may speak for the entire nation. I may? Shit then, hooray for universal health care, GLBT rights & gun control!).

Goofy self-indulgence being both the Director’s & my middle name (coincidentally enough, eh), we still come here far more often than any particular aspect of the experience justifies. Unless you count the fact that they give us no guff about setting up our Scrabble board & playing in their midst. Hence the game going on behind this Cobb,

PSGCobb

which hardly distinguishes itself in the lineup of Cobbs I’ve had locally; ditto the Caesar, the Greek, & the steak salad. All are just fine, of course. But where the point is supergoofy self-indulgence, the logical choices are things like the 2-cheese-&-green-chile-stuffed Mexican egg rolls, the asiago-artichoke dip with garlic beer bread, the shepherd’s pie—

PSGshepherdspie

a veritable F9f6b571-c578-4515-ba16-3de0a68a6f05 of mashed potatoes & melted cheddar,

with mammoth chunks of tender lamb & carrot sucked into the rich muck of gravy below—

[UPDATE! On my rec, Comrade L gave it a whirl. Boy, was my face red when it came out within 2 min., no exaggeration, of her order, only to offer up chalky potatoes, half-cooked carrots, & gravy that was literally rather than metaphorically muck. The reason for the stark difference is anyone’s guess, & I still generally trust PSG to glorify junk food properly, but consider yourself duly warned re some inconsistency]—

& the oddly off-menu, housemade sweet potato chips.

PSGchips4

I can’t imagine that the happy hour pretzels are housemade,

PSGpretzel

mainly because pretzel making’s a tad labor intensive—but so much the better if they are, because they’re just right, hot & soft yet super-chewy; for that matter, if they’re from a box, the kitchen does a noteworthy job of disguising the fact.

PSGdipThe honey-mustard dipping sauce, meanwhile, is made in-house, & it’s quite good—light & vibrant, not the bilious bottled goo.

Other surprisingly well-made dishes include the mussels in an excellently peppery, garlicky, white wine–based broth, served with grilled bread & plenty of lemon wedges

PSGmussels

& the occasional special that is beer cheese soup, smooth yet robust.

PSGbeercheesesoup

The Director’ll also vouch for the buffalo burger, I for the nachos ¡con gusto! with ground beef & green chile, & both of us for the fact that, if Pearl Street Grill’s one of its namesake’s less brilliant lights, it remains one of its more solid fixtures.

Pearl Street Grill on Urbanspoon

Sucking Eggs at Red Rocks Grill

A large, liberal American in the Whitmanian sense, with a bloodlust to contradict my bleeding heart, I can never help but marvel how a good collection of wall-mounted hunting trophies really ties a room together into some sort of cheerfully morbid petting zoo. And since the Director, the Constant Watcher & I happened to be hashing out our plans for MORRISSEYTOWN—an amusement park (or, as we like to think of it, dejection park) based entirely around the lyrical death throes of everybody’s fave frontman of phantasmironica—just as we entered the Red Rocks Grill in Morrison (coincidence? think not), we were pretty sure we’d come to the right place. Its furry decor

RRG2 RRG1

at once inspired a brainstorm for our own Life Is a Pigsty dead-petting zoo & made for an ideal setting in which to sketch out the details of the Meat Is Murder concession stand. (Not to mention a fitting pitstop before catching Jaws up at Film on the Rocks.)

But we were wrong. Foodwise, it was not the right place. That much became clear with a glance at the menu, one of those faux-newspaper inserts listing such “Red Rocks Originals” as a BLT & a Monte Cristo (what dictionary did they get their definition of “original” from?), a Santa Fe pasta with chicken, green chili & cheddar startlingly served with a flour tortilla, & a teriyaki chicken dinner dolefully described as “two 6 oz. breast [sic] drenched in teriyaki sauce”—maybe one of the exceptions to the guarantee that “most of our food is homemade”?

Certainly I’ll eat crow (could probably just pull one down off the wall) if the dinosaur eggs weren’t the finest becrumbed, cream-cheese-product-injected jalapeno-like objects ever to roll off an assembly line out & out of a box.

Poppers

As for the “special jalapeno jelly” it comes with—I’m thinking raspberry from a jar with a drop of hot sauce in it?

The rest was neither here nor there. There was nothing particularly wrong with the Director’s combo plate #4, for instance—a steak-&-bean burrito with green chile plus two shredded beef tacos. When I asked him how it was, he shrugged. The bite or two I took revealed a fairly mild green chile & not much else of note.

Comboplatter

My taco salad with chicken was likewise just fine, with more lettuce under there than you’d think. If the salsa was made in-house, though, it did an amazing impression of Pace.

Salad

I think you must have to be pretty darn sharp to catch the sorts of nuances that would distinguish the Constant Watcher’s Mexican burger from, say, a beef burrito, unless it’s just the fries on the side. My own powers of observation weren’t up to the task. I’m open to enlightenment on this one.

Mexburger

Either way I don’t plan on coming back here to taste the difference for myself. One too many Mexican burgers and the next thing you know you’re starring in Morrisseytown’s Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others burlesque revue.

Red Rocks Grill on Urbanspoon

Hey, ho—let’s go! LoHi SteakBar A-OK on day 2

Okay, technically, B-OK. But to be B-OK on your 2nd day in business is in itself A-OK, eh?

So  like Joey & Johnny & Dee Dee too Mo & L & I got all revved up & ready to go to this brand-spanking already-hot spot in the East Highlands pronto on the strength of the juicy name alone, which covers more ground in 12 letters than any of the world’s La Maison de la Casa Houses ever could, never mind their obscure minimalist postpostmodern equivalents (see, e.g., Root Down, a name you could be forgiven for thinking referred to anything from a BBQ shack to a raw-foods temple). But with “LoHi SteakBar,” you know you’ve got your comfort zone, your upscale twist, your meat, your cocktails. (Plus it’s an anagram for Aloha Brisket.) What more do you need? That’s it & that’s all you need, to quote Steve Martin in The Jerknot one other thing.

Except this potted salmon. LoHipottedsalmon

And this hummus. LoHihummus

If I were down & getting kicked out of LoHi like Navin R. Johnson from his mansion, those would totally be

my ashtray & my paddle game. The-jerk

In light of LoHi’s easygoing, all-American bar & grillesque ways, both struck me as the unlikeliest of delights. The salmon was unusually creamy—less straightforwardly fishy than The Kitchen’s, say, & more like taramosalata. Like postnatal taramosalata (heh). The hummus, meanwhile, we ordered skeptically on the waitress’s rec but were convinced on sight by the gorgeously bubbled, soft & airy flatbread—& on taste by the fresh, light, clean, red-peppery spread itself.

Perhaps erring a little on the side of lightness & cleanness, however, were the gnudi—essentially flourless dumplings with ricotta & spinach—in tomato sauce.

LoHignudi

Appealing as its simplicity was, all that the dish ultimately seemed to lack was a sufficient dash of S&P—just a little more would likely have brought out the full flavor of those basic ingredients.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum was the blue cheese fondue with housemade chips.

LoHichips

As Mo put it, after the first couple of bites something overpowering in it began to wear on the palate—not, I think, the blue cheese itself; maybe dijon? Something sharp & smoky at any rate. The chips were a touch greasy, but impressively thin & satisfyingly crackly.

Full as we were all getting by now, we had to remind ourselves where we were—this wasn’t some Dip & Dumpling Den, this was the SteakBar. If we didn’t eat steak & drink deep we might as well be tasting not this particular Pierian spring.

(Granted, we were already on our 3rd round by this point. It’s probably equally true to say that, deeply drunk as we were all getting, we needed to remind ourselves where we were besides in our cups. Especially Mo with her ginormous—make that vodkanormous—

caviar martini LoHicaviarmartini .)

So both she & L opted for steak frites—the strip steak with bearnaise & the ribeye with shallot sauce respectively.

LoHisteakfrites2

LiHosteakfrites1

Me, I slobbered all over the open-face steak sandwich on plain ol,’ good ol’ meat-&-mushroom-jus-soaked white toast—a terrific midnight snack that just happened to overlap with dinner.

LoHisteaksandwich

And actually it was almost midnight when we polished off our 5th-round—amazing, ultra-light & fresh (apparently chef Sean Kelly’s mantra—but once again, given the place-name, who’d a thunk it?) banana daiquiris, nothing like the near-pudding they used to pour in the era of Rupert Holmes & fern bars—& blitzkrieg bopped our way out the door, agreeing that Kelly & crew really appear to have something here—something, like good steak itself, rare for all its familiarity.

***Update 4/2010: For a more recent review, click here.***

LoHi SteakBar on Urbanspoon

Biker Jim Dandy at the Old South Pearl Farmer’s Market

Last year’s review of the market about covers it—among maybe 30 vendors, all of 4 or 5 sell produce; the rest are bakers, soapmakers, sauce peddlers, &/or jacks of just about any trade but farming. Which, except with respect to truth in advertising, is fine, really; I can buy bok choy anywhere, but since, for instance, I avoid the 16th Street Mall like it were a corpse-strewn London street in Defoe’s wacked-out A Journal of the Plague Year, I never get to down a dog from Biker Jim’s beloved cart. Now that he’s parking it here come Sunday, I can get my fill—to put it mildly—of all manner of phallic forcemeat.

Never having had reindeer before, I was surprised by the richness of the sausage the Director & I split, since supposedly the meat’s fairly lean. Bite after juicy bite, I had to keep checking to make sure I wasn’t imagining the fat content. Let’s just say nope.

BJshotdog

Further proof that Denver’s the flat-out be-all end-all for dive barflies: Gabor’s

I didn’t move to Denver because it’s way up there among the booziest burgs on earth, but I sure do feel at home as a result. Some of the local histories I’ve perused offer all kinds of clues as to how the mile-high city, emphasis on high, got that way. For instance:

  • Arose in the flush of the Gold Rush as a hub for prospectors who tumbled down from the mountains either to piss their newfound fortunes away on wine & women & song & such or to drown their sorrows over their lack thereof.
  • Established its 1st seat of government in a saloon (located in what’s now LoDo).
  • Experienced a late-19th-c. influx of German immigrants who established breweries & opened beer halls in the vicinity—e.g. Adolph Coors.
  • Preceded San Francisco as the Beat HQ; the city-approved Beat Poetry Driving Tour includes stops at My Brother’s Bar & the Colburn Hotel (home to Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill)—hangouts both for Cassady, Kerouac & Ginsberg.
  • Boasts Colfax Ave., once famously referred to in Playboy as “the longest, wickedest street in America,” lined with the more-or-less legendary likes of the Satire Lounge, the Lion’s Lair, PS Lounge, & more, along with (even today, as it supposedly gentrifies) all manner of users, losers & cruisers.

Having already fallen hard for more than my share of hardcore local bars—among them the aforementioned Charlie’s, Lincoln’s Road House, Kinga’s LoungeSkylark Lounge, Sputnik, MeadowlarkCandlelight Tavern, & more—the knowledge that I’ve still got miles of unexplored barritory to go before I pass out, from the Wazee Supper Club downtown to, per L, the Kentucky Inn near Wash Park, just makes me nuts with glee.

That said, from here on out I may never get further than Gabor’s, a little secret the Mad Russian & the Whistler let me in on after we beat it the hell out of Bar Substandard following the glorious Everything Absent or Distorted’s style-cramped set last weekend.

Windowless unless you count a row of these,

Gaborsglass

filled with corny movie memorabilia & other pointers toward a cinematic motif apropos of nothing in particular, e.g. the menu cover,

Gaborsmenu

but otherwise nearly empty & utterly quiet early on a Saturday evening, the place became my cheerfully sadsack new hero from the get-go. The wine was cheapo & the snacks, bad as they were, couldn’t have been better.

That includes the “no joke,” to quote the menu, cordon bleu balls.

Gaborschickenbites

Supposing I don’t even try to hypothesize as to whether they actually contained any chicken or ham or swiss or if the dipping sauce was or wasn’t some sort of herbed honey mustard, & supposing I just leave the oft-meaningless but in this case, I think, very telling adjective “interesting” to do the descriptive work—you’ll know precisely what I mean, yeah?

Despite almost identical appearances, the olive & asiago bites with marinara

Gaborsasiagobites

actually did burst with recognizable salty savor. And as for the Director’s dinner, the sight of a scotch pour as big as his burger, replete with romaine as fresh as Gabor’s aura is faded,

Gaborsburgerscotch

was absolutely one for sore eyes—now happy, nevermore Gaborless eyes.

Gabor's on Urbanspoon

The Denver dining equivalent of Mr. Right Now: Washington Park Grille

So before the Celtics blew it against the Magic (really? They’re from Disneyland. Go frolic amid your giant teacups & leave the serious hoops to people from places not conjured by racist sorcerers), the cable-TV-less Director & I would go cruising around town on what were essentially basketball booty calls, our only criteria for hosts being a) flatscreens tuned in to the game & b) relative quiet. In short, we counted out rowdy, suds-soaked sports bars, but that was about it as far as standards went. Which is why, on one night when Pearl Street Grill felt, since we’d just eaten there, like sloppy seconds & Lincoln’s Road House was rockin’ such that we didn’t even bother to go a-knockin,’ we ended up calling upon Washington Park Grille as our Mr. Right Now.

As Mr. Right Nows go, WPG, it turns out, could be a lot worse. It’s not like you’d wake up next to it & see your life as a toothless, wrist-cutting gutter drunk flashing before your eyes. More like you’d find yourself sneaking out of a borderline-posh condo at the crack of dawn, at once cringing all over & half-amused at the memory of toothy cash-flashing & dirty dancing & the sight of something like these crumpled up on the floor.

Boxers

What I’m saying is WPG feels like a good idea at the time, along with getting girl drink drunk on mint-chocolate craptinis (so stupid—so delicious).

WPGchocomintmartini

Not that I’d have hit that particular bottom had I not been sent hurtling down the slippery slope by the even stupider yet much less delicious travesty of my first request, an espresso martini.

WPGespressovodka

Having long ago joined ’em seeing as how I couldn’t beat ’em in the misappropiation of the word “martini” for everything from milkshakes to vichyssoise, just accepting its popular conflation with “mixed drink,” I grew fond of coffee martinis as I knew them back in Boston—mixtures of vodka, espresso (or, in 1 twist I dug, Vietnamese coffee), & coffee (as well as, sometimes, irish cream or chocolate) liqueur.

What the WPG bartender poured me was Van Gogh double espresso vodka, period, shaken with ice so that there were tons of little ice chips floating on top.

Let’s unpack that:

1) with 1 ingredient, not only was it not a martini, it wasn’t even a mixed drink;

2) said ingredient was flavored vodka, which is arguably not vodka at all but a cordial with a vodka base, due to the sugar content (indeed, that’s how some restaurants get away with stocking it under liquor licenses limited to wine, beer & liqueurs); ergo,

3) WPG’s “espresso martini” wasn’t anything even close to the kind.

As for the ice chips, those who argue that they keep martini-like potables cold are ignoring the fact that the latter should pretty much chill themsleves, via spirits & glassware stored at the proper temperature; all ice chips do is dilute the pour.

In other words, to continue the conceit, this would have been 1 waste of a 1-meal stand if the food—a sort of contemporary American–quasi Italian hybrid, to use as many qualifiers as possible to convey its essentially but pleasantly compromised nature—hadn’t gone down easy. But it did, from the quite spicy-sweet mix of toasted walnuts, pecans & slivered almonds

WPGnuts

to the baked brie, spinach & artichoke dip—rather more like a thick stew than a dip, but true to its ingredients, being simple hence pure of flavor.

WPGdip

Even better, however, was the complimentary pesto dip that came with the bread basket, a slightly subtler version of the stuff I went so nutso for at NYC’s Da Gennaro. For all I could really tell it could have come straight from a prepackaged mix, but what the hell—it was kicky, it was free, & it still required more labor than I’m generally wont to undertake.

WPGpestooil

Our bread spread (heh) continued with an order of bruschetta.

WPGbruschetta

Bruschette, to use the underused plural, usually come a few to a plate; what WPG serves really is bruschetta insofar as it arrives in the singular, though a more practicable descriptor might nonetheless be “open-faced sandwich”—for $4, it’s quite a load of handsome rare tenderloin with onions, peppers & the yin-yang tang of gorgonzola butter & balsamic reduction.

Stateside, I rarely order pasta in restaurants, even Italian restaurants—the line between exquisite & insipid is just too startlingly thin. The Director’s 3-cheese lasagna with sausage, spinach & garlic cream was, however, actually worth the bite I swiped, not that the noodles themselves had anything to do with it.

WSGlasagna

By contrast, with hindsight I’d have passed on the gelato-topped white chocolate brioche pudding in caramel sauce, as lacking in distinction as though someone’d just cut a block out of the center of a loaf of Wonder bread, let it stale a little, & then softened it in sugar-water or something.

WPGbreadpudding

Then again, it wouldn’t have been a true booty call if it hadn’t ended on a slightly bitter note. Overall, WPG’s okay enough in its way that I could come around to considering it, if not quite a friend with benefits, at least an acquaintance with minor assets.

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