Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The Salad Series: Billy’s Inn’s steak Caesar (& other goodies)

If this were the open mouth it sorta looks like, I’d totally be making out with it.

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But it’s a close-up of the excellent, thick-cut, very obviously applewood-smoked bacon on the Swiss & guacamole burger the Director had last night at Billy’s Inn—my 2nd impression of which only confirmed the 1st, namely that it’s the right, low-key yet funky joint at the right, low-income yet determinedly fun time I’m having these days (it’s a quest, a quest for fun, per Clark Griswold). 1st of all, there’s something about the stucco & the wood beams & tiles that, if I squint, transports me here,

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where my view is of not the gray intersection of Lowell & 44th but this,

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just outside of, say, Abiquiu or Damned Souls’ Gulch or some such ghostly sounding stretch of wilderness.

2nd, the menu, though simple, is really smart. The focus is narrow & sharp on stuff you eat with your hands: downhome snacks & sandwiches that emanate a soupçon of nostalgia—deviled eggs & onion rings, peel & eat shrimp &, oh joy of teenaged-in-the-80s joys! loaded potato skins, so all that’s missing are Swedish meatballs, by now long overdue for a comeback—as well as their Tex-Mex equivalents.

More important, it’s executed with care; much is clearly made from scratch. Given that Billy’s is a bar-&-grill through & through—with its photo-documented history of swinging seniors, including probably your grandparents in their crewcuts & beehives & Shuron frames, A-line shifts & square-toed pumps & cardigans & loafers, all smoking up a storm, now being repeated via awesome tablesful of Golden Girls downing pints, even alongside two-tops of cool kids flaunting their undoubtedly hard-earned agave expertise over craft tequila flights—it’s admirable that the owners are polishing the 2nd part of the phrase (“&-grill,” that is) as brightly as the 1st.

Hence the bacon on that tall burger, itself all loose & juicy pink heft, plus real cheese, perky bun & crisp trimmings—including that side of crunchy fresh coleslaw, which I actually preferred to the slightly undercooked & undersalted fries for its uncharacteristically light & sparkly rather than heavily creamy-sweet dressing.

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& hence my steak-&-avocado Caesar.

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At long last, I’ve begun behaving—& for me, the road to weight loss has always been paved with salad.

Salad gets it from all sides—both the carnivorous dinosaurs who still, against all evidence to the contrary, deem it rabbit food & the nutralarmists who drone on & on about the calories lurking in fried toppings & cream dressings. While the latter have a point, it’s precisely salad’s substance & versatility that makes it such a satisfying choice for those with even an ounce of dietary sense. In fact, the more I collect salad cookbooks (as I’ve been doing for years), the more appreciative I am of the broad applicability, the inclusiveness of the term—such that, in my bowl anyway, anything goes, so long as the following criteria are met:

* A salad should consist of at least a few ingredients—say, a minimum of 3—of which at least 1 should be a vegetable or legume. (A bowl of penne is not a salad; a bowl of penne with tuna & beans certainly can be.)
* These ingredients should be dressed in some fashion. (Lettuce is lettuce. Lettuce sprinkled with olive oil & vinegar is a salad.)
* Though they may be composed instead of tossed, these ingredients should arguably be chopped in some fashion. (Despite recipes to the contrary, whole grilled quail atop lentils is whole grilled quail atop lentils. Cut it up & add some roast peppers or something, however, & you may well have a salad.)

As for this one, it was just what I craved. Although the dressing was not, I suspect, a true Caesar—lacking, as far as I could detect, that telltale anchovy funk—it was certainly housemade, with a great Dijon kick & parmesan tang, & what’s more, there was enough of it to moisten everything just so: the whole leaves from the hearts of the romaine as well as the good garlicky croutons, the cubes of avocado & charred steak.

I think I’ll take my post-diet victory lap around Billy’s, margarita in hand.

Hush little baby don’t say a thing, Rodney’s gonna sling you some diamond rings

& if those diamond rings don’t shine, I owe you a half-bottle of wine / But don’t press your luck cause the other half’s mine

That’s my lullaby-slash-guarantee & I’m sticking to it. The onion ring is the banana of bar snacks: its ideal is deceptively simple hence oft-elusive. Just as the 1 is almost always stiff & underripe or mushy & overripe, so the other is slimy or doughy or stringy or stale or any combo thereof 9 times out of 10.

But that 10th time is magic. That’s when the golden breading is crunchy through-&-through & seasoned so you notice; that’s when the onion is thickly sliced yet slick & translucently juicy-sweet. That’s when a multitude spills from a sparkling heap like treasure.

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& at Rodney’s—which is like the Double R Diner of Cherry Creek, complete with its own Log Lady (except she carries a book, but paper comes from trees, so close enough) & the type of waitress who’ll plop down on the stool next to you & tell you a few of her secrets (not backwards like in Cooper’s dream, but still, not far off)—every time’s the 10th time.

Hmm, that’s a metaphysical glitch bordering on Twin Peaks territory in itself. If Rodney’s coffee should ever taste to you black as midnight on a moonless night, I suggest you keep your eye peeled like an ideal banana for this guy

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&, never mind mine, heed the lullaby of the 1-armed man who’s probably in the booth right behind you:

He is Bob
Eager for fun
He wears a smile
Everybody run!

Hornet—Hornot

According to the National Geographic, hornets “chew wood into a papery construction pulp” to construct their hives. No wonder they’re the namesake of this Baker district hang, whose repertoire is likewise built on the culinary equivalent of spitwads.

If that sounds a tad harsh considering I totally admit some items are edible & even, paired with sufficient hooch, enjoyable, hear me out. Compare, for instance, the Hornet to the Cricket.

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Of the latter, one can say it is what it is: a belovedly shabby, grubby, greasy institution. Of the former, one can’t; the menu makes grand gourmet gestures that are as empty as they are random. Drop the pretense, solve the problem. It’s really that simple.

Take the shells & cheese with lobster. Even putting aside the fact that the concept is about as fresh as a croissanwich, you can’t get around the realization that nothing else on the menu contains lobster—as well it shouldn’t, this being a bar full of dead ringers for the Bush twins doing shots & chasers named, probably, for the Bush twins, courtesy of guys in cargo shorts with a condom for every pocket.

So, yeah, the notion that someone’s back there in the kitchen lovingly picking tail & claw meat from the shells of freshly boiled lobsters just to toss it with boxed pasta & serve it up for all of $12 to some schmo whose greatest triumph of the evening is maintaining a 45-degree angle on his stool is not one I’m prepared to swallow.

Or take those homemade potato chips in the background.

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They’re thick-cut, golden-brown, well-seasoned—nice. Too bad they come with a side of bottled ranch that defeats thejr whole purpose. A chip’s a vehicle for dip; if it’s a hot rod, the dollop atop it had better handle it like a pro. Why pimp the ride if its passenger’s just gonna trash it pronto?

(As for that sundae, never even mind. Its concoction by the toque-topped team of crackerjacks known as Breyer, Hershey & Spunkemeyer—perfectly recognizable from their stints in my own damn kitchen—was just as I expected, & just fine. So long as there’s no bunk about hand-harvested vanilla beans & fifth-generation snickerdoodle recipes, I’m down with paying for someone else to do the scooping & squeezing.)

Hornet on Urbanspoon

EYT: OMG, WTF?

***UPDATE: EYT is now CLOESED.***

The name of this cramped but happy-happy lettuce-colored Riverfront Park café is an acronym, standing for Enjoy Yourself Today. The owners insist on pronouncing it not phonetically, with a long i—like “aight,” only less ghetto—but with a long e, as in eat.
I’m bewildered by the belabored point they’re trying to make, going against not only all rules of English pronunciation but even the exceptions thereto. Why couldn’t they just come up with something that’s less of a syllabic stretch? Why didn’t they just call it EAT and say the letters stand for Enjoy All Things or Enjoy Absolutely Today or Effing Awesome Tidbits or something? It makes me want to walk in there and ask for some Playdough in a can and expect them to know I mean gelato on a cone simply because that’s how I choose to pronounce it.
That said, I probably won’t, because even more than I want to be sassy I want to be full of gelato, a sample taste of which was so far so good (apparently they studied at the famed scuola in Bologna).
Salads are the mainstay, though they ain’t cheap: my variation on the Garbage Salad—a mixture of romaine, bacon, corn, tomato, avocado, pine nuts, sauteed mushrooms, croutons & goat cheese, to which I added chicken while substituting red-wine vinaigrette with (unfortunately eggless but otherwise tasty) Caesar dressing—rang in at over $11.
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Still, it easily met my criteria for a buon’insalata: it was loaded with quality crap and didn’t skimp on the dressing. Unlike sensible sorts, I prefer my salad dressers to err on the side of generosity rather than caution; after all, IMO, lettuce is generally just a cool & crunchy conduit for my favorite creamy condiment (okay, depending on the green, depending on the dressing, to paraphrase a fine Flight of the Conchords tune).
So I’ll be back for some leaves with some meat with some cheese with some crunchy things with some goop on top. And to gawk at chef Tommy Lee (as he’s identified on the website). Who knew he’d moved to Denver to run a salad bar! Guess you can’t expect the expected from the drummer of Mötley Crüe.
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Especially when it comes to spelling.

Dave & Buster’s—oh, the humanity(-ish)

As though a holiday week’s worth—make that a year’s worth, compressed into a week—of a real Iowa grandma’s meat and potatoes weren’t enough, we had ourselves some steak dinners the other night at Dave & Buster’s, where we went to catch UFC 79 on the big screen. Because what else are you supposed to eat while watching two men in a cage maul each other to a yummy pulp? A nice piece of salmon and a side of asparagus with a lemon wedge?

On a gut level, I have to admit I find a fair share of chain restaurant food tough to dislike. After all, it’s got visual appeal down to a ridiculous science; the dishes set before us looked exactly like the dish shown in the below photo from D&B’s website—right down to the perfectly fake grill marks on the sirloin and the colorful bits of mystery topping on the potatoes. As for flavor, it’s got plenty: fat + salt + flavor-enhancing additives in bright, shiny array pretty much = deliciousness. I vacuumed up every last shred of those greasy onions, infused with the bonus flavor of Fryolater oil undoubtedly ancient enough to qualify as fossil fuel.

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What’s more, franchises demonstrate dining democracy in action. The Burger King slogan “Have it your way” says it all: while, at a haute destination, what the chef says goes, low-to-middlebrow eateries operate on the principle that the customer knows best (which may, after all, be literally true, given the percentage of line cooks still in the teething stage). You want your steak bloody, you got it; you want it black-and-blue, you got it, no questions asked. (Hey, that steak looks just like those guys on TV!)

It’s on an intellectual level that I object to chains. I don’t want to know better than the chef; what’s the point of going out to dinner if not to have your culinary horizons broadened beyond the boundaries of your own kitchen? If he or she is going to take my advice as to how my meal should be prepared, why not just shove over and let me cook it myself?

On my first tour of Italy, I entered a tiny trattoria in the tiny village of Atrani, on the Amalfi coast, and was promptly greeted by the enthusiastic gent who served as the sole waiter as well as chef-owner. He clapped his hands and asked what I would like for him to bring me. He could, he said, make me any kind of pasta, any kind of sauce. He named some examples: I could have A with B, or C with D, or E with F…I said, oh, I’d like A, but could I have it with F?

He looked pained. No, he said gently but firmly. They don’t go together. Then he reiterated the acceptable combos.

That was the moment Italy became my one true place-love. I was charmed by my host’s loyalty to culinary tradition & the logic behind it, as well as by the un-American, oh-so-Euro notion that the guy with the dough, literal, could and should dictate to the guy with the dough, merely monetary. I let him choose my meal from start to finish—and returned the next night to relive the experience.

On that note, compare the above steak to that served at Black Pearl (no, I’m not on their payroll; I’ve simply got the memories and I know how to use them).

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It’s a mess, smothered in breadcrumbs atop a slick of olive oil & balsamic vinegar. The honchos over at D&B’s HQ would be scandalized: why, it practically looks homemade!

Having had it more than once, I can assure you that’s exactly how it tastes—like a real adult is cooking a real piece of meat, from a real cow with a real place of origin, just for you. How’s that for a slogan, BK?

Steuben’s shows me the $$$

Steuben’s is my Jerry Maguire: I love it for the neighborhood place it almost is. And I’m rooting for every inch of the little bit of room it has to improve.

It fits much of my criteria for a neighborhood place to a T—a capital T in some adorably funky font, no less, like Square Meal Hearty. With décor that puts a streamlined spin on the urban diner circa 1962—from the coffee-and-cream color scheme of the upholstery and floor tiles to the retro barware on display—it’s got the stylishly cozy vibe down pat. It’s got the stylishly cozy menu, too, a compendium of red-blooded, blue plate special–style neo-comfort food.

And more often than not, its substance is in league with its style. If it were even more often than not, Steuben’s would have me at hello every other day. As it is, it’s the waitstaff more than the kitchen crew who… completes…me.

Abra in particular (nickname Cadabra, natch) works the bar with verve and grace. Without ever obviously aiming to ingratiate herself (sticking to flashes of recognition rather than overbearing gestures of friendship), she almost always goes, in some subtle little way, above and beyond the call of duty (see: stylishly cozy service)—serving up brunchtime prosecco in a nifty cyclindrical flute for the price of a mimosa, say, or appearing with a free dessert when she finds she’s got one extra on her hands.

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Like this strawberry bread pudding.

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No soft block of sugared egg, this really puts the bread in bread pudding—the crumb, the crust, the chew and all; in fact, it’s not so much pudding as jumbled French toast. Studded with strawberries and sided by vanilla ice cream, it was exactly what we didn’t need after a heavy meal…which is why it was exactly what we didn’t, but Abra did, know we had to have.

Said meal began with what’s listed on the menu, somewhat misleadingly, as “fried cheese.” To me, that ideally implies hunks of quality mozzarella, crusted as gently as possible, fried to a crisp, and served with a fresh, chunky herbed marinara. What arrived instead were more like crumb-coated, deep-fried grilled-cheese sandwich-sticks.

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In concept, it’s a charming twist on the original; in execution, the bread really puts the squeeze on the cheese, which now may as well be a parsley sprig for all it contributes to the whole.

Still, I managed to swallow my slight disappointment along with my share of the dish. The same went for a Caesar whose croutons were likely prepackaged; as I’ve mentioned (and as I’ll further explain in a future post), a Caesar is one of the most important tests I administer to any kitchen. Steuben’s gets maybe a C+ for its half-efforts.

On the other hand, a veritable passel of fried chicken far surpassed my expectations.

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My other half let his other half polish off rather more than her share of four super-juicy pieces of poultry (IIRC, a wing, a breast and 2 legs), breaded for crunch and glisteningly, not drippingly, fried. The gravy, too, was a judicious goo, unctuous and salty and thick but not jellied.

As for washing it all down, Steuben’s is home to no oenophiles’ trove; pickings are slim. But then, anything more complex than a grape juice like the cheap house red would be wasted on tastebuds in such a down-and-dirty mood as the food here’s sure to put them in.