Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Foie Gras-Plantain Mofongo Shumai on Zengo’s Test Kitchen Menu

Wowee. When I was invited in to Zengo recently to check out the specials on its rotating Test Kitchen menu—whereby the crew behind globetrotting restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s Asian Fusion showcase focuses on 2 specific culinary centers, currently Hong Kong & Puerto Rico—I was happy to do so; after all, chef Clint Wangsnes has proven a rather-undersung talent since he’s been on board. But I didn’t know just how happy I’d be once these shumai passed my lips.

At 1st nibble, I was almost disappointed; silken as the pouches were, & as much as I always love the earthy zing of the Chinese black vinegar they were perched in, I could only discern ground pork. But upon the 2nd, they positively blossomed with the velvety-smooth yet distinct savor of foie & green plantain—a combination that might’ve have been jarring in less-deft hands.

A sizeable portion of pork ribs whose tangy-sweet marinade blended ingredients of adobo & sweet-&-sour sauces was satisfying as well—the tender, plentiful meat coming clean off the bone alongside fluffy, more-please potato croquettes stuffed with bacon & jack cheese; chayote slaw reminiscent of green-papaya salad added cool contrast.

Of the 2 Test Kitchen entrées, I preferred the plump, moist Hong Kong roast chicken with “Shaoxing tomatoes”—blistered little pops of juicy fruit that I’m guessing were marinated in the namesake rice wine—over Moros y Cristianos, i.e. black beans & white rice (the un-PC translation is “Moors & Christians”); the overall effect was as vibrant as it looked on the plate, with its pool of jus & herbed oil & its heap of Chinese broccoli.

Mind you, the gorgeous whole crispy fried fish was no slouch, but it was a lot for the palate to tackle, served in a funky black-bean vinaigrette over a puree of malanga that evoked Hawaii’s infamous poi—meaning that it’s probably an acquired taste. If you’re down with eye sockets & starch, then by all means.

Besides, the effervescent, floral lychee Bellini will help lighten the sensory load.

You’ve really got to respect Zengo’s efforts to evolve & stay relevant on the very fast-moving dining scene that it helped to rev here in Denver—especially considering its high sizzle-to-fizzle rate.

Soft opening alert: Epernay

Though my arrival in Denver only slightly preceded chef Duy Pham’s departure, I’d certainly heard tell of his exploits, so I was psyched for the opportunity to preview Epernay, the sleekly swanky, slyly clubby downtown restaurant & lounge that’s opening on Tuesday to mark his return to our fair city.

Now that I’ve had it, my curiosity isn’t sated. That’s a compliment; rather, I’m all the more intrigued at the thought of returning on my own dime—or rather dollar (cheap eats these ain’t)—when it’s in full swing to answer certain questions. For instance, will the service be as solicitous when I’m not an invited guest & the house is packed? Because on Saturday night, every detail was certainly seen to, promptly & with care, right down to the charming delivery of sushi condiments. (As someone who practically drinks the stuff like water on a daily basis, I’m all for nursing a veritable coffeepot of soy sauce.)

And: will I need to manually count the number of Champagnes on its list & that of Corridor 44 to confirm whether Epernay’s claim to the largest selection in town is true (it’s named, after all, for a town in the region, albeit sans accent over the initial E)? Are they including non-Champagne labels, of which they offer a number, in their tally? Eh, I don’t really care, so long as they’ve got some bottles I want to drink—& they do, e.g. Laurent Perrier & a couple of Alsatian sparklers that pique my interest. (One suggestion though: can we get a few more grower producers on there, like Chartogne-Taillet or Jacques Defrance?! I’ll totally be your best friend! Hell, if you can score an older vintage or 2 of Defrance’s Rosé des Riceys—one of the region’s few still products—like the ’82 or ’75 I tried last fall on a visit,

I’ll be your bitch 4lyfe.)

And: will geoducks make regular appearances among your specials, as they did the other night in sushi form? Because yay!

No questions about the regular menu, only praise for the chef so far. Whole-grain mustard vinaigrette furnished this gorgeous chunk of pork belly over mac & cheese with an unexpected touch of elegance;

a dish of poached salmon came together beautifully with parsnip puree, pine-nut pesto & especially those seriously luscious sous vide tomatoes mixed with braised fennel;

my companion’s perfectly cooked strip loin over bacon-fat baby potatoes & brussels sprouts boasted a blue-cheese foam that really made the dish—a heavier sauce would’ve been too much;

& best of all, maple crème brûlée with candied pecans & bacon bits was rendered with surprising delicacy. (How many exceptions to the rule of my indifference to custard must I encounter before the rule is null?)

When I return for a review rather than a preview, though, I’ll be all about the sushi—the full list of which wasn’t available during the soft opening—& the sake; I actually like the looks of that selection better than I do the sparklers. Stay tuned.

Epernay Lounge on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Sichuan Noodles (& oodles more) at Uncle

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s you know what! This LoHi noodle bar is almost everything it’s cracked up to be.

When the Director, Mantonat, Mrs. Mantonat & I arrived for dinner at 6, the casual, warmly lit little joint was already jumping. By the time we left at a quarter to 8, it was absolutely slammed; the line went out the door. As well it should. The menu is smart as hell: super-playful yet focused on the basic tenets of most Asian cooking—extreme freshness, cross-palate balance. There’s no “irreverence” without “reverence”; my own definition of “authenticity,” as I’ve said many times, hinges not strictly on tradition but on knowing the rules inside & out before opting to break them in good faith. Apparently chef-owner Tommy Lee believes as much himself.

Case in point: the steamed bao (Chinese buns).

Traditional bao are stuffed with a lot of delicious things—barbecued pork, bean paste, mixed veggies; you’ll find some of my local faves here, here & here. They do not generally contain avocado—a New World ingredient despite its adoption by Japanese sushi chefs—or breaded & fried cod, a fish whose importance to Atlantic & to some extent Mediterranean cuisines can’t be overstated, but which isn’t nearly so prevalent in East Asia.

Lee, however, has created a sort of hybrid between bao & sliders, & he gets away with it because a) the fillings are delectable—the cod firm & flaky & crunchy but not greasy, the grilled avocado almost custard-like in texture—& b) the buns themselves are beautiful, uniformly soft & silky. (I don’t know if they’re made in house or purchased, & I don’t particularly care, any more than I care that Biker Jim doesn’t make his own sausages. It’s cool when everything’s done on site, but a chef’s primary objective is to realize his or her creative vision with integrity & aplomb. Beyond that, so long as they get to point B, the route they take from point A is up to them. Sourcing’s no shame; they can’t all be churning butter & harvesting their own oysters.)

As for the beef tartare, whether or not you buy the story that it has its origins on the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes or whatever, it has a place here, in all its cubist glory.

The curious thing about tartare, to me, is its call for bold flavoring: if you season the meat delicately to let it “speak for itself,” it comes across as bland. If you go all out, the meat always seems to rise to the occasion—to see that spice & raise it. Paradoxical but true (think kitfo). Here, the use of sweet-spicy hoisin (&, I’d swear, fish sauce, though the menu doesn’t mention it) rightly highlights the bloody iron tinge of the minced beef; drag it through the sprinkling of minced garlic around the perimeter for an extra touch of pungency.

But the Dish of the Week, the one I loved most, may hew the closest to tradition: the Director’s Sichuan noodles.

Under that blanket of scallions & fried shallots are an abundance of thick, smooth, round noodles, lots of finely chopped pork & Chinese broccoli & a modicum of broth; when you mix it all up, what you’ve got is an immensely savory situation that has an almost creamy, gravy-like aspect. It’s not particularly spicy, despite the name; instead it’s memorably homey & hearty. Next time I’ll keep it all to myself.

Rather spicier was Mantonat’s kimchi stew, centered around a barely lightly egg; I only tasted the broth, but it was spot on with that sour, fiery, funky flurry of sensations.

Clearly—unlike the stereotype of its slobby namesake relative—Uncle is operating at an excitingly high level. So I’m inclined to judge it on its own terms—& therefore disinclined to give it a pass on a couple of kinks that could be easily worked out.

For example, I didn’t think my dish of rice noodles (pictured below right) was particularly well integrated; though the almost pâté-like wedges of herbed chicken sausage were killer, the charred brussels sprouts great on their own, the noodles the right texture, & the peanuts & julienned cukes a nice touch, they didn’t meld, perhaps primarily because they were dry—if there was any nuoc cham in there at all, I couldn’t tell. I ended up adding a lot of Sriracha not because the dish needed spice but because it needed moisture.

For another, the bibimbap (pictured left) was absolutely gorgeous but for one thing: because it wasn’t served in a stone bowl, it lacked the rice crust that, for me, is the cherry on top of the Korean classic. Now, according to this Saveur article, a dolsot isn’t mandatory; to return to that sticky authenticity issue, Lee’s decision not to use one is perfectly valid & by no means an indication of bad faith. It’s just: waah, no toasted rice!

Finally, while this isn’t & shouldn’t be the sort of place to stand on ceremony, ol’ Uncle probably should drag a few nieces & nephews in up the service quotient. As near as I could tell, there was only one guy working the floor the entire time we were there. And though he did an admirable job under the circumstances, the fact he was being pulled in every direction at every moment was somewhat disconcertingly obvious to all involved. Besides, with a little support he might have time for things like, say, getting to know the wine selection, especially if it’s going to include lesser-known varietals like Valdiguié—which, frankly, I’d never heard of, & I work at a wine magazine! Unfortunately, neither had he—or at least he couldn’t tell me where it was from, which a server should be able to do. To his credit, he did write the name down on a piece of paper for me (so I now realize that I actually do know the grape, by other names).

That said, I left Uncle exceedingly satisfied. It’s got gumption, pizzazz & soul in spades—& we’ve got a lot to look forward to from the young talent who runs it.

Uncle on Urbanspoon

The smell of kimchi & aji in the morning: Zengo launches brunch

A few weeks back, Zengo launched a weekend brunch whose terms of service may seem highly irregular in the upscale circumstances: it’s all you can eat & drink for a $35 prix fixe. The average customer had better have a smaller appetite than me, or this set-up won’t stand—after all, we’re not talking about some sloppy buffet of oatmeal & link sausage but small plates that reflect flying restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s vision of Latin-Asian fusion no less than the dinner menu does.

Certainly the theme makes for some adorable hybrids, like salmon Benedict with kimchi & bao (steamed buns) spread with salsa verde, then stuffed with bacon & scrambled eggs, plus a sprinkling of queso Oaxaca.

The latter lacked something in translation—maybe the fillings would cohere better in omelet form—but a little tweaking would be no thing. Fully realized, however, were both the Peking duck chilaquiles & the short rib hash.

In the former (pictured left—click to enlarge), juicy, shredded roast duck, a little pickled onion, guajillo salsa & cotija both crumbled & infused into crema mingled beneath a fried egg atop hot, crisp tortilla chips—the flavors well integrated, the textures layered. As for the latter (right), glistening against glass, the poached egg ruled the roost of shredded beef rib browned with cubed yuca & onion, the yolk enriching the pan drippings.

The last of the sushi roll pictured in back & a quartet of potstickers were just fine if not, sans any Latin flourishes, especially true to style. But overall it’s a saucy extension of the repertoire. Bring on the guava mimosas.

Killer New Cocktails at ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro (+ a Denveater UPDATE re: radio silence)

How you can be a lush & a lightweight at the same time is beyond me, but so I am. Much as I guzzle the vino, I have to tread very carefully when it comes to spirits. One cocktail makes me loopy; 2 make me goopy. Like I have the muscle tone of hot fudge.

But having hit the bar at ChoLon on the very night that Brian Melton & co., including the lovely Ali Terrill, were debuting a few new concoctions—well, suffice it to say I have about 5 minutes to write this post before I sink into oblivion.

So let’s make it quick: the Still Life is brilliant.


I happened to overhear Mr. Melton wax pleased to Ms. Terrill about the name; he was picturing a painting, say by Meléndez, of a table laden with bowls of pears, plums & walnuts. Because that’s what the drink contains: it’s a blend of Old Overholt Rye, Asian pear purée, walnut oil, Japanese plum vinegar & egg whites, dusted with Saigon cinnamon. It goes down like an iced coffee drink, minus the coffee, minus the cream, minus the sugar.

I’d have had 2, but I’d already had 2—I started with the Royal Garden.

For all my years-long bitching about beet salads, I’ve got nothing against beets themselves; on the contrary, I heart them. I just don’t need to ever, ever, ever eat them over greens with goat cheese again. I’d far rather drink them; the earthy sweetness of their juice mixes beautifully with a well-crafted vodka (ask a Russian. Come to think of it that would be me. Well, half of me). Here, it’s also combined with ginger & lime for a surprisingly light, refreshing tipple complete with an adorable garnish of dried golden beet ring.

Rock on, ChoLon. You had me at Kaya toast, but you can have me whenever. Especially after 2 cocktails.

**Oh yeah, the mysterious UPDATE: I’ve got 2 *major* projects on my plate, one of which is the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival & the other of which is food-related. You’ll learn more about the latter in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, I may not be posting with my usual vigor for the next couple of months. Bear with me. Confession: I don’t really know what radio silence means.



Ono Kine Grindz at Da Hawaiian Kitchen

Just as craft-cocktail conoisseurs are abuzz these days with the renaissance of tiki bars, Hawaiian cuisine is once again on the tip of many a chowhound’s tongue. But while the former group is going retro with fogcutters and Singapore slings, foodies are eschewing the pupu platters of the midcentury Trader Vic’s era for that staple of what islanders simply call “local food”: the plate lunch.

Grounded in the traditions of the Polynesian natives, local food also reflects the cookery of the myriad peoples who have settled in Hawaii over the past couple of centuries—primarily Asians from Japan, Korea, China, & the Philippines, along with Portuguese and even Puerto Rican immigrants. If that sounds like quite a mishmash—well, it is. On the menu at any given plate lunch joint here in greater Denver (& there are quite a few, most links in multi-state chains), you’ll find Korean short ribs (kalbi) side by side with Japanese cutlets (katsu), Portuguese sausages, & good old American hamburger patties topped with gravy & fried eggs in a dish called loco moco. Any of these (& more) may be featured on a typical plate lunch, accompanied almost invariably by scoops of island-style sticky rice & macaroni salad. But it’s kalua pig, the quintessential pit-smoked centerpiece of luaus, that packs the biggest Hawaiian punch.

Tucked away in an Aurora strip-mall sports bar called the Oasis Grill, Da Hawaiian Kitchen does not have an imu (as the aforementioned pit is known) at its disposal. But chefs Eric Semingsen & Kalani Kamanu, who grew up together in Kailua, replicate the classic masterfully nonetheless—rubbing the pork with native sea salt, wrapping it in ti leaves, & oven-cooking it “on Hawaiian time,” in Semingsen’s words (that is, very slowly). The result, mixed with cabbage for contrast, is mouthwatering—tender & richly savory. It comes with macaroni salad that’s actually seasoned well enough to be flavorful, a rarity. It also comes with the ultra-soft white roll known as “sweet bread,” an adorable orchid-blossom garnish—&, if you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s available, kimchi-fried rice speckled with bits of Spam.

That’s right, Spam—the notorious canned pork loaf that achieved lasting popularity in Hawaii during World War II due to a surplus from military rations. It makes all kinds of cameo appearances on plate-lunch menus, perhaps most surprisingly in the sushi-inspired snack known as Spam musubi.

Though Da Hawaiian Kitchen offers them too, the pictured rolls come from Hawaiian Hut BBQ in Golden, whose backstory alone warrants it a mention. First of all, it’s inexplicably set on the premises of an indoor flea market called the Home Décor Outlet—separated from the huge, tchotchke-cluttered showfloor by little more than some strung leis and paper cutouts of tiki gods. And second, its owner, Paul Ho, just so happens to be a cousin of Don Ho, the late ukelele-slinging crooner of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Pearly Shells.” In short, it may just be the most fortuitous amalgam of kitsch this side of Casa Bonita.

Dish of the Week 11/1-11/7: ChoLon Bistro’s Kaya Toast w/ Coconut Jam & “Egg Cloud”

As predicted, nothing I sampled this weekend—& I sampled some fine vittles—could touch this wacky snack.

Read all about it in my review of the Asian Fusion pleasuredome that is ChoLon. Then go try it. Then tell me I’m wrong, that it’s not the edible orgasmatron I’m cracking it up to be. Go on, I dare you.

Hot, Hot, Haute Lunch: ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

Dear server whose name I didn’t catch, I guess I owe you an apology.

I may have seemed a bit standoffish as you launched into your spiel about the wonders of small-plate dining, basically ignoring you to survey the wine list instead. (At least my charming companion was graciously all ears.) It’s just that it began with that dreaded query, “Have you dined with us before?”, from which my eaterly ego instantly recoils: even though I hadn’t, I’m perfectly familiar with the ins & outs of family-style meal-sharing; it’s nothing new, & to imply otherwise always strikes me as a tad precious.

But it’s not your fault that you’re required to spout twaddle like “Things will matriculate out of the kitchen in a sushi-esque fashion.” Your service was more than competent—indeed quite polished—& you personally proved a genuinely kind sir. And the meal itself? Damn. Amid the spate of Asian Fusion peddlers popping up these days (somewhat inexplicably, really, post-heyday—see: Se7en, Japoix), I was expecting good things of Jean-Georges Vongerichten protégé Lon Symensma especially; henceforth I’ll be counting on great things.

This being my 1st real review since going public with my identity, I should make a brief digression to admit that I’m somewhat ambivalent about the whole affair. On the one hand, I’m proud of my work & want to showcase it as best I can. On the other hand, I’m not so proud of myself to imagine that any chef with a lick of sense is scanning his dining room hourly to determine whether I’ve graced it with my presence. On the 3rd hand (food writers have 3, you know—1 to gobble with, 1 to guzzle with, 1 to think with), discretion really is the better part of professional valor. I can only say that so far I’ve not noticed being noticed, explicitly or implicitly, based on my treatment; if & when I do, I’ll state as much up front (as I do when I go to press events). And I can only add that you, possessed of the knowledge that my ugly mug is out there for all to gawk at, should take my opinion with as many grains of salt as you see fit. (Granted, that was always the case. My humble hope is that regular readers know my voice & can vouch for my intention to do them an honest service by now.)

The kitchen takes pride in exquisite presentation, as is clear with the arrival, in lieu of a bread basket, of this veritable sculpture of puffed rice & black sesame seeds,

more a textural vehicle for zesty, smoky tomato-chili jam

than a flavor conveyor in its own right (perhaps a little more salt would remedy that; perhaps not—texture is a pleasure in its own right.)

But no amount of artfulness can compensate for culinary mediocrity; I didn’t rest assured, for all his acclaim, that Symensma’s palate was on a par with his palette until our first dish, an elegant take on Vietnamese green papaya salad.

What makes the dish is that exhilirating scoop of tamarind sorbet; the contrast of textures (smooth, slick, crunchy) itself contrasts the ultra-refreshing profile of complementary flavors, tart on sour on downright acidic.

More subtly deviating from the classic is the beef tartare,

coarse-chopped rather than minced, nearly dripping with egg yolk, threaded with a chiffonade of fresh basil instead of parsley—a notable switcheroo—& flanked by buttons of Chinese-style hot mustard where the standard is mixed with Dijon. Pretty but paltry, they didn’t cut the you-know-what for me, so I requested extra on the side. Like the puffed rice cracker, the tapioca puffs served as all-but-flavorless scoops for the meat, which was no problemo—after all, the usual slices of baguette don’t carry much flavor-weight either.

That said, the baguette used for the Vietnamese French dip—basically a bánh mì—was excellent, fresh & chewy with a satisfying crust; enjoyably rich (though kept in check with “pho jus” rather than mayo), it didn’t quite carry the punch of more rustic versions, where fish sauce, cilantro & chilies give, say, head cheese a swift kick. It’s an admirable rendition; I’d have it again. But I wouldn’t give it the edge over its hardcore counterpart.

By comparison, I can’t recommend highly enough the Kaya toast with coconut jam & “egg cloud.” Nor can I fathom what I could possibly eat between now & Sunday that will trump this for the Dish of the Week. Not even diamond-encrusted haggis stuffed with foie gras & lutefisk. What an extraordinary dish.

You dip the chunks of brioche, slathered with the creamy jam, into a savory custard froth—made, I was told, by putting eggs, butter, & skim milk under a foam gun, then misting them with soy to give it a touch of funk. And then you go insane with glee for such lusciousness.

I’ve said before that, lacking much of a sweet tooth, I only order dessert when I’m too disappointed in a meal to end it on a sour note or too delighted with a meal to want it to end at all; the latter was our motivation to split the molten chocolate cake with salted peanut ice cream & toasted marshmallows.

Mind you, it was the ice cream we were after; the cake did nothing to change my opinion that the ubiquity of this dessert some 10 years after its heyday is head-scratching. But that quenelle was all we hoped for, peanut buttery & so soothing.

In short, dear server, you done good; Mr. Symensma, you done stellar. Four-&-a-half-soon-to-be-5-I’m sure stars stellar.

ChoLon Bistro on Urbanspoon