Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: blackened catfish at Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar

I was no less sorry to see 8 Rivers close—I’ll never forget that festival bread—than I was jazzed to learn of chef Scott Durrah’s return to the scene with the opening of Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar a few months back. And after an overdue visit last night prior to the Maria Bamford show at the Oriental (my comic hero—do yourself a favor for an hour & watch this), I’m still feeling the afterglow. It’s just an earnest, comfortable, likeable LoHi joint all around.

The relatively short menu is heavy on the classics—fried chicken, barbecue plus all the fixings, a couple Low Country & Cajun/Creole specialties, cobbler & sweet-potato pie—though it takes a few minor twists & turns as well, from hummus made with black-eyed peas to the variation on a Caprese salad featuring fried green tomatoes (& the Brunswick stew is made with pork, not the traditional squirrel; here’s a great, if slightly raw, little short by documentarian Joe York on cooking up squirrel in the South).

We started with warm cornbread & honey butter; of the 2 offered types—plain & jalapeño-cheddar—I strongly preferred the latter, not only for the extra flava but because the fat in the cheese kept the little muffins moister. (Don’t hate on the word “moist.” When I mean “tender,” I’ll say that. When I mean “juicy,” I’ll say that. When I mean “of or relating to moisture,” I’ll employ the term thus defined, even if it turns a few stomachs.)

They also made a fine sop for the housemade jerk marinade, which strangely I saw only on our table—if it’s not on yours, ask for it. Addictively vinegary, if not especially searing.

The Director totally plotzed over his half-rack of ribs with mashed potatoes & gravy as well as green beans. I mostly dug them too, though I’m really curious to know what the kitchen’s smoking set-up is (if the answer’s out there, I’m not finding it)—they were borderline overdone, meaning almost falling apart. But not quite, & I disagree with the Post’s William Porter about the sauce, which I thought was great: sweet but balanced by acidity, St. Louis style.

Still, it was my honking portion of blackened catfish over hoppin’ john & sauteed kale that really won me over. The filet was eye-openingly flaky &, yes, moist, the seasoning perfect—not overwhelmingly salty & bitter as it so often was back in the 1980s, when Cajun cuisine swept the nation before the nation was ready. And the hoppin’ john was primo, both nuttier & sweeter than the traditional version for its inclusion of barley & corn kernels instead of rice. As for the gravy, it wasn’t like any red-eye I’ve ever had, being thick & seemingly tomato-based, but a nice counterpart to the greens nonetheless.

All in all Jezebel’s made a fine 1st impression on me—& the Director was so pleased he wants to go back tomorrow. It could happen.

Jezebel's on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Loaded House Chips (& More) at Russell’s Smokehouse

Last fall, the news that Frank Bonanno was expanding the subterranean space behind Wednesday’s Pie & Green Russell to open a barbecue joint met with some understandable skepticism, which I to some extent shared. As talented as he is, the move from chef to brand is one that precious few in the industry make with grace & integrity intact (the saga of Todd English being, for an ex-Bostonian, the ultimate cautionary tale). And as genuinely broad as his culinary interests may be, the barbecue buffs I know—& they’re a vehement lot—favor depth over breadth when it comes to pitmastery: the hallmark of the genre is a total, lifelong immersion in the ways & means of meat smoking & the culture in which it’s contextualized. Though that’s not limited to the Deep South, it doesn’t go much further north than the Mason-Dixon line or further east than Kansas City (&, she admits grudgingly, Texas). For connoisseurs to admit that a Jersey-born, French-trained toque could naturally deliver true ‘cue would be a stretch.

Then again, to say that a Jew with a background in modernist poetry who scratched & clawed her way out of Oklahoma as a teen could naturally be any sort of expert on true ‘cue would also be a stretch. My point is this: I’m no expert on the stuff. I’ve done some studying as a food writer, & I know my bark from my smoke rings, my regional variants, & so on, of course. But what I do know, above all, is how something should feel in the mouth & taste based on the technique used to cook it.

And thus far, the crew at Russell’s Smokehouse has dispelled any concerns I might have harbored as to whether they can deliver accordingly.

Which brings me to the Dish of the Week: the loaded house chips, (pictured below right—by all means click to enlarge). A pile of hand-cut & fresh-fried potato disks is drizzled in funky gorgonzola cream & topped with pulled pork that’s not only tender, hickory-tinged & richly sauced but crisped in places, such that I wonder whether it was given a quick pan-fry out of the smoker or something. Adding a tangy, juicy kick are hot pickled red & green cherry peppers & fresh halved cherry tomatoes (which I think would be even better oven-roasted, but that’s a minor quibble).

Pictured above left is a dish I already knew I adored: mushroom dynamite—a truly inspired take on the seafood-based, mayo-enriched casserole you find in stateside sushi bars—served with a warm, crusty baguette for spreading. It’s robust & gooey & every bit the equal of many a Bonanno signature, including his burrata.

I already knew that because I’d gone gaga over it back at the friends & family opening last October, when the Director & I also split a combo plate that was solid but not stellar—the brisket a bit flabby & the pulled chicken a bit dry. That the pulled pork on the chips was so rockin,’ however, suggests to me the kitchen worked out some of those initial kinks (which is, after all, the point of soft openings).

Likewise indicative: the evolution of the sliders.

The inaugural version contained pulled rabbit, which I applauded on paper but which in practice didn’t quite gel, the flavor of rabbit being a little too delicate to withstand the sloppy-Joe-style treatment.

And although I was less enthused by the idea of the barbecued duck sliders currently available—they’re standard issue these days, after all—their execution proved a clear improvement: these sliders had punch inside & out, not only thanks to the stronger-flavored meat but because the buns are now housemade, with much better structure & chew than before.

Moreover, the sauteed collard greens are downright killer, with lots of vinegar to balance their naturally iron-y, earthy savor & a generous smattering of crumbled bacon for salt & crunch.

To state the obvious takeaway: don’t dismiss Russell’s Smokehouse based on preconceived notions of barbecue & its traditional environs & gatekeepers, any more than you’d dismiss, say, Phat Thai on similar grounds. Bonanno may be especially ambitious, but he’s not blindly so; he takes a clear-eyed approach to improving on both what’s not working & even what is, across the board. That’s been evident in my experiences at his joints, Lou’s Food Bar being a notable case in point—& that’s what cements his status as one of Denver’s key movers & shakers.

Russell's Smoke House on Urbanspoon

The Scoop Series: Renaissance man Adrian Miller—Ritter right-hand & soul food sage!

While researching an article on the remarkable cache of cookbooks that is the Husted Collection at DU’s Penrose Library (which you can delve into further with me here), curator & all-around nice guy Steve Fisher suggested I get in touch with Adrian Miller, whom, he explained, works in Governor Ritter’s Office of Policy & Initiatives by day but is writing a book about the old South in his spare time.

So I give the guy a buzz & discover that, true to his deadpan demeanor, Fisher was putting Miller’s story mildly. Turns out the Denver native’s actually a super-fancy senior policy analyst, not to mention a former deputy director at President Clinton’s Initiative for One America &, most important, a connoisseur & chronicler of all things soul food—his expertise culminating in his role as a certified BBQ judge as well as author-to-be of a definitive work on the soul food classics in history (emphasizing their development above the Mason-Dixon line, mind you!) & in today’s American kitchen, from chicken & waffles to peach cobbler. Whew! (See, sometimes my long, convoluted syntax is a function of the matter at hand as opposed to mere neuroses.) Oh, & almost-&-perhaps-future local chef-restaurateur (as ye shall see).

Naturally I begged & pleaded for an interview, & he graciously agreed. (Granted, it turns out I’m not the 1st to milk him for all he’s worth—in 2008 he penned a dynamite guide to Denver BBQ for 5280, throwing in a mini-primer on regional American BBQ styles as a bonus. He also colectured with Rabbi Levi Brackman at what sounds like an amazing Mixed Taste seminar at MCA Denver back in June, “Hot Sauce & Jewish Mysticism”—how did I miss that one?!—& features heavily in this rich 2003 piece on “barbeculture” from StorySouth, “The Marrow of the Bone of Contention: A Barbecue Journal.”)

Philosophy of Banana Pudding
Banana pudding buff Adrian Miller

***

Fill us in on your life as a soul mensch. Where’d you grow up, what were childhood meals like, etc.?

When I was real little, I lived in the Park Hill neighborhood, not too far from the old Stapleton Airport. My family moved out to Aurora while I was still in elementary school, & that’s where I stayed until going off for college.

I have 2 Southern parents, so I grew up eating soul food, but I really wasn’t cognizant of that—to me it was just dinner. I know this will gross some people out, but I loved, & still love,

ChitlinsSmall chitlins (hog intestines).

We would only have them on Thanksgiving & New Year’s Day. Our New Year’s meal is still my favorite traditional meal: along with chitlins, you serve greens for money (we mixed turnip & mustard greens), black-eyed peas & ham hocks for good luck, candied yams, cornbread, & lemon icebox pie for dessert. I’ve learned how to make everything except the icebox pie.

As little kids, we took turns making breakfast. So my early specialties were scrambled eggs (sans shell after several tries) & French toast. My first non-breakfast dish was

Indian fry bread. 263877431_78cdc55f65
rather gorgeous pic from Taste Buds

I saw the recipe in the newspaper. I remember the dough was really sticky, so I had a hard time making it.

And that was the springboard to your very nearly running a restaurant in the space now occupied by Cuba Cuba? Do tell!

I used to be in a law firm, & when I got to the point where I was singing spirituals in my office I decided, this is not working out for me. So I decided to open a restaurant. Yeah, it was gonna be in 

5620026 that space;

I had a floor plan, a chef waiting to come on board, a planned menu, & we were strategizing about how to raise money. In the middle of the process, I got an opportunity to work in the White House and I took it. You know, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

What would it have been like?



My favorite name was Soulstice: A Celebration of African Heritage Cooking. I thought it was pretty unique, but then a year or two later, a TV show, “For Your Love,” had the same name for its fictional restaurant. I said to myself, “Dang! If I ever open up that restaurant, people are going to think I copied the name from that show.”

Initially, the restaurant’s menu would have 3 parts: Southern/soul food standards; health-conscious versions of the standards; & then a space for the chef to reinterpret those standards. After the restaurant got its sea legs, there would be a 4th part: a rotating menu featuring some area of the African diaspora.

For example, 1 rotation could feature African-American cooking in Virginia; the next would feature African heritage cooking in Venezuela. The rotating menu would be educational, with me providing a blurb that would give historical & social context for the place & the meal. I want people to understand why certain foods are traditional & how certain dishes build on what was eaten in Africa.

I would also hope to have on staff someone practiced in the featured cuisine as a guest chef to implement the menu.

That is so cool. Is owning a restaurant still a possibility in the future?

I still think about it, but I’m waiting for the economy to rebound. I figure that I’ll probably have only one chance to implement this concept, & I want to launch it when times are good.

You’re also a certified BBQ judge. What’s the story there?

What you should know is that, much like boxing, there are several sanctioning bodies in barbecue. There’s at least the International Barbecue Cookers Association (TX), the Memphis in May Association, & the Kansas City Barbecue Society. I belong to the KCBS.

I went to a barbecue-judging class because I wanted to learn more about barbecue for the soul food history that I’m writing. I was astonished at how much of the class was about process—how you score, how a contest is run, what’s illegal, etc. Of course it makes sense now because the contest organizers want to make sure their judges know what they’re doing…

After you complete the class, all you have to do is maintain your KCBS membership (i.e., keep your dues current) & you can judge as many barbecue competitions as you would like. It all depends on how much leisure time & money you want to spend in the pursuit of barbecue excellence. I typically do the competition in Frisco & the one in Dillon.

IMG_1885
Frisco’s BBQ Challenge

XL4B3134.jpg

from Dillon’s BBQ at the Summit

What, to you, defines really good BBQ—what do you look for?


I like smoked (pork) butts & I cannot lie…Oops, I think that’s a song. When it comes to barbecue, I like tender meat & a good smoke smell & smoke flavor. I also like a little crunch on everything except chicken & hot links.

What defines really bad BBQ—what common mistakes lead to it?

Well, a lot of people fake the funk by boiling or baking the meat first, then finishing it on the grill to give the appearance of smoking. For people who aren’t used to eating good barbecue, that’s good enough, but to me it’s really lazy & dishonest. Restaurateurs who do that should call it grilled meat, not barbecue. I can usually tell by looking at it, & I can definitely tell after tasting it. Boiled and baked meat has a different texture than smoked meat.

Some places also drown their meat in sauce, eliminating any chance to evaluate it. Good meat, if truly smoked, should stand on its own without sauce. I know a place has a decent chance of being good when they serve their product without sauce without even asking me.

Another thing is that people love meat that’s “falling off the bone.” When that happens, that means the meat has been overcooked. It may taste great, but it’s still overcooked. [Amen to that—something I learned way back east while hanging with devotees of the New England Barbecue Society! If even Yankees know it, so should everyone—Denved.]


What are some of your favorite restaurants in town and why?

I usually cook at home, so when I go out, the restaurant had better have great personality & great food. With those two ingredients, I can always cook up a good conversation. My short list of special places is: Café Brazil, Mizuna & Vesta Dipping Grill. That’s where I take people who are visiting from out of town.

But I really have simpler tastes, so I’m going for comfort food or ethnic cuisine: Big Papa’s (barbecue), Country Time BBQ, Jim ‘n’ Nick’s (barbecue), El Taco De Mexico, Tacos D.F., King’s Land (dim sum), Ocean City (Chinese), Jerusalem (Middle Eastern), & Walton’s Donuts.

Name the brightest gems at the above BBQ joints.


Jim n’ Nick’s: The smoked-sausage appetizer with pimento cheese, saltine crackers & thin fresh jalapeno slices); spare ribs; Angus brisket; pork shoulder; baked beans; coleslaw; & the
incredible cheese muffins (it’s impossible to eat just one).


Big Papa’s: spare ribs, bison ribs, smoked chicken, fried okra, baked beans, sweet potato casserole.


Country Time: brisket, hot links, spare ribs, chicken, peach cobbler.

***

So there you have it. Thanks, Adrian. May the Soulstice come to Denver year-round someday.

No cheek, no cheese, pure cheer: chicken & waffles at M & D’s

Fond as I am of Second Home—or as I like to call it, My Second Home, & the exhibition kitchen my kitchen, the wall-to-wall wine rack my cellar, & the staff my servants (at least under my breath)—its sibling the Corner Office isn’t centrally located on the floor plan in my heart, too often crossing the threshold between cheeky & cheesy. Get a load of that faux-risque intro to its website & you’ll see what I mean.

It has its yaysayers, though, in part because it serves chicken & waffles. Personally I can’t imagine ordering chicken & waffles in any place where there’s more than a 2% chance the Prada-clad chick next to me will be trying to seduce her Hugo Boss–wearing Seann William Scott–lookalike of a date by sucking on the candy cigarette from her Dean Martini—which also contains vodka, scotch & an olive, yet somehow doesn’t spontaneously combust from the heat of its flaming stupidity—in ways I don’t even want to know are possible in this particular physical universe of ours, much less view with mine own eyes.

Because I only want the best for my chicken & waffles, that Southern revelation I had for the 1st time a decade or so ago at Little Jezebel’s in NYC, where they were served in heartpoundingly heady fashion with both gravy & syrup, & have craved on a regular basis with tears in my faraway eyes ever since. I’ve gobbled up my share of straightforward epitomes & frilly departures, like the last version I had, the Director by my side, at my beloved old neighborhood haunt back in Boston, Neptune Oyster, wherein the waffle was a veritable cube of fluff & the syrup was figgy (perhaps thanks to Artibel fig molasses,

25430

a Calabrian product whose label boasts what after 8 years or so since I read it for the 1st time remains some of the most gorgeously mangled English I’ve ever come across, recommending as it does that you “find its better utilize in confictionery, in particular like substitutive of the bee honey” or add it “up the greated-ice drink, like sauce up the beffsteak, and irons cooking fruit, for sweet of simple dough, up and other use suggested of the immagination”).

Now I know where my next plate’s coming from, & I couldn’t be more tickled not only that it’s neither the Drone-Filled Cubicle or whatever it’s called nor the likewise much-overrated Big Gross BBQ or whatever it’s called but M & D’s Cafe, with which the Director & I fell in love last night, so much we’d have cheated on each other with M & D, whichever one’s which, given half a chance, especially when Elsie, our waitress, informed us that M & D’ll be frying up chicken & waffles every Sunday beginning with this one.

Having gained 292 1/2 lbs., I checked, overnight thanks to the pile of killer rib tips & battered, peppered fries I plowed through like some sort of meth-addled farmer’s daughter,

Tips&fries

I’ll be there with cowbells on.

Big Fuss Bar-B-Q & Steakhouse

What’s with the full-force gushing, the spit-mottled glottal-stop-&-go over Big Hoss? The pulled pork was so dry I thought I might have accidentally asked for pulled taffy. That’s what I got, the pork-taffy platter.
Hosspulled_pork_2
Good thing my friend MO was there to drown out all the ballyhoo, spewing spot-on censure: “It’s not smoky, it’s not succulent, there aren’t any flecks of spice, there’s not that much sauce,” she said, wondering exactly what the pitmaster’s sense of the difference between barbecuing meat and just, you know, cooking it all the way through was.
The “grilled Western veggies” mixed into the diced “campfire potatoes” were pretty much just onions & mushrooms; funny, because there’s another side dish called “onions & mushrooms,” which are caramelized & sauteed, respectively. Actually, fine & dandy—it’s all hash to me—but a little truth in advertising would have gone a longer way.
Ditto the “unlimited soup & salad bar.” What they mean, of course, is “all-you-can-eat soup & salad bar.” Those are 2 different things. Your bowl may be bottomless, but if all you’ve got to fill it with is some lettuce &, in MO’s words, 14 kinds of ranch dressing, your stomach’s bound to hit its limit pretty quick. (OK, to be truthful myself, there were maybe 4 or 5 vegetables.)
I know, I know, you don’t go to a smokehouse for salad. But considering my jerky & MO’s middling andouille, I’m not so inclined to go for ‘cue either. They do make some mean baked beans, though, & some good greasy doodles. They should call it the Mean Bean & Greasy Doodle House. Then I’d go there lots.
Big Hoss Bar-B-Q Steakhouse on Urbanspoon