Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The Great Wine List Debate—& Denver’s Place In It

Despite my day job at Sommelier Journal, I don’t spill a lot of ink on wine here. In that, I’ve got nothing but company. Look at the past several restaurant reviews in Westword, the Denver Post & 5280, & you won’t find more than a passing mention of the subject, if that—never mind list specifics or pairing suggestions. Granted, we’re living in a beer town in a cocktail era, & many a local bar program reserves its baskets for those eggs. But wine goes largely ignored even in reviews of restaurants that specialize in it, be it Al Lado or Il Posto.

Over a year ago, I was on a media panel for a Q&A with restaurateurs, & when Fuel Café’s Bob Blair asked pointedly why that was the case, not one of us could give him a satisfactory answer. If ever there was a time for a remedy, however, it might be now, when wine writers themselves are all up in arms about the current state of independent American restaurant-wine programs.

At the center of the recent debate was the charge, led by the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo & The Gray Report’s W. Blake Gray (of whom I’m a fan, by the way), that too many sommeliers/beverage directors these days are catering exclusively to an oenophilic few rather than to the masses of novice wine drinkers by compiling geeky selections of little-known producers, varietals, regions—undermining their entire raison d’être, namely unpretentious hospitality, in the process. Coming to their defense were the New York Times’ Eric Asimov & the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné—whose counterarguments in favor of progressive wine lists seem, to me, pretty obvious. First & foremost, there’s the matter of concept. A restaurant is built on a philosophy & a vision that determine every aesthetic choice its principals make: if it’s old-school Italian, then it’s old-school Italian, & by all means bring on the Sangiovese to go with the chicken parm. But if it’s farm-to-table, then it’s farm-to-table, in which case boutique wines from organically or biodynamically minded producers make perfect sense alongside the carefully sourced, seasonal food. No one would insist that the chef of a contemporary Asian restaurant has to serve a burger—& that if he doesn’t he’s somehow sniffing at meat-&-potatoes types; why should the wine list alone bear the burden of being all things to all people?

If the answer—as some have suggested—is that wine intimidates people more than food, & that therefore it’s sommeliers’ obligation to throw them the welcoming bone of big-name Chardonnay or Cab, I call BS. One argument that I don’t think has been made, but it seems pretty cut & dried to me, is that unlike food, wine is wine—a single category. Yes, there are thousands of grapes & styles. But very few of us are trained to be sensitive to every single phenolic variable & nuance—& that’s a point in wine’s favor, not proof of its inherent elitism: it means that if you like wine in general, you’re probably going to be OK with most offerings. There’s no real vinous equivalent of palate-challenging ingredients like natto or Limburger or headcheese (with the possible exception of Greek retsina, but that’s a singular case). So I consider highly ironic the claim that to specialize in relatively obscure pours is to be condescending to less-knowledgeable customers: it seems to me condescending instead to assume that they’re too dull or rigid to step out of their comfort zone for even one minute. It’s just a goddamn glass of wine—& let’s face it, half the time it tastes like any other goddamn glass of wine!

But if they are that picky & narrow minded, well, guess what—there are 100 other places they can go. Ultimately, those who say that too few restaurants are offering familiar wines are clearly dining at too few restaurants: they’re only going to the very places that do make a point of catering to adventurous diners & drinkers—the ones that even bother to hire sommeliers to begin with rather than just tasking a manager with pulling from a single distributor’s grab bag! In my book, too few restaurants are taking chances on their selections. For every one with a list that really excites me, there are 10 that toe the line at Malbec & Riesling.

That said, I actually think we’ve got it pretty good here on the Front Range. Putting aside the obvious leaders of the high-end pack—Frasca Food & Wine (& by extension Pizzeria Locale) & Barolo Grill, as well as your trophy showcases like Flagstaff House—numerous venues craft their lists with care & passion, an eye toward discovery, & a belief that dumbing it down is a self-perpetuating act in bad faith. Fuel Café & Il Posto are 2 of them; here are 10 other admittedly very personal favorites (in no particular order)—particularly for their by-the-glass options, which are really where the art of curation’s at.

Black Cat Bistro & Bramble & Hare (kudos to Eric Skokan’s team for the double whammy!)

Sienna Wine Bar

Axios Estiatorio (all Greek)

Beatrice & Woodsley

Lala’s Wine Bar + Pizzeria

The Kitchen Boulder

Osteria Marco (all Italian)

Bin 1884 Cheese Bar (because aside from the BTG list, anything on the shelves of the adjoining wine shop The Empty Bottle is fair game, enoteca style!)

Table 6

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar

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.



Cliff Lede Vineyards & A Mighty Fine Wine Dinner at Elway’s

Just passing through the dining room at Elway’s in the Ritz-Carlton, one understands where Tom Ripley was coming from. The merest snippets of conversation whisk you around the shadowy corporate boardrooms & echoing legislative chambers where shit goes down in milliseconds of inner turmoil that make you yearn for the rich & powerful so-&-so you meant to be.

Then again, I was just passing through because I was on my way to the private dining room for a wine dinner hosted by Elway’s extremely gracious young sommelier, Justin Jelinek, & Jack Bittner, the VP/GM of Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, CA. So for all I know the VIPs thronging the place were jealous of me. Ha!

I’d have been jealous of me if I weren’t me, because the meal was terrific as well as revealing in terms both of the Napa winery’s portfolio aesthetic & what this kitchen is capable of beyond classic steakhouse fare. Seems to me that sous chefs Marco Ugarte & the excellently named Sayre Yazzle, to whom exec chef Robert Bogart handed over the reins for the evening, are capable of quite a lot.

The natural creaminess of scallops served al carpaccio with spicy guava drizzle (as well as frisée & red Fresno chiles) beautifully complemented a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (almost wholly varietal, containing just a touch of Semillion) that downright startled me at first, so literally unctuous I could feel it clinging to my lips like balm. Tropical fruits & pink grapefruit were present in abundance, but the buttery mouthfeel remained almost to the finish.

Smoked over oak & napped with berry jus—primarily blackberry, I believe—over roasted new potatoes & sauteed chard, the duck breast wowed me such that I was hoping I’d see it on the regular dinner menu (not at present, sadly). Pinot Noir & duck is a classic pairing, & the 100% varietal from Cliff Lede’s sister label, Breggo—which, according to BIttner, “started in a 1-car garage with Soviet-era technology”—was no exception, its aromas of water flower, leather & spice mingling with the smoke off the meat. As Bittner observed of the winemaking process, “You’re almost worried that the fruit’s not gonna ripen. You kinda have to be on edge with cool-climate Pinot Noir”—but the results are “that bacon-fat quality” that highlighted the duck’s fat-ringed skin, crisped to mahogany.

Consisting of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (the rest being a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, & Petit Verdot), Cliff Lede’s 2007 bottling from the Stag’s Leap District offered milk chocolate, dried plums & ripe blackberries in spades as well as a dash of cinnamon sugar—all apropos for the wild boar that filled two large ravioli topped with a chunky mixture of fresh heirloom tomatoes & herbs lightly sauteed in olive oil to yield a few exquisite final spoonfuls of juice (plus shavings of Mahon, Spain’s slightly subtler answer to parmesan).

As with the duck, I’m sorry to say lamb osso buco is not a regular item, because the giant shank, braised in wine & sprinkled with gremolata (a mixture of lemon zest, parsley, & garlic that’s integral to the original, veal-based, Milanese version of the dish) was near-perfect: fork-tender & velvety as well as deeply robust. Thoroughly crusty grilled bread made for a satisfying sop.

And the wine? A glass of 2007 Poetry, Cliff Lede’s Cab-dominant, single-vineyard signature wine, was likewise velvety & meaty—& actually not my favorite pairing of the evening, craving as I did a touch more acid to balance out the richness. In fact, close as it came to to evoking raspberry-chocolate truffles, the wine showed up even better against the single, bitter-edged lozenge of dark chocolate-almond bark with which the meal ended—

on a sweet note, in short.

Elway's (Ritz-Carlton) on Urbanspoon

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Do at the Zoo, R&B’s Mo’ Betta Green Marketplace, CAUTION’s Inaugural Tapping!

Aspen Food & Wine isn’t the only game in town (never mind the fact that it isn’t in town).

TONIGHT at 7pm, the 22nd Annual Do at the Zoo features a whopping line-up of 79 participating eateries, a slew of live performers—including Danielle Ate the Sandwich—& the immeasurable satisfaction that comes with donating funds (tix start at $175) to help the Denver Zoo build a new home for its 1-horned rhinoceros & Malayan tapirs (pictured on right). It just so happens I’ll be a judge at the cooking competition; expect a few Tweets (@Denveater) about my favorite eats.

Saturday 6/18, from 9am to 2pm, the first R&B’s Mo’ Betta Green Marketplace kicks off at the 2500 block of Welton Street. Or so the flyer below tells me. I tried to e-mail the manager for details with no luck, but this website seems to confirm it. I like my markets mo’ betta, so, you know, worth a look.

So that takes care of animal & vegetable. As for mineral—at long last, CAUTION Brewing Co. is in business! After a long, looonngg wait, Bettina Fey & Danny Wang will be at Lao Wang Noodle House, which provides the secret spice blend that flavors the brew, this Sunday, 6/18, at noon to tap their flagship, Lao Wang Lager. In a word, woohoo.

Republic Tequila Dinner at Elway’s Cherry Creek, May 26 (+ bonus cocktail recipe!)

I get press releases all the live-long day, but some jump out at me—like this one, because hey, free recipes! On Thursday, May 26, at 6:30pm, the Cherry Creek branch of Elway’s is hosting a 5-course Republic Tequila dinner; $65 pp gets you the following:

1st Course: Passed Apps
Al pastor skewers, Mexican bay scallop spoon with charred tomatillo
Spiced Savory Paloma Cocktail (see below for details!)

2nd Course
Lime & cilantro grilled snapper tostada with pickled jalapeño-radish slaw, smooth avocado
Republic Tequila Blanco

3rd Course
Ancho-braised goat empanada with grilled chayote squash salsa, ancho chile jus
Republic Tequila Reposado

4th Course
Beef cheek barbacoa with smoked posole cake, rajas onion slaw
Republic Tequila Añejo

5th Course
Mexican chocolate flan with chimayo-pepita tuille
Irish Cactus Cocktail

Call 303.399.7616 for reservations, & prepare thyself with an advance nip:

Spiced Savory Paloma


•2 oz. Republic Plata tequila
•2 oz. pink grapefruit juice
•1/2 oz. lime juice
•1/2 oz. agave nectar
•1 1/2 oz. club soda


1. Rim a highball glass with spice mix (see below).
2. Ice up the highball.
3. Into a Boston shaker, pour all ingredients except the soda.
4. Shake well.
5. Strain carefully into the rimmed glass.
6. Cap with soda & stir gently.

Spice Mix: Take sea salt & a little table salt, combine in a saucer with cayenne pepper & smoked paprika, crush together, & mix well.

Win Tix to the GABF During American Craft Beer Week at Mellow Mushroom!

This is actually pretty cool: check in to either of Mellow Mushroom’s 2 Denver locations on Foursquare this week, or simply like its Facebook page, & you could win a pair of 1-time passes to the GABF.

No comment on the pies, I’ve never had them, although the version with red potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar and mozzarella, sour cream & chives and spicy ranch dressing sounds ridiculous (in a good way).

Tinto Torre Takes the Gold at the Rodney Strong Wine Blending Seminar, 4/12!

Yeah, that doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s fun to say. On Tuesday (mere hours after the BarSmarts shindig), I attended an intimate wine-blending seminar cohosted by Rodney Strong Vineyards & Uncorked Denver. It was held at Baca in The Inverness, which, along with the sunken Fireside Lounge at its center, looks like a Rocky Mountain ski lodge met a bed & breakfast in California wine country, fell in love, & had a weird but beautiful child. I want to go back & pretend like I’m rich enough to be there, see how that goes.

In the meantime, though, I felt rich, sitting down to a table intriguingly set with an array of glasses & bottles, beakers, droppers & a calculator

to be personally guided through the process of creating my very own meritage (a Bordeaux-style blended wine) by winemaker Rick Sayre & thereby understand how Rodney Strong Symmetry is made. Before me, along with a glass of Symmetry itself, were pours of 5 100% varietals from 2009: Cabernets Sauvignon & Franc, Merlot, Malbec, & Petit Verdot. I & my fellow guests were tasked with coming up with a blend of our own, which we’d share with our tablemates & pick the best to represent our table. Sayre would then choose an overall favorite, & the winning table would receive copies of down home : downtown, a cookbook collaboration between 2 California chefs in conjunction with the winery.

Considering that a) precision is not this sloppy girl’s forte & b) my tablemates included a sommelier & the dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales, Jorge de la Torre, I sat back & let them do the work. (Oh, I puttered around, but everything I made tasted like porch wine—not bad for a cookout if I do say so myself, but far from elegant & well-balanced.)

Smart move on my part. De la Torre nailed it, so we named it Tinto Torre in his honor—

& damned if we didn’t win those cookbooks.

Afterward, I had to split, but not so quickly I couldn’t get a feel for the 3-course tasting event held by Uncorked, a local meetup, which actually looked like a lot of fun. With more than 1000 members, executive director Stacey Gilbert is beginning to attract the attention of visiting winemakers, & the next get-together over Piedmontese wines at Russo’s on May 10 promises to be a winner. For details click here.

BarSmarts Comes to Denver: Liquor Legends Dispense Drinks, Wisdom

Too cool. Along with well over 100 local mixologists who are taking the BarSmarts exam at this very moment—I spotted crew from Colt & Gray, Vesta Dipping Grill & Steuben’s, LaLa’s Wine Bar & Bistro, Mateo, SALT the Bistro, & Summit at the Broadmoor, among others—I spent all morning at the Four Seasons in a seminar led by no lesser luminaries than Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, F. Paul Pacult, Doug Frost, Andy Seymour & Steve Olsen, sipping spirits &, more importantly, soaking up knowledge. Below, a few random highlights.

  • In 1999, there were 11 craft distilleries (producing <10,000 cases/year) in the U.S. Today, there are more than 200. (A tenth of which, I might add, are right here in Colorado.)
  • “When in doubt,” says MS/MW Doug Frost on evaluating the nose of a spirit, “say lemon & pepper.'” Half-joking words to live by.
  • After a sip of any spirit, suck in your breath. Where there’s heat, there’s volatility. If you experience a cooling sensation, bingo—that’s the sign of a quality distillation, per Olsen.

  • Upon asking the audience what they sniff in glass #1: “Lavender.” “Citrus.” “Pine.” “Christmas.” “Rehab.” (Yes, it was gin.)
  • Well said: “Vodka is a platform,” observes Olsen. “You don’t taste the spirit [in a cocktail], you feel it.”
  • Ditto, upon comparing the pear-like notes of a Scotch & the apple-y tones of an Irish whisky: “The spirit itself can [taste of] bright-green malic acid, but oak makes it whiter, sweeter. Oak takes anything & makes it confection.”
  • Seymour on craft in relation to hospitality: “Don’t ever let the cocktail become the most important thing, when really it’s the person sitting in front of you.” (The corollary for us guests: Take the golden opportunity to learn from a seasoned bartender, to experience new flavors or give spirits you think you don’t like a second chance. That’s partly what going out is for, no, the social give & take?)
  • Per DeGroff, the best barware is coming out of Japan, Germany & Australia. If you’re a tool geek, look here, for instance.
  • Sours are the difference between the men & the boys,” says DeGroff. “Our friend calls it the Mr. Potato Head of bartending”: the 3 basic components are 1 sour, 1 sweet & 1 strong, but the variations & additions are endless.
  • DeGroff credits his former Rainbow Room boss Joe Baum with keeping craft cocktailing alive in the mid-century doldrums; “In 1959,” he notes with pride, “La Fonda del Sol had pisco sours & mojitos.” (Pacult points out that South America is once again a source of much inspiration.)
  • Seymour on menus: “You should be able to represent what you do in 6 to 8 drinks.” More than 12, in his opinion, means spreading yourself too thin. (A rough count, then, could be useful for drinkers in search of a serious cocktail program.)
  • Seymour again, on preciousness: “We all love a great drink with 3 ingredients. Don’t use a house-infused ingredient just to do it; do it if it makes sense for the drink.”
  • DeGroff, on an attendee’s doubts about Rose’s lime juice: “Actually, it has a flavor profile that the traditional gimlet-drinker wants.” In short, there’s a time & a place for bottled juices (or at least this one in particular).
  • “Stirring a drink is the most quiet & Zen-like moment at the bar”—DeGroff.
  • I drank a punch made on the spot by David Wondrich. That’s still sinking in.
  • “As long as the 21st century continues to suck, people will continue to drink.” Right on, Wondrich!

Right on, as well, to the locals, not one of whom, according to a show of hands (or rather a lack thereof), forgot their tools. “This has never happened!” we were told. “Another first for Denver!”  Congrats & good luck to them all.

Denveater’s Top 5 Sips of 2010

Just in time for the boozy bash & crash that is New Year’s: the most ass-kicking cocktails of 2010. Click on the linked captions to read all about ’em in the posts in which they originally appeared; click too on the following links to see my Top 10 dishes &Top 5 desserts.

The Closing Act at Oak at Fourteenth

Hoppin’ Mad at Beatrice & Woodsley

Melon Loco at El Diablo

Misty Rose at Colt & Gray (photoless, but phantastic)

Clementine Kicker at Kelly Liken, Vail

Dish of the Week: French Bread Pizza at Green Russell

An evening that starts with 4 women & 6 bottles of Chardonnay in a hotel room is bound to end in tragedy.

My only clues to the mayhem that apparently ensued are a receipt from Green Russell & the photo below; the unanswered questions swirl: what’s a Boulevardier? wherefore these blisters on the roof of my mouth & 2 new pounds on my bathroom scale? who gave me a lobotomy?

I suppose the answer to the 1st question lies in the glass on the left (& maybe Twitter), the answer to the 2nd in the dish on the right, which appears to consist of 4 baguette halves smothered in blue cheese & chicken.

Were they good? The answer to that mystery, I imagine, lies in the 2nd question itself: my scalded palate & extra roll of fat suggest I couldn’t scarf it down fast enough.

For helping to make a blubbering mess of me, then, Green Russell’s French bread pizza has got to be the Dish of the Week. My frontal cortex will never be the same.