Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Colt & Gray: The Dish That Got Away…& Them That Didn’t

Less than 24 hours after working myself into a tizzy over the seafood fritto misto featuring sea urchin I’d spotted on Colt & Gray’s online menu, the Director & I hurried in, only to find the repertoire had changed completely & literally overnight. Good thing I was able to drown my sorrows about the fish fry that got away with a superb cocktail, namely the gin-based, herb-&-citrus-redolent Misty Rose, splashed with Aperol & Lillet Blanc (Italian & French aperitifs, respectively) & tinged with sage.

Better thing I was able to stuff down my sorrows with some mighty fine substitute eats. Not having paid a visit to the place in quite some time—the last being rather heavy on the booze & light on the food (as well as rich in conversation with some local aces of alcohol, including C&G barman Kevin Burke, whose obvious talent has rightly had nothing to do with the recent, justifiable concern over his career trajectory)—I can now say with certainty the next trip won’t be so long overdue. It’s damn good, in short, & occasionally great.

For instance, as bar snacks go, snails fly far too under the radar. Served here en baguette with garlic-sorrel butter, they’re fat little morsels, rich & earthy…tasting, in fact, so much like wild mushrooms that I’d almost have suspected that’s what they were. Only their shape, & maybe a slight, mmm, fleshiness convinced me otherwise.

By contrast, beets have been looming far too large on the radar for far too long. Look, I’m part Russian Jew; I was born to love borscht. But—& I’ve been saying this for a few years now, to no avail—enough with the beet salads already! At least beet burgers are a little more creative. Whether they were entirely successful is another matter; I loved the idea of replacing slider buns with sweet, crunchy-topped corn muffins & adding a schmear of cream cheese, but the tablespoon or so of diced beets just didn’t warrant the full sandwich treatment. Nice, super-lemony vinaigrette on the greens, though.

On the other hand, blood pudding, chopped over a strip of puff pastry, was grand. I think Cracovia gets the gold for this particular type of sausage—C&G’s was a little less nutty, & it’s that quality, due in the Polish restaurant’s case to the use of barley, that really gets me—but this version came close, enhanced by its dousing of sauce chasseur, based on meaty espagnole mixed with white wine, mushrooms & shallots. Quite the autumnal comfort.

Even better were the sweet potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms (guess I was in a fungal state of mind). If I hadn’t been told the little dumplings were made from sweet potatoes, I’d have sworn they contained parsnip; their sugar content didn’t seem quite that high. But that’s neither here nor there; they were well-made, light, with an unusually, appealingly crisp golden exterior. And while the combination of brown butter, chopped hazelnuts, sage & parmesan, may not be so unusual, that’s with good reason—it’s reliably awesome.

Speaking of classic combinations, I’m interested in lamb & lentils about an eighth as often as it’s offered. But I couldn’t keep my fork out of the the Director’s braised lamb shank & green lentils (aka lentils du Puy)—

partly because the meat was so silk-tender; partly because the lentils, cooked just a touch past al dente, had a peppery kick; & partly because the creamed kale wasn’t creamed to death—it still asserted itself in the mix. The hunter-style sauce added a soft tang.

I didn’t have an inch of room for the potted cheesecake with salted caramel, so it’s on my list for next time. Which had better be soon, or it’ll go the way of the urchin, & then I’ll have to start all over again, sobbing into yet another stellar quaff all the while.

Colt & Gray on Urbanspoon

OAK in a Nutshell

Which I guess would be an acorn, fittingly enough for a place that’s as yet but a sapling in restaurant years & will presumably have years to grow big & mighty: the food at this Frasca spinoff is already good, though there’s plenty of room for it to get even bigger & conceptually bolder. At least I hope there’s room in the kitchen, since there wasn’t an inch of breathing space in the dining room the night I was there—such was the crush of Boulderites rushing toward the sound of owner Bryan Dayton’s cocktail shaker, yielding drinks that are not only already good but damn near perfect.

Take The Monk’s Garden,

exhilaratingly dewy with tarragon-infused vodka, green chartreuse, lavender simple syrup, cucumber & lime. Or the equally juicy Mo’s Special—

with gin, Strega, Poli Miele, blood orange, Meyer lemon & a froth of egg white, it looks & sounds frou-frou but tastes superfresh—fruity but not fruity.

My hands-down fave, however, was the after-dinner Closing Act; read all about my most recent Dish of the Week here.

My only beef with the fried farm pickles accompanied by green goddess aioli

was that the flesh of the thick-cut slices was searingly hot, making it hard to bite into & chew, so instead it just sort of slid down, defeating the purpose of actually savoring it. Still, what I could glean was the fineness of both the pickling (the difference between a mass-produced & a small-batch pickle is astounding) & the batter-frying, just so much semitranslucent, golden-brown crackling. (It occurs to me that in terms of its gratifying gloss & pull, its closest referent would be a giant scab, which may sound less appetizing than it does accurate in the absence of a nitpicking fetish. I happen to have one, so the idea perversely appeals.)

Even better was the chewy olive oil–grilled bread topped with roasted mixed mushrooms & excellent whipped ricotta: comfortingly simple, gently savory, satisfying.

In fact, the vegetarian dishes proved the cream of the evening’s crop; roasted root vegetables with heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, breadcrumbs & herbs were earthy, hearty & creamy not least in their own juices;

if I were a vegetarian with eyes for a carnivore, this would be the dish I’d use as a compatability litmus test. If he merely balked at the lack of meat, I’d chuck him.

By comparison, the sliders—braised meatballs on cheese “gougers,” a cute little typo for gougères

were surprisingly bland, unless you count the too-sweet tomato gravy they were drenched in, making me pine for Elise Wiggins’s veritable glowing spheres of juicy burger joy. And the high hopes I had for the rigatoni with rock shrimp were dashed at 1st bite;

my pal Mo (yes, the namesake of the aforementioned quaff) had questioned the wisdom of going to a restaurant to order a type of pasta that’s invariably boxed rather than house-extruded, & she had a point—might as well boil that up at home. Meanwhile, the sauce seemed to be little but butter, juice from the shrimp, maybe a touch of tomato, & rather too much salt. Surely, however, the fact that ex-Frasca chef Steve Redzikowski trained as a saucier at Le Cirque means he’ll be getting right on those adjustments; no reason this dish can’t be every bit as good as it sounded with a few tweaks.

In short, OAK at Fourteenth is already sprouting forth from the solid bole of jazzy comfort; I expect it be spreading even snazzier boughs in no time.

OAK at Fourteenth on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week 11/15–11/22: The Closing Act, OAK at Fourteenth

High time I rename this category Dish &/or Drink of the Week, given how often the booze takes the cake. Then again, this particular tipple from brand-new Boulderite OAK at Fourteenth practically was a dessert in itself—a far, far more sophisticated & satisfying one than those milkshakes in a martini glass that pass for cocktails in your average meat market.

With rum, the Italian artichoke bitter known as Cynar, sucanat (whole cane sugar) syrup, egg white, allspice & nutmeg, it evoked eggnog—then revoked it, being far lighter, silkier, savorier, spicier & spikier. In a word: damn.

Stay tuned for a full report on the meal.

Dish of the Week: Beatrice & Woodsley’s Hoppin’ Mad

Pretty much the whole shebang that was Beatrice & Woodsley’s Ghosts by Lantern Light Dinner qualified as one long, collective Dish of the Week, but I’m compelled to single out this cocktail.

Combining Milagro Blanco Tequila with carrot juice, apricot brandy, Cascade hops, simple syrup, & lemon & lime juices, it”s like a smoothie with spikes. I repeat, while the kitchen here gets the acclaim it’s due, the bar goes overlooked for its equal flair for invention + execution. Check it out—& as long as you’re at it, kick back with a Cucupeña as well.

Geeks Who Drink: Steamworks Euclidean Pale Ale Debuts at Euclid Hall

Math nerds, beer geeks, food freaks, who cares? We're all wacked out in one way or another. (Does that answer your question?  Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.) 

And we're all welcome at Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen, which, as if it weren't already awesome enough, will as of next Thursday be tapping the 1st in a whole planned line of proprietary beers: Steamworks Euclidian Pale Ale.

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The eponymous father of geometry looks kind of sad, but I'm sure he's just busy deducing theorems from a small set of intuitively appealing axioms, such as: 

This EPA, made from entirely local ingredients, contains premium Colorado two-row barley & red wheat malt;
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the hops (predomimantly Cascade & Centennial) are organically grown;
+
the water is first-use water from the San Juan Mountains
=
It will surely be awesome, especially with just about anything on the menu but the marlin crudo. (Doesn't take a genius to figure that one out.)

Dish of the Week 8/16–8/22: The Beaver Creek Wine & Spirits Festival

Yeah, pretty much the whole shebang (or at least the bits of it I attended), wrapped up in one big shiny bow (click on image to see schedule).

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The 1st workweek of my 40th year on earth was a stinky bitch. Monday I had one of my semiannual bouts of food poisoning, mostly in the parking lot of the Greenwood Village Shops at the Landmark (sorry, whoever pulled in after me). Tuesday I worked for 16 hours straight (sorry, Director, who had to put up with me). Wednesday 1 of our cats developed severe conjunctivitis & I had to help the vet tech hold him still while she took his temperature from the wrong end (really sorry, Jasper). Thursday—I don't even know where to begin. It started with insomnia & went from there. And Friday, I woke up at 5am to pack & get to the airport by 7:30, where I picked up my mom, drove her to Estes Park for her annual Buddhist retreat at the Y, & proceeded to make every conceivable wrong turn en route from there to Beaver Creek, finally arriving just in time to miss what was by all accounts a debauched lunch at Grouse Mountain Grill.

But from there on out was the smoothest of pleasure cruises through demos & dinners &

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aspen groves.

In full disclosure, this was a press trip; I didn't pay for jack. That said, rest assured the richies who did wouldn't stand for anything less than royal treatment. Being in their midst, without a badge to indicate I myself am just a poor (& I mean poor) freelancing slob, I'm pretty sure they experienced what I experienced.

And so without further ado, a few highlights, starting with the "The Perfect Steak," part of the Wine Spectator Demo Series with Beaver Creek Chophouse's Jay McCarthy & Chateau St. Michelle's Tim Clark.

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Here's a fancy aerial view via mirror of the stovetop,

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which wasn't in use—technically this was a seminar about cuts, not a cooking demo, & the discussion focused on food & wine matching above all. Our lovely little portion, in a bourguignonne-esque sauce of red wine & mushrooms with a side of mashed potatoes dotted with carrots, peas & green chiles,

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was paired with 6 Merlots, mostly from the Chateau St. Michelle family (which includes Stag's Leap)—which I must say impressed me far more than any of the CSM whites I've ever tried, my favorite being the  2006 Canoe Ridge, not nearly so fruit-forward as the Merlots that got hammered a few years back by dear old Miles (it seems more than a few winemakers may have actually learned something after getting their asses handed to them by a fictional character), showing rather a nose dusted with dried herbs & barbecue smoke, chocolate & licorice on the palate.

An all-around impressive dinner at contemporary Italian Toscanini started with the terrific heirloom tomato “martini,” less like a bloody mary than gazpacho-infused Cap Rock vodka, complete with basil & an S&P rim.

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Two pancake-sized slices of fine bresaola—air-dried beef from Lombardy—topped a tradition-minded salad of arugula, pine nuts, shaved parm & balsamic-marinated onion.

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Though the classic appetizer as it’s served in northern Italy is even simpler—drizzled not with vinaigrette but just olive oil & lemon juice—this was certainly a lovely, deeply earthy variation thereon.

And my rigatoni was a midsummer night’s dream,

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at once hearty & harvest-fresh, sauteed with fresh artichoke hearts, strips of bell pepper, onion & salami, & shards of pecorino romano, then finished with rosemary & olive oil. I left, I think, 2 or 3 pasta tubes so as not to totally humiliate myself in front of my less gluttonous companions.

But I don’t think they were fooled, since I went on to polish off a float made with root beer vodka (desserts being the only excuse for artificially flavored spirits) & smartly subtle, vanilla-tinged root beer gelato.

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Good as it was, the banana-panettone pudding with white chocolate & hazelnuts ordered by Jen Heigl of Daily Blender was even better, evoking a molten fruitcake—which, come to think of it, is a brilliant idea. Copyright Denveater

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After that was yet another cocktail I don’t want to talk about, thanks anyway, & then I think I ate all the truffles sent up by the 8100 Mountainside Bar & Grill to my hotel room at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort & Spa—I actually vaguely remember the coconut & Irish cream—

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& then I found myself on a hiking trail at the crack of dawn surrounded by the knock-knock-knock of woodpeckers & signs that said something like: YOU MAY ENCOUNTER A BLACK BEAR. DO NOT APPROACH THE WILDLIFE. Having approached the wildlife the night before, I was all set with that.

And then, 2 hours later, I was drinking a mimosa in the presence of great American hero Anthony Dias Blue

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& standing in the kitchen of Splendido at the Chateau watching renowned Dallas-based chef Stephan Pyles (center), with the assistance of Splendido chef David Wolford (left), cook me & maybe 20 other people

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a 3-course lunch of red snapper tamales with red curry masa, Veracruzana sauce & caramelized bananas,

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coriander-cured lamb loin with cascabel aioli & a salad of pintos, navy beans & black turtle beans (marinated in ham hock stock), arugula &  pickled onions,

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& a chocolate-filled samosa with pistachio, rose & gum mastic ice cream.

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We would’ve had 2 wines, but since De Tierra Vineyards didn’t send enough for more than a taste each of the 2008 Pinot Gris & the 2007 Pinot Noir, the GM of Splendido stepped up to & beyond the plate by pouring us 2 wines from his own cellar as well. That, friends, is what a) polished hospitality & b) $$$ get you. (Again, not my $$$, but rather the $$$ of the socialites around me, including 1 tall, willowy creature entirely in white who was such a ringer for Linda Gray I thought I might actually have been transported to Dallas.)

Honestly, I was such a sucker for Pyles’ flourishes that the fundamentals didn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong, they were great; but if I’d been served nothing but the masa (a little undercooked but delicious anyway), bean salad & ice cream—based on a 200-year old recipe Pyles sampled in Damascus—I’d have been ecstatic.

From there we headed to Vail, which didn’t suck. Details to come.

Dish of the Week: Tomasso Bussola Amarone della Valpolciella Classico 2003 (+ Wine Poem 2)

Yes, another liquid dish. Amarone was the first wine I ever fell in love with; evaluating this one in my International Wine Guild certification class today—as happens every time I get to taste it (which isn’t often since they average $45-$60)—I swooned all over again. Made in the Veneto from grapes dried on straw mats, they’re naturally powerfully redolent of dark fruit; this one (available at Total Beverage)

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was all figs, except where it was mushrooms.

One sip always takes me back to a poem I wrote years ago with Amarone in mind; I think I’ve posted it here before, but what the hell, it conveys my thoughts on Amarone better than I can (“the poem is smarter than you are,” my old pal Matt Rohrer once claimed).

Wine Poem 2

When the last corpse was drained and jarred he took me to wife,
whisking me over the pain threshold and into the honeymoon dungeon.
The hook used to extract the brain doubled as a corkscrew.
The test tubes bubbled over with champagne.
We dabbed our eyes with scar tissue as we played our song

and drank like plunging knife and fork, clashing blade and prong,
and drank like dart and arrow through each lung,
and drank like pharoahs with our hearts removed
to make room for more wine. And then that sound

fell headlong down the stairs.
We felt the shadow spill across the floor above our heads
the way a flashlight washes over treasure,
smearing gleam throughout the tomb.
The still lifes froze and the statues wanted down.

Before the mirror of creation stood reaction with a hood.
It was there reflection lay, stunned, may still lie.
As the darkness stopped before our portraits,
we popped the corks below and drank our brains out.

Some wine you let breathe, some you’ve got to smother.
We kissed deepest when we kept our distance, then we deeper slept.

A word on cinnamon-chipotle vodka

The word is ouch.

A few moons ago Beth Partin of Beth at Home & Abroad & Restoration Nation & I took a class hosted by Denver Botanic Gardens at Z Cuisine. Titled “Herbal Aperitif: Happy Hour in the European Bitters Bar Tradition,” it had its ups & downs—click here for a full report—the highest up of which was getting to infuse our own vials of Absolut vodka. I stuck a cinnamon stick & a whole dried chipotle in mine & called it a night.

Four months later, I needed a drink. I mean I needed countless drinks in between, but on this particular night I had nothing else in the house. So cinnamon-chipotle vodka it was.

On Day 1 it looked like this:
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On Month 4 it looked like this:
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Red means “stop.” But I went.

It’s not that it was bad; in fact, it would’ve been mind-blowing, if I do say so myself, in the right proportions. Being in the wrong proportions—1/4 cinnamon stick to 1/4 chile to 1/2 vodka—it was sinus-blowing. Every sip made me sneeze: sip, sneeze, sip, sneeze, sip, sneeze.

I wish I’d mixed it with pineapple juice. I bet my nostrils would have fallen off.

The Scoop Series: Bull & Bush Pub & Brewery Beer Geek Erik Peterson Gushes Forth

This is Erik Peterson.

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This is Erik Peterson’s amazing ride,

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admittedly irrelevant except for the license plate, which reads MAN BEER.

MAN BEER is just one of many multi-award-winners Erik & his brewing colleagues Gabe Moline & Brett Williams make at the venerable Bull & Bush,

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opened by Erik’s dad & uncle—twin stockbrokers, if you can fathom that without seizing—in 1971 as a -pub to which the brew- part was added by Erik & his own brother in 1997. A recent interview with Erik for an article left me with so much juicy leftover material that I thought, what the hey, I’ll share it here.

What I won’t share is a sip of my own fave pours, the Hail Brau Hefeweizen (2nd from left) & the Smoke on the Lager (rightmost)—

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praise for which led Erik to launch into a discussion of smoked hefeweizens: “You get these notes of banana & clove from the yeast, but also this backbone of smoke that’s just super-interesting,” he explains. The guy knows his beer.

***
At any given time, Bull & Bush has about 14 beers on tap, 6 standards and 8 seasonals. What are some of your favorites?

Probably the most balanced & drinkable beer on a daily basis is the Tower ESB (Extra Special Bitter). I love that style because it has the perfect malt to hop to alcohol balance; it’s not just this crusher of a beer. It’s more like a super-flavorful session beer.

We do an English-style barley wine called Royal Oil, which we age for 2, 2 1/2 years in whiskey barrels. It’s a really sweet, intense barley wine that dries a out a little bit as it ages. It tastes like chocolate-covered cherries, really incredible. We usually put that on right around Christmastime.

We just won a gold medal with The Legend of the Liquid Brain Imperial Stout, which we age in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, at the World Beer Cup back in April. We won it it in the wooden barrel–aged strong beer category—the single largest category in the competition this year, which was kind of surprising; there were 113 beers [competing], so we’ve been pretty excited about that. The name comes from a Beta Band song lyric.

Your aged beer projects are clearly among your passions. Tell me more about them.

We have plenty of kegs that we store for long-term aging, but we also have bourbon barrels & wine barrels that we’re currently aging beer in. Like Charles Smith—I have one of his Cougar Hills Syrah barrels, a nice French oak, so we’re doing a dark Belgian trippel.  And we have a Folk Machine barrel.

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We tend to go at least a year on all of our barrels & after that, we kinda barrel-thief along the way to see if they’re tasting good, because the life of a beer—I think it ebbs & flows in terms of the way it’s tasting. You know, sometimes we’ll try it & it’s tasting mediocre, & we’re like, “Oh, did we mess up?” We’ll bung it back up, try it again in like 6 months and it’ll be tasting awesome.

For our 38th anniversary beer last year, we did a Belgian-style stout, but we added some Novo coffee to it—their Amaro Gayo has these crazy blueberry flavors. Then we put it into a whiskey barrel, added 50 pounds of Italian plums, & aged it for a year.

I’d like to get some more tanks for doing more beers & more space to age different barrels. I’d love to get my hands on some port barrels, sherry barrels, scotch barrels…One thing I’ve always wanted to get was a smoky Islay barrel. If I could get a real peaty barrel & make a Scotch ale & have the barrels impart a little of the smoky earthiness, that would be fun…White wine barrels are one thing I’m working on now; getting several different varieties, cause we’re gonna do a wheat wine.

Your vintage beer list gets a whole lotta love from connoisseurs as well. How did you develop it?

Just, yeah, collecting large quantities of age-worthy beer. I definitely have a problem with it. [Laughs.] When you’re a collector, you’re always on the hunt; you’re always looking for good stuff, & when you find something, I think the key for me was not just buying a bottle but buying cases. It’s like wine: some beers are meant to be consumed next week, some are super-tannic & sturdy enough to age. They’re built to last—throw ‘em in your cellar & don’t even think about ‘em for 10 years.

The secret with a really good vintage beer is bottle-conditioning. Also the alcohol level. Natural preservative. Anything over about 6 1/2% is really good for long-term aging.

I was finally just like, I have so much of this beer that I can never drink myself, I might as well just share it with people.

What’s next on your agenda, besides the upcoming Great American Beer Festival?

Maybe do some limited bottling.
We always make kind of a scene at the GABF; we’re always the loudest. I want to have a big presence since it’s in our backyard every year. But we’re so tiny; we’re draft only, & the only time we’ll do bottles is for competition. We’ll do 1000 barrels this year, but to put that into perspective…[Here he shows me the annual stats for the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams—which is in the news as we speak for the legal hoops it’s jumping through to maintain its craft beer status while brewing upwards of 2 million barrels.] It would just be a fun one-off, but another thing too is you make the best margins selling it out of your own taps. We have a pretty consistent following here; the formula kinda works here, & we’re at the crossroads where we’re asking, how big do we wanna get? It just depends on how much you want to go into debt. And how much of a life you want to have. [Laughs.]

Dish of the Week: Clementine Kicker at Kelly Liken, Vail

So what if “Dish of the Week” has lately morphed into a euphemism for “glug, glug, glug”? “Food” & “drink” are kind of arbitrary distinctions anyway. Take soup versus a smoothie.

I’m sans every last shred of energy, so I’ll have to explain what I was doing swanning around Vail later. And I’m sans card reader, so I’ll have to upload the photo of Kelly Liken‘s Clementine Kicker later too. But, you know, it looks like a drink. For now just close your eyes & picture a lowball filled with fresh ginger & jalapeño muddled & mixed with Svedka Clementine Vodka, agave nectar & lime juice, strained & served on the rocks. UPDATE: See?

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Don’t sweat the flavored spirit; rest assured it attains some measure of dignity in balancing the invigorating spice with its citrus shine. The bar staff’s light touch behooves the cocktails generally here; almost as good & every bit as cleanly refreshing was the Cucumber Lime Elixir, combining Colorado’s own Cap Rock organic gin with house-squeezed cucumber-lime juice.

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As for the grub, stay tuned.