Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Toast at Caffè on Esquire.com

I shared this killer panino di tre formaggi, pomodoro & prosciutto from Frasca Food and Wine’s take-out Caffè with the world via Esquire, but you, should you choose to follow me there, best not share it with anyone.

You’ll behold it in all its glory when you click the link, but what you won’t see are the housemade chips that accompany it, in bags emblazoned with a custom photo by Dave Woody, who did the prints that hang throughout Pizzeria Locale. Che adorabile!

Dish of the Week: The Universal’s BBQ Chicken Salad Sandwich (& more!)

About a month ago, the nice little buzz The Universal—a downhome daytime joint at the edge of Sunnyside—was generating took a sharper tone when then-chef Seth Gray was let go. Having had just gone in for a snappy little meal, I was suddenly all the more curious to return & see what sort of impact his departure was having on the type & quality of the food served.

The short answer is none at all. That’s no knock on Gray, & it’s certainly not meant to justify or weigh in on behind-the-scenes decisions of which I have zero knowledge. It’s simply a fact that the menu remains the same, & the kitchen’s still executing it with flair.

As I’ve noted many times before, I’m really not big on the American breakfast table—egg dishes, pancakes & the like leave me pretty cold in theory & sluggish in practice; here, there’s not much else to go for—a few sandwiches & salads, a few dishes based on grits (the house specialty). But I appreciate a thing done right. And at The Universal, every thing is.

I hope, for instance, that this sandwich special I had last Friday—so technically the Dish of Last Week—is still available, because it was rooty tooty fresh & fruity, combining succulent, tangy barbecued-chicken salad on a chewy baguette with shaved brussels sprouts, chopped lettuce & tomato in a thick & zippy layer of cilantro aioli; a sprinkling of spiced walnut halves added crunch & a touch of elegance. And the side of velvety buttered heirloom grits—in all their cheesy richness, though they don’t contain cheese—were just as addictive as they were the first time I tried them

in my companion’s Nitty Gritty, with eggs & flavorful, juicy chicken-apple sausage.

My own griddled Brie sandwich with apples and onions cooked in white-balsamic vinegar on multigrain bread brought salt, sweetness & sourness together in a warm gooey, crusty package; a side of chard sauteed with onion wrapped it all in a pleasantly bitter yet silken bow.

In short, if there’s still discord in the back of the house, it sure hasn’t spilled to the front. May all parties find peace & keep the kitchen fires burning.

The Universal on Urbanspoon

Jelly: Chill, Still Gelling

Numerical ratings have their uses, but they don’t tell stories. In a recent post, I rated Boulder’s Arugula Bar e Ristorante a 3 (“Solid”) for delivering what I considered to be a perfectly lovely meal. Here, I’m giving the Evans Ave. outpost of beloved Capitol Hill daytime joint Jelly a 3 for a meal that I had some issues with. What gives? In a word, context. When it comes to upmarket Italian restaurants, you’ve got everything from incompetent ripoffs to unforgettable representatives of one of the world’s greatest cuisines (taking its regional variants collectively, that is); overlay such a wide spectrum atop a scale of 1 to 5, & it turns out a 3 is pretty damn admirable. By contrast, the distance between the worst American diner & the best is hardly so vast; just by using fresh ingredients & cooking from scratch, you’re halfway to the top. In that sense, casual, homestyle eateries have a bit of an advantage.

Then again—not to blow your mind, but lower expectations are, in a way, also higher ones, or at least firmer ones. The less I’m asking for, the more I expect to get it. Jelly’s flagship, in my experience, tends to see those expectations & raise them some retro-pop flair (as I assume it will continue to do post-current renovations); take the adorable little goat cheese-frittata sliders with bacon & spinach-walnut pesto—simple fun, done well.

The new branch at the edge of the DU campus shares its siblings’ jazzy sensibilities—same juicy colors & vintage cereal-box display; same what’s-not-to-love selection of tricked-out classics: pancakes festooned with Frosted Flakes & bananas, 7-veggie hash, deviled egg-salad sandwiches. What it still needs, based on my recent visit, is a tad more quality control in order to earn its inherited reputation.

These doughnut bites, for instance, were almost a slam (coffee) dunk.

Of the 8 types on offer, I chose the Thai with peanut butter, Sriracha & powdered sugar; that I expected them to be filled rather than topped was my problem—the menu didn’t indicate as much—but still, using less peanut butter on the outside when you could use more on the inside spells “missed opportunity” for junkies like me, especially considering that the dough was, well, a little too doughy, rather than airy/springy. Big points for the inspired flavor combo; small deduction for the too-dense texture.

Though the roasted-turkey hash didn’t look terribly appealing—not so much actual hash as scattered pieces of beige—it came together well, the white meat moist & complemented by red potatoes, apple, onion & a touch of tarragon. Rather, it was the biscuit that was on the dry side, & the poached egg rubbery (it usually comes with 2; I requested only one).

By contrast, the Molly Hot Brown—served at breakfast as well as lunch—sure looked like bunches of fun, piled with more turkey, tomatoes, chopped bacon & green chiles, & a bucket of Mornay sauce (cheese-enriched white sauce). A vibrant mess indeed, but the damper was stale French toast—& I don’t mean fittingly day-old, I mean kinda tough.

But how hard can it be to fix what ain’t broken at the other branch? The concept’s proven solid, the vibe’s a kick, the menu’s a smart start, & I’m confident these guys can straighten the kinks out in good time—enough so that I’ll head back soon.

Jelly U Cafe on Urbanspoon

OTOTO Food & Wine Launches Brunch, 6/5

As of June 5—to coincide with the return of the Old South Pearl Farmer’s MarketOTOTO will begin Sunday brunch service from 10am to 3pm. The working menu:

MAIN
Seasonal Fruit Plate 7
Grilled Ciabatta Toast, housemade seasonal preserves 5
Bagels & House-cured Gravlax, whipped cream cheese 11
Wild Mushroom Omelet, jamon Serrano, crème fraîche, house fries 13
Chilaquiles, two farm eggs, tortilla, red chile broth, queso fresca, pickled onion 10
Steak & Eggs, braised beef short rib, two farm eggs, house fries 16
Smoked Salmon Benedict, farm eggs, pickled ramp hollandaise, house fries 17

SPECIALTY DISHES
Egg in a Jar, black truffle potato puree, jamon Serrano, farm egg, caviar 12
Duck Confit Hash, confit duck leg, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, house fries, farm eggs 15
Brioche French Toast, freshly baked brioche dipped in cinnamon-vanilla batter, topped with whipped honey butter, Grade A maple syrup
Short stack 5
Large stack 9
Seasonal preserves 2

À LA CARTE
Applewood Bacon 3
Housemade Sausage 2
Farm Egg 1.5
House Fries 3
PJBC Bagel 3
Grilled Toast 3

FROM THE BAR
B.Y.O Bloody, your choice of the housemade traditional Bloody mix or spicy chipotle mix 8
Bottomless Mimosas, La Marca Prosecco, fresh squeezed orange juice 12
Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice 5
CODA Coffee 3

Stick-to-itiveness at EDGE Restaurant & Bar

Every morning, I jump out of bed raring to start a low-carb diet, & every evening, it all dissolves in wine & tears. But I bet if I lived at EDGE Restaurant & Bar—the Four Seasons Denver’s signature steakhouse, which now seems to be on solid ground after what I felt was a somewhat shaky start—I could commit. ImagineI Every day a seafood Cobb salad

or grilled scallops and veggies—maybe topped with butter-poached lobster if I’m feeling fine!—for lunch; truffled mushroom soup & bone-in buffalo ribeye or trout in lemony brown butter for dinner; & to kick it all off, something like this.

That it’s made of whites rather than whole eggs doesn’t mean it’s dry or boringly “lite”; chock-full of chicken chorizo crumbles, oozing pepper jack cheese, & topped with fresh avocado & smoky salsa, it’s all flavor all the time, with a heck of a kick from a slew of chopped chiles.

And then, once I got super-svelte, I could tangle with the pile of fried onions atop the salad of rare seared steak with blue cheese dressing.

Or tackle a lamb burger with tzatziki & superb, tangy-sweet cured tomatoes on a housemade sesame bun,

or this hefty slab of rare ahi on tender focaccia, slathered with aioli & sprinkled with bright pickled red onion, shiitakes & arugula,

perhaps followed by pastry chef Christopher Jordan’s adorably memorable cheesecake & panna cotta in a jar, with a graham-cracker crust & a layer of blood orange gelée worth digging deep for, plus an ultra-refreshing scoop of tart blood orange sorbet alongside a dried orange “chip” on top.

And then I’d probably have to start all over again with the self-recrimination & sheepish resolve. C’est la vie at the Four Seasons.

Edge Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Argyll Pub: My Sentiments Exactly

Well, not exactly. I’m all for pounding the booze & talking dirty, too. Still, the phrase on the chalkboard at Argyll aptly expresses the laidback conviviality that is this highly acclaimed pub’s forte.

It’s on display not least at the bar during weekend brunch, when my adorable server—who I want to say looked a lot like Idris Elba, but he didn’t; still, you get the tall/dark/handsome idea—didn’t blink an eye when I bellied up alone with my laptop & ordered a bottomless mango mimosa to go with not 1, not 2 but 3 plates, nor when he refilled my glass the 1st time, nor when he refilled it the 2nd, nor when I topped it all off with coffee. Whatta gentleman in the face of gaucherie.

In all that mess, the Scotch egg, the lamb-&-beef house burger with duck-fat onions, & the mac-&-cheese were nowhere to be found; they’ve been covered, I figured, in sufficient glory. But the dish I did start with deserves its own vigorous nod: the “bacon & eggs.”

Cute, right? Atop three slices of crusty grilled bread came perfectly fried quail eggs crisped to the lacy edge & three small chunks of pork belly that appeared to be lacquered with the same garlic vinaigrette—made with roasted cloves, I’m guessing, given its intriguing sweetness; think maple-glazed bacon—that also dressed the frisée. A little bit breakfast bruschetta, a little bit composed salade Lyonnaise, wholly satisfying.

The blueberry coffee cake wasn’t quite what I expected—I was picturing something like this,

but Argyll’s simpler version works too—moist, dense & buttery à la pound cake, with a balancing touch of lemon, I think, along with the single C-swirl of warm blueberry.

Likewise a surprise was the salmon hash.

A far cry from your finely chopped, super-fried leftover standard with corned beef, this was fresh & fancy, from the slightly al dente potatoes, carrots & parsnips to the lightly smoked salmon to the sprinkle of gruyère on top. Though I think I’d have liked it even better had it been more, well, hashlike, I admired its class. And its utter butteriness—damn, it slicked the bottom of the bowl. Note that I skipped the poached eggs the dish usually comes with, my one concession to reason; I can only imagine how runny yolks would have fit into the picture.

But at the time I could only imagine how I’d have fit into the dress I’m wearing to walk the red carpet with the Director this evening at the Closing Night presentation of Black Swan—not a pretty thought.

On that note, I’m off to drink heavily, eat carelessly & speak slurringly at the Starz Denver Film Festival—& I owe it all to Argyll for getting my party started right.

Argyll on Urbanspoon

Green Chile Slow-Burn Showdown: Sam’s No. 3 vs. El Taco de Mexico

Oh, sure, in some ways it's a no-brainer. El Tac's the ultimate in hyperlocal go-tos for straight-up, hardcore Mexican grub, no frills & no BS. Sam's No. 3…isn't.

What it is is your average Greek-run urban diner: it’s been around, in 1 form or another, run by one family member or another, for 80 years. It’s downtown Denver’s only answer to the crowded, clattering, chattering, clanking, cranky diners of New York, with their phosphates & blue plates, cheap coffee & bagels, souvlaki & hash. And for that it's to be commended: every city needs at least one.

Being, however, in this particular city, it must needs delve into comida as well. It does so with no more or less aplomb than it does anything else: okay. But the Kickin' Pork Green Chile really is pretty kickin.' And porky. And chile-y. Not so green, granted, presumably containing fewer actual chiles & more tomatoes than some versions (which is wholly legit; there's no one correct, "authentic" recipe). 

Sam'sMexbrek
That's it in the bowl, in the center of the Mexican Breakfast, between the dry chorizo, jalapeño & jack omelet with tomatoes & onions, the stale flour tortillas & the slightly crispy refried beans—which are actually pretty decent. Still, the chile's the best thing on the plate by far—startlingly spicy but not merely spicy, & neither too thin nor too thick.  

(It's also better than the Greek salad—which isn't bad; but even considering that the platonic ideal of a diner salad is precisely "not bad"—if it were memorably sumptuous it would be incongruous—the gryo meat on my recent order was less than fresh. The veggies were crisp, however, & I liked the fluffy pita & the basic, thick tzatziki.

 Sam'ssalad

As for the squishy, blah French toast, anything's better than that.)

Sam'sFrenchtoast
All that said, I'd be a fool to say the green chile's better than El Tac's, not least for reasons of context: at the bright yellow long-timer on Santa Fe, it's in its element & its purest form. 

The notoriously stone-faced—but quietly polite—ladies who run the open kitchen make both pork & vegetarian green chile, the former as a stew, the latter as a sauce. Said sauce, is, as you can see, much thinner & greener than Sam's—& much more about the flavor profile of roasted chiles per se; they are, after all, vegetables (actually, botanically speaking, they're fruit, but who's counting), not just heat-seeking missiles.

EDTMbrekburrito 

That there's the breakast burrito, chock-full

EDTMbrekburrito2
of scrambled eggs, Spanish-style rice, refried beans & chorizo & topped with cheese. I like to add a few spoonfuls of the soupy red salsa on the side. Then I like to stuff myself silly. Then I like to bitch & moan about how I full I am until my next meal. 

Of course, there is one ugly blotch on El Tac's stellar rep: no booze. On that score, then, Sam's sweeps: it makes a cheap & killer, in every sense of the word, loaded bloody mary. 

Sam'sbloody

That & a bowl of the green chile would be a meal in itself. And by meal I mean a satisfyingly masochistic scorch-&-burn siege on your whole digestive system.

Sam's No. 3 on Urbanspoon

24-Hour Dispatch from Vail Part 3: The Sonnenalp

I no longer recall whose stroke of genius it was—pal C’s, pal K’s, pal L’s, the Director’s?—to suggest, while at the 2008 opening of the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon, we could make a mint selling fake casts in ski towns. But the idea certainly loomed large anew as I roamed the Sonnenalp,

Sonnenalp6

encountering nook upon nook in which one might prop up one’s plaster-wrapped gam & nurse hot buttered rums all of a snowy afternoon.

Like here,
Sonnenalp1

here, here,
Sonnenalp3 Sonnenalp4

or best of all here.

Sonnenalp2
But the 1 nook in which the jig, so to speak, would just have to be up is the complimentary breakfast buffet at Ludwig’s. It’d be like those ’70s sitcoms wherein someone slams a book down on the witness stand to make the whiplash faker turn: you’d be sprinting from your table to fill up your plate with the goods only to bump into the very dashing gent or beguiling cougar who bought you a sympathy toddy the evening before.

Enough said; check it out (click to enlarge). Not even pictured: the fresh fruit, the scrambled eggs, the hash browns. Did I mention it’s complimentary?

Sonnenalpbrunch10

Sonnenalpbrunch1
Sonnenalpbrunch11
Sonnenalpbrunch2

Sonnenalpbrunch3

Sonnenalpbrunch7

Sonnenalpbrunch6
Sonnenalpbrunch8 Sonnenalpbrunch4

Sonnenalpbrunch5
Sonnenalpbrunch9

Dish of the Week: Cantine Vinci Inzolia 2008, Fuel Café (+ notes on brunch)

Don’t tell me wine isn’t a food. It’s got 8000 stereoisomers in it. Just like the dictionary contains every book in the world, 1 sip of wine offers enough sensory stimulation to feed your soul for at least a week.

Granted, not all of them are memorable for their complexity. Many linger after a single thrilling trumpet-blast. Like the Cantine Vinci Inzolia 2008 (the liquid gold on the right).

Fuelwines
Coincidentally, the most interesting description I found online for this Sicilian white was on City ‘o’ City’s website: “An offbeat Sicilian grape, Inzolia is complex, with a subtle
nutlike flavor & hints of almond, citrus, fresh herbs & bitter orange. Amazing on it’s [sic] own but robust enough for any
meal.”

Not that I entirely agree with that: the overwhelmingly distinctive note I picked up was one of banana. A little vanilla, but mostly banana, both on the nose & on the palate, though the aroma was much sweeter than the flavor, initally intense but ending quietly. Quite the quirky wine.

Pal K & I had hit Fuel to check out its Sunday brunch, for which it opens only on occasion (like Father’s Day). So long as you haven’t, say—don’t laugh—made a commitment with your beau or belle to stick to the South Beach diet for a few weeks, you’ll have a ball. If you have done something stupid like that, you’ll still have a ball, albeit a guilty one, since the 9- or 10-item menu is entirely based either on wheat, corn or potatoes. Like the chilaquiles,
Fuelchilaquiles

obviously much lighter than the traditional version, & decent, although honestly the freshly sweet roasted tomato sauce & pickled onions were so evocative I couldn’t help but wish they were together in something that didn’t depend on fresh-made chips that got soggy quick—some sort of meatball sandwich or something.

Much harder to get enough of were the cheddar-scallion biscuits with sausage gravy & 2 eggs over-easy.

FuelB&G
Speaking of complexity, as cream gravies go this was surprisingly subtle—rich, of course, but not plainly so. Either the sausage itself was herbed or there were otherwise green notes…

Anyway. Allow me to reiterate how lucky Denver is to have this place; as soon as carbs are again within reach, I’ll be back for the pupu platter with feta-beef cigars & shrimp toasts, yes oh yes.

Dish of the Week: Buttermilk Biscuit, Dot’s Diner

If I don’t snarf something in Chile that can wallop a biscuit before Sunday, I’ll have done something horribly, terribly wrong. That said, Dish of the Week awards go strictly to stateside eats—& as such, the buttermilk biscuit at Dot’s Diner on Broadway in Boulder is way worthy.

With its scuffed wooden booths, recycled artwork & doowop soundtrack, Dot’s resembles a retro hybrid of urban greasy spoon & crunchy health-food hang.

Dot's
The menu’s fairly basic—omelets & pancakes, Mex classics & a smattering of sandwiches—& the cooking, from what I sampled, is mostly pretty utilitarian.

Dot'shuevos

The Director’s half-order of huevos rancheros on a whole wheat tortilla was simplicity itself—a good thing in my libro—but the green chile didn’t particularly distinguish itself beneath its blanket of cheese & refritos.

My Greek scramble with tomatoes, spinach, black olives & feta was likewise just okay, a little light on the mix-ins—eggs being for me just a vehicle for cheese.

Dot'sGreekeggsbiscuit
But the thin sliced potatoes were great, peppery & orange-tinged with the charming grease of 1000s of spuds before them. And the biscuit? Just look at it! Nubby & crunchy on the surface, its interior was spot-on—not too cakey, not too bready, & unusually, clearly suffused with the flavor of buttermilk, not just butter.

I’m hardly the 1st to fall for their awesomeness; Bon Appétit printed the recipe by request some years back—so if hippies give you hives you can skip the trip & make your own.

Dot's Diner on Urbanspoon