Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Salt-Baked Onion with Spaetzle at Table 6

The menu description doesn’t do it justice: “salt-baked onion, wild mushrooms, Camembert, semolina spaetzle.” The below photo, even if you click to enlarge, certainly doesn’t do it justice. The only thing that does this dish justice is firsthand experience.

I hadn’t been to Table 6 since the departure of Scott Parker, now ensconced at Session Kitchen—but now that I’ve seen what former sous chef & current top toque Carrie Shores can do, I won’t let so much time elapse between visits. The spaetzle stood on its own—toasty yet velvety little gems mixed with meaty mushroom caps & hearty greens. But the soft, sweet onion is the unlikely centerpiece: when you cut into it, Camembert fondue studded with yet more mushrooms literally spurts out. An over-the-top embarrassment of earthy autumn riches. (Those eggplant fries & onion rings with chèvre-enriched aioli were nothing to sneeze at either, by the way.)

A Look at the Beehive, via Boulder Weekly

My review of farm-to-table haunt the Beehive is now live at Boulder Weekly; click here to read all about such signature dishes as the gaufrettes with spicy aioli & deviled eggs (along with cold dilled leek-potato soup):

gougères & devils on horseback (blue cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates);

the Harvest, a chunky, egg-topped vegetable stew over polenta, & potted-salmon salad;

& the Angus burger with housemade sweet pickles,

as well as this lovely lemon-&-raspberry profiterole.

I didn’t have as much room in the review to as I’d have liked to compliment Beehive’s bar program, but it’s a smart one, with a number of wines to pique the more-serious drinker’s interest plus some well-thought-out seasonal cocktails. You’ll get some idea of the offerings here—but don’t use the website for meal planning, as it doesn’t reflect the ever-changing reality on the ground. That’s not a complaint, or at least not a realistic one; sample menus are to be expected from restaurateurs whose kitchens revolve around daily market finds. Just a heads up.

Beehive on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Melon-Crab Gazpacho at Fruition

If you too are beginning to grieve over Goldengrove unleaving, you may as well do it by crying into a bowl of soup that glows with the very essence of summer. That would be Fruition’s cold consommé of Rocky Ford cantaloupe, honeydew & watermelon, studded with disks of both melon-wrapped crab “cannelloni” & panna cotta made with yogurt from chef-owner Alex Seidel’s own creamery, & scented with finger lime—every spoonful an achingly delicate evocation of the season going by.

Of course, painterly impressions have always been this kitchen’s forte, such that even the homiest of ingredients, the heartiest of dishes get recast in a softly elegant light. After sharing it with the Director as an appetizer, I seriously considered ordering this beef tartare again for my main course,

so I could prolong the sensation of its silkiness against those melting cubes of crusted bone marrow, dollops of intensely tangy trumpet-mushroom conserva, & homegrown potato chips. Oh, if only Fruition had a bar, & at that bar were bowls not of snack mix but marrow squares with mushroom spread. I’d be chief lounge lizard.

Instead I got the pan-seared diver scallops over handmade orecchiette with clams, summer squash (plus blossoms) & chanterelles, garnished tableside with generous shavings of cured foie gras that deliquesced on contact to gently suffuse the whole. (You can go right on ahead & roll your eyes & mentally replace the word “deliquesced” with “dissolved” if you need to prove to yourself how linguistically democratic you are. But you’d be losing the nuance that defines Fruition’s style in the process, if you ask me. So there.)

As for the Director’s fried chicken, forget greasy-fingered gnawing—this was a whole other animal, with a high tender meat-to-crisp skin ratio via cylinders perched atop spoonbread, tomato confit & black lentils bathed in a barbecue sauce whose its lightness was anything but homestyle.

It had been a long time since I’d been to Fruition, & this visit marked the first time I’ve ever been seated in the narrow gallery adjacent to the kitchen rather than the main dining room. I’ll know to ask for a table there from here on out—it’s both cozier & closer to the action. Then I’ll just sit back & soak it all up over a glass of, say, Schiava, aka Vernatsch, a light, easygoing indigenous red from Alto Adige that pairs with just about anything—although the entire selection of wines by the glass here is built both to pique enophiles & to reflect the seasonal cuisine. Seidel once told me he wished people thought of his restaurant primarily as an everyday gathering place rather than a special-occasion destination. In a city less casual than Denver, they might. But here, the level of execution in both the front & back of the house stands out as special indeed—however packaged in warmth, & even though the diners around us appeared perfectly comfortable in tee-shirts & sport sandals.

Look, I’m generally a downright slob, & even I believe that we as a society will come to regret losing all traces of formality, forgetting the difference between an occurrence & an Occasion. No shame in maintaining at least shades of the distinction for as long as possible. On the contrary, kudos.

Fruition on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Cake Batter Ice Cream with Crispy Pork Belly & Churros (& more!) at Harman’s eat & drink

I was sorry to see Phat Thai go, but I respected Mark Fischer’s insistence to Westword that closure was preferable to a P.F. Chang’s-style makeover. With the notable exception of Ondo’s, Cherry Creek just doesn’t do food that hasn’t been scrubbed clean of most of its original influences.

The food at its successor, Harman’s eat & drink, is therefore understandably clean. Though the menu does have its offhand foreign accents—Mediterranean, Latin, Asian—they’re added in service of a broadly accessible culinary lexicon.

With a few quirky exceptions, that is. Though the combinations of chocolate & bacon, salt & caramel have gone mainstream, most permutations of savory & sweet continue to strike most Americans as strange. Not so the denizens of any region that was ever touched, directly or indirectly, by Moorish culture, including the Sicilians—think melanzane al cioccolato& for that matter the Brits with their mincemeat pie; compare to meat dishes that incorporate fruit & baking spices, like Moroccan tagines & bastilla. But Harman’s dessert of cake-batter ice cream drizzled in rum caramel; topped with cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled, deep-fried pork rinds; & bathed in a compote of blueberries & chunks of golden-skinned pork belly—whew—is its own kind of triumph: cool & soft, warm & crunchy, the pork fat melting into the ice cream (or vice versa) amid bursts of fresh fruit. Way stimulating.

Pork rinds are also to be found among the appetizers, sprinkled in truffle oil & grana padano. Pal @Mantonat, who said he has “truffle blindness,” couldn’t really detect its funk; A & I certainly could, & indeed the suggestion of musk on pigskin was strong enough that a little went a long way for me, though it was balanced by impressive weightlessness & near-greaselessness.

Also greaseless, with vibrantly herbaceous, moist interiors, were the pea falafel balls with a dip that walked the line between the tzatziki it’s advertised as & aioli, only subtly tangy in its richness.

As for entrées, for all its emphasis on familiarity, the kitchen sure threw me with an Italian dish I’d never heard of: cianfotta. Upon looking it up, I—who does, after all, pride herself on knowing quite a lot about Italy’s regional cuisines—was embarrassed to discover it’s not terribly obscure; heck, Eater Denver’s Andra Zeppelin offered her own recipe for it a couple years ago. In any case, the Campagnan vegetable mélange is often, reasonably enough, compared to Provençal ratatouille; Harman’s version follows the model in that, rather than melded to a stew, the vegetables are cooked (perhaps, à la Jacques Pépin, individually) to stand out each in its turn: eggplant, crisp green beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms so meaty I thought they were shreds of chicken at first, & so on. Suspended in a marvelously light parmesan brodo, they’re barely seasoned beyond the generous dollop of pesto on top—which does all the work of salt & pepper once it’s stirred in.

I think I was even fonder of the roasted-vegetable crostini, however. Two thin, oblong slices of grilled bread were smeared with housemade ricotta & topped with a more finely chopped, balsamic-drizzled mixture of seasonal veggies that, if not doused in wine, sure tasted like it. There were cubes of eggplant & onion & peppers, of course, & wedges of something that had 3 of us—2 of us food writers—absolutely flummoxed. It was tenderly rooty, slightly tart—some sort of squash we couldn’t place? I literally put a piece in the hand of our server Chip & asked if he wouldn’t mind finding out. (I mean, I asked him first, I didn’t just suddenly smash food in his palm.) He came back with the supposed answer: radish. I’m still not convinced. Anyway, it was all tucked beneath a mound of vinaigrette-dressed greens to highly refreshing effect.

There were 3 dishes I didn’t try over the course of my 1st 2 meals here, but not because they didn’t appeal. Mantonat’s porchetta over stone-ground grits with fennel salad & fennel agrodolce (literally “sweet-sour”) looked plenty elegant (though to his mind, a bit more seasoning would’ve brought out the flavor of the meat better).

Even sans potato bun, the burger, smothered in white cheddar & caramelized onions, beckoned. I did swipe a sweet-potato fry, & yep, it was as good as sweet-potato fries generally are.

And for a small salad, my mom got a fair heap of kale Caesar.

So there you have it: Harman’s is aiming to please, not challenge, & thus far it’s working. (You still want Thai, head to Aurora.)

Harman's Eat & Drink on Urbanspoon

An Oddly Charming Detour to The Weber

I’ve said many times that Oceanaire is the only chain restaurant in town I cotton to, but that’s not quite true; I’ll sheepishly confess I don’t mind North, the Cherry Creek link in an Arizona-based franchise that manages to help meet Denver’s sore need for mid-priced modern Italian cuisine. I minded it a bit on Tuesday, however, when my conversation with a bartender went like this: “Will you be showing the Spurs-Heat game?” “Most likely.” (The Director & I sit down.) “Except that those guys over there want to watch the soccer game, & no one else has asked for basketball.” “So you’re showing soccer then?” “Well, it depends on what gets the most requests.” “But at present it’s soccer?” “Yes.” “So—not ’most likely”?” “Right.”

We stood up, headed out, and found ourselves peering into a quiet, unassuming little nook I’d wondered about occasionally in passing: The Weber, on the ground floor of the Inn at Cherry Creek. The menu posted out front looked okay—not widely diverse or wildly inventive, but fine; more importantly, the tiny bar area had a TV that nobody was paying any mind.

Thus commenced a weird but pleasant little meal that evoked the streetside cafés of Europe in myriad amusing ways, particularly with respect to the service provided by a lone waiter named Miko—tall, straight spined, with a courteous yet decidedly unhurried & even slightly deadpan air about him & a thick accent we later learned was Hungarian—& the chef himself, Mike Hendricks, whose signature is printed right on the menu. He’d wander out of the kitchen every so often to chat & catch a bit of the game, whisking me right back to a trattoria in Trieste many years ago, where my companion & I dined on horsemeat in a room that was empty but for the mamma cooking in her slippers in back & her figlio up front, who plied us with grappa every time the team he was cheering for on the tiny TV behind the bar scored a goal.

Speaking of booze, though the small wine list consisted of your most basic stuff, we could hardly complain given the prices—$8 by the glass & $30 by the bottle across the board. And the food was just right for the mood as well. We started with breakfast for dinner: a nicely maple-smoked hunk of salmon accompanied by toasted brioche, crème fraîche, capers, & a fried egg—a strange yet intriguingly hearty substitute for the more-common chopped, cold hard-cooked egg.

Then there was my honking pork chop, not quite juicy but thankfully not dry, & aided on the succulence front by cinnamon-apple chutney; the smashed red-potato dish on the side wasn’t exactly the “gratin” it was described as—no breadcrumbs, the key by most definitions—but it was pretty delicious, layered with onion & loads of melted cheese.

Simiarly, the Director’s “boneless half chicken” seemed to lack body parts, but it was generously portioned nonetheless as well as perfectly browned & juicy indeed, set over a bed of roasted potatoes, red peppers & buttery artichoke hearts.

We left rather charmed by the whole affair, & the next day I received an e-mail about an upcoming 4-course wine dinner: Hendricks will be serving smoked-oyster risotto, wild salmon over roasted rainbow cauliflower & goat cheese, & more paired with pours from the Pacific Northwest—for all of $60. Not too shabby.

Weber Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Baby Vegetable Crudité (& more) at Opus Fine Dining & Aria Wine Bar

Let’s not mince words: Opus Fine Dining, now cohabiting with sibling Aria Wine Bar in Cherry Creek since closing shop in Littleton, is as spendy as it ever was—we’re talking major destination-level dollar signs. If you’re just wandering into the lounge for a few snacks, you may leave with a good old case of sticker shock. But you’ll also take along the memory of some pretty darned impressive eats, served by a bartender as friendly & comfortable in his skin as any I’ve met in a while. (Too bad I’ve forgotten his name, & it’s not on any of my receipts. But trust me—you’ll know him when he greets you.)

I won’t be forgetting this baby vegetable crudité any time soon, for instance. It’s an adorable little garden in a glass, with sliced radishes, peas, pickled white asparagus, & so on “growing” out of layered hummus, buttermilk dip, & crumbly black garlic “soil” to yield a delightful mixture of complex textures & flavors both earthy & brightly refreshing.

And practically the second you sit down, you’ll be treated to ultra-soft, yeasty-sweet rosemary focaccia alongside olive oil seasoned with pepper & smoked salt for dipping. I do so love bread baskets in all their vanishing glory.

And though I’ve only tackled the bar menu & the appetizer section of the regular menu (which overlap somewhat), the admittedly wee portions thereon register surprisingly large thanks to their detailed compositions. For all of 3 tablespoons of burrata, $12 is a bit outrageous—but the careful arrangement of the buttery cheese with the crisp, sharp radish slices, fruity drizzled olive oil & balsamic, & nutty toasted focaccia crumbs, plus a sprinkling of fleur de sel, brought a lot to the table.

Same went for the charred spring-onion ravioli over chunks of brisket, herb purée & braised chanterelles: sure, $15 for 3 pockets of pasta seems like a chunk of change when it’s not attached to the name of a chef like, say, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson—but the robustness of the tender beef, the depth of flavor in the sauce, & the silkiness of the dough managed to go a long way on the palate. That’s the thing about small portions that we Americans tend to dismiss in our obsession with “value”: they force you to pay attention to what’s really there.

As for the ballotine, ’twas a beautiful showcase for rabbit—a swirling kaleidoscope of rose-delicate meat, intense parsley purée, fried capers, more focaccia crumbs, & brown butter transformed into a funky powder.

The only disappointment in the course 2 visits was a cramped basket of twice-cooked—really somewhat overcooked & grainy—fries. Strangely, when a dish doesn’t meet expectations, its paltry size is more problematic than when it does. (You can skip the house nut mix by the same logic.) Excellent, potent housemade ketchup though.

Overall, it seems chef Sean McGaughey has picked up on & owned the pizzazz of original Opus talent Michael Long. Shelling out “a lot” for “a little” is always an iffy proposition, but at least his kitchen is working hard to make good on their end of the deal.

Opus on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Pane Bianco (& much more) at Udi’s Pizza Café Bar on Colfax

Since the Director’s place of employ is in the Lowenstein Cultureplex, I end up in those parts a lot. So I have to confess to some disappointment upon hearing the news that a branch of Udi’s would replace Encore on Colfax; a passable sandwich shop does not a twinkly, cozy hangout make.

But a full-service, contemporary Mediterranean-American restaurant with a well-stocked bar does a twinkly, cozy hangout make; as it turns out, I like almost everything about this place.

In fact, it’s not even all that distinguishable from its predecessor. The long, narrow space looks pretty much the same, & so does the menu—a smart, breezy collection of small plates, flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, & heartier entrees. One thing makes all the difference, however: THIS.

Pane bianco just means “white bread” in Italian, but here, the structured loaf you might expect is not what you get. Rather, the high-risen round is a lot like a giant puff of pizza crust: golden, crunchy, & touched with olive oil on the outside, airy, soft, & chewy on the inside. On 3 visits I couldn’t keep my hands off it until it was gone, & I’m craving it hard all over again just looking at it here, pictured with baba ghanoush—which, however, is a little too pure in eggplant flavor for my tastes; I’m an eggplant fiend (by all its beautiful names: melanzana, aubergine, berenjena, etc.), but it can be sharp on the palate, & in this case I think a little more tahini would soften those bitter edges.

Good thing the bread comes with all the other small-plate selections too, including these terrific Tunisian-roasted carrots:

root-sweet, loaded with smoky cumin, & accompanied by a smear of thick, rich tzatziki—which is also offered separately, doused in olive oil & sprinkled with za’atar. The word “intense” doesn’t usually apply to yogurt, but it sure works here.

Some of the sandwiches also feature pane bianco, including this French dip I got to go—which is great, because why shouldn’t tender, thin-sliced roast beef & aioli be the icing on the cake of killer dough? I didn’t even mind that they forgot the side of jus—for which I mistook the container of orange-balsamic vinaigrette meant to accompany my salad. Look, I’ll dip anything in anything, so what do I care. (Ever had sushi with hummus? Primo.)

In the above light, you’d think the pizza would be equally smashing. Not quite. The crust is certainly all that, as is the zingy fresh tomato sauce—& those are the most important parts, to be sure. But the toppings still need some refinement. Take the vegan kale pizza, which sounded intriguing but proved out of whack: it was basically just a pile of nearly raw kale, plus maybe two slices of mushroom, with the bare minimum of advertised breadcrumbs & no detectable note of the garlic or truffle oil it also supposedly included.

Or the version with prosciutto, béchamel, gouda & caramelized onions—sort of; the below pie boasted the right amount of the former 2 ingredients, but not nearly enough of the latter 2. (In the rare bites where I did get the full effect, it was a throbbingly vibrant one.)

The mushroom-sausage pizza with mozzarella & red peppers was, however, ready for its close-up, so clearly the potential’s there.

To take a quick carb break, Udi’s salads aren’t wildly original—you got your Cobb, your Greek, your chicken “Oriental,” etc.—but they’re solid. The combination of frisée, radicchio, poached pear, blue cheese, & slivered almonds in balsamic vinaigrette may not be conceptually fresh, but it’s literally refreshing, crisp, balanced, generous, & fine. You can have similar salads all over town, but I’ll vouch for this one.

Same goes for the beet, goat cheese, hazelnut, & watercress salad. Overplayed times a million, sure. But nicely done nonetheless.

To return to meatier stuff (click below to enlarge): the falafel burger’s a bit dry, but the earthy, nutty, herbal flavor’s delightful, highlighted by the chipotle aioli—& the Jerusalem chicken is superb: juicy, evocatively spiced, comforting in the extreme.

So next time you’re catching a flick at the Sie Film Center, stop by the bar—I’ll probably be there, face down in a bread pocket.

Udi's Pizza Café Bar on Colfax on Urbanspoon

Preview: Lunch Launched at Central Bistro & Bar

Last I gave Central Bistro & Bar some love, Lance Barto was heading up the kitchen; now Gerard Strong’s at the helm, & the CIA-trained Hudson Valley native is looking every bit as sharp as his predecessor. I had ample opportunity to arrive at that conclusion: the media preview of the lunch menu, which is now being served Wed.-Fri., included a sample of every. single. dish thereon (with the exception of the ice-cream sampler). Two days hence, I think I’m about halfway done digesting the 16-course meal.

Among them, there were only a couple items I could’ve taken or left—most made my eyes shiny & wide. Here’s a look-see, with my very very favorites in bold:

Dungeness crab salad with pomelo, avocado & housemade herbed yogurt

Caesar salad with a sprinkling of prosciutto bits; save some croutons for dipping into

the preserved tomato soup, the depth of whose concentration goes way beyond the bottom of the bowl

Beautifully nuanced cream of asparagus soup with green garlic & chives

Duck-fat chicken-salad sandwich on sourdough with a touch of apple & petal-delicate seasoned potato chips (they’re cut on the meat slicer)

More of those incredible chips alongside the roasted pork sandwich with charred onion, pickled red jalapeños & garlic aioli—the shaved meat is so impressively tender & gently seasoned—& the boxcar burger, easily as good as any of its kind (paired with fries, aioli & ketchup)

Central tartine with mushroom ragu, white cheddar, sunnyside egg—a beauty, eh?

The ubiquitous chicken & waffle with sausage gravy

Crab mac & cheese, unusually sprightly with mascarpone & pepper relish

Steak frites: grilled bavette steak marinated in soy, sherry vinegar & green garlic, topped with oyster mushrooms & accompanied by fries daubed with blue cheese

Seasonal vegetarian selection, currently hand-cut pappardelle with maitake mushrooms, asparagus, kale, green garlic & parsley in a white wine-butter sauce

The signature Nutella waffle with banana butterscotch & pretzel ice cream

And the surprisingly light & springy sweet-potato cheesecake with spiced-crumb topping, pecans & whipped cream.

The bar’s doing some nifty things too, offering half-pours of all wines by the glass & lower-alcohol cocktails so you can keep your wits about you midday—including the gin-based, agave-sweetened Blueberry Lemon Light:

Do it to it, kids.

Central Bistro Bar on Urbanspoon

Old Major: Purebred

…You know, like the prize boar in Animal Farm, whose name chef-owner Justin Brunson (of Masterpiece Deli &, more to the point, Denver Bacon Company) took for his ridiculously hot new LoHi spot. Others (such as the Denver Post) have noted the aptness of the moniker insofar as Orwell’s pig leads the way to a livestock utopia. Granted, it doesn’t work out too well in the book, because power corrupts & all that. Still, the idea that a crew of serious, natural, “pure” talents—not only Brunson but GM/somm Jonathan Greschler, pastry chef Nadine Donovan, certified cicerone Ryan Conklin (ex-Euclid Hall), & bartender Courtney Wilson (ex-Williams & Graham down the street)—could come together to nurture a team of engaged pros in both the front & back of the house, where everyone pulls his or her own weight for the sake of what they’re calling “deformalized fine dining,” is an enlightened one. Such sense of community colors everything they do & includes everyone they work with, among them Infinite Monkey Theorem’s tireless Ben Parsons, who’s not only making their exclusive house wines—currently a Viognier-Roussane blend & a Malbec, though the blends will change with the input of the staff—but also lending them a garden plot at his facility.

And so far, it’s all working like a charm (maybe this one). As always when I’m writing about media tastings rather than meals I independently paid for, I’ll note that this isn’t technically a review & keep the in-depth analysis to a minimum. But after all the buzz & buildup, you already know Brunson’s bringing everything he’s got to the table: technical chops, playful sensibilities & grounded integrity.

Exhibit A is the smoked fish plate I already dubbed Dish of the Week. As for Exhibits B-Z: check out the hot, crusty, chewy yet soft pretzel rolls, made traditionally in a lye bath, with mustard butter.

And the black truffle-pistachio sausage over potato puree in a clean, clear pool of herbed escargot vinaigrette that positively lifted the whole.

The pan-roasted striped bass over leeks, turnips & beets, spritzed tableside with lemon verjus; an unpictured side of braised rapini proved an insightful accompaniment, picking up on the appealing bitterness of the charred skin.

The meltingly fat-edged, pan-seared pork chop with parsnip puree & chips, brussels sprouts, tableside-poured pork demiglace &, the highlight, a chunk of deep-fried guanciale (cheek meat)—which I strongly suggest should be offered in a bowl as a snack, chiccharón-style. Holy roly poly.

An unusually light & lovely, strawberry-foamed variation on baked Alaska.

Candied-bacon crème caramel.

And last but hardly least, a take-home jar of “pork butter”—basically rilletes, except sweetly meaty rather than intensely salty.

We sampled a couple of cocktails, too, most notably the ultra-smooth Fair Deal: blended Scotch, Drambuie & Cocchi Americano.

But I can’t wait to play with Greschler’s iPad wine list, which is quite the eclectic grab bag of old familiars & up & comers. Lemme at it.

Old Major on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Smoked Fish Plate at Old Major

Done. Deal. No. Brainer.

Back in 2011, the fish charcuterie Justin Brunson served during his stint at the ill-starred Wild Catch was 1 of my picks for Dish of the Year; version 2.0, which I just experienced at a media tasting for the feverishly anticipated Old Major, is every bit as delectable.

Along with the smoked trout (far right; click to enlarge) & pickled veggies, the sturgeon rillettes (center) are a startlingly delicate affair—not the standard salt bomb, they’re cloud-fluffy & rose-pale, & perk your palate right up rather than weighing it down. Same goes for the extraordinarily plump & juicy smoked mussels (left) in a honey-mustard sauce that frames their briny sweetness like a watercolor painting of a riverbed.

I’ll go into further detail later this week, but right now I’m content to just dream about all this.