Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Encore: oh, is rehearsal over?

My oft-stated fondness for Black Pearl was bound to spread in advance to Encore, Steve Whited & Sean Huggard’s sophomore venture, adjoining the Tattered Cover on Colfax. After the fact of a first visit, however, it has ebbed a bit. To be sure, the usual opening wrinkles have yet to be ironed out; but once they are, will the raw material prove as striking as it is smooth? I have my doubts.

Encore’s aesthetic is extremely low-key, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Effortlessness isn’t, of course, effortless; its better part, unlike that of indifference on the one hand or struggle on the other, is simple good faith. Here the too-cool decor streamlines itself right out of sight, hence out of mind; amid clean lines, neutral hues and a conspicuous absence of bold accents or salient details, you may as well be sitting in a blank with Neo and Morpheus on either side.

P1000340_3

Even the pianist in the corner was more like an unsharpened pencil sketch of an entertainer than a fully fleshed-out musician; just guess what was in his repertoire. Go ahead, guess. The right answer’s good for a drink on me.

And then there’s the menu, which could make for a double-take: between its generic polish and the minimalist surroundings, maybe Encore is actually a museum cafe? Except, you know, without the museum attached. Seriously, that would explain the smartly coiffed couples nibbling on Waldorf salads and carrot cake after a round of Kir Royales. It would explain the rejection of dishes as juicy in every sense as, say, BP’s parsley-crusted tuna with lentil-slathered sausage…

Bptuna

…in favor of fig-and-prosciutto-topped flatbreads—enough to cause disturbingly clear visions of Todd English circa 1992 to dance in my head (hey, Huggard, you’re not the only ex-Masshole in town)—and wood-grilled steaaahhhwww….zzzzz….oh, sorry, steaks and fish.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating slightly to make a point: knowing the dynamism of which the duo is capable, I’m at a loss to explain Encore’s stereotypically, staunchly simple menu. Like effortlessness (no comment on freedom), simplicity isn’t simple; its better part is deceptive—neither simplistic nor exactly complicated but elegant and/or refreshing. And there are a few items here that embody the difference, above all the Telluride jalapeno poppers with apple-smoked bacon: these red chilies, stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon and set atop a puddlet of fig jam, pack a sweet heat that hits you slowly but surely.

***PICTURE TO COME! In the meantime, here’s what they may have looked like in their heady salad days.
Pepper

“Sweet onion soup, toast, blistered Swiss” is just what it sounds like—dumbed down soupe à l’oignon au gratin. On the one hand, I admired the pure, clear flavor of onion the broth administered spoonful for spoonful; on the other hand, purity’s double-edge is one-dimensionality. I missed the usual smack of beef stock, whose saltiness has a way of reinforcing that of the cheese and the crouton; in its apparent (or at least effective) absence, neither added much beyond protective coating (to paraphrase Debbie Reynolds, excusing the freezer burn inside a carton of orange sherbet, in Albert Brooks’ Mother).

Onionsoup

The falafel burger was downright blah, little better than its frozen counterparts. I remember seeing dollops of hummus and yogurt sauce atop it, but not tasting them; worse, I remember tasting the sesame bun, but not tasting it. I expect better from the folks who deliver one of the city’s classiest bread baskets (again, at BP).

Falafelburger

Mind you, those fries, fresh & crisp & drizzled with a Chinese-style hot mustard sauce, were super. A little more sauce would go a long way; next time—and there will be a next time, out of loyalty if nothing else—I’ll ask for extra.

Deluxe: Delish, Dish for Dish

If, as I’ve claimed, all that keeps Black Pearl from being my neighborhood ideal is its budget-blasting wine list, and all that keeps Steuben’s from same is occasionally amateurish output, then all that keeps Deluxe from the title is precisely nothing.

This totally jazzy little joint—all black-on-tan and leopard print, the warm hum of wining-and-dining grown-ups counterpointing the cool silvertones of big-band swing—just wins me over with its easy pizzazz. I’ve mentioned my predilection for bar seating, the only disadvantage being less privacy; well, get a load of Deluxe’s two-seater—a veritable canoodling corner for borderline drunkards like us! I’ve given Steuben’s Abra the nod for the discretion that is the better part of friendliness; now, meet Derek (Derrick?)—funny & enthusiastic, but only to the extent you invite him to be. I’ve complained about wine lists whose boutique leanings belie the casual ethos of the eateries they supposedly represent; here, the wine list seems as though it was written just for a plain old ordinary oenophile like me—select yet unfussy, favoring ballsy reds from places other than California, it hovers around a price point commensurate with the pricing of the food.

And, on that note, the food itself? Likewise unfussy, but not for a moment uninspired. Robust, but not so you bust. The menu’s laden with signatures, so cravings for faves rarely go unmet, but the kitchen knocks out nightly specials to keep restless tastebuds from roaming too far from the home-away-from-home it has established itself as. (Sticky syntax is, in my case, a sure sign of epicurean excitement. Bear with me.)

Cases in point are the 2 appetizers we shared a few nights back. First, stellar steak tartare: textbook in almost every way, from its near-deliquescence to its perfect balance of secondary flavors—yolk, Dijon, caper—this staple diverges from the classic only in its all-the-more-luscious use of foccaccia rather than baguette points.

Tartar

Second, a special of potato skins—that foolproof fave circa 1985 that seems to be making a welcome, and classy, comeback—in this case via a mound of smoked salmon, caviar and tarragon cream. All told, a study in textural contrasts and salty complements.

Skins

Moving on to mains: while my huge smoked pork chop was, to my taste, just slightly overdone, as I welcome a hint of pink in my pig, it was by most standards done to a turn; but what really made the plate were the whipped sweet potatoes—intriguingly spiced, not merely nutmeggy, and not at all cloying—and the tender-crisp brussels sprouts, bathed in a bacon-sprinkled cider reduction.

Porkchop

My dear DC—let’s, from here on out, call him the Director (with a nod to galleygirl & her Commodore)—didn’t care quite as much for his grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto, avocado, black beans and hominy as he did for my chop; conversely, save for the fish’s slight (but only slight) dryness, I may have liked his even better for its tropical snap.

Swordfish

The fact that it all began with a fine flatbread reminds me it will soon be time to expound upon the importance of bread baskets to the overall dining experience. And also that right now it’s time for supper.

Flatbread

Goldilocksian: The right place at the right time, part 2

Last spring I wrote a piece for Boston’s Stuff@night magazine that sought, with the help of local chefs, to define the quintessential neighborhood place in an era of (IMHO) rampant misappropriation of the phrase. If it weren’t for a grandiose wine list—with bottles starting at $40-plus (there are maybe 1 or 2 exceptions) and the majority running much higher, it’s strikingly and shamefully disproportional to the menu pricewise—Black Pearl would fit the profile, at least as I sketch it, perfectly; as it is (and as I’ve said), it comes close enough for me to pop in at least a couple times a month. Here’s how:

Stylishly cozy digs. Though in their thoroughly adult ways both stand together against the family place, a neighborhood joint is not the same as a corner dive. When a round of white Russians, jukebox nostalgia, another round of white Russians and increasingly sloppy turns of pinball are on the agenda, the latter’s what matters (and Gennaro’s, for one, delivers). The former, meanwhile, possesses just enough pizzazz to put the gleam in (rather than a glaze over—see “white Russians”) the eyes of couples, but not so much that singles don’t feel comfortable too. Snug & dim, woody & moody, Black Pearl strikes the ideal balance.

Stylishly cozy eats, for that matter. As the setting goes, so goes the menu. If, on the entire spectrum of independently run restaurants, you’ve got corner dives at one end and five-star destinations on the other, than somewhere in the middle is a subspectrum of neighborhood places with, say bar-and-grills at one end and contemporary cafes/bistros on the other. In the kitchen is neither a celebrity chef-tyrant nor an ever-changing lineup of hash-slingers, but a real cook, putting heart and thought into a menu whose ratio of creativity to comfort is roughly 1:1.

Perhaps, then, the closest synonym to “neighborhood place” is “home away from home.” The food that emerges from its kitchen bears close resemblance to what you’d cook yourself given greater resources/better skills than you’ll ever actually have. If it bears no such resemblance, being too esoteric of ingredient and/or elaborate of preparation, it’s likely neither palate nor wallet are up for the challenge of regular visits. If it bears an exact resemblance to what you already can and often do cook at home, then the point of regular visits is what, exactly?

On that note: behold Black Pearl’s grilled romaine, a smart defamiliarization of the Caesar—one of the ultimate litmus tests of a kitchen’s integrity, being so easy to compromise. Here the warm greens add a nifty twist with a hint of bitter char; grilled bread topped with fine white anchovies and a roasted garlic clove puts plain old croutons to shame; and the dressing is all tang and twang, just as it should be.

Caesar

Stylishly cozy service to boot. They may well know your name, but they don’t take the liberty of using it too often. They ask all the right questions and offer all the right suggestions—and none of the wrong ones—effortlessly. You have neither to flag them down nor wave them away with the promise/threat to flag them down if need be. Enough said, really. It’s all about genuine goodwill on the one hand and no-nonsense discretion on the other.

To be continued…