Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Let It Linger

Yeah, you have to, to paraphrase that annoying old Cranberries song. You have to come prepared to stay awhile & soak it all up, every last retro & surreal detail. The gold-streaked mirror lining the back bar upstairs & the Lite Brite bulbs (what a sight, makin’ things with Lite Brite!) lining the bartop. The bright swirls & paisleys of wallpaper, evoking the foyer of a mortuary whose owners made a misguided attempt to brighten things up circa 1973. The fact that you are, indeed, in a former mortuary—which owner Justin Cucci, to his credit, clearly took pains to downplay. (In his place, I think I’d have gone cuckoo with morbid, gross-out decor, forgetting all about the fact that people are trying to eat here.) The inexplicable moat of billiard balls you pass on the way to the bathrooms. The way, way hipper-than-thou servers with their porkpie hats, vintage eyeglasses & loafers, looking for all the world like long-lost members of The Untouchables. Etc. And then there’s the spectacular view of downtown from the picture windows that make Linger, for all its quirks, so light & airy & perfectly comfy. (Its spaciousness helps too; despite the Saturday night mob, it didn’t feel like a madhouse, since there was plenty of room to sprawl.)

In short, I instantly liked the place—every bit as much as I instantly didn’t like its sibling, Root Down, upon its equally ballyhooed opening (although I’ve since come around somewhat). Though I didn’t try the cocktails, I know Anika Zappe’s work well enough (ahem) to know I would like the cocktails. Instead, I drank one of the weirdest wines everCasalfarneto Rosae Lacrima di Morro d’Alba—the 1st, Xtreeeemely juicy sip of which made me cringe, while the 2nd made me wonder, & by the 3rd glass I was hooked. Pals L & Mo, meanwhile, stopped at the cringing stage. It takes guts to put a wine like this, sure to appeal only to a fringe element with a taste for pain (Mo proclaimed it “like falling down in a field of lavender and being stung by 1,000 angry bees”), on a by-the-glass list; for that reason alone, I’ll be back to see what other oenologic wonders await.

And the food? I liked that too. Did I love it? Not yet—but the promise of summer lovin’ is already there in spades. The globally influenced small plates menu is fun-filled from soup to nuts—sometimes in the same bowl, as with the cucumber gazpacho garnished with almonds, green grapes, & shaved radish.

That scoop of tomato sorbet in the center was what made the dish, adding a swirl of icy tart-sweet zing to its coolly creamy surroundings.

I’ve had the likes of corn-poblano soup with crab & avocado many a time, & this rendition was as good as any, falling somewhere between palatable & memorable.

Neither the steamed Mongolian duck buns with miso-pickled cucumbers

nor the beer-braised short rib tacos

stood out in my mind; they were fine, but the problem with moving street food indoors is that street food is, by definition, meant to be eaten on the street, current high-end trend notwithstanding. What one savors is its cheap, messy, on-the-fly qualities; it loses something in the translation to sit-down fare—& so do the more expensive ingredients meant to improve it. That’s my story, anyway, & I’m sticking to it.

By comparison, the spring-green, fresh & bright fava bean-sweet pea “hummus” absolutely benefited from such chefly touches as the row of mix-ins—grated egg, paprika, crumbled feta, & reserved lemon—on the rim of the bowl, making for a sort of impressionistic paint-by-numbers bread spread.

Same goes for the transformation of the fresh Indian cheese called paneer into “fries”; much like tofu, this stuff is generally so mild it’s as much a textural canvas for other ingredients as it is an ingredient in itself, & as a vehicle for warm-spiced spinach puree & heady rhubarb ketchup, the firm, lightly fried sticks held up nicely.

The patty on the left was listed as b’stilla, but it went down far more like a cake of chicken hash than a carefully layered, Moroccan-style phyllo-dough pie (c.f. the real deal at Palais Casablanca). A misnomer isn’t necessarily a culinary mistake, though; this was dense, moist, & bold-flavored through & through—& if you ask me, they should slide that shit into a steamed bun or onto a tortilla for a twist on street food. Meanwhile, much to my surprise, the goat cheese & watermelon salad on the right was nearly my favorite dish.

Watermelon being one of world’s only foods I’ve never cared much for, & watermelon–goat cheese salads being 10 cents for 12, I’d not have thought to order it. One of my pals did, however—& good on her, because I loved it. In part, the simple fact that the melon was perfectly ripe & the cheese especially salty yet creamy made all the difference. But so did a drizzle of pomegranate molasses & a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper (crushed dried chilies used in Turkish cooking, with a sumac-like tartness but more heat). Turns out a little extra zest was what this combination needed all along. In which case it serves as a fine rejoinder to all those chefs who talk about “taking quality ingredients & not fucking them up.” Sometimes, kids, you gotta fuck ’em up.

Which brings me to my favorite dish—the raw “samosas” with curried cashew “yogurt” & cranberry-mint jam.

Okay, they look a little—how do I put this—poopy. And my pals insisted they didn’t taste much better. But, as with the wine, I found something in them to love—namely that they tasted exactly like buckwheat cookie dough (or maybe pumpernickel). What they were actually made of, I don’t know—traditional samosa pastry just contains your basic flour mix—& though I could attempt to find out, I kind of like preserving the mystery for now. Taste ’em for yourself, & tell me what you think.

In fact, taste everything for yourself, & let me know what you think. (Especially the mussels, because I don’t even remember eating ’em, though this picture suggests that happened.)

If you don’t agree that this place has got it, that magical nameless thing that’s more than the sum of its parts, I’ll eat my hat. Or better still, one of the server’s porkpie hats. Because, mmm, pork pie.

Linger on Urbanspoon

Hidden Potential & the Dish of the Week at Baca at the Inverness

The Jew in me has a deep & abiding suspicion of golf clubs, so it almost came as a surprise to me when my ethnic credentials weren’t checked at the door of the Inverness Hotel & Conference Center when I arrived there last month for a Rodney Strong wine seminar. But not only did I not get dragged out, I was treated to a lovely presentation in a private room off Baca, the Inverness’s sprawling, sunny, colorfully pretty restaurant & sunken lounge overlooking the fairway—in which, it seemed, even I could get comfy.

Fast-forward to May, where I may actually have gotten a little too comfy at a press dinner that was intriguing to say the least.

First & foremost, press dinners are usually highly orchestrated events with limited menus featuring chef’s signatures, paired with complementary wines. At Baca, our server just handed us the new early summer menu from exec chef Rodney Herwerth & asked for our order. I was confused. “You mean we can just order anything?” I asked. She said yes, seemingly confused at my confusion. I was tempted to order everything, just to test their commitment. I didn’t, but having had a crummy day I did encourage her to refill my wine glass at every turn, which meant I probably went through a good bottle & a half by myself, & apologies may well have been in order.

Still, I wasn’t in such a state that I failed to pay attention to the eats, starting with 2 cheeses—Petit Basque & Boschetto al Tartufo, listed as a blend of cow’s & sheep’s milk studded with white truffle, but actually containing black truffle; no matter, it was nice anyway—& an order of confit duck taquitos.

They made for a fine start indeed, flaky on the outside, filled with rich, tender meat, roasted apple & corn, & I think a little cabbage; the dipping sauce was a bit on the thick side, & neither as spicy or plummy as the description suggested; in fact, interestingly enough (& it was), it evoked nothing so much as vodka sauce.

When it comes to salads, I don’t expect wild originality in general; when I find it—as with the Dickens Salad at WaterCourse Foods & Racine’s Nutty Cheese Salad—I’m thrilled. Otherwise, simple refreshment’s a worthy enough goal, & the house salad my +1 & I split offered plenty, combining mesclun, chopped candied pecans, dried cranberries & crumbled chèvre in a notable, almost frothy, tarragon-flecked buttermilk dressing.

But there were 2 dishes that totally wowed me—enough to score a tie for Dish of the Week. The first was my entree, a vibrant play on pork & beans: a generous portion of lightly breaded, greaselessly fried pork tenderloin over a medley of sauteed favas, cannellini & green beans, topped with a sauce based on roasted black olives that I thought would be overkill but instead added a pungent depth. Rather, it was the mac & cheese on the side that was probably unnecessary—but no less welcome for that, being a suave combination of al dente orecchiette, gruyère & fontina in perfect proportion, lightly browned for a bit of crunch on top.

The second was Sarah’s Banana Split, named for pastry chef Sarah Scriver but otherwise a totally misleading moniker—all to the better. Nothing like a banana split, it was instead a whimsical, multilayered arrangement of tender brown-sugar pound cake topped with fresh banana & a candied cherry, then ringed round with honeyed roasted pineapple as well as banana pannacotta with walnut ganache, a quenelle of vanilla ice cream & a sugar tuile. Part homey, part tropical, it was impressively balanced, not a hair out of place.

Though not quite as brilliant as that one, the other desserts we tried were satisfying in their own right: in front, a squat cylinder of cheesecake with blueberry compote & lemon sorbet, behind it a sort of fluffy crêpe with more vanilla ice cream & pistachios. Having gotten a glimpse of the young, pretty Scriver, I’m predicting a bright future. You heard it here first.

All in all, I was impressed by the Inverness’s efforts to exceed the surf-&-turf expectations of a Tech Center conference hotel. Tucked away behind the The Shops at Vallagio, it’s something to keep in mind as a dark-horse alternative to the likes of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro (not that it needs one).

Baca at the Inverness on Urbanspoon

Satchel’s on 6th: A Family Affair

***This sneak preview originally appeared on the Denver Magazine blog; I’ve reworked it slightly below.***

“He’s super-excited,” said Andrew Casalini of his six-year-old son, the namesake of Satchel’s on 6th, the week before it opened. “He feels like this is his restaurant.”

It’s a sentiment Casalini’s customers are bound to share. After all, from the 50-seat space (70 if you count the patio) to the 10-dish dinner menu (13 including desserts), it’s clear that he & chef Jared Brant intend to cater to a highly selective, hyperlocal audience. As he puts it, “We’re not trying to serve a million people. We’re trying to serve a few and do a good job.”

The manifestations of this intimately neighborly vision are everywhere. Take the tight squeeze of a kitchen — “a one-man, one-woman show,” according to Brant, whose costar, sous chef Lindsay Woodcock, has worked at New York’s Momofuku as well as Ototo & The Kitchen (Brant himself honed his chops under Frank Bonanno at Mizuna & Bones). Or consider the coffee bar Brant’s own sister Caitlin,

newly arrived from their hometown of Indianapolis, will be setting up on weekday mornings as an “offering to the community,” per Casalini, where she’ll serve a limited daily selection of her own baked goods — think muffins accompanied by crème fraîche rather than butter or savory “puttanesca scones” with olives & red pepper jelly.

And then there’s the wine program. “The secret here is going to be the bottle list,” says Casalini, who plans to “open high-end wines on busy nights & pour them by the ounce” for what he calls that “mwah!” taste sensation without the “ouch!” price point.

But above all, watch for the implementation of “shift meal.” Following dinner service Thursday through Saturday, Brant and Woodcock will be serving late-night specials — off-menu “test items,” in Casalini’s words, “because back there in the kitchen, chefs are always thinking, ‘What’s next?’” And so are their colleagues, both back & front of the house, across town: “When industry people are getting off work, we’ll say, ‘Go ahead and close, come on in.’” Adds Brant, “I hope all these guys down the road, from Fruition & Mizuna & Bones,” stop by after hours for a bite & a glass of wine from “whatever nice bottles we’ve opened that night.” Of course, their welcome extends to the general public. But I suggest you hold out for shift meal only if you count yourselves among a specific public — namely those who are open to dining according to the chef’s whim.

Otherwise, the regular dinner menu, small as it is, has plenty to offer — as I discovered during a tasting that came together so quickly the chef himself had had yet to sample all he served me. Of course I offered to share — which is, after all, what his plates are designed for. “To encourage people to sit at the bar,” Brant’s preparing nibbles like roasted garlic and marinated olives for $4 a pop. Rounding out the appetizers pictured below are such entrées as meatloaf that’s “almost like a short-rib terrine”; a signature play on steak frites featuring julienned, fried calamari and spinach-mascarpone cream; herbed sole gratinée based, says Brant, on “a Swedish dish I learned from my girlfriend”; & fresh orecchiette with wild mushrooms (“we’re always going to have a vegetarian option,” he assures me). For dessert, there’s a seasonal cobbler (strawberry-rhubarb for starters) & a handmade truffle sampler. And the weekend “punch brunch,” featuring the likes of fried chicken in beer-cheddar gravy & pancakes with hickory syrup, is sure to revive the “cult following” garnered by the original Satchel’s Market on Park Hill, of whose success the new, larger venue is a necessary outgrowth.

It’s a cult I’ll be joining if the dishes I tasted are any indication of things to come. Starting with al dente asparagus—bright with a bite—this spring salad featured a liquid-centered poached egg, shavings of fresh ricotta (whose source was a secret) & ham shaved so fine I thought it was a sprinkling of bread crumbs until I tasted it, all highlighted by a touch of fruity olive oil.

The name “wedge salad” does a disservice to Brant’s improvement on the steakhouse standard: a cylindrical disk of iceberg topped with chunks of excellent thick-cut bacon & blue cheese I could smell without leaning over; slivers of pickled onion; & dollops of thick, peppery yogurt dressing.

Accompanied by soft scrambled eggs & Texas toast, roasted veal marrow got a cute diner-style makeover.

Conversely, a refreshing scoop of cool, tangy celery root rémoulade added a touch of elegance to Brant’s otherwise downhome brunch signature, the pork belly croissant (PBC).

Still, the hashbrown topped with crème fraîche stole its thunder—so simple, the crunch of the buttery crust yielding to an almost creamy interior that tasted of nothing but fresh, warm potato.

The restaurant may be named for Satchel, but that side dish has my moniker all over it from here on out.

Satchel's on 6th on Urbanspoon

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The last time I sat down to a meal at Row 14, it wasn’t even open yet; my sneak peek for Denver Magazine took place smack in the midst of 11th-hour pre-opening chaos. A month later, it’s the magazine that’s closed, while the restaurant’s off to a smooth start. On both occasions, however, the graciousness of co-owner David Schneider & chef-partner Arik Markus proved unwavering. No matter that they’d hardly slept in days on our first meeting. No matter, on our second, that I was now just some goofball as opposed to a goofball listed on a masthead. They had told me during our interview they envisioned Row 14 as a cornerstone for what they hoped was an emerging neighborhood; it showed in their & their staff’s amiably attentive approach to every table (not just mine; I watched).

To be acknowledged, treated with kindness & respect, remembered with kindness & respect. In times of crisis—in the midst of my own midlife chaos, when the past appears a wasteland, the future a void—that means so much. I think of “Late Fragment,” the last recorded poem by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Of course, I also want to be well-fed & liquored up (so did Carver, for that matter, especially the latter) in the company of dear ones like my friend Mo. Thanks to her, at high noon on a Wednesday I was sipping that superb Spätburgunder (German pinot noir) I’d been so taken with during my tasting. Then, it was paired with classic steak & mashed potatoes in red wine sauce with root vegetables;

this time, it accompanied a side of juicy, almost neon-flavored rapini—buttery & sauteed with pancetta, it still smacked very much of itself, like a cross between broccoli & spinach—which I requested as a starter,

& a salami sandwich, can you beat that? Of course, ’twas a super-fancy salami sandwich, on nice chewy bread with pungent, naturally oily salsiccia con finocchio (fennel sausage), fresh ricotta, chunky tomato marmalade, basil, & what must be the first decent tomatoes of the season.

Mo’s lasagna, meanwhile, was flat-out remarkable, the housemade pasta so thin & delicate that it emerged from the broiler semitranslucent & crackling beneath an unusually light besciamella. Even the pork ragù was relatively delicate.

In short, that sneak preview was no fluke—& thanks to Google Cache, I can partially recreate it here.

The materials: reclaimed lodgepole pine, wood-grained porcelain, exposed carpet tiles. The colors: silver and gold, slate and bronze. The focal points: gleaming metallic fixtures on the one hand, a cheeky black-and-white photographic mural of a crowd of workingmen circa 1940s France, whooping it up over bottles of wine, on the other. And the gents overseeing all this—owner David Schneider and chef-partner Arik Markus—blend right in: one dark, the other blond. There’s a yin-yang aspect to Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar—coolness juxtaposing warmth, sleek lines in the midst of rough edges—that reflects its surroundings perfectly. At once a gritty construction zone and the heart of Denver’s glittering theater district, 14th Street is a site of contrasts, and Row 14, opening in the Spire Building on Tuesday, is in the middle of it all.

“Being part of this renovation, we’re at the 50-yard line of the way this town is moving,” observes Schneider. “We want to become the cornerstone of the neighborhood” for locals and visitors to the convention center and adjacent hotels alike. Adds Markus, “The word that came up from our very first meeting was ‘accessibility.’ It’s all about fun. Nothing on the menu is over $24. My background is in four-star French restaurants in New York”—in fact, the Manhattan native got his start working under Daniel Boulud at Daniel, which he calls “my cooking school”—”but that’s not the experience I want Denverites to have. I want to take familiar experiences and flip them.”

It’s a rare moment of calm reflection for the two men on Saturday night, who have been blowing and going since receiving their certificate of occupancy at 3:45pm the day before. “I literally sprinted out of here down to City Hall” to file the paperwork before closing time, laughs Schneider. Their first deliveries began arriving the next morning, giving them mere hours to prepare for the mock service that’s beginning as we speak. Both new fathers, “we recently went through the process of giving birth,” Markus says, “and now we’re doing it all over again—the tension of labor, the sleeplessness, the exhilaration and anxiety. By the way, do I have food on my face?”

He doesn’t, but I’m about to. In the whirlwind of a wine-paired, nine-course tasting at the bar, I get a clear—and exciting—glimpse of the sensibilities Markus described. The menu is Exhibit A in the case for casual, contemporary American dining: stylish yet comforting, savvy yet simple, its global accents enhancing rather than overwhelming the big picture. Think brandade (salt cod-and-olive oil) fritters with beet relish, roasted chicken pot pie, and cannelloni that showcases housemade sausage and ricotta. Lunch features sandwiches like a pan bagnat with house-cured salmon and griddled smoked turkey with Brie and roasted pear; Sunday brunch offers the likes of horchata French toast and the “Hangover Helper,” a charcuterie-and-cheese sampler accompanied by a bloody mary and a can of PBR. And for dessert, there’s an array of ices, also housemade—honey frozen yogurt, pineapple-serrano sorbet—as well as classic tarte tatin made new with Thai basil crème fraîche and black pepper.

Finally, Schneider’s list of wines by the glass—appropriately enough for a place that bills itself as a wine bar—is even more extensive than the bottle list, and smartly designed to encourage discovery. Offered in both 3- and 6-ounce pours, the selection is rife with choices to pique the interest of the burgeoning oenophile: a South African Chenin Blanc here, a Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain, there, even a Verdelho from cult California winery Scholium Project on tap. If you spring for a bottle, don’t miss Markus’ personal favorite—a wonderful Spätburgunder (a/k/a Pinot Noir) from Pfalz, Germany, redolent of raisins, leather, and earth.

If this has been one of “the hardest days of my life,” as Markus—whose most recent stint was as chef tournant at Frasca Food & Wine— wryly claims, it sure doesn’t show on the plate, nor in the relaxed, polished manner of the bar crew who serves me (some of whom you may recognize from TAG, The Squeaky Bean, and Corridor 44). Schneider may have had “an easier time naming my children” than settling on Row 14, but we think the name will be dropping from locals’ lips for a long time to come.

The signature parsnip-walnut soup’s a winner—a lusciously earthy backdrop against which tart cranberry coulis sparkles, & duck cracklings tease.

I like a thoroughly dressed salad—the sweet spot between dry & drenched—& heirloom chicory salad in a textbook red-wine vinaigrette is just that. Tossed with matchstick-cut apples, raisins & walnuts (“Waldorf relish”) & soft nuggets of blue cheese, it’s at once hearty & refreshing—a neat trick, since those qualities are usually mutually exclusive.

Hiramasa crudo has itself an almost citrusy quality; while a drizzle of lime is a given, vanilla adds a bit of creaminess & fullness to the delicately tangy whole. Pumpkin seeds, of course, add toasty crunch.

Now that’s some pork belly; Markus eschews the usual precious cubes of pure fat to present a full-on bacon filet, no less melt-in-your-mouth for being so meaty alongside nutty braised lentils & a soft-boiled egg.

Of two tomato-based shellfish soups—bisque & bouillabaisse—the former is the one that still resonates with me, elegantly smooth & subtle, each spoonful yielding chunks of sweet lobster & diced, olive-oil-poached fennel & potato.

From a sampler of Colorado cheeses & house charcuterie, I still recall the texture of the chicken liver mousse, one of the airiest I’ve ever had, alongside chunky, funky ciccoli (Italian-style pork rillettes).

As suffused with warmth as the service, this is food to soothe a weary soul.

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

TAG|RAW BAR: Cocky Pop!

Yes, at TAG’s snug new subterranean sibling, streamlined & gleaming as a snack bar in a Japanese airport, they really do yell “Poppycock!” when you come in, both as a disconcerting but cute greeting & a promise of the namesake amuse to come—a sweet-salty mix of candied popcorn & nuts as well as pieces of roasted kombu.

But by the time you leave, it may be the anagram that’s ringing in your ears, because the trio of young guns behind the bar—chefs Sam Freund & Shaun Motoda along with mixologist Joshua Smith (who’d wowed me at the ROOT cocktail competition I judged a couple months ago)—exude a brash energy, a cocky pop indeed, that suffuses the whole place.

The menu’s printed daily, a sign that it’s tweaked according to the availability of ingredients. This is a good thing not only insofar as listings du jour are SOP for any raw bar worth its sea salt, but also because my one beef was that, of 10 seafood preparations, fully 7 were based on either ahi or hiramasa. I’m assuming the lack of variety was just a fluke (ha! no pun intended), because clearly these guys love playing with whatever they can get their hands on. Freund in particular was practically giddy over his soon-to-be unveiled experiments with housemade burrata, nacho cheese powder from Savory Spice Shop, & frozen treats from the Paco Jet: while proffering me & my lunch companion, Andra of French Press Memos, a quenelle of intensely pure, creamy banana sorbet, he told us of his plans for a beet, tomato, & cucumber “sorbet salad.”

Sounds refreshing, right? Well, that’s par for the course: deceptive simplicity, lightness & brightness are the primary hallmarks of the food here. Chunks of cucumber were just barely splashed with rice vinegar, agave juice, bonito (dried, smoked fish) flakes & sesame seeds; the green beans mixed with garlic shoots, sesame oil & chilies positively squeaked.

All that hoopla over the kangaroo tartare TAG first introduced a few weeks ago is deserved. The meat is wonderful, robust & sweetly fleshy, like a cross between beef tenderloin & (speaking of) ahi tuna; topped with a quail egg, tiny sunchoke chips crackling beneath an almost burnt-sugar veneer, & a cinnamon-touched foam,* it’s suave yet vibrant, carefully balanced & fully realized.

But it wasn’t my favorite dish. That title goes to the lamb loin.

A sprinkling of coarse salt smoked over oak chips from Chardonnay barrels brought out the savor of the seared meat—so distinctive, good lamb is, like fresh blood mixed with dried herbs, or vice-versa. Some sort of boldly sweet contrast was a given—but rather than your average port reduction, whiskey-peach gastrique the color & consistency of sap was more than just an accompaniment; it was a deeply tangy thing I had to scrape up on its own.

The name is awesome; the Los Chingones roll itself, filled with chopped ahi & avocado & topped with dynamite sauce & kabayaki, is just fine—technically proficient if not especially novel. Sushi, I figure, is a matter of extremes. Purists insist on the basic building blocks, nothing more, nothing less—fish of exceptional quality & cut; perfect, lightly vinegared, sticky yet firm rice; fresh grated wasabi—& roll their eyes at wacky house concoctions laden with America’s favorite food groups: salt, sugar, fat. I think there’s a place for the latter as well as the former; this roll falls somewhere in between, so next time I’ll try the Bulldog with hiramasa, kimchi & apple, a combination more in line with this kitchen’s penchant for clarity of flavor.

On that note, the Persian lime–drenched hiramasa tiradito—oft-described as a cross between ceviche & sashimi that reflects the Japanese immigrant influence on Peruvian cuisine—was unassailable, as though you could taste sunlight glinting off the surface of the sea.

And yet, & yet, the real trick is to apply such a light touch to the richest of rich ingredients; Freund & Motoda did just that with this torchon of foie gras, barely denser than whipped cream & complemented by bittersweet kumquat marmalade.

Assuming they keep this up, I have an alternative suggestion once “Poppycock!” gets old (which it will): “Crackerjack!” Because, you know, when you’re really good, that’s what they call you.

*Apparently, as Freund explained & as Laura Shunk noted here, there’s duck-liver fat in the foam too. I couldn’t detect it, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t serving a purpose, at least in terms of body. Be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison with a foieless version.

Tag Raw Bar on Urbanspoon

A Dish a Day: Cheddar-Green Chile Potato Skin at Beatrice & Woodsley

The weekday happy-hour (aka Nosh & ‘Tails) menu at Beatrice & Woodsley changes constantly, so if you want a piece of this potato skin, you’d better pop by there, say, tonight between 5 & 6:30pm, cause there are no guarantees it’ll be there by Monday.

As I recall, it was listed as being filled with whipped cheddar or cheddar mousse or something like that, along with green chile. Obviously, it didn’t fit the description. But since it was beautifully done anyway, I didn’t much care. Broiled to a T—golden-crisp outside & fluffy inside—the flesh of the spud itself plays the soothing foil to the really, & I mean really, spicy sauce. If I were you I’d pair it with a beer instead of a cocktail or wine, ’cause you’re gonna need something you can gulp.

Dish of the Week: Rabbit Sausage with Chive Dumplings at Bittersweet

***UPDATE 1/5: Bittersweet is now open.***

Between her insane schedule & my merely neurotic one, pal K of Big World Small Kitchen & I don’t get together as often as we mean to. So on the rare occasions that it happens, we talk so much we almost forget to eat; we could really be anywhere with chairs. (Reminds me of that old Jackie Mason joke: “If there’s a Jew on a vacation, he’s only looking for one thing—a place to sit. He sees a chair, it’s a successful vacation. Jewish resorts are the only place that advertise ‘Brand new lobby!’ Here’s the lobby, that’s the chair.” But I digress, as usual.)

However, on Friday night we weren’t just anywhere with chairs: we were at the soft opening of Bittersweet, which officially opens its doors on Tuesday. Having (like many others) been impressed by Olav Peterson since the early days of Bistro One (click here & here for reviews), I had high hopes. (I’m less optimistic about the fate of his former place of employ, already hurt by its poorly trafficked location on Antique Row, but I sure do wish it well & plan to visit it in the hospital as it recuperates from its chef-removal operation soon. Stay tuned.)

Those hopes were well met immediately—at the door, in fact, where I was excited to see Dustin Swenson, recently of Divino. He’s a great get for what I’m sure will be a stellar wine list; certainly the house wines he was pouring for us were distinctive.

And both appetizers easily qualified for Dish of the Week. But since I can only name one—my blog, my rules—I’m going with the rabbit sausage, a downright delicacy as handled by Peterson.

Both it & the mustard sauce were ultra-suave & subtly tinged with sweetness—cider? honey? simply the right white wine?—while the potato-chive dumplings proved soft & light as bubbles.

Meanwhile, the chowder’s already getting a lot of love from local writers—deservedly.

In the center sits a potato croquette topped with a clam (FYI, it’s supposed to be a razor clam, but none were available that evening) & “crispy pork,” basically a glorified slice of bacon. But it was the soup itself that stunned me, like the dumplings a triumph of smoothness & subtlety. Over the course of 10 years in Boston, I had my share of pasty, clumpy clam chowders; for that matter, I’ve had my share of superb chowders. This utterly silky rendition is among the most accomplished, based on a from-scratch shellfish broth.

I didn’t try K’s monkfish with lobster-cauliflower hash in a pool of cauliflower bisque, but it sure looked pretty.

So did my entrée—gorgeous, in fact—but it was the one disappointment of the bunch, perhaps a little too subtle; from the hash-browned spaghetti squash in intensely hued but barely-there butternut squash broth on bottom to the herbed squash tortelloni on top, it lacked depth of flavor. Much as I respect Peterson’s considerable talent for showcasing ingredients as such, these would shine brighter with a dash more seasoning.

That said, let’s keep in mind the place hasn’t even opened yet! At the rate it’s going, it’ll be one of the white-hottest restaurants in town before, I dunno, Christmas.

Beautifully moist yet fluffy apple cake confirmed as much.

It was also confirmed for me that the dining room we were sitting in (there are 2) would be decorated further; good thing, because between the gray walls & the cement floor it either looks like a jail cell or I’ve seen too many episodes of Oz lately. (The latter is entirely probable.) I’m all for minimalism, though, so I’m not asking for much: a painting or two, a rug. I bet I get it, & then the Bittersweet experience will be nothing but sweet.

Bittersweet on Urbanspoon

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

Encore, Encore! (+ a nod to the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax)

As I noted in my recent calamari roundup, when Encore on Colfax opened 2 years ago, it was to mixed reviews from me, despite the fact that Sean Huggard, whose talent had delighted me so thoroughly at Black Pearl, was then the chef. Since his departure from the latter left it a little worse for the wear, I feared the same would be true times 2 when he left Encore, & so didn’t return until last week.

On the contrary, I’m all too happy to report that under new ownership—including that of chef Paul C. Reilly, who did time in New York with a chef I adored during his brief but glorious stint in Boston at erstwhile Restaurant L, Pino Maffeo—the place has hit its stride, neighborly & easygoing. That it also happens to be steps from the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax, which opens this week, is just technicolor gravy. Denverites, the time for dinner & a movie has come with a vengeance—especially given that the first film out of the gate is Carlos, a 5-hour-plus biopic about Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal that’s drawing extraordinary raves, even from the usually oh-so-jaded Variety.

To get through it, you’re gonna need major sustenance—far beyond the popcorn that comes with the price of admission. The aforementioned calamari (read all about it on the abovelinked post)

is a great start; so is the gorgeous, wood-fired wild mushroom, roasted garlic & rosemary pizza.

Any number of actual pizzerias could learn a thing or 2 from Encore’s kitchen about pie prep. The crust is perfect: bubbled & chewy here, charred & crunchy there. So is the cheese, gooey in the middle, broiled to a crisp around the edge. And so are the toppings, with plenty of meaty mushroom chunks as well as whole cloves of garlic that pop & melt in your mouth like so much earthy candy.

The autumn root vegetable pot pie looked a little paltry compared to the pile of exemplary, herbed, skin-on mashed potatoes

until I tasted it: caramelized & creamy in the extreme, topped with a parmesan biscuit, the portion was ideal for polishing off.

On yet another visit, 1 bite of a friend’s wood-fired artichoke with garlic aioli was sufficient to ensure that the version I admired 2 years ago

hasn’t lost its oomph.

However, that same pal—fellow food writer Joey Porcelli—warned me before I ordered the steak salad that her own pear Waldorf salad had been overdressed. Sure enough, the mixture of baby spinach, pickled red onions, pumpkin seeds & dried cranberries was likewise a bit too wet with a fairly sweet vinaigrette;

given that the dish is described as a steak salad & not steak with a side salad, 1 possible solution seems obvious: tossing it all together beforehand might make for better integration. As for the fried goat cheese balls, they were a cute surprise in & of themselves, though all the more evidence that this salad needs more balance.

Still, for the most part, Encore fits the bill for a hardcore hangout. Cue my applause.

Encore on Colfax on Urbanspoon