Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Rack & Rye: No Wrack & Awry, But Not Yet Rock & Roll

The folks at Rack & Rye Gastropub probably know perfectly well what they’re doing, but I can’t say I do. This place has me bamboozled.

First, there’s the name. Obviously it’s a pun on the rock & rye—a reemerging blast from our Progressive Era past consisting of candy-sweetened rye whiskey. But why? What’s the point of the pun? When I first heard the name, I thought maybe it was going to be a cool pool hall, but no. Wine rack? But it’s not a wine bar per se either (unless they’re going to use that perforated back wall for storage at some point—an interesting but unlikely thought). No clue.

Which brings me to the second puzzlement, the space itself. As I’ve said before, I’ve got no beef with the term “gastropub” so long as the word is accurately applied. But “pub” implies a modicum of rustic comfort, which the rather elegant Rack & Rye in no way exudes (see aforelinked photos). In fact, the design elements most meant to encourage conviviality strike me as the least comfortable. Take the long communal table: narrow & lined with elegant chairs, it’s more conducive to a formal dinner party than to strangers spontaneously kicking back & mingling. There’s nothing casual about the straight-backed banquette either—especially in the context of the color scheme: sleek black & cream. The fact that, on the night I was there with pal L, it was completely empty but for one other table the entire time only added to the underlying feeling of unease.

RRSpamfries

Third, of course, is the menu. On paper, it’s a whole lot of fun—so fun it’s almost silly. I agree with 5280’s assessment that at this point the chef is just throwing trends against the wall & seeing what sticks. Which is okay, so long as enough does in fact stick to form a coherent whole. And that’s what remains to be seen. Though I liked most of what I tried, I didn’t trust it—the little things that didn’t work added up to suggest it could go either way, jelling into a repertoire with real flair or skewing completely off-kilter. Here’s hoping for the former.

Consider the Spam fries. The fact that they were clearly conceived as a shameless ploy to establish instant notoriety/hipster cred doesn’t make them any less worth a try. After all, they’re just deep-fried strips of chopped, pressed, salt-&-sugar-cured pork, i.e., triggers to fire every neuron in the brain’s reward center one by one. It hardly mattered that the chili oil was apparently omitted from the chili oil aioli, leaving glorified mayo. (As there was no hint of garlic either, we’re using the word “aioli” loosely here, presumably.) Well, it mattered a little. Capsaicin would have provided a tingling bit of balance.

The only thing wrong with the maple-bacon peanuts, meanwhile, was my glary snap thereof. But, like my camera, they did flash bright that night.

RRpeanuts
Heavily coated in maple syrup, tossed with chopped smoked bacon & roasted, they were basically hot Cracker Jacks gone wild.

So far, so enjoyably trashy. Ditto the cheddar cornbread sticks with jalapeno jelly dipping sauce.

RRcornbread

If the order looks skimpy, it’s to their credit that even before our server set it down he assured us 2 more sticks were on their way. And if it’s kinda ugly, well, that’s better than being too pretty to eat. Lighter in flavor as well as texture than I expected, they were just corny & cheesy enough to play well with the dipping sauce—which tasted like nothing so much as sweetened green chile, odd but not unpleasant.

I’m still conflicted about the sliders we tried—pork belly with mustard soy glaze

RRporkslider
RRducksliders
& 5-spice roast duck with sliced pear & swiss (on the far L & R).

In both cases, the filling was much better than it had a right to be. I guess the word “glaze” didn’t register when I read the description of the former, because I was expecting something spicier & saltier; instead, the sweetness of the condiment, likely brown sugar, put the meat in a mellow mood. Spoiled as I am by dishes like Rioja’s in which fresh pork belly is given the deluxe treatment, I’m still ambivalent about the use of it here as opposed to some other fatty cut—did it get its due or was it compromised for the sake of its current status? I wish now I’d pulled a chunk out to taste it all by its lonesome to know for sure.

As for the latter, before tasting it I was confident the pairing of duck & swiss was a bad idea, that they had nothing in common & they’d both just sit there awkwardly & sullenly. And they might have, but for the pear that, complementing them both, brought them tenderly together; fruitiness proved the missing link. Too bad about the no-account French rolls.

Too bad, too, that a similar risk in the form of a special—char siu tacos—didn’t pay off.

RRtaco

For all its blessings, cheese does not in fact make everything taste better. Even the haphazard, never-the-twain-shall-meet presentation went to show that provolone—never mind deli-grade provolone—can’t do anything for Asian-style barbecued pork other than throw it into disarray. I couldn’t even tell you if the meat was truly char-siu-esque (a little hoisin, a little soy & rice wine, etc. etc.); it pretty much just disappeared between the cheese & the room-temperature flour tortilla.

So how does all that bode for the Korean reuben sliders with grilled rib eye, swiss & kimchi slaw, the short rib rendang, the PB&J sliders & all their future ilk? I’m willing to find out. After all, one of my favorite chefs ever, David Nevins now of Osetra Sono in Connecticut, long ago convinced me that with the right touch, anything was possible—even caramel-fried lobster with warm cheddar, chiles & green onions. Rack & Rye could convince me someday too.

But it’ll never get me to call it a pub.

Rack & Rye on Urbanspoon

The Kooky View from The Corner Office

As I’ve already suggested, The Corner Office has finally begun to endear itself to me, if for no other reason than that it was there when we needed it during this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival (with which you may know I am heavily involved; see also here). Though its conflation of sass with sophistication is flawed—especially in comparison with the savvy shown, at least in theory, by similarly oriented newer comers (your TAGs, your Colt  & Grays)—such that the menu’s geoeclectic reach often exceeds the kitchen’s grasp & the cocktail list skews more coed than grown-up, I couldn’t help but get a kick out of its cheerfully quasi-louche glitz over the course of several visits in a single weekend.

After all, they’ve concocted a quaff (St. Germain–based, but we’ll let that slide) called the Director, modeled here by

Cothedirector
Denver’s premier alcoholic (as Karla winningly & not unduly dubbed herself recently here).

Besides, if the crew in whites can’t pull everything off, they nail a morsel here & there. The hummus, of all things, for instance.

COhummus

In my experience, it isn’t often that a non-Mediterranean/Middle Eastern place gets hummus right—for whatever reason, since it really isn’t that hard to add sufficient olive oil, lemon juice, tahini & garlic to what’s otherwise just chickpea puree. Somehow The Corner Office not only does so but pairs it with wedges of warm, fluffy, slightly crispy & chewy pita itself just tinged with the flavor of olive oil.

For another instance, admits this doubting Denveater a year & a 1/2 after the fact, the chicken & waffles. Look at that all-over golden-brown crunch.

COchickenandwaffles
If what was underneath it had been tepid or dry or congealed or underseasoned or otherwise poorly prepared, the golden-brown crunch would have been a red herring—but it wasn’t. It was the mark of a classic batter—or rather 2, one applied lightly enough to give the bird its due, the other making for a fluffy “pancake with syrup traps,” as the late great Mitch Hedberg called it. I still like my chicken & waffles to be served with both syrup & gravy (this came with only the former)—&, okay, in a context where the dish is an understood tradition about which I can always learn more rather than a cheeky appropriated novelty. But better appropriated than misappropriated.

Ditto w/r/t the lemony edamame.

COedamame

I don’t know if the peel is zested or the juice is simply sprinkled—the former’s my iffy recollection—but either way, it’s an intuitive little twist.

And damned if the fried calamari & rock shrimp doesn’t suck either;

COcalamarishrimp

here too, the batter was just right, clumsy neither in seasoning nor touch. Not to belabor the point, but the difference between batter, breading & downright dough gets lost on far too many fry guys.

Though I didn’t try a friend’s bacon cheddar cheeseburger with sauteed onions, it sure looks like one humdinger of a mouthful,

COburger
even if the bun itself appears little more than the kind of weak foam that would just dissipate under rather than form a nifty sop for

COburgerjuice
all those gorgeous juices.

As faux-Caesars go,

COCaesar
the Corner Office’s is fine—meaning little more than that the dressing’s got some garlicky punch—although the chicken seemed a little too close to precooked Tyson breast strips for comfort.

The only real turkeys were 1), fittingly enough, the Tom Turkey sandwich—utterly bland, with cheap-tasting deli slices—

COturkeysandwich

& 2) the crab pad thai; incoherent as a whole, the egg was dry, the clump of noodles too sweet.

COpadthai
All in all, though, as a convenient choice for downtown carousing over easy grub & giggle juice, The Corner Office sure can put the fun in functional like nobody’s business.

Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar on Urbanspoon

The Long & Winding Review That Leads from Interstate Kitchen & Bar

What, if anything, is the difference between concept & vision?

Does it matter, so long as it’s realized?

And if it isn’t realized—does the answer then matter?

To tailor the conundrum to fit oh-so-prog-retro Interstate Kitchen & Bar, modeled on the roadside diners of the postwar & Space Age eras: when a menu is primarily the reflection of a tongue-in-cheek image, with what sort of integrity can it be executed?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; having sampled a fair portion of the modest-sized repertoire in two visits, I remain unsure as to the motives/expectations/hopes behind the venture. No doubt the owners have been quoted about their intentions somewhere (here, in fact), but I want to be able to discern the truth from a meal (or two, even). And I haven’t been able to yet—not least because my lunch & dinner experiences were night & day.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t had loads of fun trying to figure out where the downhome cookin’ with an apostrophe-n stops & the disingenuous urban myth thereof starts.

Consider the spoonbread.

Interstatespoonbread

The above was served at dinner, when the place was sparkling with party people. With that bruléed crust beneath a pool of butter, it looked completely different than the version I’d had at lunch the day before when the dining room was virtually empty—pale & sporting an unmelted dollop of butter on top. The mouthfeel & flavor were more developed as well, custardy & even a little spicy with a touch of cayenne rather than amorphously gummy & underseasoned.

Likewise, ponder the fried shrimp ravioli—or “raviolis,” as the menu puts it, exemplifying my uncertainty about the place. Is that just ignorance of the Italian plural or a deliberate nod to the byroads & backways of Americanization?

Interstateravioli
In any case, though both boasted a nice sopaipilla-like puff, the dinnertime version contained noticeably more shrimp filling & a much richer, butter-mounted marinara. Butter is no behind-the-scenes ingredient at Interstate but an in-your-face player, so much so that it also raises questions about the message any given meal is meant to convey. Does butter, in its prominence, serve as yet another prop on this set designed to whisk us to a Route 66 hashhouse? If so, should it? Are there restaurants in which the food can & should be made to be in service of the mood, the substance in service of the style, rather than the other way around? Does the fact that such questions came up for me at every turn return us to the issue of marketable concept versus organic vision?

Moving on. It wasn’t appropriate for me to snap shots at the lunch I attended, so you’ll have to take my word for it that

—the fried chicken livers, appealingly presented in a paper cone, were too heavily breaded. Is the goal to make them palatable to hipsters who want to say they eat offal? Is that a worthwhile goal? Why not just admit this might not be the time or place for trend-dangling, & fry up the usual suspects instead? As for garnish, the ketchup-thick housemade hot sauce was good, but the pickle was so skimpy as to be pointless: just two disks, see-through-thin.
—the tomato soup was flat-out odd, the namesake ingredient blunted rather than enhanced by either wine or wine vinegar; the grilled cheese was plain & boring. I’d be curious to know what type of cheese it was, & whether we were dealing with some attempt to keep it real by making it fake: that is, to hearken back to the days of better living through chemistry by using nonartisanal, processed cheddar or even American—not Velveeta, to be sure, but not much more flavorful than that. If not, perhaps they need to rethink it a bit, maybe use a cheese blend.

—the mild pastrami on rye was a go, given a neat twist with coleslaw qua filling. But it came with a side of awkwardness: potato chips whose salt-&-vinegar topping appeared in the form of an almost sweet pink powder, for no good reason I could discern. At 1st glance, I thought it was powdered sugar, simply because it didn’t occur to me that anyone would try to make sea salt & malt vinegar more interesting than they already are. Labs exist to ensure failed experiments don’t escape from them.
—the nonstandard (and thus rightly quotation-marked) “Cobb” was the real deal inspiration-wise: tossed rather than composed, it was a jumble of clumps of crispy, fatty bacon; chunks of roasted chicken thigh; globs of excellent, pungent blue cheese (why here & not on the sandwich?); & IIRC Boston lettuce smeared in a fine hot bacon dressing.

Though the meal as a whole was obviously a mixed bag, I was intrigued enough by it to want to stick my hand back in & see what came up the next night. In addition to the aforementioned, the deviled eggs

Interstateeggs
were, except for the drop of sturgeon roe on top, carefully classic. Given the glut of sloppy token attempts out there, kudos to Interstate for treating the recipe with respect.

Of the entrees, our pal Keith’s burger was the simple favorite:

Interstateburger

dripping patty with a slightly pink center, nice fresh bun. (It came with some rough, unbalanced horseradish & Dijon sauces—they needed either smoothing out or forgetting about in favor of plain horseradish & mustard.)

My buffalo meatloaf with grits was also mostly terrific—seemingly low on starchy filler & hence especially robust, as were the just-right grits—except for the sticky gravy, which recalled the tomato soup in its sweet-&-sour weirdness.

Interstatemeatloaf

The Director complained his fried chicken was on the dry side; I didn’t notice, finding it instead a bit greasy under another gravy that lacked finesse—but contradictorily that the side of green beans with crispy pork belly was too lipoid to quit.

Interstatechicken

The onion bread pudding on Karla’s vegetarian plate, meanwhile, was definitely too dry—a shame, because it looks like it could be a winner, eh? (I didn’t try the lookalike scalloped potatoes on the left or the celery-root puree peeking beneath the leaves.)

Interstateveggieplate

Finally, having named Interstate’s Candy Apple the Dish of the Week the other day, I must confess I actually preferred the charming, well-built chocolate icebox cake,

Interstateiceboxcake
made with brownies rather than the typical wafers as well as chocolate pudding & real whipped cream.

Don’t doubt we downed a number of rounds over the course of our meal, & the number wasn’t 1, 2, or 3.

InterstateEtiquette Interstatejulep
Here’s “Denver’s premier alcoholic,” in her own words, with a Standard Etiquette—whiskey, grapefruit & honey—& a mint julep.

Why the mint julep is served in a coffee mug is unclear. Is it supposed to be the roadside equivalent of the traditional pewter cup? By contrast, the logoed cozy, modeled by yet another Starz Denver Film Festival babe who happened to be whooping it up at a nearby table, makes total adorable sense.

Interstatecozy
All told, for the nonce, “Interstate” seems the perfect word for the place, as it back-and-forths between its world of commercially Platonic ideals & the real, messy world of the restaurant business. Whether it can ultimately manage to transport us between them more smoothly remains to be seen. But I’m more than willing to give it a few more whirls.

Interstate Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Interstate’s Candy Apple

My assumption in launching this series a month-plus ago was that the Dish of the Week would simply be the best thing I’d eaten for 7 days bar none, hands down, no ifs &s or buts, etc. etc.

As usual, my assumption is already proving wrong.

Case in point: Interstate Kitchen & Bar‘s Candy Apple with Pistachios, which is earning the title more for its memorable potential than any irrefutable perfection.

Upon ordering it the 1st time (I tried it twice in 2 days; complete review of Interstate to come), my companions & I naturally expected we’d be making a 3-way mess of 1 of these.

Candie_apple

So it was a surprise, refreshing as such, to be presented instead with an elegant deconstruction thereof.

Interstatecandyapple

Actually, not quite: the photo is of the subsequent order. The 1st order consisted of only 1 poached apple half, while the dollop of caramel was much more prominent (here it’s hidden beneath the whipped cream).

As you might imagine at a glance, we had a field day piling a bite of this & a smear of that on our forks, ripping apart the dried apple slice by hand. What you can’t tell by looking is that the poached apple has a veneer of burnt sugar; & you certainly can’t see that the aforementioned caramel boasts an intriguing consistency, somewhere between taffy and pudding. You have to sort of actively mix the roasted pistachios into the caramel or whipped cream before you can grasp their role in the whole, but they do have a key contrastive one, not least in giving some textural edge to the fruit, which seemed a bit disconcertingly on the soft side.

Still, ultimately the dessert strikes me as representative of the place as a whole: its prog-retro image is already so polished that it’s hard to yet see beyond it to a viable identity. More on this anon.

Dish of the Week: The Corner Office’s Szechuan Fries

***OK, technically the Dish of Last Week. A day late & a dollar short as always; following the wrap of the 32nd Starz Denver Film Festival last night, in which you may know I am heavily involved, several marbles short as well. So bear with me as I regain my equilibrium, such as it ever is, for the next couple of weeks.***

Having never gone gaga over the grub, I’m increasingly drawn to The Corner Office like a drone to a cubicle for various, only semivalid reasons I’ll go into in a later review. But if there’s 1 dish to justify any jones for the joint, it’s this one.

CornerOfficefries
Cut to ribbons on a mandoline, the Szechuan fries are what the kids these days call a hot mess. Aside from constituting a sweet excuse to flout etiquette—you just sort of yank at the pile with your hands & take what comes loose—they’re also a thrilling grab bag of texture: some pieces are soft as spaghetti strands, others fried to a complete crisp. They come with a hot mustard aioli (I suppose that’s the Szechuan part) which, while echoing Encore’s hot mustard drizzle, bests it for, well, being aioli, hence creamy with mayo.

Lest any part of that compliment sound in any way backhanded, let the fact that I ordered them twice in less than 24 hours convince you of my sincerity.

Worthy of the Name: Salt Bistro

A copy of Mark Kurlansky’s namesake socioculinary history sits on the hostess stand; a small dish of variegated salts sits on each table. And the emphasis on seasoning is loud & clear in the cooking at Boulder’s Salt Bistro, for better or worse—mostly, I suppose, better.

To disclaim where disclaimers are due: I’ve only been here once so far; I came with friends during what looked like an unusually busy lunch hour; & so between the fine rep of chef-owner Bradford Heap (also of Colterra in Niwot) & the dreaminess of the menu on paper, I hereby give Salt the full benefit of the doubt.

Besides, the doubt that does exist is as much due to the front as the back of the house; for being slammed, our server sure didn’t seem much bothered, & the 2-course meal took nearly 2 hours. Thus a side of roasted cauliflower with capers & breadcrumbs, for instance,

Saltcauli
was doubly disappointing for being not only overly salty—above & beyond the capers—but also lukewarm & a little limp, suggesting it sat for awhile before delivery. Since of all the dishes we ordered—salads, soup & a burger too—it was presumably the most time intensive, therefore the last thing that should have been sitting around, one has to presume in turn there was some disconnect between our server & the kitchen.

Meanwhile, upon mentioning I found it too salty, Shena claimed her fries were too, & Jane recalled that the same was true of the chicken potpie she’d had on another occasion. Me, I thought the fries were fine, so you can take the hearsay with a grain of you know what—but take it nonetheless; the consensus that someone’s got a heavy hand with the shaker’s pretty clear.

Ditto with the dressing vessel.

Saltsalad
As one who errs on the side of overdressing as well, I sympathize, but toward the bottom it was soggy to a degree I imagine many would have found unacceptable.

That aside, it was a damned yummy salad. With chunks of roasted butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, caramelized onions, crumbled goat cheese, & slivers of some fantastic sauteed mushrooms—I’m not sure what they were, but I’m sure they weren’t button, portobello, shiitake, or oyster; hen of the woods, maybe? something exotic & meat-juicy, anyway—atop lively mixed greens, it rocked the salty-earthy-sweet spectrum, not least for that balsamic vinaigrette, which I usually avoid but which was the right choice here.

I didn’t sample Jane’s soup & salad special du jour, but she expressed unqualified pleasure with both. The former blended apple & fennel slices with baby spinach, frisée & candied walnuts; the latter was Tuscan white bean with ham hock.

Saltsalad2 Saltwhitebeanhamhocksoup

The Tom’s Tavern Grassfed Burger takes its name, of course, from the longtime Pearl Street diner Salt has replaced; the respect Heap means to show the erstwhile institution & its place in Boulder culture is admirable, right down to the fact that the old logo remains on the eastern façade—but as Jane said after Shena ordered the sandwich, “this homage will be 10 times better than Tom’s ever dreamed of.”

She was at that point more confident than I, who was peeved on Shena’s behalf that her request for a medium-rare patty was met with a recommendation that it be medium instead, since “a lot of customers who order it medium-rare end up sending it back because they think it’s too pink.” To attribute a lack of savvy or foresight to dissatisfied customers rather than just admitting the kitchen prefers to follow FDA standards seemed disingenuous if not a little insulting.

Saltburger
But the burger looked terrific—inside & out. Topped with bacon, Grafton cheddar & pickled onions inside a gorgeous fluffy shiny bun, the Lasater Ranch beef patty, Shena showed us, was indeed sufficiently pink in the middle. And the aforementioned fries with housemade ketchup gave great golden yield.

It took over half an hour for the server to clear our plates, present dessert menus, & bring the apple crostada we chose—but the sweet was worth the sour wait, as I noted in Dish of the Week a few days ago.

On a mixture of hard evidence & faith, then, I’ll say likewise that Salt is probably worth its namesake.

Salt on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Salt’s Apple Crostada w/ Cheddar Crust, Buttermilk-Caramel Ice Cream & Maple-Bourbon Reduction

It may only be Tuesday, but I’m already calling a landslide for the dessert I tried at Salt today.

Saltcrostada
Though it wasn’t perfect—the nicely spiced apple slices were a tad too toothy, & the reduction too faint—it was close, being as savory as sweetness gets. Even the ice cream was more buttermilky than intensely caramel, & as for the crust, with its tinge of cheddar tang—there could be worse ways to go than getting encased alive inside it & trying to no avail to gobble your way out. Dying with a grin & all that.

More on the full meal forthwith.

Pumped by Fuel

Ensconced in a half-empty office park in the middle of a field,

Fuel Fuel

doesn’t enjoy the most welcome or auspicious setting—at least not in the eyes of one such as myself, who has a) gone out of her way, risking a lifetime of poverty & professional failure, to avoid office parks & b) been traumatized by fields in general ever since

Children-of-the-corn-child-cult
Children of the Corn.

But all my terror was overcome with one bite. And the ensuing bliss escalated with every bite thereafter over the course of 2 visits.

Fuelfritters
Quinoa-feta fritters weren’t the prettiest things I ever saw, but they sure were tasty little poppers. With their dark-brown crunchy shell & melting interior of the namesake nutty grain mixed with salty cheese, they amounted to one of the few worthwhile twists on arancini I’ve ever encountered. (Since arancini—balls of rice plus cheese and/or ground meat, peas, etc., rolled in cornmeal & deep-fried, so named for their supposed resemblance to oranges—are among the many gastronomic gifts Italy has given us that never, ever break, so generally we shouldn’t be wasting time trying to fix them.) They were made all the fresher & more complex by the basil leaves, which I used as a wrapper, & droplets of honeyed citrus gastrique.

Fuelcalamari

Squid stuffed with wild rice, mushrooms & greens & then…braised?…in an intense creamy tomato sauce may, along with Black Pearl’s signature fried calamari chunks, now be my favorite squid dish in town. From within the perfectly textured flesh—tender, but with integrity (like me! Heh, I never get sick of that joke, do you? Don’t answer)—spilled forth an absolutely wonderful, again nutty, crumbled-earthy filling with just the slightest sophisticated hint of herbed bitterness. If it weren’t for the tomatoes (a New World plant, after all that only reached the Old World a couple centuries ago), I’d liken the dish to an archeological find from ancient Mediterranean ruins. (OK, & the wild rice, of which most species are also New World. Whatever…) It was that evocative. I exaggerate? I wax melopoetic? Only 1 way for you to find out.

Fuellambmeatballs

Upon ordering lamb albondigas, I expected, well, albondigas—that is, meatballs. These were whole grilled patties. But beyond that odd (neither here nor there, just odd) surprise, the app was exactly as expected: moist meat seasoned simply to let its flavor shine through—you know how mushrooms are often, rightly, described as meaty? I swear lamb is mushroomy—plus warm, fluffy pita-style flatbread; dressed cress, always good for a counterbalance to umami; & a proper chimichurri. I happen to like mine extra-sour the way my buddy Rebecca Caro of From Argentina with Love makes it, but Fuel’s version was well-balanced.

Fuelbruschetta

As for the butternut squash bruschetta with chickpea puree, pickled onions & candied chiles (not jalapeños, we were told, but something milder: Anaheim, maybe?)—its flavors were as crayon-bright asits hues; I especially loved the sweet-&-sour kick of the garnish. I wonder if the puree wouldn’t have been rendered even more vivid by the squash, blended right in with the garbanzos, although I understand thatcubes probably boast more visual & textural appeal.

Having thus plowed through the entire selection of small plates, the Director & I kept going, like some the twin-glutton equivalent of the Lawnmower Man, through the appetizer portion of gnocchi with wild mushrooms, amontillado & herb oil.

Fuelgnocchi
Our server raved about it in advance, which naturally meant I was skeptical in advance, despite the evidence so far in her favor. After all, because it’s a bitch to perfect, gnocchi’s rarely everything it’s cracked up to be.

But she spoke the truth. These were exquisite little dumplings, as soft & yielding & creamy as could be. While the sauteed buttons, porcini & oyster mushrooms (I’m guessing? Maybe &/or shiitakes?) made for a natural complement—really, what plays better, more gently together than spuds & fungi?—the sherry & herbs offered the necessary contrast, the elegant highlight.

I let the Director choose the entree; I didn’t ask what sold him on the bourbon-brined pork loin with brown butter spaetzle & brussels sprouts, but I’d be willing to bet the answer lies somewhere between the bourbon & the pork. For me, the magic word was spaetzle, basically dumplings in shreds. As it seemed, the menu description turned on some magic omissions, as well—like walnuts & bacon &, I think, cream.

Fuelpork

Or were they pecans? Just by looking, I can’t tell, & just by thinking, I can’t remember or guess, since walnuts are often linked to brussels sprouts but pecans are commonly paired with pork. I could do a little fact-checking, but it seems irrelevant given the point, which is that the dish was a damned autumnal harmony in any case, the loin juicy & just a touch pink, the way it should be now that everyone agrees we as a nation cooked the shit out of pork for far too long.

Upshot: I’ll be back & back & back again, cubicle zombies & murderous farm kids be damned.

Fuel Cafe on Urbanspoon

Colt & Gray sets the swank stage for a Craft Cocktail Powwow with Colonel Hector Bravado & Mark Antonation, Pt. 2. With bonus whiff of Benton Essence!

Continued from Part the Oneth.

Round 2 included an order of blue cheese–dusted gougères—or what Mark called, when The Colonel requested a definition, “The trick in James Bond where they stick their fingers in your eyes & push.” Heh, good one. Granted, they didn’t fit any definition I know either, looking & tasting more like fried cheese nuggets than the mini savory profiteroles they usually are. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Down they went.

CnGgougeres

So far, then, every single thing I’d tried had been a surprise in one way or another—& all, in the adventure-oriented scheme of things, pleasant ones.

The Seis was no exception.

CnGSeis

Since in the US, most of the flavor has been hybred right out of it, the thought of watermelon rarely grabs me (except in Italy, & even there my appreciation is a function of context—because it’s called cocomero, & it’s often kept by the slice along with fresh coconut in a sort of fountain bath at the carts of street vendors, & in short it’s all kinds of whimsical & picturesque).  But watermelon juice with rum, falernum & Benton essence—not that I knew what the latter was—piqued my interest. I’m glad it did, because it was delicious—lightly flowery, a touch spicy, with some sort of spiced sugar rim.

Having since found out what Benton essence is, I’m all the more impressed. Per head barman Kevin Burke, who satisfied my curiosity via e-mail:

Mmm Benton essence. Benton’s is a heritage pork producer. They cure prosciutto as well as bacon. Their bacon is incredibly rich and smoky. I have the kitchen render the bacon and use a fat-wash infusion as well as atmospheric compression to infuse a blackstrap rum. The aromatic compounds in the bacon fat are alcohol soluble, so the smoke and sweetness is left behind when I let the rum/bacon emulsion sit and break like a salad dressing. I then freeze it to solidify the fat and filter it through a coffee filter. I’m left with what is essentially smoke-infused rum that is a little bit salty and a little bit sweet, just like bacon.

Well ding-dong dang & hot damn. No wonder the watermelon tasted so good.

The Director’d joined us by then, & though he just stuck with his usual single malt, the sight of handmade ice cubes was a thrill.

CnGice

Meanwhile, Denver Six Shooter’s own Max Vitesse had also swung by; as the conversation was turning to our favorite local watering holes—which Mark had defined for us as “the perfect combination of atmosphere and drink”—Max gave a nod to TAG. “Downstairs on Monday nights, when Mike’s at the bar, he just lays everything out & then says, ‘What do you want? What kinds of things do you like?’ And makes you something on the spot.” I can’t confirm his claim firsthand, but I plan to.

As for our experts’ list-toppers:

Antonation: Delite. They’re not killing it, but the bartenders know what they’re doing, & they make a perfect mojito. Plus there’s that whole open garage door thing.

Lola. I don’t know if they have a reputation for cocktails, but they have a great tequila list. I order the Sotol margarita with Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, usually reposado or añejo. Sotol is pretty similar to tequila or mezcal, & the Hacienda añejo has a really nice smoky flavor that goes well with the lime. Plus, Lola uses sea salt to rim the glass, so you also get a nice oceany taste.

I order mine straight up in a martini glass. The first time I ordered one, the bartender was quizzing me about my flavor preferences & suggested the sotol instead of tequila. Now I order one every time I go there. If I’m ordering from a waiter instead of the bartender, I usually have to describe it in a lot of detail to get the right drink. Makes me want one right now just thinking about it.

Full disclosure: I’d never heard of sotol before this conversation; I thought Mark said a “so-tall margarita.” Which makes me want one right now just thinking about it
. Or at least I think I’ve never heard of it—sounds like the kind of thing I’d be trying long past the point at which I might remember trying it.

Meanwhile, Mark was also trying to remember whether Lola still has a build-your-own-bloody-mary bar, prompting The Colonel to retort, “I never understood the ‘build your own’ concept. ‘Here, fuck up your own drink!'”

The Pioneer on University, because they were really good to me when I was unemployed.

And I’ll go with the Falling Rock Tap House. It offers the beer variety I need & it’s the first place that I ever had Old Potrero Single Malt Rye.

The Colonel: My number 1 doesn’t have a name. It’s the bar next to Cosmo’s Pizza on the Hill in Boulder. My favorite bartender is Glenn; he has a signature drink called the Broadway.***

I’m also gonna have to say Dazzle. The drinks are heinously overpriced, but I’ve more or less lived at Dazzle, legless, 2 or 3 times a week. And, this is so embarrassing, but the Village Tavern at the Flatirons Crossing. The bartender was the first one that signed up on Denver Six Shooter to give me a shoutout. And they have the best happy hour.

Red Square for a good carafe of dill-infused vodka & a big carafe of Black Cherry Effen vodka. Oh, and the fuckin’ Thin Man! They do their own infused vodkas.

Moving on to Round 3, we stuck with wine & beer. At some point Mark also snagged some fried oysters; handsome though they were on their bed of rock salt, they were also few & far between, so I let him & them be. His thumbs up: “Briny!”

CnGfriedoysters

Delving deeper into the topic, I found it mighty interesting that, in response to the question, “What’s the best drink you’ve ever had here in town?” both gents recalled classic juice glasses as served to them at high-end joints that weren’t on their list of go-tos. Goes to show, I guess, how key pure comfort is when it comes to naming favorites.

The Colonel: The best Manhattan I ever had was at Oceanaire. It was a fuckin’ kitty wading pool, perfectly chilled—I love it when there’s a layer of ice flecks on the top—and mixed so that the good bite of the bourbon remained in the foreground. I had two. It was also that the cocktail waitress on duty had this courtesan grace about her: quick-witted and warm and in total command of her environment, attentive without being servile. I wish I could remember her name.

Antonation: I was at Venice & I saw a Rusty Nail on the bar menu, which you never see. Because of the Drambuie, I think it’s a difficult drink to hit the right balance with. But before it even hit my lips, I caught the aroma & I was like, this was what my dad used to drink at cocktail parties!

Now that we’d covered the past & present, I had to ask: what would you most like to see in Denver bars? How should the scene evolve from here on out?

Antonation: Actually, it’s what I don’t want to see. I don’t think I want to see everyone doing [what Colt and Gray is doing], because I don’t think everyone would do it well. For instance, I love The Meadowlark, it’s just an awesome place, but they’ve got one of those cocktail lists that I avoid.

Agreed. Pay heed, PS Lounge.

The Colonel: I’d like to see more people doing coke right off the bar. It’s 2009. Whey should you have to go hunch over in the bathroom like a fucking animal? Also, I think I should be paying for drinks less often.

Oh, Colonel. Agreed, agreed.

OK, seriously? About ten years ago, I suggested a steak martini as a lark: cold vodka with a piece of rare–medium-rare steak wrapped around the inside of the glass, maybe a piece of pickled carrot floating in it. You polish off the hooch as the meat bleeds into it, then eat the vodka-soaked piece of steak. Everyone thought I was nuts back then, but with bacon-infused vodka available now, it doesn’t seem so nuts.

And with that, we headed off into the night, visions of ribeye dancing in our heads—as well as of, at least in my case, the lobster bangers & mash I’d spied on Colt and Gray’s menu. ‘Til next time—which had better be in no time.

*** I zonked out for a second at this point, but the Colonel filled me in on the Broadway later by quoting fellow Denver Six Shooter Abbott Westwind: “Into my glass go the bitters, Makers Mark, Amaretto & Grand Marnier, with a squeezed lemon hugging the rim.” I’m sure there’s a joke here about bitters-laced rim-huggers, but I don’t know what it is, do you?

In the rough of change, Black Pearl still a big fat white diamond

Neighborhood places are like spouses—you take ’em for better or worse, willing your memory of the honeymoon phase to see you through moments of disappointment, periods of disillusionment.

With the official installation of a new chef in the kitchen at the Director’s & my own special rendezvous, Black Pearl (you can read about Sean Huggard’s departure here), I steeled myself for just such a rocky spell—especially after an exploratory meal that went from

BPquail
smoked quail whose saltiness overpowered the accompanying arugula, pine nuts, dried apricots & even cilantro pesto, which was actually undetectable (although, picked out one by one, the cornbread croutons were good)

to conversely underwhelming, pale-flavored roasted beer-can chicken with field greens, tomatoes & asparagus that, despite bits of bacon & yet more good croutons (beer bread this time), essentially amounted to a lackluster salad.

BPbeercanchicken

Eh.

BUT. Several happy hours & another full meal (starting with a bread basket of excellent light rye, sourced I believe from the Denver Bread Company) later, I’m so relieved to see new guy Micah Watkins smoothing everything over in the spunky style that cowboy hat he sometimes wears reveals.

Above all, upon 2nd try, the chicken proved a whole different animal—less saladlike this time & super-juicy, with a lemony lager-laced broth & an uncredited cameo by roasted peaches whose sweetness presented the missing cohesive piece, balancing the bacon & the bitterness of the croutons (actually a bit burnt—perhaps accidentally, but I liked their edge).

BPbeercanchicken2

Aaaah!

Two out of 2 lamb burgers have been just terrific—

BPlambburger

BPlambburger2

from fat, dripping medium-rare patty to tender brioche bun to, oh my, blue cheese fondue with just a touch of lemon, I think, to cut the sheer pungent richness. (As for the fries, they’ve always been too delish to quit.)

The lobster BLT isn’t quite the burger’s equal, but it sure doesn’t suck.

BPlobstersandwich

Turns out focaccia is a fine, olive-oily foil for light, sweet lobster meat. I bet a simple hot lobster roll (not to raise the eternal debate over hot vs. cold) would rock on focaccia.

Contrary to the sensibilities the kitchen characteristically exhibits, a recent weekly special of mild ruby red trout didn’t offer much by way of bold contrasts, emphasizing instead complementary dulcet tones of corn-honey slaw & crushed pistachios.

BPtrout

But pistachios fare even better amid squid.

BPcalamari

What was for quite some time the signature chili-fried calamari—one of the 1st dishes I lauded upon launching this blog—has morphed into a mound of springy, creamy-flavored chunks of mollusk mixed with pistachios, scallions, aged soy & toasted garlic that’s every bit as vibrant as its predecessor.

And though I’m generally against topping oysters with much but the usual accoutrements—horseradish, lemon, Tabasco (which are still more than true connoisseurs, who down them plain, will tolerate)—the addition of a pink peppercorn–tarragon mignonette to the Blue Points & ponzu, chili oil & sesame-cucumber garnish to the Goose Points

BPoystermix

is really smart (so long as you’re expecting it; we weren’t when we ordered those there oysters, but in retrospect I was glad I’d given them a try).

Also super-smart is the cheese plate.

BPcheeseplate

clockwise from top L: goat, manchego, blue, gouda

Skipping the fresh fruit & dried fruit & fruit this & fruit that that so often correlate to skimping on the star ingredient, Black Pearl’s kitchen actually delivers the hunks you paid for: in this particular case, Haystack Mountain goat  (a tad dried out, but okay); a heavily veined—hell, clotted—& sumptuously tangy bleu d’auvergne; an aged gouda that wasn’t quite as sharp & nutty as my favorite ones are, but almost; & the evening’s “forever changing” selection, a manchego that, by compensation, was sharper & nuttier & perhaps better than any other I’ve had. Sesame crackers & a few spoonfuls of honey were all the trimmings they needed.

Meanwhile, the cornmeal-crusted avocado spears, which come with a swirled dip of cream cheese & pico de gallo, are kind of nothing but trimmings—a wholly unnecessary part of any meal.

BPavocado

Which (minus a lone underripe piece, but better that than a mushy one) is, of course, precisely what makes them so good. Especially after an equally uncalled-for slug of tequila.

So cowboy hats off to you, Watkins.

Black Pearl on Urbanspoon