Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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

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

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

Dish of the Week: Ceviche en Crema de Rocoto at Pisco Sour

Ceviche is a category unto itself in Peru; there, variations on the dish we tend to think of simply as citrus-marinated fish with maybe some chiles & onions are near-endless, & the inclusion of starchy veggies is fairly common.

The use of a sauce like crema de rocoto, however, was new to me. The rocoto is a type of pepper that’s generally pretty spicy, but the ratio of mayo to chile paste in this sea bass ceviche—mounded atop a hefty chunk of sweet potato & sprinkled with toasted corn kernels—tempered the heat considerably. Bite for bite, the mixture was startlingly like a cold seafood casserole—& I loved how the delicate yet firm chunks of fish held up to the creamy, crunchy, & earthy-sweet elements.

But there were numerous runners-up for Dish of the Week last night, when a group of us gathered at Pisco Sour Restaurant & Lounge for dinner amid the celebrants of what appeared to be a baby shower & a handful of raucous soccer fans catching a match on the big screen. Pal A’s aji de gallina, for instance. This traditional stew, based on chicken & potatoes in a parmesan-&-walnut sauce—wait, do I need to say anything else? “Cheese-&-nut sauce” is the #1 synonym for delicious.

The all-around comfort-food theme continued with causa rellena—mashed potatoes layered with a mixture of more chicken, more mayo & more awesomeness.

But wait, there’s still more spud! The papa rellena‘s a potato croquette stuffed with ground beef, tomatoes & raisins & accompanied by a couple of hot sauces (pictured in the photo below it)—one smooth, green & rather salty, the other chunky & tongue-searing. Good thing our gregarious waiter, who I suspect may have been the owner, was so determined to ply us with multiple rounds of the frothy, cooling namesake cocktail.

Mantonat’s anticucho platter included marinated beef heart & what the menu described as pork belly, but was clearly tripe, of which I am ashamed to say I’m not a fan. However, the heart was tender & stellar; if you’ve never had it, rest assured its bloody, iron-y tones aren’t quite as strong as they are in, say, liver. Behind that, pal T’s classic ceviche mixto.

And as for the roast chicken Denver on a Spit split with his kiddos, I’m sure he’ll have a word or 2 to say about that on his own blog, so keep your eyes peeled. I know he’d agree with me overall that this extremely warm & welcoming place is doing Peruvian cuisine a solid, complete with complimentary dishes of puffy, soft corn nuts mixed with plantain chips that they should really sell in bulk to make a mint off the likes of me.

Pisco Sour Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

A Look at Il Pastaio, via Boulder Weekly

Since former Boulder Weekly correspondent Clay Fong had already covered the trio of lasagnas that features on the lunchtime buffet at rightly beloved Italian café Il Pastaio back in 2010, I focused on other favorites in my review, now live on the publication’s website.

Which doesn’t mean I could resist a bite of the beef-filled version (there’s also turkey & veggie)

before my companion devoured it, & before I did the same to the rigatoni described in the article.

That there’s a heck of a deal for 10 bucks. To give you a full account of the cafeteria-style offerings, we could also have opted for classic sausage & peppers or chicken Marsala as an entrée, as well as Costa Rican black beans & rice, roasted sweet potatoes, scalloped potatoes, sautéed zucchini, or carrots instead of the new potatoes & broccoli we chose as sides.

Dinner, though still casual, is a sit-down affair, starting with the giant rolls also provided at lunch

& continuing through antipasti like these—lest you need a reminder of the delights inherent in the Italian language, by the way, cauliflower with butter & almonds translates as cavolfiore al burro e mandorle

& onward through primi & secondi piatti like this sausage ravioli in tomato cream & this eggplant parmesan, which comes with your choice of pasta (e.g., gnocchi in pesto cream).

Though I skipped dessert, all your old friends are here: tiramisù, cannoli, spumoni.

Happy reading, happy eating!

Il Pastaio on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Crispy Sofrito Chicken at Corner House

The Corner House couldn’t have picked a better time to host a media preview of the new fall menu: gray & chilly as it was outside yesterday, the warm & woody space, with moody jazz playing the background, felt like shelter of a distinctly New Wave-cinema sort. I wished I’d been dressed like this, gazing dreamily out the window with a Norman Mailer novel to finish or something.

And of course the food completed the cozy picture, darkened only by the realization that I’d only been here once before, for the opening preview. So many times I’ve looked at the online menu with lunch plans—what has stopped me? Partly the sense that it’s way over there in isolated Jefferson Park. Apparently I’m not alone in that impression, because chef-partner Matt Selby told us that he’s started to put maps on all his press materials. Truth is it’s a few-minute drive from Uptown, and I need to make it more often.

This terrific “play on arroz con pollo,” as Selby termed it, is as good a reason as any to do so. The crackling, juicy chicken thigh sits atop a mound of chorizo-studded rice in a generous smear of saffron aioli, garnished with sangria-marinated onions & queso fresco. It’s earthy & comforting &, in short, a keeper.

In fact, earthy comforts abound on the new menu, which reflects Selby’s current motto, “Keep it simple—that’s what the neighborhood wants. Just a few ingredients; nothing should take longer than 10 or 15 minutes to plate.” But he’s not budging on foie gras, bless him. The seared lobe below accompanies a veritable spring mattress of pumpkin bread pudding, plus the last of the season’s figs & a charred fig-rum reduction that, mingling with sage oil, is a light, bright rejoinder to its cloying, jammy counterparts. (As winter sets in, kumquats will feature here instead.) Loved that bracingly citrusy, capsicum-laced cocktail too, called When Doves Cry, made simply with tequila blanco, grapefruit, lime & Fresno chiles.

And PEI mussels bathed in white wine, tomatoes & butter, served alongside City Bakery ciabatta brushed with chive aioli & grilled. Could have made a cocktail out of that broth, actually.

And seared Alamosa striped bass, topped with braised frisée, over criminally & eternally underrated lima beans plus brandade (salt-cod emulsion) that incorporates parsnips instead of potatoes for a touch of sweetness echoed in the sherry reduction.

And an ultra-meaty though wholly vegetarian dish of lentils with duxelles, grilled apple slices & sautéed broccolini.

The peach cobbler à la mode pictured in back will disappear soon; Selby’s considering a berry buckle in its stead. As for the mighty fine, tapioca-like banana pudding, he seemed worried about guests who are taken aback by its hue. Anyone schooled in the art of Italian gelato, though, should know that bright yellow means Stop—artificial flavoring ahead.

Yes, Corner House is the ultimate neighborhood place. But it’s also proof that expanding our own sense of neighborliness never hurts.

Corner House on Urbanspoon

A Look at the Beehive, via Boulder Weekly

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

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

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

& the Angus burger with housemade sweet pickles,

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

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

Beehive on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Roast Beef-Chimichurri Sandwich at Park & Main, Breckenridge

After a terrifying, ice-slicked drive up I-70 to attend the 4th Annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival (of which more later), I arrived in town thinking nothing & no one could soothe me except the 1st distiller to ply me with copious amounts of hard liquor. But I was wrong, thanks to Park & Main, a lively little crayon box of a place dispensing equally colorful modern American eats, where I met a colleague for lunch & got a grip.

This in particular did the trick.

Complete with curlicues of golden-browned, unapologetically fatty bits that clung to creamy blobs of melted fontina, the mound of warm, shaved prime rib came slathered in a chimichurri so rich in garlic I could’ve gotten back in my car & cleared the roads with my breath alone. To its herb-&-vinegar kick, pickled onions added juice & crunch, & the grilled baguette was perfectly textured inside & out.

Nearly its equal was this veggie concoction, also en baguette drizzled with chili mayo: roasted sweet potato, braised kale & caramelized onions brought the soft, earthy bittersweetness, while pickled cukes & carrots brought the contrasting crispness & brightness. Piled so high, it was a bit of a mess, but that’s no complaint—on the contrary.

In fact, I’ve got nothing but compliments for the entire meal. Loved how baby arugula added a peppery bite to roasted-beet sliders generously smeared with tangy herbed goat cheese, laid on the eggy-sweet pillows of sweet-potato buns. But gigande-bean bruschetta, topped with slivers of good parmesan & lightly touched with some sort of fruity vinaigrette, proved an even bigger, heartier mouthful.

Breck has something special in this place, unassuming & casual as it may be—but I guess the locals know that, as it’s been there for a decade. Hopefully I’ll get over my utter dread of driving back sometime in the next 10 years. (UPDATE: My misunderstanding—it’s only been open for a year. For all that, it sure feels like a hometown fixture!)

Park & Main on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Moules Marinières at Brasserie Ten Ten

Something for everyone. Coming from your average middlebrow chain, that’s a suspicious boast whose translation generally amounts to a whole lot of nothing for anyone except those who privilege quantity & convenience over quality. Every last item (they’re not really dishes) on that giant menu, from the hoisin-chicken lettuce wraps & Cajun jambalaya pasta to the potato twisters & taco pizza, was green-lighted in a boardroom after market research showed how it would activate the salivary glands in 2.5 of every 4 Americans & then prefabbed offsite—where it bears little resemblance to the legit creation by which an actual chef somewhere had launched an accidental trend.

But there are indie establishments—run by such actual chefs—that inherently appeal to a wide range of diners. They too are mainly mid-priced neighborhood gathering spots, built on solid tradition rather than the shifting sands of culinary pop culture—such that the unadventurous eater is bound to find something familiar even as the rabid chowhound accepts their “authenticity.” Here in the States, they’re likely to be European/American; even now, when large swaths of the population have grown comfortable with Latin & Asian cuisines, there’s still a subset who won’t go near a taqueria or a pho joint—unless, perhaps, it’s Americanized to the point that then the subset who insists on the real deal won’t go near it. But your classic roadhouses & delis, your picture-perfect trattorias & bistros: those almost all of us can agree on, because they speak an honest language we’ve long since incorporated into our own. (In a few decades, the same may therefore be true of those taquerias & pho joints.)

I’ve quibbled elsewhere about the differences between a brasserie & a bistro (here’s a good cheat sheet); despite the name, Brasserie Ten Ten walks a line between the 2. But that’s irrelevant here; what’s important is that it remains true to the spirit of casual French dining, & in so doing, it welcomes your uncle from Cleveland who insists on meat & potatoes (steak frites!) & your connoisseur pal who knows it’s not bouillabaisse unless it includes rouille. Any creative license taken is in keeping with its setting in worldly yet locavore-minded 21st-century Boulder, just as it would be in France. Meanwhile, the warm, bustling space has a timeless aura; the service is crisp & clean; & the bar puts an equal focus on beer (as a brasserie would), wine (as a bistro would), & spirits (there’s your nod to to the cocktail-crazed time & place).

With the memory of a vibrant pesto-chicken & prosciutto salad I had there nearly 2 years ago (it’s no longer on the menu) still lingering,

I’ve been back twice recently—& the impression that Ten Ten has, after a decade, earned its place on Boulder’s short list remains. That’s not to say everything’s perfect—but everything feels right nonetheless. Check out the charming presentation of the brunchtime Bordeaux Scramble—eggs scrambled with local goat cheese, shiitakes, fines herbes & a beet reduction, then topped with a small arugula salad & a scallion biscuit. The latter didn’t seem to have popped straight out of the oven, being a little too cool & crumbly, & the casserole itself needed a touch more salt, but it was the right idea.

Or consider the kitchen’s sly take on huevos rancheros, also a brunch item, with white-bean purée instead of frijoles refritos & avocado pistou instead of guacamole, plus gruyère &, get this, “porc green chilé”!

A raw bar’s essential to the brasserie theme, & Ten Ten does oysters right, with one of the nicest mignonettes I’ve ever tried, the vinegar mellowed a touch by a slew of herbs.

Though it looked a little slapdash—& my vote would be for thinner crostini, for a better fish-to-bread ratio—a plate of marinated white anchovies proved a fair deal for $2.

But the moules marinières (pictured is a full portion; a half-portion’s also available at happy hour) blew my mind.

Traditionally, the simple broth of this Normandy classic is based on white wine, butter, shallots & parsley, but cream, garlic, other types of onion & thyme aren’t unheard of; all appear here, though crème fraîche replaces whipping cream. The addictive result combined an herbal, floral complexity with unexpected lightness of weight, & the accompanying grilled bread was comme il faut—crusty, chewy & built to sop.

Now, there’s a whole dinner menu I’ve yet to explore—but given Ten Ten’s staying power, I know I’ve got time.

Brasserie Ten Ten on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Chipotle- & Bourbon-Butter Grilled Oysters at Angelo’s Taverna

I’d never set foot in the previous, long-standing incarnation of Angelo’s Taverna—what’s another neighborhood pie parlor, eh? But “Denver’s only pizza & oyster bar” is a whole other matter—one worthy of scrapping my planned search for a place to watch the PPV Mayweather-Canelo fight last Sat., Mantonat convinced me.

He was right—& not just because the bout turned out to be a bust (no boxer will go down in history with more skills yet fewer guts & even less heart than will Floyd Money Mayweather). In fact, the real knockout that night went down on the plate on the left:

Them’s some honking oysters chargrilled in a mixture of chipotle- & Breckenridge bourbon–infused butter, adobo sauce & brown sugar; the result’s a wild ride of brine, tangy sweetness, smoke & spice whose complexity caught me by surprise.

No surprise on the right: just straight-up hot, crusty-gooey garlic bread covered in cheese. None below either: the stromboli’s pure goodness. With my choice of 2 of about 30 pizza toppings to supplement the filling of mozzarella, ricotta & classic marinara (which also comes on the side), I went with grilled eggplant & sundried tomatoes. Comfort food warrants far more discussion when it’s done badly: stale chips, soggy burgers, waiter there’s a fly in my pho, etc. When the construction is solid, when the ingredients are balanced, when you’re lulled into enjoyment rather than egged toward analysis, etc., as was the case here, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. (Note also the toasty glow coming from Soul Food Scholar‘s pizza with sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, mushrooms & olives.)

The rest of the menu’s a mishmash of red-sauce staples & more-contemporary Italian-inspired fare: there’s fried calamari & chicken parm, but there’s also a salad of arugula & toasted gnocchi in truffled herb dressing & Southwestern-style ravioli made with blue corn, red chiles & pepperjack. Same goes for the bar: there’s Bud & Pinot Grigio, but the cocktails skew craftward & the limoncello’s made in house (check out the jars in the display case near the entrance).

Granted, as Mantonat observed later, “Realistically, it’s not an easy menu to make a full meal from if you don’t want pizza or pasta.” Though Angelo’s does offer gluten-free crust, Mrs. M—who leans that way—& he opted instead for an appetizer of beef carpaccio with mustard aioli, plus sides of grilled shrimp & roasted mushrooms. Said the author of Westword blog A Federal Case—who you’d think would be getting his fill of Asian food these days—”the carpaccio was a little bland, but the mushrooms & shrimp were simple yet tasty. We actually stopped on the way home for a little sushi!”

Still, he scored the coup of the evening by noticing the quintet of oyster shooters on the beverage list. Being at that point 2 glasses of vino down, I declined to join him in a round, but the Chach—pepper vodka, cucumber, mint, lime juice—& the Webber with pale ale, housemade cocktail sauce, Cholula & a lime wedge continue to call my name.

In the end, I can’t say I know the ins & the outs of the place yet, but the statement it’s aiming to make is clearly thoughtful, & the questions that remain are minor. (For instance, what’s with the homage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers hidden in the names of the combo pizzas? And did we really accidentally convince our poor sweet waitress that Sudoku is a type of oyster?) What I can definitely say is that I’ll be back soon. From the rustic comfort of the dining room & the soulfulness of the eats to a could-be-much-worse Cal-Ital wine list & the fact that, on a busy weekend night, no one hassled us about lingering for nearly 3 hours, there’s no reason not to be.

Angelos Taverna on Urbanspoon

CapRock Farm Bar Set to Roll

At the center of The Source—which continues to shape up in ways that suggest the reality will match the ambitious vision for this urban marketplace (see also my report on the opening of Cantina Comida)—is an island bar, flanked by a handful of cafe tables, called CapRock Farm Bar.

(Can you spot the rock-star chef in this snap? Here’s a hint. Here’s another)

Behind the venture is Lance Hanson, owner of organic/biodynamic Hotchkiss winery Jack Rabbit Hill as well as Peak Spirits Farm Distillery, whose list of nips & nibbles (click to enlarge)

is as neat & clean as his grappas, of which I’ve long been a huge fan—though it’s his celebrated gin, whose key botanicals make for a nifty display on 1 corner of the bar,

that stars in the majority of the libations.

Like a good neighbor, Mondo Market is there

to provide the edibles—

& sell me a bottle of the locally, organically made Elevation Ketchup in the process, which I first fell for at Punch Bowl Social—as is Babette’s Artisan Breads.

The grand opening’s Tuesday; to whet your thirst, here’s the text of an article I wrote about Hanson’s grappa a couple of years ago for the now-defunct Denver Magazine.

***
Grappa. Even the word is hard to swallow; it sounds like something that’s going to grab hold of your gullet and wring it out with gusto. Admittedly, that’s a fairly accurate description of the role grappa has played in the Italian diet for centuries. Distilled from the pomace of skins, stems, and seeds left behind in a wine press, this grape-based spirit has historically amounted to firewater — good for digestion but rough on the palate. Since the 1970s, however, its reputation has improved markedly, thanks to the efforts of Italian producers who began incorporating single varietals and small-batch techniques to yield sipping grappas every bit as fine as France’s great marcs, or clear brandies (which is essentially what they are).

Here in the States, where the European tradition of after-dinner digestifs is finally catching on, grappa is slowly but surely earning its place among the liqueurs, cognacs, and dessert wines with which we’re already familiar. It’s even being produced domestically nowadays; in fact, Peak Spirits, the acclaimed Colorado distiller behind CapRock, makes five — one of which, distilled from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (two of the three varietals used in Champagne), has become my nightcap of choice.

“Grappa was a slam dunk for us,” says Lance Hanson, who, with his wife, Anna, owns Peak Spirits and Jack Rabbit Hill Winery in Hotchkiss. “Here we were making wine; we had the material. And I have a soft spot for grappa, because it’s a fun challenge — what you get is totally different” than the wine of which it’s a byproduct. Like his Chardonnay and Riesling grappas, Hanson’s Pinot blend is made in a pot still using only estate-grown grapes. “While we wanted to preserve some of the cherry and dark-berry aromas that are in the wine, we were hoping for a woodsy spiciness” from the distillation process, he says. The result “is very true to the character of the fruit.” Remarkable smoothness is its hallmark, along with a hint of herbs and flowers on the nose; you can drink it neat in copitas (sherry glasses), or add a splash to espresso to yield what Italians call caffè corretto—“coffee the correct way.”

Dish of the Week: Melon-Crab Gazpacho at Fruition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruition on Urbanspoon