Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Foie Gras-Plantain Mofongo Shumai on Zengo’s Test Kitchen Menu

Wowee. When I was invited in to Zengo recently to check out the specials on its rotating Test Kitchen menu—whereby the crew behind globetrotting restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s Asian Fusion showcase focuses on 2 specific culinary centers, currently Hong Kong & Puerto Rico—I was happy to do so; after all, chef Clint Wangsnes has proven a rather-undersung talent since he’s been on board. But I didn’t know just how happy I’d be once these shumai passed my lips.

At 1st nibble, I was almost disappointed; silken as the pouches were, & as much as I always love the earthy zing of the Chinese black vinegar they were perched in, I could only discern ground pork. But upon the 2nd, they positively blossomed with the velvety-smooth yet distinct savor of foie & green plantain—a combination that might’ve have been jarring in less-deft hands.

A sizeable portion of pork ribs whose tangy-sweet marinade blended ingredients of adobo & sweet-&-sour sauces was satisfying as well—the tender, plentiful meat coming clean off the bone alongside fluffy, more-please potato croquettes stuffed with bacon & jack cheese; chayote slaw reminiscent of green-papaya salad added cool contrast.

Of the 2 Test Kitchen entrées, I preferred the plump, moist Hong Kong roast chicken with “Shaoxing tomatoes”—blistered little pops of juicy fruit that I’m guessing were marinated in the namesake rice wine—over Moros y Cristianos, i.e. black beans & white rice (the un-PC translation is “Moors & Christians”); the overall effect was as vibrant as it looked on the plate, with its pool of jus & herbed oil & its heap of Chinese broccoli.

Mind you, the gorgeous whole crispy fried fish was no slouch, but it was a lot for the palate to tackle, served in a funky black-bean vinaigrette over a puree of malanga that evoked Hawaii’s infamous poi—meaning that it’s probably an acquired taste. If you’re down with eye sockets & starch, then by all means.

Besides, the effervescent, floral lychee Bellini will help lighten the sensory load.

You’ve really got to respect Zengo’s efforts to evolve & stay relevant on the very fast-moving dining scene that it helped to rev here in Denver—especially considering its high sizzle-to-fizzle rate.

House Culture: Shine Restaurant & Gathering Wool

Oops, sorry, “Gathering Space.” Still, the misnomer kinda fits: some of the servers are just as hippy-dippy as you’d expect at a Boulder neo-health-food joint like this one. I hope their utter inability to do more than half a thing at a time isn’t a reflection on the effects of the gluten-free, vegetarian- & vegan-friendly cuisine Shine serves, awash in “house-cultured” this & probiotic that, sprouted this & raw that. They must be skimping on protein intake (though the menu isn’t meatless)—but they could just be high.

Or perhaps they should ease up on the fairy bubbles. While there’s a full bar (where the staff is noticeably more alert, by the way), the emphasis here is on herb-, flower-, & gem-infused elixirs. At one point in my poetry-writing life I was obsessed with the fabled properties of gemstones; ruby, for instance, is said to prevent bleeding & heart failure, while carnelian offers protection from the evil eye. (That of antsy dining guests perhaps excepted.) None of the drinks listed here contains garnet, but see below for more on that…In any case, it stands to “reason” that so-called permission sips might alter your consciousness for better or worse.

Granted, the Firewater my pal Beth tried (pictured below right) didn’t visibly ignite her passions; she seemed pretty normal. But the sip I took was exhilaratingly spicy, with ginger & chile, plus a touch of hibiscus tartness.

On a later visit, I sampled the Reset Button, which bore too much resemblance to milky root beer for my tastes, nor have I managed to access the vaguest hint of ancient wisdom via my intake of quartz. Oh well.

Beth also got the trout-salad melt with smoked gouda, pickled red onions, & sweet potato fries; said salad was a hit—flaky, zippy, bright with diced carrots and celery. I know because a healthy scoop of it also graced what I refuse to call, & don’t know why the chef bothers to call, a Caesar salad; since it’s vegan, the dressing contains no egg or anchovy-based Worcestershire sauce, which are pretty much the key characteristics of a traditional Caesar—along with parmesan & croutons, which this version also doesn’t contain. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, from the thick, creamy, garlicky dressing it does sport to its plentiful sprinkling of fried capers & dried-tomato “chips” (which, again, defy the basic definition) to the dense, almost scone-textured, chia seed-studded gluten-free “focaccia” (pictured below the salad) that’s supposed to accompany it—it was omitted from my order, so I had to wait (& wait, & wait) until our server could get around to bringing it to see whether it helped tie the room together. (It eventually did.)

To be fair, he may have thought I didn’t want it, since I’d also requested a gluten-free house roll (pictured alongside the salad) with yam butter on the side. That too, was dense, with a sort of biscuit-like crumb, & the spread airy yet intense.

Another qualified hit has been the happy-hour snack of beer-battered veggies with blue-cheese dip; though I didn’t find any of the housemade pickles the dish (pictured below right) also supposedly contained, the combo of green beans, zucchini disks & sliced mushrooms was nicely done—hot, juice-dribbly, the reasonably crisp breading not unlike savory funnel cake. I didn’t try the slider, but the vegan cauliflower mashers were fluffy & creamy for lacking dairy, & nicely spiced with just a hint of nutmeg.

And the jackfruit tacos proved fascinating. With the first few bites, I was convinced they’d actually given me chicken; I’d heretofore only tasted ripe dried jackfruit, so I wasn’t aware that when fresh & green it’s strongly reminiscent of eggplant—nor that it shreds like meat, so once liberally coated in taco seasoning, it easily gets a pass atop blue-corn tortillas heaped with greens, tomatoes, scallions & radishes alongside salsa & sour cream. If you like your frijoles soupy, Shine’s refried black beans won’t fly, but I like them in all forms; these had an appealing pan-bottom crunch. And the quinoa was downright impressive, I have to say, for its lime-brightened, grain-by-grain toastiness.

This place gets fairly (in both senses of the word) mixed reviews, but overall I got kind of a kick out of it—which is saying something, since I imagine I represent the opposite of its core audience.

Anyway, here’s a free poem.

Used as a bullet, it inflicts a more deadly wound.

Crouched in roof shadow, filling the cylinder.
My pistol is crystal so you can see. Sometimes I pour
wine down the barrel, put the gun in my mouth
and go glug, glug. Pull the trigger,
pull the plug. The bang stuns everyone
who shatters into applause at the gala affair,
it raises the roof.
My dress is gauze, wound dressed in silk,
the night fog curdles like milk
mixed with blood down the alleyway,
a wisp of a sip goes
down my throat. I’m spitting vapor
like a pit viper in a mesh gown,
taking aim. Game. I was born game.

There’s deadly and then there’s
even more deadly, blood spreading
like bad dawn, lead-dull.
Dud if you do, dud if you don’t:
law one of tourniquetiquette.
I spray raw light, shoot up the night.


Shine Restaurant & Gathering Space on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Jax Glendale’s Pickled Fried Green Tomatoes (& oh so much more!)

Breaking the mold of the downtown & Boulder branches, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar’s 4th location at the edge of Cherry Creek in Glendale (there’s also one in Fort Collins) is sleeker, bigger & brighter than its predecessors.

It also differs in that it’s open for lunch, which is when I was there for a media preview this week. If, like me, you’re a longtime fan of exec chef Sheila Lucero & her crew (Duane Walker oversees the kitchen here), the sheer verve of the seasonal seafood will come as no surprise, but the item I’m dreaming about today comes from the land rather than the sea: the pickled & fried green tomatoes accompanying this Southern-inflected dish of grilled shrimp over a vibrant succotash-like mixture of corn, favas, greens, & smoked ham plus a dash of classic rémoulade.

Provided the batter is crisp & well seasoned, fried green tomatoes are always a treat—but these go to 11 thanks to the hit of acid (& another of creamy sweetness should you swipe the disks through the sauce).

My fellow guests & I were also loudly smitten with the ultra-buttery brioche croutons on the Caesaresque grilled-romaine salad,

but the whole thing was deliciously funky, from the frico-like grana padano crackers to the egg-&-anchovy-based mound of gribiche.

Grana padano also infuses the broth in which lobster ravioli are immersed & topped with arugula pesto; if you’ve never sipped cheese essence before, I highly recommend it. It is choice, as Ferris Bueller would say.

Another favorite, this one a surprise: the flourless chocolate cake with orange chantilly (‘in other words, whipped cream,” laughed pastry chef Jennifer Helmore Lewis).

I usually ignore the still-ubiquitous 100-year-old fad that is flourless chocolate cake, but when it’s good—darkly rich, brownie-like, not too sweet—it’s really good, & all the better for the spike of cool citrus.

Also reveled in the tender-crumbed, salty-sweet, sugar-dusted corn fritters with caramel corn & bourbon-toffee sauce.

And though those were the standouts in my book, I didn’t try anything I didn’t genuinely like, from the peppercorn-crusted & perfectly seared ahi tuna with sticky rice

& the moist crème fraîche-roasted salmon over “beet-braised’ kohlrabi

to the lovely old-fashioned banana split

& springy, zingy monkey bread topped with Stranahan’s whiskey-brickle ice cream (all the ice creams presently come from Sweet Action).

In short, Jax is raring to go over here, & the second-floor bar, Hi*Jax, is soon to follow (on the 4th to be exact). You’d best be ready to live it up.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: Going Cheeseless at Pizzeria Locale Denver

At this point we’re closer to the next New Year’s than the last one, but some of us (ahem) are still staggering along in half-assed (or full-assed, as the case may be) resolution mode. Now, you might assume that just as the quick-casual Baker District outpost of Boulder’s celebrated Pizzeria Locale (you know, the Frasca folks’ full-service nod to Napoli’s most legendary creation) caters—unlike the original—to non-Italophiles (read: red-blooded, flag-waving, stubbornly unadventurous eaters) with American-style pies, it’s catering to calorie counters (read: blue-blooded, yoga-mat-carrying, stubbornly unadventurous eaters) with cheeseless pies. But you’d be wrong. After all, Italians sport their own stubborn streak when it comes to culinary traditions, such as the rule that frutti di mare & formaggio don’t go together. Though I happen to disagree with that assessment in general, I’m a big believer in doing as the Romans (or whoevers) do—& I have vivid & fond memories of the pizzas topped with red sauce, chunk tuna, red onions, corn, & capers, but decidedly no cheese, that I spent 1 summer eating in the seaside cafés of Otranto. So I appreciate the fact that Locale holds the dairy while applying the anchovies to its Campagnola pie—as well it should. The combination of those salty little fishies with equally salty chopped green olives & capers, atop a tomato base as intensely tangy-sweet as its color suggests, is pungent enough by far to pique & sustain the palate. (The crusts here, which the state-of-the-art oven finishes in a flash, are rather more uniform & therefore less interesting to me personally than those at the original, but as Mia Farrow says in The Purple Rose of Cairo: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”)

In fact, I liked it so much that I decided to experiment with my own version 2 nights later: behold the Ruthless with tuna, grilled eggplant, red onion & a drizzle of olive oil (that latter actually the creative contribution of the guy behind the counter—one of 7 or 8 adorable sweethearts who are surely reason #2 if not 1 that the neighborhood’s gaggles of young hotties appear to be congregating here).

Yeah! I nailed it—good stuff. And while shaving off a few hundred calories in the form of fermented-milk product wasn’t even my primary intention, it didn’t suck as a bonus.

Still, if you’re not watching your figure, by all means do as the Director did & go for a white (that is, all-cheese-all-the-time) pizza like the aptly named Bianca—its blanket of fine mozzarella scattered with the most delicately rendered of sausage crumbles & bright, slightly bitter bits of broccolini as well as red-pepper flakes.

Or, what the hell—do as my pal A did & stick with the Supreme: sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, red & green peppers, red onions, you know the Americano drill.

As for the “caponata” salad in the forefront, it’s flavorful enough, though it’s really just a sprinkling over arugula of random ingredients used in Sicily’s namesake specialty (eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, red onions, green olives) rather than the full-fledged stuff, which I’d just as soon hoover by itself (my favorite version also contains tomatoes, capers, pinenuts, & raisins). Those hunks of pizza crust on top, though? Perfetto, just as at the Locale flagship.

Pizzeria Locale on Urbanspoon

An Oddly Charming Detour to The Weber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weber Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Michocoán Pico de Gallo at Adelitas Cocina y Cantina (& much more)

After the apparent disaster that was 3 Monkeys Cantina, amid the ongoing disaster (i.e. “construction”) zone that is the Platt Park stretch of S. Broadway, I didn’t have high hopes for its successor, Adelitas Cocina y Cantina. But a look-see last week raised the stakes considerably. Not only was the crowd fairly lively for a late Sunday afternoon, but both bar & kitchen comported themselves with enough integrity & flair to indicate this Michocoán-themed joint might actually have a fighting chance of survival. (Even the handsome scroll of a menu points to attention to detail—& that “mezcalrita” behind it was exquisitely balanced: smoky but not too, sweet but not too.)

Take the pico de gallo made with not vegetables but chile powder-spiked “seasonal fruit” marinated in orange & lime juices & served alongside warm (yay!) chips. Served in a gigantic goblet, it was a simple affair, composed only of fresh pineapple & mango—but nonetheless impressive, a) because I sure as hell wouldn’t have the patience to dice what must be huge amounts of 2 of the world’s most annoying fruits to prepare & b) because the result was ultra-refreshing, all tart-sweetness highlighted by hints of salt & smoky spice.

I genuinely liked everything else I shoved in my hole, too. Guacamole rarely sucks, but that’s not always to the credit of the chef, some of whom are prone to adding way too much stuff that isn’t avocado—which should entirely dominate, as it does here.

Likewise, my vegetarian enchiladas were all about the intensity of fresh flavor—stuffed with savory, mushroom-studded sauteed spinach & smothered in an appealingly sour, citrusy salsa verde alongside refried beans & nice, fluffy rice. Behind it are pal A’s tamales,

which I didn’t try, nor did I try @Mantonat’s tacos de lengua, but he praised the properly cooked tongue, & his AOK is good enough for me. I did, however, sample the tomatillo salsa on the side, which had a more sweetish-tomatoey cast than I expected from its color—which called to my mind my beloved, Worcestershire-esque Costa Rican Salsa Lizano

as well as the Director’s enchiladas suizas con mole: though not the most brilliantly complex version of the sauce I’ve ever encountered (Tarasco’s is better for sure), it was certainly acceptable, with plenty of that dark ancho savor.

Based on 1 meal, I’d be willing to wager Adelitas could break whatever curse the brujas negras of Denver real estate have placed on this joint.

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opus on Urbanspoon

Win Some, Lose Some at Fourteen Seventy-Two

After 2 visits to this Lowcountry-inspired joint on Pearl St., I confess bemusement. Though a Jan. review by Westword’s Gretchen Kurtz sheds some light on the obviously well-meaning but somewhat amateurish operation, one would think that after 9 months in business, it would no longer “feel like it’s in the soft-opening stage.” It still does, starting with the lack of a host stand—you just hang out rather vulnerably in the dining room until someone comes to get you—& the somewhat awkward approach of the admittedly very sweet servers, one of whom explained to me that though soup portions were very large, “they just go right through you,” the other of whom scratched her neck a lot while alluding to the restaurant’s pair of 5-star reviews. On Yelp? Otherwise I can’t fathom.

But it also has its fair share of charms. Occupying an old renovated 2-story with umbrella-lined patios both upstairs & down, all cozy brick & wood on the inside, it’s unusually comfy & relaxing compared to its often headache-inducingly packed neighbors. On the broadly coastal-Southern menu, much appeals & even surprises: gourd soup with brown-butter crema & almonds? bison-lamb meatloaf in vindaloo-style curry with bourbon-&-cinnamon-buttered sweet potatoes? a full-on seafood boil? Sure thing. There are even a couple of wines you don’t generally see outside of enocentric hangs, like a Hungarian Furmint BTG.

Execution is nonetheless erratic, right down to the fact that some of the most potentially disastrous items are actually the most fun. The “roll of Monte Cristo” makes no sense on paper: while egg rolls & their ilk have been receiving the fusion treatment for years—filled to evoke Philly cheesesteaks or burritos, say—I’ve never seen an example that stuffed 3 cuisines into a single wrapper. This one advertises not only its Asian influences, with sesame seeds & wasabi as well as rice paper, but also French (well, sort of—the variation on a croque monsieur that is the namesake Monte Cristo usually still contains Swiss cheese along with the ham, not white cheddar as this does) & Southern in the form of pulled pork & chicken. I mean, that’s ridiculous. But a bunch of meat & cheese mixed together & fried is a bunch of meat & cheese mixed together & fried—finger-licking! (Granted, said wasabi was undetectable in what seemed to be just a glob of mayo alongside some indifferent sweet-chili sauce.)

Curiously, the barbecued pork-&-slaw sandwich pal A got did come loaded with ham & gruyère, making the choice of cheddar in the spring rolls an even bigger mystery (if not one I intend to overthink).

I assume they call this “Lowcountry ceviche” to indicate that it’s not really ceviche; the fish is entirely raw, not marinated in citrus. Why they didn’t therefore just call it “Lowcountry tartare” is beyond me—other than the use of corn, which is indeed traditionally Peruvian. Whatever—though the chunks of tuna & avocado are almost obscenely large, the whole thing comes together lusciously.

Topped with cheddar, the grit cakes needed far more crunch on the outside, but they were good on the inside: slightly creamy, robustly flavored.

Likewise, the patty on the veggie burger I got to go was downright mushy—it needed something in there for structure. But the intensely mushroomy pieces it crumbled into otherwise stood up to the strong savor of feta, roasted red pepper, red onion & green goddess dressing, & smashed potatoes made for a nice change of pace from fries.

I didn’t try Mantonat’s burger, but the serious pile of ground beef & venison, tasso-ham gravy, caramelized onions, gruyère & fried-green tomatoes he got means it’s on my list.

By contrast, the Director’s half-rack of wild-boar spareribs in chipotle-maple sauce were as slapdash as they looked over slaw in the to-go box—overcooked, ketchupy-sweet.

Finally, about that soup: I indeed received what appeared to be nearly a whole batch of Manhattan-style conch chowder. A little heavy on the tomato-soupy flavor at the expense of everything else, & the conch was a tad chewy—though it wasn’t skimped on, & generally speaking the bowl hit the spot as refreshing & nourishing on a roster of dishes that doesn’t make eating light easy.

Overall, one senses that these guys are really trying to do right by their neighbors, & they’ve succeeded in creating an attractive, stress-free environment to hang out in. Just a little more detail orientation & precision in the kitchen could go a long way.

Fourteen Seventy-Two on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: blackened catfish at Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar

I was no less sorry to see 8 Rivers close—I’ll never forget that festival bread—than I was jazzed to learn of chef Scott Durrah’s return to the scene with the opening of Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar a few months back. And after an overdue visit last night prior to the Maria Bamford show at the Oriental (my comic hero—do yourself a favor for an hour & watch this), I’m still feeling the afterglow. It’s just an earnest, comfortable, likeable LoHi joint all around.

The relatively short menu is heavy on the classics—fried chicken, barbecue plus all the fixings, a couple Low Country & Cajun/Creole specialties, cobbler & sweet-potato pie—though it takes a few minor twists & turns as well, from hummus made with black-eyed peas to the variation on a Caprese salad featuring fried green tomatoes (& the Brunswick stew is made with pork, not the traditional squirrel; here’s a great, if slightly raw, little short by documentarian Joe York on cooking up squirrel in the South).

We started with warm cornbread & honey butter; of the 2 offered types—plain & jalapeño-cheddar—I strongly preferred the latter, not only for the extra flava but because the fat in the cheese kept the little muffins moister. (Don’t hate on the word “moist.” When I mean “tender,” I’ll say that. When I mean “juicy,” I’ll say that. When I mean “of or relating to moisture,” I’ll employ the term thus defined, even if it turns a few stomachs.)

They also made a fine sop for the housemade jerk marinade, which strangely I saw only on our table—if it’s not on yours, ask for it. Addictively vinegary, if not especially searing.

The Director totally plotzed over his half-rack of ribs with mashed potatoes & gravy as well as green beans. I mostly dug them too, though I’m really curious to know what the kitchen’s smoking set-up is (if the answer’s out there, I’m not finding it)—they were borderline overdone, meaning almost falling apart. But not quite, & I disagree with the Post’s William Porter about the sauce, which I thought was great: sweet but balanced by acidity, St. Louis style.

Still, it was my honking portion of blackened catfish over hoppin’ john & sauteed kale that really won me over. The filet was eye-openingly flaky &, yes, moist, the seasoning perfect—not overwhelmingly salty & bitter as it so often was back in the 1980s, when Cajun cuisine swept the nation before the nation was ready. And the hoppin’ john was primo, both nuttier & sweeter than the traditional version for its inclusion of barley & corn kernels instead of rice. As for the gravy, it wasn’t like any red-eye I’ve ever had, being thick & seemingly tomato-based, but a nice counterpart to the greens nonetheless.

All in all Jezebel’s made a fine 1st impression on me—& the Director was so pleased he wants to go back tomorrow. It could happen.

Jezebel's on Urbanspoon

Crosstown Culinary Crazy Quilt: sweet recent eats (& 1 clunker) from all over the map

So much busy. It’s high time I take stock of all I’ve shoved down my gullet in recent weeks.

Come NBA playoffs season, there are few places I’d rather be than Rackhouse Pub (for a full review click here), which has the screen coverage of a sports bar but the thoughtfully designed & prepared menu—not to mention the smartly curated booze program—of a gastropub. The Ocean Deep—strewn with lobster, shrimp, artichoke hearts, tomatoes & chunks of cream cheese atop a fontina & pesto base—goes all creamy & delicate amid intermittent bursts of garlic & salt, & the crust stirs reveries of ye olde New England bar pizza (yes, that’s a thing).

Plus, they now bring Goldfish gratis to start you off. Pure class, of a sort.

An attempt to behave during brunch at Lou’s Food Bar (full review here) with the help of a Caesar & lovely French onion soup—when you’ve got a hankering, it’s as good as any—

was derailed by the compulsion of a companion to order plate after plate of housecured pork belly for the table. Damn, it’s luscious.

Likewise, I was forced, forced I tell you, to supplement my Mediterranean salad at Elway’s Cherry Creek flagship—a delight with chickpeas, fried capers, warm pita wedges, & that most underappreciated of 1980s food fads, sundried tomatoes (as well as plenty of yogurt vinaigrette; many a rabbit eater bemoans overdressed salads, but I shudder at dry greens)—

with the huge, slide-right-down beer-battered onion rings that the Director got to round out his adorable, bacon-&-chile-flecked chicken-corn chowder.

A drink at Boulder’s Radda Trattoria led to 2 drinks accompanied by a fine fritto misto with rock shrimp, squid, zucchini & onion with thick, tangy lemon aioli.

And Oceanaire, the only national chain I can muster any enthusiasm for, did a bangup job of smoked trout with balsamic vinaigrette, watercress pesto, & fresh potato chips; snappy parmesan-crusted asparagus in blue cheese-tomato butter;

& Front Range frites supposedly smothered in pork green chile, but actually smothered in major chunks of green chile-marinated pork, along with avocado & queso fresco. (The Director’s filet mignon sliders with horseradish sauce & fried shallots went too fast for me to nab a bite.)

Now that I can order from Viet’s Restaurant via GrubHub, I’m a happy homebound camper. Canh ga don thit—pork-stuffed chicken wings—are an A1 example of mon nhau (Vietnamese drinking food—RIP Red Claw),

& classic goi dac biet is nicely done as well—if, that is, you can handle the jellyfish, 1 of the few ingredients in this big blue world I’m still feeling my way around.

But a word of dark warning about BeauJo’s, in case you haven’t heeded any others. With our Platte Park half-duplex on the market (interested? hit me up), the Director & I have been sporadically hanging out in a hotel on S. Colorado, to which this self-styled institution delivers. We gave them 2 chances—1st with the Cajun (pepperoni, Andouille sausage, cheddar, jalapeño, red onion, provolone),

2nd with your more typical meat-&-veg combo.

I’ve had several fine pies of late—Bonnano Bros. & Udi’s Pizza Café Bar come to mind—& neither of these ranked in the top, oh, 30—though they both cost over that number. That’s right: they charge more than $30 for nondescript toppings on that “famous Colorado-style crust.” I guess you get the stale, overbaked whitebread you pay for. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, still shame on you, because we were just trying to go back & figure out how you fooled us the first time. What the hell?