Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: “Spaghetti & Meatballs” at Euclid Hall

Though what I really wanted was the “fries with eyes”—fried smelts with malt vinegar aioli & bottarga (dried, cured, pressed roe)—I was trying to behave when I stopped by Euclid Hall yesterday afternoon. A side of roasted spaghetti squash with mushroom croquettes, blistered tomatoes, fresh oregano & Pecorino croutons sounded relatively benign.

So it was, from a dietary perspective; flavorwise, though, it was fierce, spraying rounds of ammo in the form of chopped garlic & chili flakes. Granted, those juicy, earthy, whole-wheaty croquettes softened each blow. What a perfect light lunch.

Tom’s Urban 24: Looking Good!

Let us count all the obstacles Tom’s Urban 24 had to overcome to impress me at a media preview Fri. morning: 1) American-style breakfasts bore me; most egg dishes leave me cold, and my sweet tooth, limited as it is even come dessert, positively shrinks into the cavity before dinner. Also, bacon shmacon. 2) While I recognize that eponymous owner Tom Ryan’s résumé is remarkable—apparently he invented Pizza Hut’s stuffed-crust pizza and McDonald’s McGriddles before founding Smashburger—my assiduous avoidance of all things franchised means I’ve never experienced any of its highlights for myself. 3) I was resoundingly hungover.

But like that, like that, like that, the Samba Room’s replacement on Larimer Square cleared those hurdles lickety-split. Provided the kitchen can realize the potential it showed today on a 24/7 basis, treating paying customers the way it treated us, this place is gonna be a huge hit.

The look skews retro,

but the mural reveals a thoroughly modern concern for local sourcing (those commodity-shaped magnets can be moved around to indicate where the ingredients are coming from at any given time).

Admirable as that may be, it pales in comparison to the use of that most massive of mass-produced foodstuffs, boxed cereal, as a squealingly delightful topping for warm, fresh, stickily glazed doughnuts whose airy-crumbed texture & lightly buttery savor was utterly dreamy. Flavors will change daily, but I adored the Cap’n Crunch embedded into white icing (ditto Froot Loops); the chipotle-chocolate—rich but not too sweet, the heat filtering through subtly toward the finish; & the maple-bacon, which, yes, even I appreciated for its 2-toned lusciousness. Unresponsive sweet tooth, melted.

All the further by housemade Pop Tarts, whose fillings—both sweet & savory—will also rotate on a daily basis; we tried vibrant apple, strawberry, &, my favorite, the deeply intense, at once dark & creamy fig & goat cheese. But here too, it was the texture of the pastry above all, tender & delicately flaky, that won me over.

Pancake flavors will change daily as well, from red velvet & poppyseed-lemon to pumpkin spice & banana-caramel (pictured); I didn’t try this stack, but Eater’s Adam Larkey was practically swooning.

Pal @MO_242‘s Treehugger Benedict with avocado & (added) bacon was perfectly respectable,

but my 4-egg chorizo-&-green chile omelet was even better, I thought. Yet again, texture made all the difference; the dry ingredients—chorizo, green chile, blue-corn tortilla chips—were chopped as fine as confetti, while the 3 cheeses oozed out from every angle, giving the springy, fluffy eggs an almost casserole-like aspect (as Mo rightly pointed out). The jam is made in house—with butter. What?!

A quick glimpse of the corned-beef hash, clearly chock-full of veggies.

In short, color me happily impressed indeed, and hopeful that quality control will remain a high priority. With the start of the film festival next week, believe you me I’ll be heading back for walnut-bourbon caramel corn, matzoh-fried chicken with green chile gravy, & maybe even a WTF cocktail or 2 just for giggles (look it up). See ya there.

Tom's Urban 24 on Urbanspoon

First Impressions: Chowdown at TAG Burger Bar

Neon graffiti murals & chalkboards in the bathroom lend a lively, DIY community vibe to the burger joint formerly known as Madison Street—one that’s underscored by Troy Guard’s mix-&-match menu of 6 patties & 15 topping combos, plus 17 à la carte toppings, from goldfish crackers to Cheez Whiz to what I suspect is a frico-like “parmesan chip.” (You can also opt for butter lettuce instead of a bun, or even skip the burger altogether & load a baked potato instead—now that’s using your noggin, Guard. Love me a good spud.)

So, for instance, you could order a turkey patty Ménage à Trois style, topped with Grey Poupon, Gruyère & French onion-soup style onions. Or a salmon patty à la Lady Gaga, with burrata, tomato, basil & balsamic-vinegar glaze. Or daily-ground beef done Colorado Proud—smothered in local goat cheese, wildflower honey & green chiles. Looking forward to all those—not to mention a baked potato Andrew Jackson (for a $20 premium, as the name suggests): house-cured pork belly, fried-chicken skin, fried egg, truffle aioli, bone-marrow salt & mustard-vinegar slaw. Holy moly.

After all, what pal Adrian Miller (@soulfoodscholar) & I actually ordered at the preview dinner on Monday night showed the crew is ready to bring it, starting with kimchi laced with scallions & carrots that wasn’t overpoweringly spicy but did show funky fermented depth. (That cheapo Nicaraguan lager, by the way, hit the spot with its creamy tones.)

Potato bites let us have our brunch-style fare (which TAG Burger Bar will also be serving, complete with a spin on Hawaiian staple loco moco! awesome) & eat dinner too: a mess of cubed, browned potatoes smothered in cheese, smoked bacon bits, scallions & spicy ranch. A no-brainer: junky, gooey, fun.

Truth be told, I’m not a huge burger buff, so tend to gravitate toward the sideshows more than the main event at venues like this; in fact, I was half-tempted to throw in some BBQ brisket nachos, fried pickles & an order of mac-&-cheese topped with Cheez-Its & call it a night. But I’m glad I didn’t, because the stars earned their top billing, from Bluepoint Bakery‘s sesame-seed buns—chewy & flavorful in themselves—onward.

If I do say so myself, my pick—the Godzilla burger with an edamame-based veggie patty—was an umami-rich natural, the latter’s fresh green notes brightening the smoked Japanese mayo, teriyaki sauce, meaty shiitakes & “tempura crispies” (basically fried-dough bits, so what’s not to dig?).

I also loved what I took home for the sickly Director: the Los Chingones buffalo burger packed a KO punch with griddled cotija cheese, black bean purée, Cholula aioli, Baja-style coleslaw—& the kicker of chiccharónes. Come on, you can’t fight that.

Adrian’s Dock of the Bay lamb burger with classic rémoulade looked pretty plain, so I skipped the pic, but in its relative simplicity it proved that, beneath all the bells & whistles I’m a sucker for, Guard has the fundamentals down pat: the lamb patty, tinged pink & dripping juice, was perfect, its smear of creamy caper sauce just icing on the cake.

Speaking of cake, we also split a couple of desserts: deep-fried Oreos

& the ubiquitous molten chocolate with raspberry sauce.

Both were fine; I tried the latter only to humor Adrian’s sweet tooth, having been sick unto death of the thing for years. But I get that I’m outnumbered by the world’s chocoholics; so long as it’s adequately prepared, then, a bite or 2 every now & then is okay by me. This was. The batter on the cookies was a little thick & doughy, but that’s a quibble that sounds ridiculous even to me—it’s hard to complain about such a blatantly guilty pleasure.

Besides, this is a burger bar, not a dessert bar, & I think Guard was right to transform the old neighborhood watering hole according to a more focused concept. The results are better in quality than those of HBurgerCO, the choices more delightfully elaborate than those of Park Burger or Larkburger (both of which I like, mind you). So yeah, looks like he’s done it again.

Tag Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

(Surprise) Dish of the Week: Zucca Chips at NoRTH

Everything about the Cherry Creek branch of this upmarket regional Italian franchise seems custom designed to rub me the wrong way—it just reeks of corporate blandness. But I had a little time to kill in the area recently & have to admit I was happily surprised by NoRTH’s happy hour. For the price of a bag of factory potato chips ($3), I got this heaping bowl of really beautiful zucchini chips.

Sliced razor thin, fried to a blistering golden-brown, & sprinkled with basil chiffonade, they were plenty salty & just a touch greasy (yet still recognizable as squash), super crunchy & totally downable.

There are way too many independent restaurants to support to justify returning for a full meal, but it’s nice to know if I got stuck here for some reason I wouldn’t necessarily be miserable.

Yanni’s: Better than it looks!

The Landmark at Greenwood Village does not lend itself to atmospheric dining experiences, & Yanni’s is no exception. (Ali Baba Grill comes closest, but that’s another post.) Unable to escape that “multi-use development” vibe, it gestures half-heartedly toward upscale Aegean-themed decor in white & blue, but the hard-surfaced space feels threadbare. Presentation doesn’t help, showing all the flair of an all-hours diner (read: none, from the institutional white dishware to the foil-wrapped butter pats for the warm breadsticks—where’s the Greek olive oil?) Service doesn’t raise the stakes of formality a whit either—but at least the waitstaff brings some familial warmth to the proceedings, led by an owner who makes the rounds with shots of ouzo (albeit in plastic glasses). Given the prices, which tend toward the teens & 20s, a touch more elegance seems to be in order.

So long as you close your eyes, though, the food mostly lives up to the promise of the concept. Take the tarama, a/k/a taramosalata—a whipped spread composed of cured fish roe, bread crumbs (or mashed potato), olive oil & lemon juice. When poorly made, it’s a shambles—gritty, clunky, & lacking the salty punch of the key ingredient (à la My Big Fat Greek Cafe’s version—sad trombone). But when it’s well made—as this was—it’s one of my favorite things on earth: creamy yet airy, pungent, slightly tart & totally craveworthy. Decent pita, too—the oil-touched, soft kind.

The Director’s gyro platter wouldn’t win a beauty contest, but the expertly done lamb-&-beef slices had robust personality aplenty: meltingly tender, well-seasoned & paired with spot-on chunky tzatziki alongside crisp fries.

My octopus, too, was lovely—buttery in texture with a nice char—though why it was served over shredded cabbage is a mystery. It would have gained a lot, I thought, from being tossed with or at least served on the same plate as the sides—

which looked like something you’d get at an old folks’ home but tasted much better: fluffy potato wedges with a bit of a crust & a surprisingly rich & saucy mélange of green beans and carrots stewed with tomatoes.

I’m happy to add the wine list pulls no punches for the sake of the suburban crowd, boasting its share of Greek varietals—love me some Xinomavro! Ultimately, when ambiance matters, Axios Estiatorio is the place to beat, but in terms of food quality, it’s a toss-up—both kitchens prove solid.

Yanni's Greek Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Manaeesh at Amira Bakery

The name for these Eastern Mediterranean quasi-pizzas can be spelled about 1001 ways—but it all adds up to deliciousness, any way you slice it. The easygoing Lebanese counter joint near DU that turns them out from its traditional ovens with such aplomb, Amira Bakery, offers a full range of Levantine staples, including shawarma, hummus, baba ghanoush & more, much of which comes with terrific, puffy, toothy, fresh-from-the-oven pita—I had to snap a pic on my car seat before it deflated.

And the falafel’s damn fine too. Though they need to update the posted menu to reflect price changes—everything’s a couple bucks more than listed—they also give you a little extra, so it all evens out in the end. These puppies are moist, crunchy-fluffy rather than flour-dense, with lots of parsley as well as chickpeas—so they’ve got an herbaceous zing that barely needs dressing (that said, a side of tahini sauce beyond the meager dribbling on top would’ve been a plus).

Still, the pies are Amira’s ace in the hole. Of 14 different kinds, I’ve tried 3 & adored them all: the lahmbajeen (from the Armenian lahmajoon), topped with a robust, juicy mixture of ground lamb & beef, bits of pepper & pinenuts;

the za’atar, named for its strongly aromatic, earthy-tart spice blend of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac & more, enhanced by a drizzle of olive oil;

& the chef’s special, which combines lebni, kashkawan (aka kashkaval) & a goodly pour of honey for the sticky-gooey, sweet-salty win.

The lebni they use is so thick & smooth it’s almost like cream cheese; the cheese is a cousin to mozzarella. For all I know you could replace both with Kraft’s finest & get the same results. What a guilty, finger-licking pleasure all the same.

Amira Bakery on Urbanspoon

Get thee to Cinque Soldi while the getting’s good—like, NOW.

Wow. What weird timing. Yesterday I finally made the all-of-6-block trek to Cinque Soldi Salumeria after checking out the menu online. All seemed to be in order at the adorably old-school little South Pearl deli, its display cases loaded with goodies from Il Mondo Vecchio, the gents behind the counter kindly & quick.

By the time I got home, though, the website was down. Odd, I thought.

Odd indeed. Turns out that, as of yesterday, Mark DeNittis is severing his partnership with the owners, per Westword, due to creative differences. According to Lori Midson, whether IMV products will continue to be featured there remains to be seen.

But I can’t imagine they’re going to just toss them all in the next few days. And the 2 sandwiches I wolfed down in short order—don’t judge—were still killer, so if you hurry, you can probably relish the last of these babies before the revamp.

Granted, the German panino was not as advertised.

Listed on the blackboard as containing headcheese, tongue, bierwurst, gruyère & sauerkraut, it was in fact headcheese-free (boo), & maybe tongue-free too, unless that was what the mysterious smattering of diced meat was…hard to say. Spread with spicy stone-ground mustard & pressed right on fresh, springy bread from Dolce Sicilia, though, it was nonetheless delish—hearty & pungent.

The porchetta, meanwhile—rough-chopped, skin clinging, & piled high with fried peppers on a grinder roll—was beautifully prepared: so tender, so purely flavorful & simply showcased.

Hopefully, the departure of DeNittis isn’t a death sentence; plenty of brilliant sandwiches get assembled day in & day out, all over the world, without his name on them. But only time will tell.

Cinque Soldi Salumeria on Urbanspoon

The Squeaky Bean: A Love Letter, An Apology

Sigh. ‘Tis true: though I rarely let my conscience get in the way of a hot food shot, there was something in the air at The Squeaky Bean on Wednesday night that deterred me from full-on flash action; everyone around us seemed immersed in deep conversation, to the point where such a gauche breach of etiquette was bound to earn me grand opprobium. Since snapping on the downlow got me nowhere—to wit:

—you’ll have to heed my verbiage.

Despite the seriousness of the clientele & the level of culinary prowess on display, it’s clear that Max Mackissock & his crew aim to pour on the playful charm from the moment you scoot into a booth through to the gut-busting end of your meal. The 1st thing you’ll note is that the menu is a heck of a juicy read—not only in itself (“variations of radish”! “whipped verjus”! “marrow emulsion”!), but also because it’s attached to a vintage cookbook: I got Vegetables, the Director Cooking on the British Isles. Adorable!

Not seconds after its arrival, you’ll be treated to a little thirst-quencher from the bar—in our case zippy cucumber soda—& garlic knots (of all things) so buttery, fluffy & soft they’re gone in a flash (no pun intended). And eventually, if you order right (not that it seems possible to order wrong), you might be presented with a little treasure chest whose lid is opened to reveal a pair of doughnuts filled with foie-gras mousse, sprinkled with foie powder, & topped with figs (top pic). Cartoonishly eye-rubbing as the presentation may be, these babies could be slung on a paper plate or just tossed in your general direction from the open kitchen and their deliciousness would remain intact. They’re as flaky as goldleaf, as creamy as pudding, as awash in sweet-salty funk as all get out.

Dehydrated, roasted, shaved & arranged neatly in a bowl of potage de Crecy poured tableside, “variations of carrot” (unpictured) are so intensely pure of flavor they almost overwhelm; good thing Mackissock, smart cookie that he is, keeps them in check with smidgens of lime cream & a tart-savory dollop of kaffir-lime ice cream topped with crushed “citrus peanuts”; the transformation that occurs as the elements meld is something to behold.

For the main course (middle pic), the Director went for the fat-wrapped Berkshire pork loin with corn pannacotta; though beautifully executed overall, the standout for me was a side of peaches so thoroughly roasted they transcend peachness—indeed, they’re suffsed with a startling but fascinating mushroomy savor. I opted for corned teres major with mustardy polenta, fried-to-a-crisp leaves of broccoli di cicco, roasted kohlrabi & slivers of white cheddar; that beef, my friends, is just nuts—so tender yet so aromatic & pungent, taking me right back to childhood in a way few things do (okay, maybe Chipwiches & eating spaghetti sauce out of the pot).

As for dessert, the one item that survived the move from LoHi to LoDo is the Fluffernutter (bottom pic): this, full disclosure, was brought out to us gratis with glasses of Pineau des Charentes, so I technically shouldn’t review the concoction of sweet brioche slathered with peanut-butter mousse & toasted marshmallow & drizzled with peanut caramel—but it hardly defies belief to admit the thing’s beyond rich & gooey, only enhanced by the lift it gets from the alcohol & zest of the stellar pairing.

Is it the best new restaurant of 2012? No doubt it’s among them, along with Bramble & Hare, Trillium (if that counts, since it opened at the end of 2011), &, I say rather to my own surprise, Central Bistro & Bar. But then, with the exception of Trillium, I’ve had only one meal at each candidate, so I’ll reserve my final verdict for the months to come. In any case, it sure has been a bang-up couple of years for this town, eh?

The Squeaky Bean on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Porchetta di testa at Colt & Gray

True confessions: a) I actually shared this charcuterie platter with pals at Colt & Gray a couple of weeks ago, & b) the porchetta di testa wasn’t even my favorite thing on it—that honor goes to ‘nduja, the vicious-red slab towering somewhat obscenely over the octopus terrine, rye-cured steelhead trout, housemade condiments (including an intriguing escarole chutney, of all things) & etc. It’s a spicy Calabrian sausage whose almost unnervingly creamy texture is due, I understand, to a ridiculous amount of fatback.

But I haven’t grown so jaded as to shrug at the fact that something as in-your-face (so to speak) as head cheese could become a staple on an American restaurant menu. Nor would it ever, if it weren’t for brave chefs like Nelson Perkins—whose thinly sliced version is so gorgeous it looks like it should be behind glass in a natural-history museum display case & labeled “pink-limb-cast petrified wood”:

If you’ve still never sampled his pâtés, puddings, pastrami, prosciutto, etc., etc., it’s past-high time you did.

The necessity of Central Bistro & Bar

Does Denver really need yet another cheeky-chic purveyor of contemporary farm-to-table comfort food & craft libations? Rhetorically speaking, the answer would seem to be a big fat no. But the real-world answer is a bigger, fatter yes—provided the chef is Lance Barto, now installed in the kitchen at this killer LoHi newcomer. He will make you drink the cool kids’ Koolaid & like it.

I’ve been lax about posting for the past few weeks due to a slew of dragon-breathing deadlines exacerbated by a 7-day trip to Champagne. As special as the latter was, the meal I had the night at Central the night before I left for France hardly pales by comparison (both 1] apples & oranges & 2] hard to fathom as that statement may be. The thing is, you can only eat so much foie et fromage). Assuming my one experience so far is typical—except for the part where my table of 4 snarfed about 1/2 the menu—what’s going on here pretty much epitomizes the verve of our current dining scene.

Since I’m still under fire workwise, I’ll let the photos mostly speak for themselves (click to enlarge): suffice it to say the food, to a dish, is as thoughtfully conceived yet flat-out punchy as it looks—with the PS that if you, like me, think you’ve had just about enough of the pork craze, surprise: you haven’t even begun. Sticking a knife into any given cut was like stabbing a pink silk pillow. Bravo.

Left to right: crab mac & cheese with sourdough crumbs; corn & bacon risotto; superlative fried chicken—best I’ve had in some time—over johnnycake

Kandinksy-esque raw-vegetable salad & white gazpacho with green grapes, almonds & basil sorbet

Pork (belly) ‘n’ beans. Sigh—flawless.

BBQ pork chop with peach salad: bigger sigh. (Every bit as good as the chop I had last fall at the rather-underrated Satchel’s on 6th, which I named one of my favorite dishes of 2011.)

Lamb sirloin over spiced carrot puree

Striped bass over creamy tomato with beans (the current menu mentions lobster emulsion & clams; either this preparation was different or one of my companions got to the shellfish before I did. Either way, savvy).

Special of succulent bacon-wrapped halibut with root-veggie puree/garnish

Dessert sampler, including a chocolate torte to remind you why they became ubiquitous in the 1st place

You get the idea. My experience was up there with those I’ve had at twelve, Linger, Bramble & Hare, & other stars of the upscale-casual, modern American genre; one more visit & my rating might hit 5. Put it on your short list tout suite.

Central Bistro Bar on Urbanspoon