Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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

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

Dish of the Week: Toast at Caffè on Esquire.com

I shared this killer panino di tre formaggi, pomodoro & prosciutto from Frasca Food and Wine’s take-out Caffè with the world via Esquire, but you, should you choose to follow me there, best not share it with anyone.

You’ll behold it in all its glory when you click the link, but what you won’t see are the housemade chips that accompany it, in bags emblazoned with a custom photo by Dave Woody, who did the prints that hang throughout Pizzeria Locale. Che adorabile!

Dish of the Week: The Universal’s BBQ Chicken Salad Sandwich (& more!)

About a month ago, the nice little buzz The Universal—a downhome daytime joint at the edge of Sunnyside—was generating took a sharper tone when then-chef Seth Gray was let go. Having had just gone in for a snappy little meal, I was suddenly all the more curious to return & see what sort of impact his departure was having on the type & quality of the food served.

The short answer is none at all. That’s no knock on Gray, & it’s certainly not meant to justify or weigh in on behind-the-scenes decisions of which I have zero knowledge. It’s simply a fact that the menu remains the same, & the kitchen’s still executing it with flair.

As I’ve noted many times before, I’m really not big on the American breakfast table—egg dishes, pancakes & the like leave me pretty cold in theory & sluggish in practice; here, there’s not much else to go for—a few sandwiches & salads, a few dishes based on grits (the house specialty). But I appreciate a thing done right. And at The Universal, every thing is.

I hope, for instance, that this sandwich special I had last Friday—so technically the Dish of Last Week—is still available, because it was rooty tooty fresh & fruity, combining succulent, tangy barbecued-chicken salad on a chewy baguette with shaved brussels sprouts, chopped lettuce & tomato in a thick & zippy layer of cilantro aioli; a sprinkling of spiced walnut halves added crunch & a touch of elegance. And the side of velvety buttered heirloom grits—in all their cheesy richness, though they don’t contain cheese—were just as addictive as they were the first time I tried them

in my companion’s Nitty Gritty, with eggs & flavorful, juicy chicken-apple sausage.

My own griddled Brie sandwich with apples and onions cooked in white-balsamic vinegar on multigrain bread brought salt, sweetness & sourness together in a warm gooey, crusty package; a side of chard sauteed with onion wrapped it all in a pleasantly bitter yet silken bow.

In short, if there’s still discord in the back of the house, it sure hasn’t spilled to the front. May all parties find peace & keep the kitchen fires burning.

The Universal on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Smoked Fish Plate at Old Major

Done. Deal. No. Brainer.

Back in 2011, the fish charcuterie Justin Brunson served during his stint at the ill-starred Wild Catch was 1 of my picks for Dish of the Year; version 2.0, which I just experienced at a media tasting for the feverishly anticipated Old Major, is every bit as delectable.

Along with the smoked trout (far right; click to enlarge) & pickled veggies, the sturgeon rillettes (center) are a startlingly delicate affair—not the standard salt bomb, they’re cloud-fluffy & rose-pale, & perk your palate right up rather than weighing it down. Same goes for the extraordinarily plump & juicy smoked mussels (left) in a honey-mustard sauce that frames their briny sweetness like a watercolor painting of a riverbed.

I’ll go into further detail later this week, but right now I’m content to just dream about all this.

 

Dish of the Week: Linger’s raw meze trio

The last time I posted about Linger, I was enamored with its so-called raw samosas (not really anything like their Indian namesake, but memorably delicious nonetheless). Well, déjà vu. The free-wheeling, jet-setting small-plates menu always has at least 1 raw preparation; if you’re not familiar with raw-food “cooking,” to use a contradiction in terms, there’s some useful info here—& as healthful as it is in many ways, its copious use of plant-based fats like nuts, olives & avocados means it tends toward richness, not the dry, dreary vittles you might expect. Anyway, the current offering knocked me out all over again.

Though the menu listed my choice of grilled naan or flax crackers, I received take-’em-or-leave-’em pita wedges—which was fine; I’d have polished off the cashew ranch dip (left) & green-olive chutney (right) on cardboard. While the former was intensely thick & creamy & the latter surprisingly airy, both were luscious—not just twists but improvements on their respective standards. So was the beet “cheesecake” with date-pistachio crust (center; click to enlarge): tinglingly tangy yet balanced by its silken texture, savory-sweet, just superb on all counts.

As was most everything else. Linger really does capture the zeitgeist, don’t it? Local sources, worldly results; craft cocktails, ever-changing beers, wines by the glass for the enophile as well as the novice; electric but still comfy, not painfully edgy, vibe. I’m not sure the falafel balls made with carrots & lentils as well as the traditional chickpeas exactly matched their description: cashews, gingered shiitakes, zucchini pickle & more were also listed, yet may or may not have been present, & fried shallots weren’t listed yet clearly played a role. Regardless, their flavor was smackingly vibrant, enhanced by the chile-dusted lemon-tahini-yogurt dip, & smartly served on Bibb lettuce leaves, since their interiors were fairly soft & loose.

Also inspired were the French-onion mussels. Italians aren’t wrong about much, culinarily speaking, but their insistence that seafood & cheese don’t go together is way off-base. The umami of the broth, the salty gruyère & parmesan, the sweetly meaty shellfish, the tart crispness of sliced apples & fennel, the crunch of the warm grilled sourdough for sopping it all up—this dish was a reminder that there’s virtually nothing that can’t be combined if you’ve got the vision & the touch.

As for the coconut milk-based Thai soup known as tom kha gai, it doesn’t usually contain butternut squash or avocado, but their addition here provided buttery sweetness & warmth.

My companions & I dug into some other goodies as well—unusually creamy salmon ceviche with super-papery root-veggie chips, for instance,

as well as some bao, tacos & dosai. But it’s the raw dishes that will continue to, yes, linger in my thoughts. On that note, sister restaurant Root Down hosts a monthly Raw Food Night—I’d best amble over soon.

Dish of the Week/Noshes for the New Year: Tonno at Pastavino

I’ll do a full post about this stylish Italian café, run by a native of Trieste on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, in the very near future, but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in thinking the place underappreciated (see Douglas Brown’s recent props in the Denver Post).

This lunch entrée, simply listed as “Tonno” (tuna), was not only the best thing I ate last week but a fine choice for those still committed to world’s #1 New Year’s resolution (see other recent picks here), at least if they’re taking the low-carb approach. Twofer!

Nicely seasoned & grilled on the outside, rare yet warm on the inside, the gorgeous hunks of albacore perched atop a generous mound of spinach, asparagus, leeks & mushrooms sauteed in a tangy, garlicky lemon-caper sauce; my own resolution—to not eat everything on my plate—melted away in the face of the pure, simple pleasure.

Stay tuned for more on Pastavino’s very real appeal.

Dish of the Week: Sichuan Noodles (& oodles more) at Uncle

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s you know what! This LoHi noodle bar is almost everything it’s cracked up to be.

When the Director, Mantonat, Mrs. Mantonat & I arrived for dinner at 6, the casual, warmly lit little joint was already jumping. By the time we left at a quarter to 8, it was absolutely slammed; the line went out the door. As well it should. The menu is smart as hell: super-playful yet focused on the basic tenets of most Asian cooking—extreme freshness, cross-palate balance. There’s no “irreverence” without “reverence”; my own definition of “authenticity,” as I’ve said many times, hinges not strictly on tradition but on knowing the rules inside & out before opting to break them in good faith. Apparently chef-owner Tommy Lee believes as much himself.

Case in point: the steamed bao (Chinese buns).

Traditional bao are stuffed with a lot of delicious things—barbecued pork, bean paste, mixed veggies; you’ll find some of my local faves here, here & here. They do not generally contain avocado—a New World ingredient despite its adoption by Japanese sushi chefs—or breaded & fried cod, a fish whose importance to Atlantic & to some extent Mediterranean cuisines can’t be overstated, but which isn’t nearly so prevalent in East Asia.

Lee, however, has created a sort of hybrid between bao & sliders, & he gets away with it because a) the fillings are delectable—the cod firm & flaky & crunchy but not greasy, the grilled avocado almost custard-like in texture—& b) the buns themselves are beautiful, uniformly soft & silky. (I don’t know if they’re made in house or purchased, & I don’t particularly care, any more than I care that Biker Jim doesn’t make his own sausages. It’s cool when everything’s done on site, but a chef’s primary objective is to realize his or her creative vision with integrity & aplomb. Beyond that, so long as they get to point B, the route they take from point A is up to them. Sourcing’s no shame; they can’t all be churning butter & harvesting their own oysters.)

As for the beef tartare, whether or not you buy the story that it has its origins on the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes or whatever, it has a place here, in all its cubist glory.

The curious thing about tartare, to me, is its call for bold flavoring: if you season the meat delicately to let it “speak for itself,” it comes across as bland. If you go all out, the meat always seems to rise to the occasion—to see that spice & raise it. Paradoxical but true (think kitfo). Here, the use of sweet-spicy hoisin (&, I’d swear, fish sauce, though the menu doesn’t mention it) rightly highlights the bloody iron tinge of the minced beef; drag it through the sprinkling of minced garlic around the perimeter for an extra touch of pungency.

But the Dish of the Week, the one I loved most, may hew the closest to tradition: the Director’s Sichuan noodles.

Under that blanket of scallions & fried shallots are an abundance of thick, smooth, round noodles, lots of finely chopped pork & Chinese broccoli & a modicum of broth; when you mix it all up, what you’ve got is an immensely savory situation that has an almost creamy, gravy-like aspect. It’s not particularly spicy, despite the name; instead it’s memorably homey & hearty. Next time I’ll keep it all to myself.

Rather spicier was Mantonat’s kimchi stew, centered around a barely lightly egg; I only tasted the broth, but it was spot on with that sour, fiery, funky flurry of sensations.

Clearly—unlike the stereotype of its slobby namesake relative—Uncle is operating at an excitingly high level. So I’m inclined to judge it on its own terms—& therefore disinclined to give it a pass on a couple of kinks that could be easily worked out.

For example, I didn’t think my dish of rice noodles (pictured below right) was particularly well integrated; though the almost pâté-like wedges of herbed chicken sausage were killer, the charred brussels sprouts great on their own, the noodles the right texture, & the peanuts & julienned cukes a nice touch, they didn’t meld, perhaps primarily because they were dry—if there was any nuoc cham in there at all, I couldn’t tell. I ended up adding a lot of Sriracha not because the dish needed spice but because it needed moisture.

For another, the bibimbap (pictured left) was absolutely gorgeous but for one thing: because it wasn’t served in a stone bowl, it lacked the rice crust that, for me, is the cherry on top of the Korean classic. Now, according to this Saveur article, a dolsot isn’t mandatory; to return to that sticky authenticity issue, Lee’s decision not to use one is perfectly valid & by no means an indication of bad faith. It’s just: waah, no toasted rice!

Finally, while this isn’t & shouldn’t be the sort of place to stand on ceremony, ol’ Uncle probably should drag a few nieces & nephews in up the service quotient. As near as I could tell, there was only one guy working the floor the entire time we were there. And though he did an admirable job under the circumstances, the fact he was being pulled in every direction at every moment was somewhat disconcertingly obvious to all involved. Besides, with a little support he might have time for things like, say, getting to know the wine selection, especially if it’s going to include lesser-known varietals like Valdiguié—which, frankly, I’d never heard of, & I work at a wine magazine! Unfortunately, neither had he—or at least he couldn’t tell me where it was from, which a server should be able to do. To his credit, he did write the name down on a piece of paper for me (so I now realize that I actually do know the grape, by other names).

That said, I left Uncle exceedingly satisfied. It’s got gumption, pizzazz & soul in spades—& we’ve got a lot to look forward to from the young talent who runs it.

Uncle on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Mushroom Burger at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant

I first went to Leaf a few years back & frankly didn’t much care for it, other than the pretty, airy space, with its blond woods & waterfall sculpture & green-tea ice-cream hues.

Nor was I expecting much from this homely thing.

But talk about deceiving looks. Slathered with vegan rémoulade (essentially a pungent, red-peppery mayonnaise) on whole wheat toast, it stars a lusciously velvety, meaty, nutty patty of portobellos and walnuts topped with melted provolone; bursting with flavor, it barely needs tomato or red onion, though leaves of butter lettuce add a nice touch of greenness.

I’ve been making the veggie-burger rounds lately & this is up there with my faves, along with that of TAG Burger Bar; when in Boulder town, do give it a try.