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.

(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.

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.

Dish of the Week, Salad of a Lifetime: La salade du Périgord at Restaurant Côté Cuisine, Reims, Champagne

Lest you’ve been pining for the fjords of this blog, I’ve got a backlog of sweet posts on the other side of these deadlines—and, oui, oui, on the other side of this press trip to Champagne. Though this technically belongs on Globeater, what the hell.

‘Twas here that I polished off this “salad” of gizzard confit, smoked duck & foie gras en croûton, with some apples and greens thrown in for propriety’s sake. Mon effing dieu, click to enlarge.

Dish of the Week: Sesame-seed paste at Ace Eat Serve

I’ll regale you with the full tale later, but all the aiolis, chutneys, dips, dressings & jams that make condiments my favorite food group have just met their match in this stuff from the ping-pong & small-plates parlor that is Steuben’s already jumping new sibling.

Filling 1 of the 2 jars that sit on every table (the other holds classic fermented black-bean paste), black & white sesame seeds, dried red chilis, sesame oil, sugar, salt & a little textured soy protein for crunch are all it contains—but boy, is it more than the sum of its parts. Intense & salty-sweet, but not lacking for umami complexity either, it’s just…startlingly scrumptious. A little dab’ll do ya, if ya are normal. I could polish it off spoonful by spoonful, myself.

Dish of the Week: “Chilly Potato Zucchini” and more at Jai Ho

I’m your average buffet skeptic—too much, too indistinguishable, too prone to lukewarm mush. But this justifiable critic’s darling in Aurora stands the exception to the rule. On 3 separate visits to the rather sleek & mod Jai Ho, I’ve been privy to a spread that was not only different each time but laden with the unexpectedly intriguing; the multiregional Indian kitchen most certainly does not cater to the LCD.

Not once have I spotted tikka masala in the lineup, for instance; instead I’ve been treated to the likes of the titular dish, that reddish-brown mass at about 10 o’clock (my camera’s still done broke). A rich, delish, layered mélange of breaded zucchini & potato in chili sauce with a heck of a swift kick, it evoked for my companion good old eggplant parm—rightly so. I was also fascinated by the beet fritters at 7 o’clock—crispy-soft little disks whose earthy sweetness was subtle, but detectable. And the samosa chaat at 6 o’clock was like none I’ve ever had—much more finely chopped & integrated, like egg salad in terms of creamy texture. The tomato chutney in the ramekin’s great too, though you half suspect it’s basically curry (the mint’s equally smooth). And so on, & so on—by the 20 or so buffet items I’ve managed to try, I’ve been at least pleased & at best thrilled.

Not pictured is another surprising winner: curd rice. It’s set out at the far end of the buffet with the desserts, so you think it’s a sweet pudding; in fact it’s a savory dish that blends rice with what’s essentially gently spiced cottage cheese. Startling, but ultimately highly soothing.

The two times I’ve been in for lunch, fresh, hot, paper-thin, crêpe-like dosai stuffed with aromatic curried potatoes & onions were brought straight to table; at dinner, they were on the buffet—where they were done no favors, it seemed to me, by the steam-table set-up. Proceed with caution or order them à la carte.

I’ve also dipped into the regular menu (which goes on & on), & though I didn’t love the “ECR fish fry” on the left—the tandoori-marinated, pan-fried tilapia was rather dry—the eggplant curry on the right proved a nifty change of pace from the more common baingan bharta; called karaikudi ennai kathirikai, the Chettinad specialty was less creamy/smoky than its Punjabi cousin, more sharp, clear & tart (I believe there’s a touch of tamarind in there).

And all that but scratches the surface. An embarrassment of riches, this place (though pretty awful Indian Shiraz by the glass isn’t, I’m sorry to report, among them).

Jai Ho on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Ikan Bilis at Makan Malaysian Café (full review)

Two-visit verdict: while I’m rooting hard for the small, sweet staff of Makan Malaysian Café on the one hand, I’m not about to defect from Team Jaya on the other; the latter still proffers a more appealingly varied & to date better-executed bill of Southeast Asian fare.** (Before you point to the take-out containers in the photos & cry foul for my comparing dine-in oranges to at-home apples, I’ll note that I’ve eaten both in & out at Jaya. For the unsightly nature of said photos, however, you should by all means point & cry.)

What Jaya Asian Grill doesn’t have, however, is ikan bilis, a senseless mess I’ve nonetheless missed mightily since moving here (until now!). It consists of tiny whole anchovies fried with shallots in sambal—a Malaysian staple for sauces that’s simultaneously sweet, spicy, & intensely funky (thanks to salty shrimp paste)—& that’s it, which is why Makan serves it as a side dish, though I’ve plowed through heftier portions in my day.

It wears the Dish of the Week mantle well for being so exuberantly wacky, though this almost-jammy rendition didn’t quite set me to swooning the way it had at my former go-to in Boston; perhaps the latter’s use of tamarind added a lusher, more complex tartness (there are, after all, many variations on the sambal theme)?

Could be, but Makan’s sharper, smokier sambal—with a curious molasses tang to it—had the last laugh by perfectly offsetting a stirfry of velvety eggplant, firm, pristine shrimp & bright scallions (left), to which it lent heft & depth.

As for the chicken-potato curry on the right, it was plenty likeable as an entree—smooth, soothing, brightly tinged with ginger—

but not so much as a dipping sauce for the flatbread known as roti; though typically much thinner, this was simply watery, largely flavorless—& the 1st time we had it, the bread itself was no compensation, with a tough, overworked quality.

Even staler & duller was the popiah, whose wrapper was oddly crackerlike, its egg-&-sausage filling dry, its advertised jicama absent.

Good thing subsequent orders showed vast improvement; though the dipping curry (this time with lentils) was still drippy & bland, the bread itself was much flakier & more tender-chewy,

as was the potato-curry-filled crust of these crisp fried puffs—

which, however, happen to be tiny (about finger-length); a single order may not suffice as a shareable appetizer.

On that note, take-out junkies like me beware—portions aren’t generous by American standards; even containers of rice (plain or coconut-scented, though the latter’s so subtle you have to do a bite-for-bite comparison to detect it) aren’t filled to the top. So be it; only so much dough & stew in various forms you can eat in one sitting anyway.

**To be fair, the kitchen is pretty much a one-woman operation; her repertoire is bound to be limited to what she can conceivably manage with her own 2 hands. And I don’t expect a place that bills itself as a Malaysian joint to serve Indonesian & Singaporean specialties as well, any more than I expect Chinese joints to offer Thai food or sushi (despite the weird Denver norm). That said, since Jaya does cover the whole Southeast Asian map & does it well, it simply has more to offer.

Makan on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Smoked Mulefoot Pork Rib at Bramble & Hare (soft opening alert!)

Five stars for a place that hasn’t even officially opened yet is a giddy amateur move on my part. But if the sheer skill & savvy Black Cat Bistro’s Eric Skokan & crew showed throughout their friends & family kickoff is indeed a sign of things to come—& one imagines it is—then Bramble & Hare is gonna see my bet & raise it twofold.

It’s all about the little things here: tiny rustic space, small plates (supplemented by a daily-changing 3-course prix-fixe), innumerable background details—like the fact that the clay on the walls is mixed with hay from Skokan’s barn or that his wife stuffed the pillows lining the banquette with wool from their own-raised lambs. (As if “chef-restaurateur-farmer” weren’t enough of a hyphenate for Skokan, he added “general contractor” to the mix while building out the new space.) You also can’t quite tell by looking that the “all-star team” he’s hand-picked to cook here hail from all over—Atlanta, Chicago, Maine. But you can definitely tell by tasting that it all adds up to something special.

I mean, this is just ridiculous.

The rib is cut from a heritage breed Skokan’s helping to breed back from near-disappearance, with good reason—its rare flesh simply melts away. (Perhaps the pigs spontaneously deliquesced.) Of course, it first fills your mouth with such complex, smoky richness that I told Skokan I don’t think I’ve ever had a better rib—not at a barbecue joint, not at a Korean eatery, nowhere. And I wasn’t just kissing his ass, I meant it—notwithstanding the fact that what originally sold me on the dish were the pressure-cooked pork-skin “noodles” bathed in Sichuan-spiced jus. A dab of them pure-fat apples’ll do you.

Of course, Skokan’s commitment to not just whole-animal but whole-vegetable sustainability is evident at every turn. Take the farm chips: last night’s beet & turnip crisps were just the tip of a bowl that may, at any given time, include fried kale, Jerusalem artichokes, chicken skin, or pig’s ears: “Whatever we have that’s in season, we’ll turn into chips,” he promises.

Pictured in back is yet another winner: chilled, roasted turnips tossed with broccolini & cabbage in a star-anise vinaigrette—such a smart touch, bringing out a whole new side of the earthy veggies.

Granted, the veggies alone had a way of bringing out a whole new side of themselves: a cold soup special of carrots & the whey leftover from housemade ricotta, though seasoned only with S&P & lemon juice, possessed a distinct, almost cinnamony spiciness. Skokan surmised that the recent heat spike may have concentrated certain flavor compounds in the carrot patch.

So the list of hits—most fully realized, a few potential—went on, & on, & on, from the steamed bun filled with chopped beets alongside a dollop of beet-dusted chèvre mousse that called to mind my beloved gnocchi di prugne

to gorgeous, giant Hama Hamas on the half-shell with kimchi vinaigrette

to duck liver mousse-filled sourdoughnuts with grapefruit marmalade

to a killer special of perfectly cooked pork shoulder over the silkiest, poppiest little pearls of couscous ever (plus yet more turnips! Can’t get enough of those)

to, finally, a juicy, fruity as opposed to sugary yet heartily streuseled wedge of cherry tart.

That’s still not all: while the craft beer & cocktails flow, Dev’s carefully curated wine list is not to be dismissed—chock-full of all the Zweigelts & Teroldegos & boutique Lambruscos to stir an oenophile’s cockles. Nor is the keen service (courtesy last night of on-the-ball Tyler).

Sure, this is one of those occasional googly-eyed Dear Diary accounts wherein I suddenly pull back to add a steely disclaimer: I came as a guest, not an anonymous reviewer. My experience can’t be separated from my familiarity with the staff or my prior admiration for Skokan’s work—at least not by me. It’s up to you to validate my vote of confidence (or not, for that matter). Keep me posted.

Bramble & Hare on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: BBQ Beef Tongue Potstickers & more at Adrift Tiki Bar

Well, isn’t this place more fun than a barrel of shrieking monkeys aged in rum.

Located at the edge of the Baker District on S. Broadway, it’s quite the jazzy throwback to the Polynesian-crazed mid-century era of Trader Vic’s—all bamboo & sunset hues, fishnet-strung & blowfish-shaped lanterns, ukelele-playing hula girls & booths upholstered in embossed alligator print.

Since Adrift doesn’t seem to have a website or even a Facebook presence yet (hey, like it really is the 1950s!), I snapped the cocktail & small-plate menus (click to enlarge)—you’re welcome indeed.

 Given that 6 of us covered a good chunk of both over the course of our stay, I’ve gotta give props to our server, clad in some sort of flowery caftan, who managed to keep the entire order straight without writing it down—smooth! We started with drinks, natch; my favorite among the 3 (unpictured) I tasted —which are mostly fresh & fruity tiki classics—was the Suffering Bastard, a blend of gin, brandy, ginger beer & lime cordial, garnished with mint, that kept sweetness in check with spice & citrus notes.

As for eats, I admit I kind of pined for just 1 or 2 old-school snacks like rumaki or spareribs, but the contemporary, non-cheesy versions thereof were overall pretty swell—better than I’d expected, certainly.

I’m anointing the barbecued beef-tongue potstickers Dish of the Week not because they were the best thing I’ve had in the past 7 days—they weren’t even the best thing I tried at this meal—but they were the most intriguing. The minor problem was the blandness & chewy texture of the dumplings, more like unwieldy ravioli than silken guotie; but the filling, with big chunks of tangy, tenderly marinated tongue, proved a nifty innovation on pork—& shiso leaves plus a zesty sweet-soy dressing ensured the slaw beneath was more than just a token attempt to round out the plate. Soft, savory-sweet fried green-plantain patties in coconut-rum drizzle went down way too easy as well.

Although the below brioche toasts were too hard—the stuff really does go stale so fast; might as well not use it if you’re not equipped to keep it fresh—the little coins of airy foie-gras mousse, awfully tough to top in themselves, came smartly, subtly enhanced with drops of tea-thyme syrup.

And though the black-bean sauce on the fried calamari was a touch too sweet for me, & the squid itself not particularly flavorful, the light, ultra-crunchy breading had a lot going for it—I almost thought there were crushed nuts in there. Macadamia, maybe? If not, kudos for the illusion.

I passed my threshold for voluntary ahi-tartare consumption years ago, even topped with avocado mashed with crabmeat. But some friends who ordered it offered up a yucca chip whose delicacy I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the likes of before—so thin & crisp it evoked phyllo. Impressive.

Top marks, however, ultimately went to—color me surprised—the most seemingly stolid of selections: lemongrass-roasted, pan-sauced chicken thigh alongside coconut black beans & pineapple-tossed rice, all perfectly cooked & harmoniously aromatic & flavorful.

Just goes to show that cheeky retro flourishes on the one hand & novelties on the other, delightful as they can be, don’t always trump square fare, even for a jaded so-&-so like me.

Adrift Tiki Bar on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Red Curry at Thai Monkey Club

Though I like Phat Thai rather more than does the Westword’s outgoing Laura Shunk (while taking to heart her point that key spicing is handled in too desultory a fashion by the kitchen, which thereby forces you to do the dirty work via tableside condiments), I definitely agree with her that Thai Monkey Club has a much more natural & confident handle on the balance between flavor elements that is the hallmark of Southeast Asian & particularly Thai cuisine.

This newish Baker District hole in the wall rates the heat of its dishes on a scale of 1 to 6; the Director & I, having relatively combustion-proof palates, went (via delivery) for 4s and 5s—which a) seemed pretty much the same & b) provided fair warning as to the permanent damage that might be done to tongue & stomach by 6.

So yes, this stuff is packing heat, in the form of little chili-pistols that spray your insides with pockmarks of pain & pleasure. But if mere cheap thrills were all it had to offer, I wouldn’t have been half so impressed; rather, homestyle savvy gave each dish its clear, bright due (& hue). That much was true of classic green papaya salad (pictured bottom, heat level 5), a refreshingly precise blend (once mixed together on the spot) of crunchy raw cabbage & salted peanuts; slivers of surprisingly ripe tomato & carrot; & julienned strands of the namesake ingredient that, neither woody nor slimy, evoked tart vegetable spaghetti. In this case, traditional fish-sauce-based dressing delivered the heat as well as the soothing sweet (typically palm sugar) & citrus sour (i.e. lime juice) to highlight the papaya.

The Director’s green curry with bamboo, basil, globe eggplant, snow peas, broccoli & pork (top left), though supposedly spicier than mine at heat level 5, was certainly a bit sweeter and creamier—but not thick or clunky; the medium is the message, after all, & what the curry transmitted rather than garbled was the integrity of the humble ingredients within—their nice, nearly uniform bite size; their crisp bite, period; their clean green freshness.

Still, it was my seafood red curry (top right) with more bamboo, basil & globe eggplant plus carrots, baby corn. shrimp, scallop & squid (&, okay, maybe krab?) that, while thoroughly & lastingly spicy in its medium-thick soupiness, was the edible equivalent of looking at the ocean in sunlight & seeing each wave glint in turn—the intense purity of flavor washed over you in intervals.

Given, then, how adept Thai Monkey Club is at exhilarating curries, I’m chomping at the bit to try their noodles next. But by the same token, I’m also tearing a bit at the missed opportunities of the straightforward menu: a lesser-known regional specialty or two would be a dreamy bone to throw at the likes of us chowhounds.

Thai Monkey Club on Urbanspoon