Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Lardo-Rosemary Flatbread at The Kitchen [Next Door]

I recall vividly the 1st time I ever had lardo, or cured fatback. It was 1998; I was in Italy for the 1st of what would be many starry times, seated on a restaurant patio with the cliffs of Amalfi to one side of me, the sparkling Mediterranean to the other. The view was basically something like this (to show off a snapshot of Positano I took about 6 years ago. Italy, you may be aware, doesn’t generally suck.)

My man at the time had ordered it knowing a) full well what it was & b) that I might not touch it—obviously this was a lifetime & a whole different set of aesthetics ago—if I knew what it was; by the time he confessed, I was hooked. Like all good fats—extra-virgin olive oil, farmstead butter, & for all I know whale blubber—it has as much flavor as it does the obvious advantage of unctuous texture, albeit one that’s surprisingly complex & fleeting: one moment it seems delicate & floral, the next animal & funky.

And that constantly morphing essence, enhanced by salt & set off by fresh rosemary, is beautifully showcased on The Kitchen [Next Door]’s grilled flatbread wedges.

The lardo is unusually crumbly even as it’s melting, layered between the thin, crunchy, pita-like (as opposed to puffy, chewy, naan-like) flatbread, sliced laterally & into wedges. When something so simple, with so few ingredients, registers & satisfies on so many levels—well, that’s what classics are made of.

Of course, The Kitchen’s forte has always been vibrancy by way of purity; it was doing farm-to-table fare before anyone remembered what farms were, & it remains a standard-bearer of the genre now that practically everybody tends a potager or piece of pasture. Case in point: the veggie antipasti.

Currently, it’s a mélange of perfectly roasted carrots & beets, respectively cumin-scented & salty-sweet; tangy, vinaigrette-marinated kidney beans & cannellini with onions; & Moroccan-style stewed chickpeas & tomatoes, plus grilled bread. So sunny for being so rootsy.

That same kidney-cannellini mixture gives earthy heft to the ultra-refreshing salmon salad—which, over lemon-spritzed arugula, is creamy but not too thanks to the firmness of the flaked fish & the crunch of diced celery & onion.

I didn’t try pal H’s chilled, herbed cucumber soup with toasted-caper garnish, but it sure looked swell.

There’s a lot more I’d like to try; the menu’s grazer-friendly, & the space has a more laid-back feel than that of the flagship, fine as it is—rather like that of the spanking-new Denver branch. Think I’m falling for The Kitchen all over again.

The Kitchen [Next Door] on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Tokyo Dagger at Williams & Graham (UPDATED)

***A day late as usual, but I had no time to post on Sunday, as I was blowing through the galleys for my upcoming Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder, which is finally nearing its to-press date. So yay.***

I’ve only got 2 cents to add to the huge pot staked on Williams & Graham, Sean Kenyon’s much-discussed LoHi bar. But add it I will—starting with damn, it’s dark in there! Almost ghostly, really: if you were to enter when the place was vacant, surveying the heavy woods & flickeringly low light & bookshelves, you could easily imagine you’d stumbled upon some long-abandoned, turn-of-the-century club where gentlemen with ivory canes & muttonchops once gathered over toddies to debate the electoral platform of Teddy Roosevelt.

Dispelling the near-gloom, however, is a bright-&-shiny staff that aims to know your name & your poison from the get-go (even when class-act Kenyon’s not in the house). On last week’s visit, our server was a dead ringer for the young Brigitte Bardot; how about that? The 1st round was a doozy, including a cocktail that deserves the title of Dish of the Week, liquid though it is, for being everything a beautifully made drink should be: the Tokyo Dagger (pictured left).

A blend of 12-year Japanese single malt with the herbal aperitif known as Bonal Gentiane-Quina & rich, raisinated Lustau San Emilio Pedro Ximenez Sherry, it demonstrates Kenyon’s trademark sense of balance. Every element falls seamlessly into place: the sweet & the savory, the bitter & the smooth, aromatics & mouthfeel. Nothing’s ever stark on the 1 hand or florid on the other. Equally exemplary in that regard is The Smoking Frenchman (pictured at bottom), whose list of ingredients alone reveals as much: cognac (warmth & old spice), ginger liqueur (sweetness & fresh spice), lemon bitters (acid & bittersweetness), & a Scotch rinse (smoke & earth). (Of course, the bar can whip up special requests with ease; I also knocked back a refreshing, vodka-spiked, sangria-like concoction after asking for a red-wine cocktail.)

My only minor beef is with the tiny menu; serving only a handful of dishes is in itself totally understandable as a means to keeping the focus on the booze, but by the same token, I’d get rid of larger plates entirely in favor of a greater variety of complementary bar snacks. In addition to the spiced caramel popcorn with peanuts (above right), we nibbled on the kitchen’s elegant version of steak & eggs,

which I mainly remember (see: 3 cocktails) for the perfectly medium-rare sear on the meat. Nice job so far. I plan to return very shortly, so I’ll be updating this post anon.

***UPDATE 5/23/12: See? That was fast. And now, I remember what those baguette-slice-looking things in the foreground of the above picture are: not bread at all but delicious pickled egg!

Speaking of eggs, the deviled halves I tried on my sophomore trip were a bit overcooked, stiff to the bite, but the filling was swell, sharp-edged with mustard & cayenne.

Even better, however—in fact, fantastic—was the slab of boar bacon with potato purée & wild mushroom fricassee.

The meat, almost pungently tangy with smoke—like barbecue—also shredded as cleanly as barbecue—but you know how everyone says bacon makes everything better (ad nauseam, so if you don’t, where’ve you been hiding)? In this case, it was the good old tubers & fungi that took that title, adding earthy undertones & creamy texture. So seemingly simple, yet so smartly realized.

It goes without saying that the drinks were as smashing as before—but what’s therefore worth noting is that Kenyon was in the house on neither visit; clearly, he’s got an eye for staff talent &/or a head for training. Besides the aforementioned Frenchman & my own glass of Sherry, I took a sip of our pal’s signature Blackberry-Sage Smash, containing a Knob Creek single-barrel exclusive(!) & a lip-smackingly juicy bushel of blackberries kept from frou-frou fruitiness by the assertively savory presence of fresh sage.

Nothing left to do but go back for dessert.

Williams & Graham on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: The Mateo Burger

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to Mateo, but the memory that I’d dug it was crystal clear. And now that it’s right across the street from my new office, I suspect I’ll be thanking it for many a future memory.

Including an ultra-vivid one of this burger,

which pal K & I split (along with an order of the minestrone-like soupe au pistou—the Provençal version of pesto—& a side of kale chips, fried to a crackling transluence & slick with oil & salt.)

I’m not a burger buff by any stretch, but Mateo’s thick-pattied beauty could make me one. It’s everything a burger should be, intensified: the medium-rare Colorado sirloin that much juicier & sweeter in & of itself, enhanced all the more by caramelized onions & a tender, buttery brioche bun; the addition of gruyère (or blue cheese if you prefer) providing a touch of salty nuttiness. The crisp-fluffy golden fries, too, are comme-il-faut, accompanied by garlicky aioli with the texture of butter.

Kicking it all off with Robert Sinksey’s lively Vin Gris of Pinot Noir in the longest-stemmed glass I’ve ever seen

made for a lunch break that was, apropos of nothing, downright celebratory.

Dish of the Week: Seafood Dynamite at Sushi King…

in Albuquerque. 

I generally aim to bestow the extraordinary honor that is Denveater’s Dish of the Week only on Coloradan concoctions, but this New Mexican sushi franchise offers such an oddly delectable departure from the bubbling, creamy dynamite I’ve come to know & sheepishly covet at local Japanese joints (not to mention Russell’s Smokehouse) that a tip of the old paddy hat seems only fair.

Rather than being smothered in chili mayo, this was judiciously drizzled; the seafood was a mixture of fin & shellfish, including what I’d swear on my last tastebud was swordfish (I was told the contents change constantly depending on what’s cooking); & the whole mess was brightened with a sprinkling of flying-fish roe & sesame seeds. I want more right now.

 

 

Dish of the Week: Butternut-Ricotta Gnocchi at Root Down

By the time Justin Cucci—easily one of Colorado’s savviest restaurateurs—had assembled a staff who was up to executing his considerable vision for Root Down, I’d sort of written it off, more out of laziness & misanthropy than anything; I just couldn’t muster the wherewithal to face a scene that packed with that many beautiful people from open to close.

But I’m terribly glad I finally rallied. Recently meeting our pals Mark & Amy at the bar for happy hour, the Director & I shared a pate of butternut squash & ricotta gnocchi that knocked me out. It was one of those bold concoctions that hits every mark on the flavor & texture spectrum—salty, fruity, rich, sprightly, unctuous, crunchy—thanks to a bevy of goodies: brown butter & hazelnuts, both chopped & in sage pesto; baby spinach & brown mushrooms; black currants & chile flakes; grated romano & a drizzle of balsamic. I can see how it might overwhelm some palates. Those palates are big babies.

The sliders with hoisin-confited duck rocked too, slathered in lemon crème fraîche topped with frizzled sweet potato. Brioche rolls have their detractors, but here in particular, their softness & richness evokes bao, making these sort of the love children of burgers & steamed buns. Gimme.

 

Dish of the Week: Colorado Lamb Duo at District Meats’ Chef’s Table Dinner

Premature as it may seem to have chosen the Dish of the Week on, um, the 1st day of the week, I’m almost positive I won’t get lucky enough to attend another 5-course dinner hosted by a world-class chef & a winemaking rebel before Sunday. On Monday night, in the eye of the Restaurant Week storm, Charlie Palmer himself joined Infinite Monkey Theorem’s Ben Parsons for a Colorado-themed blowout at District Meats, where chef Jeffrey Russell knocked me out with his two-way take on Colorado lamb: a daringly rare loin chop & a shoulder crépinette (a type of caul-fat-encased sausage), shredding at the touch of a fork. Like his cooking methods, his simple presentation let the lamb be lamb: black-trumpet mushrooms in the form of both coulis & roasty nubbins complemented the meat’s earthiness, as did brussels sprouts leaves fried to translucence; a few golden raisins iced the cake. And IMT’s 2010 Petite Sirah proved a classic match, musky on the nose but plenty juicy with cranberry on the palate.

Of course the rest of the meal was nothing to sniff at, starting with cauliflower-almond velouté—unexpectedly toasty & almost créme brulèe-like in texture, surrounding a dumpling that burst with sweet lobster & sprinkled with salty local trout roe, espelette pepper & crushed almond. Beautiful, of course, with Parsons’ peachy, slightly herbaceous & heartily acidic 2011 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Grilled on a cedar plank, skin-on striped bass had the meltingly fleshy texture of much oilier fish, well matched to crisp-edged sweet potato-Andouille sausage hash, plus a touch of butternut-squash coulis; the foam was composed of the 2010 Chardonnay we drank with the dish, whose smokiness startled me (in a good way).

Slow-braised Tender Belly pork cheeks over parsnip-chestnut puree ranked a close second in my heart to the lamb for their aching tenderness, in a reduction that I assume contained a touch of the oh-so-velvety Blind Watchmaker—all cherry pie & milk chocolate—to which tart preserved pears & sauteed bitter greens added contrast.

We finished with an admirably simple sampler of Ugly Goat ricotta, Avalanche blue cheese, & Busy Bee Farm comb honey, garnished with roasted beets & an herb-flecked disk of gelée made of everybody’s favorite wine in a can—the wonderful sparkling Black Muscat that accompanied it all.

Weighing my 1st experience at District Meats against this one, I’d have to say that the crew is really finding its groove—except I can’t, in all honesty, since the circumstances were so atypical, Palmer being in town & me being an invited guest at an off-menu dinner. Still, it’s proof that the kitchen has high-caliber potential, which I fully intend to see if they’re realizing nightly. High hopes.

Dish of the Week: Ya Hala Grill’s Kibbeh Akrass

I’m not always thrilled with Ya Hala, but when this institution delivers, it really delivers, pun totally intended. The croquettes known as kibbeh—stuffed with browned ground lamb, cracked wheat (or maybe bulgur, who can tell), pinenuts & onions—are shockingly spot-on. The exterior is fresh, crunchy, lightly seasoned, & greaseless; the interior is moist, not so much rich as deep, & nutty. The rice, too, is expertly cooked & fragrant in that Eastern Mediterranean way, whereby you’re transported to some ancient juncture of sea & desert & crumbling city…

Dish of the Week: Paneer Phall from India Tavern

Jesus G. Tallulah, at least vindaloo has the contours of flavor. Phall, which appears to be of Anglo-Indian origin, has nothing to do with it. Actually, India Tavern’s menu says it well:

“An excruciatingly hot curry, more pain & sweat than flavor. For our customers who do this on a dare, we will require you to state a verbal disclaimer not holding us liable for any physical or emotional damage after eating this. If you do manage to finish your serving, a bottle of beer is on us.”

Wish they’d said it as well to my face, but since I ordered delivery from d-dish, I received neither aid nor ale. And you bet they owe me a brew, because even though it’s totally unpleasant, phall is also intensely, physically addictive; I always manage to polish it off.

My own suggestion is to order it with mild, spongy cubes of the fresh cheese known as paneer, which at least provide milliseconds of respite from the lip-blistering, throat-searing curry. Forget balance; there are no salty, sweet, or sour notes—just a chili pall cast over all. But since it seems to lift within a few moments, you’re left with an endorphin rush that keeps you going back for more.

I say “seems” because a couple of hours afterward, your gut tells you in no uncertain terms the chili hasn’t dissipated at all. At that point it’s pretty much hacking away at your intestinal lining with a flaming machete.

Guaranteed, however, that months from now, I’ll have forgotten all that misery & I’ll order it yet again.

 

 

Dish of the Week: Plin at Sketch

Okay, I had it 2 weeks ago, but I can’t get it out of my head. While doing an interview with the local chefly treasure that is Brian Laird—the longtime head toque at Barolo Grill, now kicking it at Sketch—he served me up a bowl of these tiny, veal-stuffed Piedmontese-style ravioli in sage brown butter. Far too often brown butter is allowed to run rampant over the main ingredient, & sage can be overpowering too—but not so here, where they simply highlighted the beautifully textured pasta.  This was, in 2 words, effortlessly perfetto.

Dish of the Week: Phat Thai’s Crisp Whole Tilapia

They set it down before you very carefully, so that what you see is this:

But here’s what your companion gets an eyeful of:

Right on, Phat Thai! The stripped, chunked flesh is cornmeal-dredged & deep-fried with cubes of sweet potato & strips of red pepper, & the light brush of oil it all leaves on the bottom of the bowl, with minced garlic & Thai chilies…well, let’s just say one wishes it were a few millimeters deeper. (And that one had just the right starchy starch to soak it up—like Hawaiian sweet rolls. No, not rice, not even sticky rice. King’s.) Same goes for the dressing of fish & soy sauce, lime juice & cilantro—said companion & I discussed how we could get away with drinking it all by itself, &/or what spirit it might properly be paired with.

Full review to come.