Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: El Paraiso’s machaca con huevos

Sure, it’s a mess, not least for being to-go in this case, but that’s what’s so great about this breakfast dish from El Paraiso. Machaca generally refers to dried, shredded beef that’s cooked so it’s no longer dry but still pleasantly chewy. Combining with scrambled eggs—as is, according to Wikipedia, popular with Chihuahuan miners—it’s served with refried beans, Spanish rice & handmade tortillas; the last time I had this much fun mixing everything up all together was when I was 8 & I’d let the ice cream melt so I could mash up the birthday cake into it & make soup.

Dish of the Week: Fried Smelts & So Much More at Trillium

Thought about titling this post “Trillium in Manillium,” decided it was a stretch. But Ryan Leinonen’s new homage to the cookery of Scandinavia and its immigrant American offshoot is a thrilla, right here in Five Points instead of the Philippines. Leinonen’s repertoire is intelligent, inspired & just plain fun to explore.

If you’re anti-anchovy or sardine, boo on you, but even so, don’t mistake smelts for either. These tiny freshwater fishies are white-fleshed & cod-like rather than salty & oily, & Leinonen does the Midwestern tradition of the fish fry proud with his mini-version; sourced from Lake Michigan, marinated in buttermilk & deep-fried in cornmeal batter, they’re ultra-fresh, light & crunchy right down to the tiny bones, gaining creamy tang to boot from the lemon-vodka tartar sauce.

The balls on the below dish, if you’ll excuse the expression, smacked my mouth off at the media opening I got to attend, warranting a last-minute nod as one of the top 10 dishes I tasted over the course of my season-spanning guidebook-research marathon. The second time was no less a charm: it’s a boldly multifaceted juxtaposition of velvety, subtly funky foie-gras mousse, sharp pickled chanterelles, cloudberry preserves & the whole-wheat biscuit-like flatbread called rieska.

I wasn’t as fond of the trout terrine, a bit bland by comparison; pretty as the central dot of herbs is, the recipe would benefit from a more rustic approach, I think, with the herbs incorporated throughout a fish-heavier mixture.

I was also not as enamored with the portobello fries, a tad thick & clunky, as I thought I’d be; by contrast, I wouldn’t have ordered the salad pal @MO_242 picked, but wound up being delighted she did. Bearing some similarity to the insalata russa so common in the delis of Italy, but gesturing toward the MItteleuropean penchant for sweet-&-sour, it’s a chopped mélange of beets, apples, potatoes, boiled eggs & pickles over greens in just enough sour cream–mayo dressing.

Though grilled beef tenderloin with roasted root veggies is grilled beef tenderloin with roasted root veggies, Leinonen makes it his with the addition of bacon whipped cream & black pepper–brandy caramel—all ingredients used in classic steak preparations, but reconfigured anew.

Better still was the beautifully crusted, juicy pan-roasted chicken over fresh egg noodles in bacon-mustard vinaigrette; IMO, the old adage that chicken is for the birds—specifically the early birds & the bland of palate—is too easily disproven to count for much. Sure, there are a lot of duds out there, but there are also a lot of standouts. This is one of them.

And the carrot cake is truly one of the best I’ve ever had, dense, moist & heavy on the carrots, served with maple ice cream over carrot caramel.

Though the space isn’t to my taste—a little bare & glaring—the staff is lovely (that Linda’s a fittingly-named charmer) &, most important, Leinonen’s food is so winning—& so unlike anything else in town—that I see many visits in my future. 2011’s been a doozy in terms of debuts, but the opening of Trillium marks one of the most solid by far, IMO.

Trillium on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Fried Avocado at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar

As one ex-TAG employee starts to make his mark on Row 14, another’s taking his leave—I’m really sorry to see the talented & totally gracious Tyler French go. But he’s headed east, & tonight’s his grand exit, so stop by to bid adieu—& while you’re at it, order up a plate or 2 of these babies.

 

I hate it when the word “tempura” is used in glorified lieu of “batter-fried”; they aren’t automatically the same thing. But if anybody would have an excuse to appropriate the term (though he doesn’t), it’d be new chef Jensen D. Cummings; the coating on his fried-avocado appetizer is every bit as light & delicate as its traditional Japanese equivalent, melding right into the ultra-creamy yet herbally tinged flesh of the fruit—which is in turn complemented by the sweet-chili crema; a julienne of lightly pickled carrot & green papaya adds the requisite sharp edge (actually, I could’ve used more of it, but that’s my acrid-toothed dealio; a garnish is a garnish).

As for strawberry–cream cheese gyoza, they’re nothing if not fun fun fun, so long as you bite down with care, because they do squirt hotly. Actually, my favorite part was the silky, bay leaf-tinged crème anglaise sprinkled with Cocoa Pebbles; I could’ve downed a bowl. And speaking of Cocoa Pebbles, if you think anything in the previous 2 sentences sounds obscene, you should read this.

Dish of the Week: Amuses Bouches at The Penrose Room

A striking amuse bouche is tops among the mood-setting stuff fine dining’s made of; like bread-basket service or a champagne cart, it’s an indication that the experience will be no mere transaction of ordering & receiving but a far more intimate & complex (even wordless) matter of call-&-response. (It’s almost unnerving: Is this a flattering & gracious edible gift or an almost eerie insinuation that you are not entirely in control of your desires &/or how they’ll be gratified? Surrender, whispers the mouth-entertainer. Accept that we are not just addressing but correctly anticipating your every wish as our command. I sort of wonder if there are statistics on whether recommendation queries increase after amuses bouches are served; I bet so. You just sort of lusciously slump & say, Okay, you tell me what to do.) Last night at The Broadmoor’s famed Penrose Room, the amuses were as exquisite as anything on the printed menu. Hence this mid-week shout-out: odds are slim I’ll eat anything more memorable before Monday.

On the left is Rocky Ford cantaloupe soup with a bit of chopped shrimp & microherbs, which intriguingly evoked savory-sweet ice cream melted to room temp; on the right, fennel pannacotta, aromatic & pure satin; in the middle, a tiny cracker with an even tinier, salt-walloped dollop of tapenade made with 3 types of olive, including new-to-me Meski.

After that came 3 courses, la di da, of which more later, & then a pre-dessert amuse that I didn’t snap but that may have been my single favorite bite of the evening, a honey-saffron pannacotta that was almost obscenely gelatinous, tartly fruity & richly sugared at the same time. As in sigh.

Dish of the Week: Baba Ghanouj at Mecca Grill

Mecca Grill excels at a lot of things (full review to come), but the baba ghanouj in particular is among the best I’ve ever had.

You see how it’s a little granular?

My guess is that’s because they don’t puree it but mash it by hand. And you see how it’s a little grayish? That, I bet, is due to the addition of pomegranate juice or syrup (the menu calls it “sauce”)—just a touch to bring out the sweetness of the eggplant, while lending depth to the tartness of the lemon juice.

A hit of smoke, a hint of garlic, a smack of nutty tahini, a drizzle of olive oil & a sprinkle of what tasted like sumac rather than paprika—it all added up to a strikingly prismatic variant on the classic.

Dish of the Week: Downward Dogs at The Corner Office (plus a word on Kachina Bar)

The Corner Office & I have a funny, on-again, off-again relationship (chronicled here). We flirt, we have a good time, then we hit a sour note, then I avoid it for awhile, then I ease back in one day on a whim & the cycle continues.

Or so it did before the arrival of exec chef Will Cisa. With a solid talent like him on board I feel so safe & warm inside…But never so excited as when I bit into the Downward Dog.

Here’s what it is: 2 snappy, juicy New York dogs; a spunky combo of spicy mustard, sweet soy & Kewpie mayo; plus nori, pork fu & housemade tsukemono on a buttered, toasted, split top bun. I’m not a frank fiend, I suppose because the range of variations is generally so limited, beginning & ending with some sort of tangy sauce &/or some form of chili or chile. But this here’s a whole different ballgame with its Japanese flavors & array of textures, from the feathery, flaky fu to the poppy pickles.

By the way, here’s what else usually bores me: fish tacos.

And here’s why Cisa’s didn’t, aside from the smooth, fritter-like crunchy batter on the healthy chunk of mahi mahi: lots & lots of condiments that blended together into a vibrant, squirting, dribbling mess: excellent, smoky red salsa, guacamole & what some (not me for sure) might deem too much crema, plus citrusy slaw.

The Corner Office, like Second Home, is part of the multi-state Sage Restaurant Group, which has a flair for realizing visions that feel organic, not corporate. So I was psyched to discover that they’re working on a new concept, slated to open this fall: Kachina Bar, a neo-Southwestern eatery in the Westin Westminster. Bring on the sopaipillas.

 

Dish of the Week: Donut Tartare & Other Delights at D Bar Desserts

D Bar Desserts is not, frankly, my kind of place. Having a taste neither for sweets nor for the generally girlie aesthetic of specialists thereof—as exemplified here by baby-blue walls that match the frosting of the signature cupcake—

I just never bothered to put this Uptown favorite anywhere near the top of my list, Keegan Gerhard or no Keegan Gerhard.

My chocolate-crazed pal Beth, however, feels otherwise. And on the eve of her departure for a 12-month tour of as many US cities, a girl gets what a girl wants. As for me, I got far more out of the bargain than I ever dreamed.

Including my pick for Dish of the Week. Unlike Crave’s notorious Luther Burger, D Bar’s take on the doughnut sandwich is startlingly savory right down to the unsweetened yeast dough of the bomboloni (Italian-style doughnuts)—no glaze here. Instead they’re stuffed with beef tartare, topped with tomatillo jam & a serrano-chile sliver, & set atop a schmear of ultra-garlicky “decret sauce,” much like Lebanese toum. (Whether “decret” sauce is a portmanteau of “D Bar” & “secret sauce” or just a typo, seeing as how “D” is next to “S” on the keyboard, is hard to figure. Cutesy names are a hallmark of the menu for better or worse; in the case of the apricot créme brulèe someone saw fit to call “crapricot,” I’d have to say worse.) Execution lacked a little; the pastry was too dry, the tartare underseasoned & therefore unable to stand up to the pungent sauces. But the concept tickled me enough to warrant the nod.

The pizza salad sandwich, however, knocked me out. D Bar makes, of all things, a mean salad, crisp & slicked with strong vinaigrette. It makes a pizza dough like a pastry shop (as opposed to a pie parlor) should—tender & buttery—as well as excellent, unctuous yet tangy pesto. And it doesn’t skimp on the nicely textured cheese, both gooey mozzarella & crumbled goat.

An equally good mix of four cheeses, plus meaty, spiced pepperoni & cherry tomatoes that were warm but still uncooked enough to pop, meant that Beth practically couldn’t get a bite of her own pizza in edgewise. (Sorry about that, B, sorta.)

Said mean salad—sprinkled with toasted pinenuts & shaved parmesan & flanked with lusciously, perfectly ripe sliced avocado—is a keeper as well.

I didn’t try Mo’s mac & cheese, but the fact that it comes gratinéed with panko crumbs &, right on, Cheese Nips, bodes well (maybe she’ll weigh in). I did try the lobster tempura (offered as a supplemental special), & though the breading was thick enough that aragosta fritta might have been a more accurate moniker, it wasn’t too heavy—a judicious combo of salty crunch & sea-sweet flesh.

Rebecca’s steak frites was lovely too, not least for the fact that the beef topped the fries rather than sitting beneath or next to them (as is more common). So all those umami juices mingled with the shreds of parmesan to soak the spud sticks in a way that caused joyous flashbacks to Chilean chorrillana.

Finally, yeah. I may not actively crave dessert, but that doesn’t mean I don’t rise to the freaking occasion. My chocolate-cheesecake brownie, topped with a quenelle of pure chocolate, was dense & intense & the very stuff of teen romance novels. To this day I remember the description of a kiss in one I read when I was 12, before I’d had a real kiss of my own, so it stuck: “like chocolate, slow & warm & sweet & good.”

As for Rebecca’s signature cake & shake,

Beth’s special—wherein bananas Foster collided with French toast—

& Mo’s chocolate-caramel tart with caramel ice cream & Godiva affogato

they were all, needless to say, comme il faut, so far as my overwhelmed palate could tell. Same goes for that moist cupcake—neither the génoise nor the buttercream sugary but just sweet enough—which I snarfed the second I got home. Damn you, D Bar! You’ll give me a sweet tooth yet.

P.S. Did I mention the terrific selection of wines by the glass, including this kickass, earthy Pinot Meunier? Consider it mentioned.

D Bar Desserts on Urbanspoon

Hidden Potential & the Dish of the Week at Baca at the Inverness

The Jew in me has a deep & abiding suspicion of golf clubs, so it almost came as a surprise to me when my ethnic credentials weren’t checked at the door of the Inverness Hotel & Conference Center when I arrived there last month for a Rodney Strong wine seminar. But not only did I not get dragged out, I was treated to a lovely presentation in a private room off Baca, the Inverness’s sprawling, sunny, colorfully pretty restaurant & sunken lounge overlooking the fairway—in which, it seemed, even I could get comfy.

Fast-forward to May, where I may actually have gotten a little too comfy at a press dinner that was intriguing to say the least.

First & foremost, press dinners are usually highly orchestrated events with limited menus featuring chef’s signatures, paired with complementary wines. At Baca, our server just handed us the new early summer menu from exec chef Rodney Herwerth & asked for our order. I was confused. “You mean we can just order anything?” I asked. She said yes, seemingly confused at my confusion. I was tempted to order everything, just to test their commitment. I didn’t, but having had a crummy day I did encourage her to refill my wine glass at every turn, which meant I probably went through a good bottle & a half by myself, & apologies may well have been in order.

Still, I wasn’t in such a state that I failed to pay attention to the eats, starting with 2 cheeses—Petit Basque & Boschetto al Tartufo, listed as a blend of cow’s & sheep’s milk studded with white truffle, but actually containing black truffle; no matter, it was nice anyway—& an order of confit duck taquitos.

They made for a fine start indeed, flaky on the outside, filled with rich, tender meat, roasted apple & corn, & I think a little cabbage; the dipping sauce was a bit on the thick side, & neither as spicy or plummy as the description suggested; in fact, interestingly enough (& it was), it evoked nothing so much as vodka sauce.

When it comes to salads, I don’t expect wild originality in general; when I find it—as with the Dickens Salad at WaterCourse Foods & Racine’s Nutty Cheese Salad—I’m thrilled. Otherwise, simple refreshment’s a worthy enough goal, & the house salad my +1 & I split offered plenty, combining mesclun, chopped candied pecans, dried cranberries & crumbled chèvre in a notable, almost frothy, tarragon-flecked buttermilk dressing.

But there were 2 dishes that totally wowed me—enough to score a tie for Dish of the Week. The first was my entree, a vibrant play on pork & beans: a generous portion of lightly breaded, greaselessly fried pork tenderloin over a medley of sauteed favas, cannellini & green beans, topped with a sauce based on roasted black olives that I thought would be overkill but instead added a pungent depth. Rather, it was the mac & cheese on the side that was probably unnecessary—but no less welcome for that, being a suave combination of al dente orecchiette, gruyère & fontina in perfect proportion, lightly browned for a bit of crunch on top.

The second was Sarah’s Banana Split, named for pastry chef Sarah Scriver but otherwise a totally misleading moniker—all to the better. Nothing like a banana split, it was instead a whimsical, multilayered arrangement of tender brown-sugar pound cake topped with fresh banana & a candied cherry, then ringed round with honeyed roasted pineapple as well as banana pannacotta with walnut ganache, a quenelle of vanilla ice cream & a sugar tuile. Part homey, part tropical, it was impressively balanced, not a hair out of place.

Though not quite as brilliant as that one, the other desserts we tried were satisfying in their own right: in front, a squat cylinder of cheesecake with blueberry compote & lemon sorbet, behind it a sort of fluffy crêpe with more vanilla ice cream & pistachios. Having gotten a glimpse of the young, pretty Scriver, I’m predicting a bright future. You heard it here first.

All in all, I was impressed by the Inverness’s efforts to exceed the surf-&-turf expectations of a Tech Center conference hotel. Tucked away behind the The Shops at Vallagio, it’s something to keep in mind as a dark-horse alternative to the likes of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro (not that it needs one).

Baca at the Inverness on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Tap House Skins (et al.) at Highland Tap & Burger

The Rapture it wasn’t, but I was certainly in for a surprise yesterday at 6pm when I found myself with a beer can dangling from a string of beads around my neck, pedaling the 10-seat Denver Patio Ride alongside a bunch of young’uns rocking out to Jay-Z, Prince, Sublime, & the like from the iPod of our DJ-driver

as he steered us in his purple jumpsuit down Welton right through the middle of the Five Points Jazz Festival, to the general approval of a grinning, hooting, picture-taking crowd. The takeaway from this little adventure: I’m old. Too old for public shenanigans that include stops at raucous watering holes like The Ginn Mill, where the bartender laughs when you ask if there’s any chance in hell they serve wine, pours you a full mini-bottle of Barefoot Cab into a New Belgium globe glass, & leaves it at that. Fair enough. At least, being personal-sized, it was fresh. Which is more than I can say for the glass of Bonacquisti Vinny No Neck they poured me at Highland Tap & Burger, a Sangiovese-Merlot blend that, I’m sorry to say because I aim to promote the local wine industry, would not have been much better had it been in peak condition, evoking nothing so much as liquified menthol cigarettes. I wasn’t a much bigger fan of either the Garnacha or the Malbec on the HTB wine list, both simplistically jammy.

That said, this Highland newcomer deserves to be cut some slack for its lack of good grape juice; after all, as the name indicates, it specializes in beer & the grub that goes with it—most of which was decent, some of which was swell. Especially the titular skins.

Covered in crumbled bacon, white cheddar & scallions with a side of housemade ranch, they practically glowed, all bubbly & crackly & gooey, bite after hot salty bite. If you swore off skins after your last miserable experience with the soggy, broccoli-&-cheez-whizzed, dirt-pocked spuds of some heartland sports bar circa 1988, here’s your chance to try again.

The horseradish celery-root slaw was milkier & less sharp-edged than the description suggested, but then, coleslaw is almost always given short shrift in restaurant kitchens—an eternal head-scratcher, given how easy it is to make well at home. Memory serves up only one version that recently made me swoon as an accompaniment to the kick-ass roast chicken at Street Kitchen Asian Bistro.

Mama’s Little Yella Pilsner–battered onion rings had everything going for them but extra-crunchiness.

Thick-cut & served with an addictive dipping sauce tinged with vinegar & smoke, they weren’t too doughy, exactly, it’s just that they weren’t traditionally flaky & crisp—more like savory onion doughnuts than true rings.

I tried, god only knows how I tried, to convince the Director that a burger topped with foie gras would, in fact, be awesome & not “silly,” but even my allusion to classic beef Wellington didn’t convince him. Having no better luck with dreamy-sounding topping options like root-beer-braised pulled pork & 3-pepper candied bacon, I let him be, which is why he got stuck with a lamb burger that was perfectly well-made but devoid of all zip with Swiss cheese, lettuce, onion & tomato rather than the chef’s pick of better-suited condiments: goat cheese, tomato-mint relish & baby arugula.

It came with fries we didn’t expect, since we’d also asked for an à la carte order of parmesan-&-parsley-flecked duck-fat fries with truffled aioli. I thought I took a picture, but I guess I didn’t, so this is the only eye-nibble you get.

All the more reason for you to go check them out for yourself, say, nowish. How stark is the difference between hand-cut potato sticks fried in vegetable oil & those browned in duck fat? Let’s just say once you go quack you never go back. (Unless, that is, you go cluck or moo, winning twists all.)

The whole menu’s rife with chefly touches that nudge HTB toward gastropub rather than sports-bar territory despite the flatscreens lining the walls, from lentil vinaigrette for the salads to sauce gribiche spiking the fish & chips to the best thing about the aforementioned burger: excellent, garden-sweet, fresh pickle chips. The kitchen’s no match for, say, Argyll‘s yet, but it beats Freshcraft‘s.

Highland Tap & Burger on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Agnello Stromboli at Lala’s Wine Bar + Pizzeria

Every time I ever go to Lala’s Wine Bar + Pizzeria I’m all set to be pleased, not downright delighted. And every time, there’s at least 1 or 2 dishes that exceed my expectations.

This week, it was the stromboli stuffed with lamb-&-risotto meatballs, provolone, mozzarella, braised spinach, & San Marzano tomato sauce, with extra on the side for dipping.

Chewy & gooey, rich & tangy, with just enough red pepper & spinach to add a rougher edge to the soft & juicy whole—comforting but not dumbed-down, the very stuff of homestyle generosity.

We got perfectly decent roasted Yukon Golds on the side, but the quinoa-chickpea salad with leeks that came with our other sandwich is the even-better bet—

light, crunchy, nutty, lemony, scallion-tinged.

I’m really beginning to think this place is underrated, even by me.