Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

House Culture: Shine Restaurant & Gathering Wool

Oops, sorry, “Gathering Space.” Still, the misnomer kinda fits: some of the servers are just as hippy-dippy as you’d expect at a Boulder neo-health-food joint like this one. I hope their utter inability to do more than half a thing at a time isn’t a reflection on the effects of the gluten-free, vegetarian- & vegan-friendly cuisine Shine serves, awash in “house-cultured” this & probiotic that, sprouted this & raw that. They must be skimping on protein intake (though the menu isn’t meatless)—but they could just be high.

Or perhaps they should ease up on the fairy bubbles. While there’s a full bar (where the staff is noticeably more alert, by the way), the emphasis here is on herb-, flower-, & gem-infused elixirs. At one point in my poetry-writing life I was obsessed with the fabled properties of gemstones; ruby, for instance, is said to prevent bleeding & heart failure, while carnelian offers protection from the evil eye. (That of antsy dining guests perhaps excepted.) None of the drinks listed here contains garnet, but see below for more on that…In any case, it stands to “reason” that so-called permission sips might alter your consciousness for better or worse.

Granted, the Firewater my pal Beth tried (pictured below right) didn’t visibly ignite her passions; she seemed pretty normal. But the sip I took was exhilaratingly spicy, with ginger & chile, plus a touch of hibiscus tartness.

On a later visit, I sampled the Reset Button, which bore too much resemblance to milky root beer for my tastes, nor have I managed to access the vaguest hint of ancient wisdom via my intake of quartz. Oh well.

Beth also got the trout-salad melt with smoked gouda, pickled red onions, & sweet potato fries; said salad was a hit—flaky, zippy, bright with diced carrots and celery. I know because a healthy scoop of it also graced what I refuse to call, & don’t know why the chef bothers to call, a Caesar salad; since it’s vegan, the dressing contains no egg or anchovy-based Worcestershire sauce, which are pretty much the key characteristics of a traditional Caesar—along with parmesan & croutons, which this version also doesn’t contain. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, from the thick, creamy, garlicky dressing it does sport to its plentiful sprinkling of fried capers & dried-tomato “chips” (which, again, defy the basic definition) to the dense, almost scone-textured, chia seed-studded gluten-free “focaccia” (pictured below the salad) that’s supposed to accompany it—it was omitted from my order, so I had to wait (& wait, & wait) until our server could get around to bringing it to see whether it helped tie the room together. (It eventually did.)

To be fair, he may have thought I didn’t want it, since I’d also requested a gluten-free house roll (pictured alongside the salad) with yam butter on the side. That too, was dense, with a sort of biscuit-like crumb, & the spread airy yet intense.

Another qualified hit has been the happy-hour snack of beer-battered veggies with blue-cheese dip; though I didn’t find any of the housemade pickles the dish (pictured below right) also supposedly contained, the combo of green beans, zucchini disks & sliced mushrooms was nicely done—hot, juice-dribbly, the reasonably crisp breading not unlike savory funnel cake. I didn’t try the slider, but the vegan cauliflower mashers were fluffy & creamy for lacking dairy, & nicely spiced with just a hint of nutmeg.

And the jackfruit tacos proved fascinating. With the first few bites, I was convinced they’d actually given me chicken; I’d heretofore only tasted ripe dried jackfruit, so I wasn’t aware that when fresh & green it’s strongly reminiscent of eggplant—nor that it shreds like meat, so once liberally coated in taco seasoning, it easily gets a pass atop blue-corn tortillas heaped with greens, tomatoes, scallions & radishes alongside salsa & sour cream. If you like your frijoles soupy, Shine’s refried black beans won’t fly, but I like them in all forms; these had an appealing pan-bottom crunch. And the quinoa was downright impressive, I have to say, for its lime-brightened, grain-by-grain toastiness.

This place gets fairly (in both senses of the word) mixed reviews, but overall I got kind of a kick out of it—which is saying something, since I imagine I represent the opposite of its core audience.

Anyway, here’s a free poem.

Garnet
Used as a bullet, it inflicts a more deadly wound.

Crouched in roof shadow, filling the cylinder.
My pistol is crystal so you can see. Sometimes I pour
wine down the barrel, put the gun in my mouth
and go glug, glug. Pull the trigger,
pull the plug. The bang stuns everyone
who shatters into applause at the gala affair,
it raises the roof.
My dress is gauze, wound dressed in silk,
the night fog curdles like milk
mixed with blood down the alleyway,
a wisp of a sip goes
down my throat. I’m spitting vapor
like a pit viper in a mesh gown,
taking aim. Game. I was born game.

There’s deadly and then there’s
even more deadly, blood spreading
like bad dawn, lead-dull.
Dud if you do, dud if you don’t:
law one of tourniquetiquette.
I spray raw light, shoot up the night.

 

Shine Restaurant & Gathering Space on Urbanspoon

Navigating WaterCourse Foods

My poor sainted mother. A Jew-Bu through & through (so maybe “sainted” isn’t quite the right adjective), she has to live with the fact that her only daughter would eat pretty much anything given half a chance, excluding turtles but possibly including human (hey, you only live once—unless the Buddhists, Jew- or not, are right, in which case you’ve got some karma-dependent options).

But that means I’ll also do durian & huitlacoche, & that I’m potentially just as happy at a vegetarian haven as I am at a barbecue shack. WaterCourse Foods realizes that potential in many ways, much of the time. Sure, some (not all) of the servers are too cool for school rules like promptness or cheer; & sure, not all protein-based dishes have plant-based equals. There are rough(age) edges. But there’s also plenty of smooth sailing (get it?).

And that, shockingly enough, includes buffalo-style seitan. The menu calls them “wings,” which, come on, isn’t even close. But in & of themselves, the spears of so-called wheat meat are actually tasty. Texturally, they’re more like potato wedges, crisping well, & they do have a vaguely meaty savor that absorbs the buffalo sauce & ranch dressing—both of which are addictive in themselves, of course, so yay.

Of several visits I’ve made recently, one was for dinner to go; the Director’s nachos held up as well to be expected, so while there was no saving the lettuce, a quick trip under the broiler made them good as new. All I ask of vegetarian nachos are crisp corn chips, nice salty cheese (in this case asadero), well-seasoned & moist refried beans, & some spice. The latter was left to pico de gallo (no sign of the advertised green chile), but otherwise they were a-ok, complete with guacamole that was mostly mashed avocado (as well it should be).

Wraps are hard to mess up, but they’re also hard to make interesting. The Juan Wrap is just that, vibrant & hearty with grilled sweet potatoes, sauteed mushrooms & onions, smoked mozzarella & a liberal coating of rich cilantro-pistachio pesto. The tortilla is neither here nor there, of course, but probably the best vehicle for the substantial filling. You get your choice of two among several sides; the quinoa salad with beans & corn had a nice kick, but the sesame-seed-sprinkled, supposedly steamed kale was nearly raw. I get that the frilly-edged, dark green leaves look prettier that way, but uncooked kale is just too tough (& I tried it 3 times, so it wasn’t a fluke).

It went down a little more easily lightly dressed & mixed with steamed squash & carrots as part of the seasonal vegetable mix; compared to the quinoa, however, the amaranth was soggy. Too bad, because the flavors were great, combining chopped sugar snap peas & red pepper, golden raisins & chai-spiced pistachios (think cardamom above all).

They came with the “Reuben,” which, as with the “wings,” is a mighty fine sandwich on its own; no need for it to suffer by comparison to something it’s not. Kinda reminds me of that old Mitch Hedberg joke, “If you go to the grocery store and you stand in front of the lunchmeat section for too long, you start to get pissed off at turkeys. You see, like, turkey ham, turkey pastrami, turkey bologna… Somebody needs to tell the turkeys, ‘Man, just be yourself!’” Speaking of lunchmeat, the classic grilled Reuben features corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese & 1000 Island dressing on buttered rye; here, the coarse-chopped portobellos that stand in for the beef were happily as smoky as promised, in nice contrast to the “special sauce,” which, tangy & tomatoey, vaguely evoked pizza sauce. Just a touch of red cabbage sauerkraut added a tart note, the Swiss added the salt & the whole thing, in short, came together really well, even if it wasn’t grilled.

The only major disappointment was the Maximus Burger. I am gung-ho for a good veggie patty, which, carefully made with grains, legumes et al., can be a totally thick & juicy, variegated surprise. WaterCourse’s version features a combo of pinto beans & quinoa, which looks good on paper, & it packs a little spice from green chile. But it was also flat, dense & dry, texturally no better than its mass-produced, frozen supermarket equivalent, suggesting way too much binder for the buck. I don’t know if it’s topped with the same “special sauce” that accompanies the Reuben; this one seemed more 1000-Islandy, actually, i.e. ketchup-&-(vegan?)-mayo based, but you know, different day, different results. The kaiser roll was fine, fresh, although there was nothing particularly sweet-potato-like about it (as opposed to any other kind of potato-based bun).
The kitchen’s had onion rings down pat for a long time, though. Thick-cut, judiciously coated in a well-seasoned-&-herbed batter that yields a lovely, lacy crunch, they hardly needed the accompanying chipotle aioli, though it didn’t hurt either. (It’s a real bummer that the salad they used to grace, once one of Denver’s most interesting, is no longer available. Online campaign starts here.)

You can get cheese on that “burger,” but you can’t get “cheese” on it; since I really wanted to try the housemade vegan options, I asked if I could order one à la carte rather than as a selection of 3 (the current menu lists smoky jalapeño “cheddar,” pistachio-fennel “manouri,” &  lavender-herb “chèvre,” as well as sweet onion pâté). Actually I asked twice, & with little ado the 1st time, rather more the 2nd, my wish was granted.

Loving cheese the way I do, I am no expert on substitutes, so I can’t say whether these fared better or worse than others by comparison. I can say, as I already have, that there’s not much point in comparing them to the real deal, because they’re simply nothing of the kind. Which doesn’t mean they’re not intriguing. In appearance & mouthfeel, the “cheddar” was unnervingly reminiscent of sea urchin, but the flavor was really nice: nutty, indeed smoky & a touch spicy. (The perfect ripe fig was a swell touch too.)

The “manouri” (which I got to go) was more like ricotta, fluffy rather than creamy, but as a mild binder for chopped nuts it grew on me.

These days WaterCourse also sports a small seasonal selection, including the watermelon caprese with (real) buffalo mozzarella, basil oil, balsamic vinegar & smoked salt.

I agreed with the companion who ordered it that shaved melon, while awfully pretty & surely time-intensive, releases too much water. Can’t say I even detected the balsamic. Still, it had its refreshing aspects.

As does WaterCourse as a whole, even for omnivores; like all local institutions, it’s got quirks that become at least tolerable, at best charming, if you let them. I can’t help but have a soft spot for the place, for all its disaffected youth & culinary quotation marks.

WaterCourse on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Uni Risotto at OTOTO Food & Wine

I’d say “what Laura Shunk said,” because I completely agree with her take on the dish I first had at a sake-pairing dinner at OTOTO a few weeks back—but that would be lazy. Which I am, but not that lazy.

By “first had,” I mean first had here in Denver; back in Boston, I came to love sea urchin pasta at Taranta, a Southern Italian–Peruvian restaurant run by a chef very dear to my heart, José Duarte, whose version combined spaghetti with a velvety sauce enriched by the shellfish along with shavings of bottarga—fish eggs (usually those of tuna or mullet) cured & compressed into a cake. The result was at once soothing & sharply pungent, like smoking a cigarette on the ocean floor.

With the use of risotto rather than long noodles, Ototo Den’s version is of course creamier by virtue of the risotto, the urchin playing an even more yolk-like role texturally; still, its musty, iodine-tinged savor—think of uni as the pickled forest mushroom of the sea—mingles & tingles.

Vesta Dipping Grill’s Still Got Sauce

There are so many moving parts on the Vesta Dipping Grill menu, & they’ve been moving in so many ways, shapes & forms for so long (14 years & counting), that the fact the majority of them still do it in sync—not all & not always, but many & often—is kinda remarkable. That’s to the credit of chef Matt Selby, ever the playful pup, & his partner Josh Wolkon, a Boston boy who moved to Boulder in 1995 (so did I) and opened Vesta in 1997 (the year I moved to Boston, only to return a decade later). But Northeast-Southwest-corridor connections aside, I genuinely like the place, for the logical reason that it’s one of Denver’s most reliable go-tos (same goes for its sibling Steuben’s, come to think of it), with a mod, moody vibe & a fun, solidly executed, mix-&-match repertoire that, like my life, hinges on an array of globally inspired condiments. If you’ve still never been, or if it’s been a while, give it a whirl.

Here’s what said whirl might look like—at least if, à la moi, you’re all about small plates. The user-friendly entree portion of the menu is worth a look-see too: each dish, almost invariably a grilled meat + starch + veg (nothing wrong with that), is listed with 3 suggested sauces/dips, of which there are currently a whopping 36. But then again, they’re really the mainstay of any meal here, so I’d just as soon sample as many as possible, & the best way to do that is via appetizers.

Whatever you order, you’ll get a little something to start with—always appreciated as a sign of forethought welcome. The last time we were here, we were served amuse shooters of bacon-potato soup; this time, it was just the usual head of roasted garlic with country bread, but that crushed bulb of blistered, spreadable, sinus-tingling cloves was more than enough.

If it weren’t for the fact that the Director & I were dining with an old friend we hadn’t seen in years—the guy who introduced us back at The Foxhead in Iowa City in 1994, actually, in front of whom I didn’t want to seem like the grubber I’ve totally become—I’d have ordered both the sauce sampler with pita & the salsa sampler with chips. As it was, I went with the former, for which we chose pistachio-mint sauce, wasabi cream, bacon aioli, & smoked habañero salsa; the 5th, by my request, was chef’s choice, which turned out to be Korean garlic BBQ.

Of these, the aioli was the standout for its eggy richness, punctuated by smoky-salty cubes of slab bacon, & the pistachio-mint remains a favorite, though it seemed a little less carefully balanced than it did when I included it in a dip round-up in the current issue of 5280—there was something slightly but oddly sweet about it. The wasabi cream, meanwhile, was way too sweet—a problem I also recently encountered at Rackhouse Pub. A survey of recipes online doesn’t at all explain why this should be the case, so I’m bamboozled. The Korean BBQ sauce was nice though—light & fruity on the one hand, funky with sesame on the other—as was the simple, fresh, flame-bright salsa.

Ever the highlight, lamb ribs are extra-meaty little suckers, given Middle Eastern zing with a pistachio-mint crust cooled by a drizzle of subtly perfumed, softly evocative rose-blossom yogurt.

Shrimp fried in soy butter were harder to resist than I thought they’d be; in a tangy, crunchy batter that didn’t, however, overwhelm their own flavor, they barely needed dipping in the jalapeño ponzu & sambal they came with.

Conversely, roasted vegetable–potato samosas missed the mark, being kinda mealy & bland on their own, but the heady sauces that accompanied them—a red curry redolent of ginger, garlic & cayenne & a saffron-tinged, velvety roasted-corn cream enriched with butter—were satisfying enough to repurpose for the extra pita.

Finally, though the cheese selection wasn’t especially novel, it was hard to fault: Humboldt Fog, Mouco camembert, aged gouda, gorgonzola, fresh crumbled chèvre. And though the accoutrements didn’t exactly match the menu description—by “pickled vegetables,” I expect more than cornichons, & by “cherry mustard,” I expect cherry mustard, which didn’t show—the black pepper–truffle honey pulled its musky, floral weight.

After all that, there’s so much else that appeals—smoked venison sausage with pickled onions, scallion tater tots, pommes frites with cherry butter—that I wonder if I’ll ever get around to main courses. But I don’t wonder hard. For me, the joys of Vesta inhere in the little things.

Vesta Dipping Grill on Urbanspoon

A Dish a Day: Falafel Sliders at Jonesy’s Eat Bar

In 2011, I resolve to let nothing worth eating slip through the cracks of this here blog. I won’t literally do a dish a day—just on a need-to-know basis. But there’s a lot I want you to know, obviously, or there’d be no blog in the 1st place.

Take the falafel sliders at Jonesy’s Eat Bar. Spiced, fried chickpea (&/or fava) patties (or balls) are one of the world’s greatest street foods; & while they’re in their naturally colorful element stuffed in pita & drizzled with tahini sauce, it seems to me their versatility is underappreciated. I can’t think of a bread/sauce combo they wouldn’t work with: tortillas & salsa, bagels & cream cheese, baguettes & butter…

Here, though the buns are standard issue, what’s on them is vibrant: the crunchy patties, spice-&-herb redolent, are layered between a zingy pineapple chili sauce & a sprinkling of pickled onions.

At brunch, they come with home fries & a side salad for $11; dunno what they come with at dinner—probably nothing since they’re 2 bucks cheaper, & the menu specifies that you can get fries or a salad for extra. Tell you what—you try ‘em some evening & let me know.

Halloween at My Favorite Haunt: Beatrice & Woodsley

Since its stealth opening 2 years ago, I have rarely failed to be enchanted by what is 1 of the most original & exciting restaurants in town if not far beyond. (For my most recent review, see here.) Last night’s Ghosts by Lantern Light Dinner, served in the cellar, was no exception. Needless to say, the exquisitely moody Log Cabin–goth decor borders on spooky come Halloween (as does that of B&W’s freaky sibling, Mario’s Double Daughter’s Salotto); so though poor you are out of luck with respect to this prix-fixe one-off, here’s hoping my play-by-play inspires you to stop in this weekend to soak up some sumptuously eerie atmosphere while snacking from the regular menu. (The crawfish beignets are a must-try, & though I’ve never had the PEI mussels in roasted tomato-fontina broth, fond memories of mussels bathed in robiola at my old haunt in Boston, Neptune Oyster, give me high hopes for the dish. Actually, these 2 personal faves remind me of one another insofar as their chefs have a flair for neo-surf-&-turf—scallops with ham, oysters with beef tongue, shrimp with pork belly & chicharrónes, veal sweetbreads with clams, sturgeon with duck confit, etc. etc.—that makes me keel over swooning.)

With only 12 of us seated around a long table surrounded by increasing darkness—the many candles on the table were extinguished a few at a time after each course, until all that was left was a bit of gas lamplight—much picture-taking would have probably gotten me strung up by the noose hanging on one wall, so may my words do the whole thing justice.

Cobwebs filled the stairwell; smoke spilled from buckets of dry ice (it’d have been cool if it covered the whole floor, but there’s probably some code against that); the table was scattered with gourds (bringing to mind that classic McSweeney’s essay, It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.)

More about that fine cocktail from B&W’s inexplicably underrated bar in future; let’s start with the “amuse booche.” All of a centimeter, it was an adorable play on candy corn, composed of triangular layers of corn & carrot gelée sprinkled with sherry salt & paired with a revelatory sparkler—Hesketh Proposition blends Shiraz, Chardonnay & Semillon to watermelon-juicy effect.

Next course: chunky white bean soup swirled with savoy cabbage & diced housemade bacon; a thick coin of almost creamy boudin blanc sat on top. Earthy, hearty & a touch fruity—I suspect via a splash of sherry—it indeed ate like a meal rather than 1/5 of a meal. Oof.

Which brings us to the grilled lamb liver & kidney pie with picalilli (of currants, I believe?)

Tearful confession: with the exception of superfatty foie gras & buttery patés, I am not a liver lover. I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried, & I still try, but there’s something about the tang of iron—smacking of this color—I can’t take. It’s literally bilious. I chewed as much as I could stomach between big forkfuls of the flaky pie, spilling with bits of kidney & root veggies.

Which was just as well, because I polished off every last bite of the final courses, grotesquely full as I was.

Tender braised veal breast & fried sweetbreads came with fingerling hash & two superb sauces that not only thrilled the meats but played off 1 another: caramel-apple on the one hand, a pesto of capers, golden raisins & mint on the other. The whole was as richly colorful as autumn itself.

And then there was mincemeat pie. Oh my. More like a slump or cobbler in that it was just topped with crust, the cooked fruit was threaded with shredded yak—darkly luscious & topped off with freshly whipped cream & what may be the best ice cream I’ve ever had, really, & I’ve had a lot of freaking ice cream in 40 years on this earth: crunchy-smooth sweet potato–toffee. The Errazuriz late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc made for an inspired pairing—while its honeyed quality was a natural complement, it also showed notes of lemon that cut through a bit of the dessert’s richness.

Sheer trick-or-treat kudos.

You Go, Zengo!

The Sichuan rice noodle bowl may have been Exhibit A in Zengo’s successful appeal to my sensibilities, but it wasn’t the only compelling piece of evidence presented before my own private court of opinion last week. A number of other dishes convinced me to change my verdict against the Little Raven still-hot spot from guilty to gung-ho get out of jail free.

For instance, though the fried calamari in & of itself didn’t impress me—the ratio of breading to ring being disproportionate—the dish as a whole was refreshingly imagined as a veritable salad, what with a tangle of mizuna, sliced avocado & the bright, tangy mingling of red chile & tomato-guajillo vinaigrette.

Zengocalamari

The pork belly, too, nearly knocked Rioja’s stellar signature version off its top perch as a result of its richly sophisticated presentation.

Zengoporkbelly
So fatty it reminded me of lardo, the chunks of belly practically melted into their pool of congee ringed with Vietnamese coffee sauce & with a sort of chayote coulis, an inspired pairing just tinged with green bitterness (although the supposed inclusion of boniato, a tropical sweet potato, didn’t make any impression); their crispy skin found an echo in the fried shallot rings.

And Zengo’s take on black cod was the most luscious I’ve encountered in a long while.

Zengocod

Broiled in a chipotle miso & drizzled with a lemon-togarashi (7-spice) aioli, the sizeable filet, silken of texture, was so creamy & sweet in its way it could’ve been dessert.

That said, unexpected sweetness was the fatal flaw of the Thai lettuce wraps.

Zengoshrimpwraps
A cloyingly fruity sauce overwhelmed the mélange of shrimp, chorizo & peanuts, such that the side of tamarind chutney just added insult to the injury of integrity; had the main ingredients been replaced with scallops, salami & cashews, you’d barely have noticed.

Still, the current big picture at Zengo is as remarkably focused as it is vibrantly panoramic. After a 2-year hiatus based on disappointed hesitation, I won’t let another month pass before my next, far more enthusiastic visit.

Zengo on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Zengo’s Sichuan rice noodles with pork

Once bitten, I was twice shy about returning to Zengo after a nearly 2-year absence: had my bad experience been a fluke or a downhill alert? There being only 1 way to find out, curiosity finally overcame qualms, & we hit the admittedly sexy, darkly gleaming Richard Sandoval showcase for a late dinner mid-week.

Long answer forthcoming, but the short answer to my question is woohoo! It must’ve been a fluke, because the kitchen killed it this time; in fact, from beginning to end, the meal was by far the best of the 4 I’ve had there. Interestingly, the highest of high points was the least representative of the restaurant’s Latin-Asian fusion repertoire: Sichuan rice noodles with shredded pork crispy tofu, poached egg, roasted eggplant, peppers, mushrooms, cashews & scallions.

Zengonoodles

Oily in a good way, the yolk mixed in with the drippings to create an impromptu sauce, every bite a slick, slurpy, chewy wonder of smoky umami. I don’t know what made it Sichuan specifically—seems Thai or Vietnamese or any of a dozen other Asian adjectives would have been just as fitting, which is to say loosely—but I don’t particularly care, either. Delicious is delicious is delicioso is haochi.

There’s Meat on Them Bones!, or, how I turned to jelly at Bonnano’s noodle bar

Were the name Soba, then sobriety might be in order. Dashi—broth, a foundation of cuisine itself—okay, you’re on solid civilized ground. But the joint’s called Bones. As in “bare.” As in “raw.” As in “bad to the,” “close to the,” “I feel it in my.” And you will—the second you enter, you’ll know you’re in for a sticky, slippery, gurgling, mess.

Mo & Beth were like rubberneckers to the head-on, bone-in, balls-out collision between me, the entire list of namazake & roughly half the menu. And I to theirs. And oh, it was horrific. Mo snapping pics of me sucking on the edges of cowbones. Beth, who was having trouble hearing in the din, explaining she gets drunk in her ears. Me scribbling notes like “best smiling potpourri” that must’ve seemed insightful at the time. Serious props go to a staff that, far from merely putting up with us (or, for that matter, not putting up with us), totally humored us, from comping a drink brought by mistake to slipping Mo a stemmed wineglass against official policy—keep that on the DL—to signing a menu we were passing ’round yearbook style “Everything’s better with bcflu.” That last, at Mo’s request, was courtesy of Bonnano himself, & we finally guessed it actually read “butter,” but since we know he knows some things we don’t, it was natural to assume bcflu might be some sort of secret ingredient, a hot-pink curly herb that grows magically in the ice caves of the Andes or something.

But here’s something he doesn’t know: I went in frankly doubting his marrow could come close to comparing to the marrow Jamie Bissonnette was whipping up back at Boston’s KO Prime last summer, with its oxtail marmalade & pickled lily stems

KOmarrow

(of which more here).

I stumbled out, after 1 order split 3 ways & an encore order all my own, thinking altogether otherwise. Well, “thinking” might be an overstatement—but knowing in my heart I’d just had the best marrow I’d ever had & may ever have isn’t.

Bmarrow

Roasted to a subtly toasty bitterness, spiced with the right amount of salt & something extra peppery, & at the same time

Bmarrow2

just as drippingly, purely fatty as you can imagine without spontaneously sobbing, in all its goodness it was all only enhanced by the accompanying fig mostarda.

Ditto w/r/t the wonderfully lemon-buttery sauce puddled under the escargot potstickers,

Bpotstickers

which only looked startlingly like

6a00d83452261669e200e550622b7f8834-640wi

trilobites reanimating themselves before your very eyes

but tasted—come to think of it, they tasted like it too. In a very, very good way.

Mo’s take on Bones’s open-faced, pork belly–stuffed take on char siu bao

Bbuns

was that even that seemingly judicious drizzle of hoisiny sauce down the center of each, never mind the extra on the side, was too much for the delicacy within, & I have to agree. Actually, I so agree that I almost disagree—I wonder if pork belly should be buried in all that dough, however supple & fluffy, with fixins’ at all. The same goes for the egg rolls’ miso-braised short rib filling—

Beggrolls

exquisitely formed, with glistening, crunchy shells & kickin’ homemade hot mustard for dipping, it could’ve been filled with miso-braised Werner Herzog’s shoe for all it ultimately mattered. I mean, it’s pretty much a backhanded criticism to say the buns & rolls were too good for their own good, that they stole their own scenes. Still, cheaper, robuster cuts of meat are the norm for good reason.

The fried shishito peppers were the sweeter counterpart to

Bpeppers

Black Pearl’s somehow smokier ones with spice mix;

BPpeppers

I gotta give the latter the slight edge (though of course peppers can vary greatly from batch to batch & any given rematch could be a victory for Bones). By a similar token, from the menu’s description of “pickled veggies”

Bveggies

I’d counted rather on veggie pickles, plutonium-grade tsukemono, so when I got what it said I’d get—carefully marinated cauliflower, carrots & cabbage—I was slightly disappointed to no fault of the kitchen’s. A worse misnomer is “black cod tempura”—

Btem<br /> pura

that’s pretty heavy batter for tempura. Granted, these big & beautiful chunks of sablefish would crush the proper thin, flaky crisp “tempura” implies—so why not just call ‘em fritters? By that standard, they’re swell. Meanwhile, the inflammatory homemade Thai chili paste’s swell by any standard.

Bchilipaste

I stuck my chopsticks both in Mo’s poached lobster & edamame ramen & Beth’s egg noodles with crispy duck leg & oyster broth, but I don’t remember what happened next. Joy surges through me with but a glance at the pics, though, so whatever it was it must’ve been good.

Blobsternoodles

ramen

Bducknoodles

egg noodles

And then there was the namazake.

Bsake2 Bsake

Namazake, we were told, is unpasteurized sake, made in the winter—apparently sometimes in igloos by the drip process; any bcflu in there?—for spring drinking. I tried all 4 on the list, 1 of them twice—the Wandering Poet, just redolent of chocolate & pear; the Southern Beauty, with hints of licorice; the Wines of Fortune—a little spicy, touched, Beth detected, with orange peel; &, uh, one other, I guess with the initials HD, that according to my notes was deeper than something else.

Not, obviously, the pit of my stomach.

Bones on Urbanspoon

“Try not to have a good time—this is supposed to be educational”: Charlie Brown’s Bar & Grill

Being a member of the “ironic generation” (see!), I was over
Peanuts before puberty,
except for that Christmas special where they go
berserk
.

But I guess ol’ Charlie Brown & the gang were pretty quick
with the dark repartee—which in fact sounds downright prescient
in the context of a trip to his

CB4

namesake watering hole
, where, to quote
Sally Brown , “I think I’ve discovered the
meaning of life—you just hang around until you get used to it.”

Ah, so true! “Around,” after all, happens in this case to be

CB3
a worn old piano lounge in a
legendary hotel
-turned-borderline-halfway-house,

the kind of place you
go & you stand on your own, & you leave on your own,
& you go home
to bed only to “lie awake & ask, ‘Where
have I gone wrong?’ [And] then a voice says to [you], ‘This is
going to take more than one night.’” (I just quoted Morrissey
& the Blockhead himself in the same sentence. Brilliant! My
work is practically done here.)

But in between going & leaving, you down your

CBwine
2-for-1 (or 4-for-2, or 6-for-3) happy hour specials, which they
deliver at the same time,

staring up at

CB1 CB2
the wacky bric-a-brac lining the shelves above the bar

& thinking, per
Linus—with whom you share a security
blanket, only yours is liquid, which means the thumbsucking’s
only a matter of time—”I love mankind, it’s people I can’t
stand.”

What I love, in short, is this place, with its split-level,
dim-lit coziness, its insane singalongs, its brass-studded maroon
vinyl armchairs straight out of the forcibly hearty Continental
franchises of my childhood—Steak & Ale,
der Dutchman. And oh, the things you’ll learn here—hence the
title quote from
Meet_lucy_big —although the chances you’ll have
repressed most of them by morning aren’t small.

In fact, I’ll leave it to the saucy gents over at Denver Six Shooter to
annihilate your innocence in that particular fashion. I’ll do it
in my usual way, via all the gory details of my killer gluttony.

Thus, lesson #1 & only: The food here truly isn’t bad. I
mean, it’s junk, but it’s the kind of junk that makes you do that
dance, the 1 I linked to in the first sentence—which,
coincidentally, is exactly the kind of dance that the music that
Charlie Brown’s pianist, much like
Schroder , plays calls for.

Because fried calamari is right next to it on the menu (sprawling
like it’s drunk, by the way, with whole sections for pizza,
Greek, Mexican, Liechtensteinian—or not, okay—& so on), it
never occurred to me the Mediterranean calamari might also be
fried; I assumed it would come sauteed or grilled or something.
Which only goes to show I’ve been hanging out in all the very
wrong places
lately. Here Charlie’s is a fave with the
Prison
Talk
habitués & I thought the chef’d be whipping up some
sort of

650.x600.eat.NR? Of course it was fried!

In fact it was so fried the verb it was barely squid the noun. It
was like we had to find the cephalopod needle in every batter
haystack.

CBcalamari

Just about anywhere else, that would have made me do my
Incredible Hulk act, but here, it was just as well, what with all
those crispy nuggets basically serving as chips for a zingy
mixed-in dip of artichoke, capers, tomatoes & feta.

Speaking of dip, the spinach-artichoke dip is just so cute &
country-style. Look, with the Nabisco crackers & the carrot
& celery sticks, it’s almost like homemade.

CBdip

Which isn’t to imply it isn’t. Spinach-artichoke dip is just 1 of
those things with which it’s frankly hard to tell, even for a
goddamn gastronomic genius like me, since it pretty much
precludes the use of superior ingredients. Why would you make
mayo from scratch, grate real parmigiano reggiano, boil &
mince fresh veggies & so on only to waste it all in a
mishmash that, in its very purity, isn’t likely to hold together
half so well as its processed counterpart? And so if the whole
thing’s processed anyway, what’s the big difference whether it’s
thrown together on-site or reheated from a package (again, in
this particular case, as opposed to, say,
this lovely one
)?

But Charlie’s condimentality (not that dips are condiments per
se; in my own private pyramid, they constitute a major food
group) really, seriocomically reveals itself wherever baked
potatoes are involved—

CBchoppedsteak
as with my chopped steak with onions, bacon & of course dear
boiled peas.

Beyond being a bit dry—a little gravy or even A-1 would have
helped; ditto more deeply caramelized onions—the meat was just
fine. Still, it actually proved the sideshow to the main
attraction of the potato, which came with this:

CBcondiments

Those containers are, I believe, pint-sized. A pint is a pound
the world around.* One contains bacon bits, 1 sour cream—&
the third, butter. They gave me a pound of butter for my 1-pound
potato. Sheer gratitude practically brought tears to my eyes.

Meanwhile, the Director polished off his huevos rancheros like he
was confusing eggs, cheese, beans, tortillas, green chile &
are those hashbrowns? with a salad.

CBhuevos

His verdict: “Pretty good, actually”—& since he’s something
of a snob about la
comida,
that amounts to solid praise. To paraphrase
Pigpen160x232, sort of makes you want to treat ol’
Charlie Brown’s with more respect, doesn’t it?

* I know, I know,
not for dry ingredients
.


Charlie Brown's Bar & Grille on Urbanspoon