Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Lettuce with Pickled Tofu Sauce (& more!) at Hong Kong Barbecue

You’d think, after a matinee of Django Unchained, the Director & I would have been feeling particularly bloodthirsty upon stopping by the real-dealio Hong Kong Barbecue for takeout on Xmas Day, where the delightful family in charge was tending to 2 other couples of (I’m guessing) my tribal ilk as they dug into heaping platters of roast duck, whole fried fish, & garlicky pea shoots.

But of the quartet of dishes whose every last bite we adored, it was the titular vegetable (pictured on the right) that proved for me the ultimate revelation.

I’d initially ordered water spinach with pickled tofu sauce & jalapeños, but they were out of that, so I got the variation sauteed with romaine instead. Either way, if I’d thought about it too much beforehand, I might have gotten cold feet; after all, it should’ve occurred to me that “pickled” is synonymous with “fermented”—& one of my greatest gastronomic shames is that fermented soy beans, known to the Japanese as natto, absolutely turn me green with revulsion, try as I might to undo the damage done by Steve, Don’t Eat It!’s now-classic diatribe against the stuff.

But as it happens, fermented bean curd is a whole different (non-)animal, not unlike a soft cheese; this source nails the description as “reminiscent of Camembert, with a hint of anchovy flavor.” Turned into a thin sauce, it becomes a sort of Asian Alfredo—creamy & gently funky & spiked with the fresh green zing of sliced jalapeños—to highlight the distinct vegetal heartiness of the romaine, which is so much more obvious when it’s cooked than when it’s raw.

Pictured left is fish-ball curry, also a winner. Likewise relatively thin—the gloppiness one tends to associate with bad Chinese-American fare is nowhere to be found here—the curry was sprightly, dominated by the tang of ginger & onions, & the fish balls addictive, with the texture of scallops but the clear flavor of whitefish & whitefish alone (if they use any filler, it’s minimal). Chunks of red & green bell pepper & celery added a touch of contrasting crunch.

Satisfied as I was, I couldn’t keep my paws off either the Director’s ultra-treyf house-special fried rice with both shrimp & barbecued pork as well as scrambled egg (oy vey, kids) or his minced pork with sweet-potato glass noodles.

You can see for yourself how beautifully 2-toned the gristle-free pork on the left is, & the plump, firm shrimp were no slouches either, but the rice itself really brought it all together—only lightly fried to offer a little toastiness rather than soaked through with cooking oil. As for the dish on the right, it too was all about the slight sweetness of the actual, crisp-fried noodles & their thorough integration with the bits of tender pork & loads of bright carrot & celery—robust to be sure, but surprisingly variegated in effect.

The menu goes on & on, yet the number of concessions to whitebread expectation are refreshingly few compared to the myriad hot pots, congee bowls, & specialties rife with duck’s tongue & jellyfish, gingko nuts & lotus leaf. I won’t be waiting until next holiday season to explore it further.

Hong Kong BBQ on Urbanspoon

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

Gem alert: Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine (+ cheesesteaks!)

Soul-food scholar Adrian Miller is forever dropping urgent knowledge on me, but a recent guided trip to this strip-mall treasure at the edge of Aurora may just take the cake (or pounded yam product, as the case may be).

Though it’s home to a one-man staff by the name of Prince Michael, you’d better believe the name is otherwise adorably inapt—this joint is so not palatial that even “bare bones” is an understatement. The dining room is, in fact, entirely boneless but for 2 flatscreens showing soccer: conference-room furnishings, industrial carpet, white walls.

The menu, however, is as colorful as could possibly be (click to enlarge), featuring-so-soulful-indeed Nigerian specialties supplemented, go figure, by Philly cheesesteaks—

even when the results don’t look it.

Homely as that pepper soup with bone-in goat chunks may be, & as basic as the recipe surely is, the broth was addictively savory, with enough pepper—more black than red of any type, it seemed—to elicit bouts of delighted coughing.

But my entree was both gorgeous & wondrous. Behold amala with fish stew.

Yam being Nigeria’s staple crop, it’s at the center of most meals as rice is in much of East Asia; amala (pictured right) is a yam-flour porridge, darker & stickier than the better-known fufu but still solid enough to use for scooping. The flavor is subtle (some might say nonexistent), but the startling, playful texture is all-important.

As for the stew itself—I’m as speechless as it was eloquent.

From 1 of 4 bases—okra, spinach, a leaf similar to spinach called ewedu, & the unspecified beans called gbegiri—I chose the latter, & their incorporation as a smooth, earthy puree into a combination of tomatoes, herbs & nutty-flavored palm oil resulted in sensations of such layered depth…I’ve never tasted anything quite like it, especially as it began to mingle with flaked bits of the unexpectedly rich, skin-on fish filet (Adrian claimed it was tilapia—if so, perhaps it’s an unusually flavorful subspecies I’m unfamiliar with).

Spread out in a pool of palm oil, the spinach-&-melon seed mélange beneath Adrian’s goat was nearly its expressive equal, reminding me of similar dishes I’d had at the sadly defunct Hessini Roots; the fufu it came with, which is simply labeled “pounded yam,” is a bit more cleanly doughy than amala.

Finally, the jollof rice that came on Rebecca (From Argentina with Love) Caro’s plate of fish & plantains was terrifically evocative too; clearly there was a touch of tomato in there, though I couldn’t put my finger on the spices, & Prince Michael wasn’t telling.

If you hit this joint—& I urge you to do so, like, now—keep in mind that the solo show isn’t a speedy one. Patience will be rewarded with one hell of a marvelous performance.

Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine 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

Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar: C’est du vrai de vrai

That Le Grand would be le great was a given from day 1. Between owner Robert Thompson, whose vision is unwavering, and chef Sergio Romero, whose talent is indubitable, the brasserie-style downtowner simply couldn’t miss, any more than the superduo’s Argyll Pub could when it opened, or will when it reopens.

Indeed, the French phrase comme-il-faut—“as it should be,” “how things are done”—here applies across the board, from the décor (twinkling Parisian vibe, check; red leather and mosaic-tile floors, check) to, bîen sur, the menus, with their emphasis on charcuterie and raw-bar fare, bistro and cheese plates, French wines and French-kissed cocktails (not to mention traditional absinthe service).

What I admire most about Romero’s cooking is, honestly, precisely what I could take or leave about everyday French cuisine in general—its straightforwardness. Maybe I’ve just grown jaded after a decade of food writing, but my tastes tend toward the off-kilter & the boldly flavored; I just don’t crave soupe à l’oignon or moules frites or steak au poivre the way I do goat curry or vitello tonnato or dan dan noodles. Yet Romero’s style is one of deceptive & profound, not one-note, simplicity; a year after eating the Scotch broth he served back at Argyll,

I still recall its equal depth & clarity of flavor. At Le Grand, too, I know from several visits that what on paper doesn’t necessarily make me go gaga is nonetheless likely to delight me wholly in reality—which is where it matters, right?

Exhibit A: happy-hour wings marinated in garlic, bay leaf & red-wine vinegar & paired with a crème fraîche-based dipping sauce. These wings have legs—a mahogany gloss & a subtle tang.

Then there’s the saucisse à l’ail, or garlic sausage, served over brothy lentils with pearl onions & carrots (pictured as both an entrée & a happy-hour small plate)—

earthy to the core, the sausage robust with its slight char, the lentils a touch nutty & so soothing—not just comfort food but restorative food.

The escargots are absolutely beautiful inside & out; where so many preparations emphasize snails’ sea-salty richness with lots of butter & garlic, Romero highlights their sweetness with less butter & a generous smear of parsnip puree.

By contrast, scallop-&-ahi tartare is so startlingly pungent that I’m still at a loss as to how he prepares it; asking our server got me nowhere. Yes, there are toasted capers, but they aren’t the culprit. Is the seafood smoked? I was convinced it was, but I was told no. Is there soy, miso, fish sauce? I don’t know. The accompanying béarnaise toned it down a little—not enough, I imagine, for the sodium-&-iodine-averse. Me, I’m all for it, though (or because) it’s a real mouthful.

Conversely, only the cassoulet has been a bit of a letdown—a little underseasoned & underdone, the ingredients not wholly melding. Truth is I’ve rarely been transported by restaurant versions of this dish, & I can’t help but assume that most pro kitchens aren’t equipped to prepare it the old-fashioned way, a process that takes at least 2 days. If anyone is likely to honor the tradition, it’s Romero, so let’s just say my verdict’s still out on this dish—I’d certainly give it another go. Sure is pretty, in any case.

Okay, the steak tartare was a slight bummer too, but only because the portion was too small to suit my greedy needs. Otherwise it was parfait, fried instead of raw quail egg & all. (I didn’t try the Director’s arugula salad with house-cured bacon, croutons & another fried egg, but I’m sure it’s something Romero can pull off in his sleep.)

Finally, having said that originality isn’t Le Grand’s be-all-end-all, I’d be remiss to note the exception: desserts. Aside from the signature foie gras crème brulée, classic profiteroles made new with bay-leaf ice cream instead of vanilla & eggnog anglaise in lieu of chocolate sauce, plus a zingy underlay of clementine chutney, are downright fabulous. The herb and tart-fruit notes, the crunch of the airy puffs, the tooth-thrilling chill of the filling—they’re far more complex than they have a right to be.

My high praise was rewarded by a complimentary dish of jalapeño ice cream whose recipe Romero’s playing with, which capitalizes on the chile’s initial sweetness & slow-to-build heat. I can’t wait to see what he does with it. I can’t wait to return, period.

Le Grand - Bistro & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Sleek, Sure-Footed Black Cat Bistro

Shame, shame, shame on me. I’m embarrassed that it took me years to get around to a meal at Black Cat Bistro, embarrassed that it’s taken me weeks to post about the extraordinary multicourse tasting I finally experienced—long enough for the details to be lost in the haze of general appreciation for chef-owner Eric Skokan’s style, eclectic in scope yet laser-precise in execution, & the graciousness & intelligence of the floor staff. Among them was the young wine gun Dev; if it weren’t for the menu he handwrote for me, I’d be embarrassed about the number of delicacies I could no longer identify—which, granted, is partly Dev’s fault, given the copious amounts of N.V. René Geoffroy premier cru rosé & Castelfeder Lagrein Riserva 2006 he kept pouring.

What I’ll never forget, however, is the tiny, scrumptious slice of heirloom carrot-chèvre terrine peeking out there next to the salt-&-vinegar turnip chips on an appetizer sampler that also included white radish soup with black truffle & heritage pork head cheese in a dried-tomato shell.

It was followed by a sturgeon duo: 1st, creamed & pickled sturgeon on a buckwheat blini with chopped egg & winter herb purée,

& 2nd, roast sturgeon with black garbanzo beans and black garlic.

A pasta duo included nutmeg-tinged farro with chanterelles & cherry tomatoes

& another strikingly funky dish I won’t soon forget—farmer’s cheese gnocchi with grilled chicken livers & mustard.

Meat courses took the elegant form of chicken ballantine with a lentil fritter, apple chutney & raita

& celery crêpes stuffed with duck ragôut, accompanied by squash gratin & sumac jus.

Yet another unforgettable tidbit: the warm apple-thyme tisane that came with a simple green salad. You use the spoon to stir it up before sipping—so pure, so refreshing.

Finally, I’m embarrassed to admit that I snapped a pic neither of the cheese course—a pungent, cold pairing of crumbled gorgonzola with beet gratinée—nor the palate cleanser we received in lieu of the dessert we just couldn’t hack: Asian pear with grapefruit & bruléed figs.

From start to finish, the tasting was accomplished, suave, balletic (& I say that as someone who hates the use of dancing metaphors in food writing). This post doesn’t do it justice; may it, in all that it lacks, inspire you to strike forth to Black Cat & judge for yourself.

Black Cat on Urbanspoon

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

One to Watch: Will Nolan of Eight K Restaurant at the Viceroy Snowmass

Not to brag—okay, maybe a little—but I have a knack for picking winners, which I should really take to the track sometime. From Boston to Denver I’ve called many an emerging talent, so mark these here words: Will Nolan, chef de cuisine at Eight K—the stunning signature restaurant of the Viceroy Snowmass (whose name refers to the altitude but also approximates the number of calories I consumed there)—is one to watch. Under exec chef Rob Zack, the Louisiana native is bringing downhome, Deep South influences to bear on the contemporary repertoire that defines fine dining in the ski resorts of the Rockies as elsewhere—with exuberant results. Through the standard narrative of urbane delicacies made with local/seasonal ingredients, he’s weaving a thread that’s borderline idiosyncratic.

Having sampled nearly the entire selection of small plates & starters, I’ll single out a few for special mention:

Crispy pork confit crêpe with sweet soy, kimchi, watermelon & arugula

Intricately balanced between the delicate & the finger-licking, tender smoky pork & bright fruit & veggies; the kimchi was only lightly fermented, almost a spicy slaw.

Truffled gnocchi with crab fondue, baby shiitakes & peas

Perfect little puffs of velvet bathed in a warm, thick cream turned deeply sweet with lumb crabmeat.

Crawfish hush puppies with remoulade

Crunchy, chunky, yielding, corny, salty, tangy—yet still juicy with shellfish savor. (Boudin balls weren’t quite as successful, being a little too much ball & not enough boudin.)

Pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin with carrot puree & mustard jus

Striking as it was, the sweet-sharp combo of buttery carrot & spiced mustard didn’t overwhelm the gentle medallions.

Shrimp with BBQ vinaigrette, sweet corn puree, green beans & chanterelles

Zippy vinaigrette in lieu of sticky barbecue sauce was a smart move, keeping the fat, firm shrimp & almost mousse-like corn purée afloat.

Grilled asparagus & crispy poached egg with prosciutto, preserved lemon & frisée in creamy parmesan dressing

Foie gras torchon atop crunchy cinnamon toast with cherry mostarda

Deviled eggs with ham

Word to the waiflike: Nolan’s salads eat like a meal.

8K Salad with crispy prosciutto, white cheddar, cashews & spiced apple puree in balsamic vinaigrette

Cheese, meat, fruit, nuts—it’s like an antipasto platter over lettuce. The prosciutto’s transformed into chips…

Baby romaine with lobster & radishes in mustard vinaigrette

…an idea so satisfying it’s repeated here with capicola. I especially liked the use of ingredients as sharp as mustard & radishes in atypical contrast to lobster, which is usually coddled in complementary flavors. Carefully incorporated, they give it a little zing of a boost.

Heirloom tomato salad with camembert, plums, Marcona almonds & frisée in plum wine vinaigrette

Fruit, cheese & nuts meet again under lighter circumstances; this reminded me of 2 of my favorite salads in Denver, Izakaya Den’s grilled panzanella & Lala PIzzeria + Wine Bar’s Insalata Susina.

Choosing an entrée should’ve been hard: molasses-cured duck confit with dirty farro, agrodolce & garlic kale? Glazed, double-cut Berkshire pork chop with black-eyed peas, grilled savoy cabbage & debris gravy? Seared scallops with crispy pork belly, fried green tomatoes, charred shishito peppers & romesco vinaigrette? The sheer fun Nolan’s clearly having as he richochets from haute to country & back again was, for me, totally infectious.

Still, I knew what I wanted the second I laid eyes on the words “chicken oysters.”

Fresh cavatelli with chicken oysters, morels & microbasil in brandied cream

These little nodes of dark meat on the back of the bird—which do share something of the texture of Rocky Mountain oysters, though they’re named for their shape—are something you almost never see on restaurant menus, & they gave the softly luscious dish a funky backbone (so to speak).

As for dessert, pastry chef Ashley Jenkins absolutely followed Nolan’s hard act.

L to R: vanilla cream-filled doughnuts; malted chocolate layer cake with graham-cracker crumbs, hot fudge & caramelized cocoa puffs; chèvre cheesecake with salted graham crust, pistachio brittle & blueberry fritters

The latter showed particular panache, with its mix of textures & vibrant bursts of flavor.

And now for a giant disclaimer. All of the above was served at a press dinner. That should raise two suspicions in your mind. One, that my opinion was bought & paid for. To that, I’ll say what I always say in these cases: as a media guest rather than an anonymous diner, I don’t bite the hand that feeds me; I just keep my mouth shut if I’m unimpressed by the meal. If I do say something, I mean it. Which still doesn’t mean you should take my word for it, especially given suspicion number two: that the staff, both front & back of the house, was on its very best behavior toward us. To that, I’ll say: undoubtedly. As is true with any review—but especially in these circumstances—there’s only one way to tell if it’s accurate: by judging for yourself.

For what it’s worth, I did return the next night for a light meal al fresco on my own dime. My server, who was not among our servers the previous night & so wouldn’t have recognized me, was lovely—a little slower on the ball, but then, she was busy in a packed house; her attentions had to be evenly spread. Even so she managed to find me 2 cans of soda in a hotel with no vending machines. So no complaints there, & none for the complimentary happy-hour nut mix—warm, tossed with rosemary & brown sugar, olive oil & sea salt.

The flatbread I took back to my room, however, was overbaked, the crust a stale brown cracker. Too bad not least because the topping combo of duck confit, sherried onions, roasted grapes, chèvre & saba (a grape syrup) was great—almost like a modern deconstructed mincemeat.

What does the disappointment reveal? Hard to say, since I’d come straight from the 2nd Annual Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival up on the mall—where Chefs Zack & Nolan were still manning a booth. Weighing a single miss in the chefs’ absence against a slew of hits in their presence is weighing apples & oranges. It might say something about the line cooks’ level of experience. Or it might simply have been a fluke. Granted, that’s what a mistake had better be at a restaurant this posh. But it doesn’t change the fact that creativity can’t be faked. Nolan’s got it, which means that as long as he’s around Eight K’s got it—something special.

Eight K Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The last time I sat down to a meal at Row 14, it wasn’t even open yet; my sneak peek for Denver Magazine took place smack in the midst of 11th-hour pre-opening chaos. A month later, it’s the magazine that’s closed, while the restaurant’s off to a smooth start. On both occasions, however, the graciousness of co-owner David Schneider & chef-partner Arik Markus proved unwavering. No matter that they’d hardly slept in days on our first meeting. No matter, on our second, that I was now just some goofball as opposed to a goofball listed on a masthead. They had told me during our interview they envisioned Row 14 as a cornerstone for what they hoped was an emerging neighborhood; it showed in their & their staff’s amiably attentive approach to every table (not just mine; I watched).

To be acknowledged, treated with kindness & respect, remembered with kindness & respect. In times of crisis—in the midst of my own midlife chaos, when the past appears a wasteland, the future a void—that means so much. I think of “Late Fragment,” the last recorded poem by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Of course, I also want to be well-fed & liquored up (so did Carver, for that matter, especially the latter) in the company of dear ones like my friend Mo. Thanks to her, at high noon on a Wednesday I was sipping that superb Spätburgunder (German pinot noir) I’d been so taken with during my tasting. Then, it was paired with classic steak & mashed potatoes in red wine sauce with root vegetables;

this time, it accompanied a side of juicy, almost neon-flavored rapini—buttery & sauteed with pancetta, it still smacked very much of itself, like a cross between broccoli & spinach—which I requested as a starter,

& a salami sandwich, can you beat that? Of course, ’twas a super-fancy salami sandwich, on nice chewy bread with pungent, naturally oily salsiccia con finocchio (fennel sausage), fresh ricotta, chunky tomato marmalade, basil, & what must be the first decent tomatoes of the season.

Mo’s lasagna, meanwhile, was flat-out remarkable, the housemade pasta so thin & delicate that it emerged from the broiler semitranslucent & crackling beneath an unusually light besciamella. Even the pork ragù was relatively delicate.

In short, that sneak preview was no fluke—& thanks to Google Cache, I can partially recreate it here.

***
The materials: reclaimed lodgepole pine, wood-grained porcelain, exposed carpet tiles. The colors: silver and gold, slate and bronze. The focal points: gleaming metallic fixtures on the one hand, a cheeky black-and-white photographic mural of a crowd of workingmen circa 1940s France, whooping it up over bottles of wine, on the other. And the gents overseeing all this—owner David Schneider and chef-partner Arik Markus—blend right in: one dark, the other blond. There’s a yin-yang aspect to Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar—coolness juxtaposing warmth, sleek lines in the midst of rough edges—that reflects its surroundings perfectly. At once a gritty construction zone and the heart of Denver’s glittering theater district, 14th Street is a site of contrasts, and Row 14, opening in the Spire Building on Tuesday, is in the middle of it all.

“Being part of this renovation, we’re at the 50-yard line of the way this town is moving,” observes Schneider. “We want to become the cornerstone of the neighborhood” for locals and visitors to the convention center and adjacent hotels alike. Adds Markus, “The word that came up from our very first meeting was ‘accessibility.’ It’s all about fun. Nothing on the menu is over $24. My background is in four-star French restaurants in New York”—in fact, the Manhattan native got his start working under Daniel Boulud at Daniel, which he calls “my cooking school”—”but that’s not the experience I want Denverites to have. I want to take familiar experiences and flip them.”

It’s a rare moment of calm reflection for the two men on Saturday night, who have been blowing and going since receiving their certificate of occupancy at 3:45pm the day before. “I literally sprinted out of here down to City Hall” to file the paperwork before closing time, laughs Schneider. Their first deliveries began arriving the next morning, giving them mere hours to prepare for the mock service that’s beginning as we speak. Both new fathers, “we recently went through the process of giving birth,” Markus says, “and now we’re doing it all over again—the tension of labor, the sleeplessness, the exhilaration and anxiety. By the way, do I have food on my face?”

He doesn’t, but I’m about to. In the whirlwind of a wine-paired, nine-course tasting at the bar, I get a clear—and exciting—glimpse of the sensibilities Markus described. The menu is Exhibit A in the case for casual, contemporary American dining: stylish yet comforting, savvy yet simple, its global accents enhancing rather than overwhelming the big picture. Think brandade (salt cod-and-olive oil) fritters with beet relish, roasted chicken pot pie, and cannelloni that showcases housemade sausage and ricotta. Lunch features sandwiches like a pan bagnat with house-cured salmon and griddled smoked turkey with Brie and roasted pear; Sunday brunch offers the likes of horchata French toast and the “Hangover Helper,” a charcuterie-and-cheese sampler accompanied by a bloody mary and a can of PBR. And for dessert, there’s an array of ices, also housemade—honey frozen yogurt, pineapple-serrano sorbet—as well as classic tarte tatin made new with Thai basil crème fraîche and black pepper.

Finally, Schneider’s list of wines by the glass—appropriately enough for a place that bills itself as a wine bar—is even more extensive than the bottle list, and smartly designed to encourage discovery. Offered in both 3- and 6-ounce pours, the selection is rife with choices to pique the interest of the burgeoning oenophile: a South African Chenin Blanc here, a Monastrell from Jumilla, Spain, there, even a Verdelho from cult California winery Scholium Project on tap. If you spring for a bottle, don’t miss Markus’ personal favorite—a wonderful Spätburgunder (a/k/a Pinot Noir) from Pfalz, Germany, redolent of raisins, leather, and earth.

If this has been one of “the hardest days of my life,” as Markus—whose most recent stint was as chef tournant at Frasca Food & Wine— wryly claims, it sure doesn’t show on the plate, nor in the relaxed, polished manner of the bar crew who serves me (some of whom you may recognize from TAG, The Squeaky Bean, and Corridor 44). Schneider may have had “an easier time naming my children” than settling on Row 14, but we think the name will be dropping from locals’ lips for a long time to come.

The signature parsnip-walnut soup’s a winner—a lusciously earthy backdrop against which tart cranberry coulis sparkles, & duck cracklings tease.

I like a thoroughly dressed salad—the sweet spot between dry & drenched—& heirloom chicory salad in a textbook red-wine vinaigrette is just that. Tossed with matchstick-cut apples, raisins & walnuts (“Waldorf relish”) & soft nuggets of blue cheese, it’s at once hearty & refreshing—a neat trick, since those qualities are usually mutually exclusive.

Hiramasa crudo has itself an almost citrusy quality; while a drizzle of lime is a given, vanilla adds a bit of creaminess & fullness to the delicately tangy whole. Pumpkin seeds, of course, add toasty crunch.

Now that’s some pork belly; Markus eschews the usual precious cubes of pure fat to present a full-on bacon filet, no less melt-in-your-mouth for being so meaty alongside nutty braised lentils & a soft-boiled egg.

Of two tomato-based shellfish soups—bisque & bouillabaisse—the former is the one that still resonates with me, elegantly smooth & subtle, each spoonful yielding chunks of sweet lobster & diced, olive-oil-poached fennel & potato.

From a sampler of Colorado cheeses & house charcuterie, I still recall the texture of the chicken liver mousse, one of the airiest I’ve ever had, alongside chunky, funky ciccoli (Italian-style pork rillettes).

As suffused with warmth as the service, this is food to soothe a weary soul.

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Welcome to El Cuscatleco. No, Really…

Be it pictures on the walls or flowers on the tables, a warm greeting from the host or the clatter & chatter of regulars, welcome signs take many forms—any & all of them welcome in turn to the chowhound on the doorstep of a potential discovery. After months of passing El Cuscatleco, a barely-there Salvadoran strip-mall joint on Federal, with a curious eye, I finally crossed its threshold one midday with a willing pal in tow—only to be met by the equivalent of the sound of crickets.

But for a telenovela blaring on the flatscreen TV, the dining room was threadbare & empty, the scent of cleaning products stronger than any cooking aroma. We stood there confused for a moment, wondering if the place was closed at the peak of the lunch hour; when a lone figure emerged from the kitchen, she, too, seemed a little confused by our presence before leading us wordlessly tableward. And though the menus she handed us were filled with terms I didn’t recognize—always a thrill—her inability to define them either to me or to my Spanish-speaking companion struck me as yet another warning rather than welcome sign, especially when she admitted she hadn’t tried much of the food. By the time she started listing all the things they were out of, I was mentally halfway out the door even as I placed my order.

But then she said: “Do you want flour tortillas or homemade corn tortillas with that?” Ah. Finally, my kind of bienvenidos. Long story short: as introductions to Salvadoran cuisine go, El Cuscatleco may not be the smoothest or most obliging. But for the intrepid culinary explorer, it is absolutely worthwhile.

Start with pupusas, the stuffed, thick tortillas that are El Salvador’s signature version of Mexican gorditas &/or Venezuelan arepas. Mine arrived warm & practically oozing with chicharrón—not in this case merely the skin of fried pork but also spiced, shredded meat—alongside a terrific dipping sauce flavored with tomatoes, chiles, garlic, & parsley. (That is in turn accompanied by a bowl of curtido, a traditional cabbage concoction that you might say marks the midpoint between coleslaw & kimchi; El Cuscatleco’s recipe lacked much vinegar tang, though flecks of chile compensated.)

Then move on to the mariscos (seafood): being (like all Central American nations) coastal, El Salvador is blessed with an abundance.

Excited by the menu’s lengthy selection, I zeroed in on what looked like a house specialty—a seafood soup called mariscadas Salvadoreña—until I saw the $20 price tag. Perhaps it was for two or more? Our server assured me it was not. Of course, given her performance thus far, I should have trusted my own instincts: I was soon confronted by a giant bowl chockablock with crab legs, shelled mussels, plump shrimp, & chunks of octopus & whitefish along with potatoes, onions, & carrots. It was a feast not least for the heady broth, based on tomatoes & what the menu calls “sour cream”—more likely the sort of blend of whipping & sour cream known in many south-of-the-border countries as crema.

Ultimately, good food is the only welcome sign that matters; I can’t wait to return for some atole de elote (a milky corn puree)—& many more of those gorgeous tortillas.

El Cuscatleco: 1550 S. Federal Blvd., Denver; 303.936.0866; Lunch and dinner daily; $2.50-$20.

Cuscatleco on Urbanspoon