Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Pow! Bang! Zowie! The Superheroes of Lao Wang Noodle House

Certainly the mom & pop proprietors of this miniature version of a restaurant, 20 seats on a good day & apparently Taiwanese despite the menu’s Szechuan/Shanghainese bent, are my new heroes. Middle-aged if you squint, English-speaking if you hallucinate, these senior sweethearts are unstoppable, cooking up a storm & serving up a rainbow complete with pot o’ gold.

Make that bamboo steamer o’ xiao long bao.

LWNHsoupdumplings
Like bagels, martinis, espresso, hot dogs & so on, soup dumplings are one of those things that drive connoisseurs to distraction as they debate & dissect every detail right down to terminologyproper methods of ingestion. To be sure, XLB (to use the popular English abbreviation) are as tricky to eat as they are deceptively simple to deconstruct. Inside these sleek, soft little dough purses are a bite of pork & a single sip of broth (attained by adding aspic to the filling that melts in the heat); the subtle aroma of star anise mesmerizes with each bursting mouthful.

Along with the XLB, the signature potstickers—last week’s Dish of the Week—are an absolute must-order for any 1st-timer. And every timer after that. My encore order was even crisper, gooier & porkier than its predecessor.

LWNHpotstickers2

To round out the options for pastry-wrapped ground pig, the steamed wontons in spicy peanut sauce are wickedly savory bonbons too.

LWNHwontons
Though not quite soup, that spoon is in the bowl for a reason—these extremely slippery & delicate little series of liquid-holding folds are a bitch to pick up with chopsticks, liable to rip to shreds.

LWNHwontons2

Better to just scoop them up with lots of that wonderful sauce—not the sweet melted peanut butter of your average Thai parlor but a brothy, sesame-smeared concoction with lots of chopped peanuts & a chili kick.

A similar blend brings the dandan noodles—pictured pre-stir—to glorious life.

LWNHdandan
Mixed up with the reddish, chilified sauce beneath & the chopped peanuts, ground pork & pickled veggies on top, these chow mein–style wheat noodles are a life-affirming scramble of crunch & slurp, soothe & snap-to. As special as the XLB & potstickers are, it’s this that’s gonna bring me back weekly. (What’s gonna drive me in next, however, are the cold noodles with peanut sauce, sesame dressing & shredded eggs. Can’t freaking wait.)

The menu, it should be noted (& as should come as no surprise), isn’t large or wide-ranging. These folks specialize in noodles (dry or in soup) & dumplings (& their ilk), period. Vegetables per se are limited to sliced cukes marinated in spicy oil,

LWNHcukes2

fettuccine-like seaweed marinated in mild sesame oil (which benefited from liberal splashes of black vinegar),

LWNHseaweed

& cabbage (on the right) marinated in brutally spicy, vinegar-based something or other. Looks so vulnerable in its overexposed plainness, I know, but it’s throat-searing.

LWNHbeefandcabbage

All are good, but their role is secondary, serving as palate cleansers, no more, no less. (There is one noodle soup that’s supposedly vegetarian, but the onus would be on you to ask some probing questions about the broth.)

On the left is what’s simply labeled “spiced beef,” belying its complexity. Served cold, it’s got a fascinating texture—firmly chewy rather than tender (which is not to say tough)—& a confident 5-spice touch. I thought it might be pressed & roasted, but delving further, I learned it’s probably beef shank, simmered & cooled.

Despite the narrow repertoire, there’s still so much more I’m dying to try, including tofu jerky, zha jiang mian, & the celebrated beef noodle soup. Untie thyself from the railroad tracks laid by those Kung-Pao villains engineering the glop train. It’s Pow Bang Superhero Noodle House to the rescue.

Lao Wang Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Pumped by Fuel

Ensconced in a half-empty office park in the middle of a field,

Fuel Fuel

doesn’t enjoy the most welcome or auspicious setting—at least not in the eyes of one such as myself, who has a) gone out of her way, risking a lifetime of poverty & professional failure, to avoid office parks & b) been traumatized by fields in general ever since

Children-of-the-corn-child-cult
Children of the Corn.

But all my terror was overcome with one bite. And the ensuing bliss escalated with every bite thereafter over the course of 2 visits.

Fuelfritters
Quinoa-feta fritters weren’t the prettiest things I ever saw, but they sure were tasty little poppers. With their dark-brown crunchy shell & melting interior of the namesake nutty grain mixed with salty cheese, they amounted to one of the few worthwhile twists on arancini I’ve ever encountered. (Since arancini—balls of rice plus cheese and/or ground meat, peas, etc., rolled in cornmeal & deep-fried, so named for their supposed resemblance to oranges—are among the many gastronomic gifts Italy has given us that never, ever break, so generally we shouldn’t be wasting time trying to fix them.) They were made all the fresher & more complex by the basil leaves, which I used as a wrapper, & droplets of honeyed citrus gastrique.

Fuelcalamari

Squid stuffed with wild rice, mushrooms & greens & then…braised?…in an intense creamy tomato sauce may, along with Black Pearl’s signature fried calamari chunks, now be my favorite squid dish in town. From within the perfectly textured flesh—tender, but with integrity (like me! Heh, I never get sick of that joke, do you? Don’t answer)—spilled forth an absolutely wonderful, again nutty, crumbled-earthy filling with just the slightest sophisticated hint of herbed bitterness. If it weren’t for the tomatoes (a New World plant, after all that only reached the Old World a couple centuries ago), I’d liken the dish to an archeological find from ancient Mediterranean ruins. (OK, & the wild rice, of which most species are also New World. Whatever…) It was that evocative. I exaggerate? I wax melopoetic? Only 1 way for you to find out.

Fuellambmeatballs

Upon ordering lamb albondigas, I expected, well, albondigas—that is, meatballs. These were whole grilled patties. But beyond that odd (neither here nor there, just odd) surprise, the app was exactly as expected: moist meat seasoned simply to let its flavor shine through—you know how mushrooms are often, rightly, described as meaty? I swear lamb is mushroomy—plus warm, fluffy pita-style flatbread; dressed cress, always good for a counterbalance to umami; & a proper chimichurri. I happen to like mine extra-sour the way my buddy Rebecca Caro of From Argentina with Love makes it, but Fuel’s version was well-balanced.

Fuelbruschetta

As for the butternut squash bruschetta with chickpea puree, pickled onions & candied chiles (not jalapeños, we were told, but something milder: Anaheim, maybe?)—its flavors were as crayon-bright asits hues; I especially loved the sweet-&-sour kick of the garnish. I wonder if the puree wouldn’t have been rendered even more vivid by the squash, blended right in with the garbanzos, although I understand thatcubes probably boast more visual & textural appeal.

Having thus plowed through the entire selection of small plates, the Director & I kept going, like some the twin-glutton equivalent of the Lawnmower Man, through the appetizer portion of gnocchi with wild mushrooms, amontillado & herb oil.

Fuelgnocchi
Our server raved about it in advance, which naturally meant I was skeptical in advance, despite the evidence so far in her favor. After all, because it’s a bitch to perfect, gnocchi’s rarely everything it’s cracked up to be.

But she spoke the truth. These were exquisite little dumplings, as soft & yielding & creamy as could be. While the sauteed buttons, porcini & oyster mushrooms (I’m guessing? Maybe &/or shiitakes?) made for a natural complement—really, what plays better, more gently together than spuds & fungi?—the sherry & herbs offered the necessary contrast, the elegant highlight.

I let the Director choose the entree; I didn’t ask what sold him on the bourbon-brined pork loin with brown butter spaetzle & brussels sprouts, but I’d be willing to bet the answer lies somewhere between the bourbon & the pork. For me, the magic word was spaetzle, basically dumplings in shreds. As it seemed, the menu description turned on some magic omissions, as well—like walnuts & bacon &, I think, cream.

Fuelpork

Or were they pecans? Just by looking, I can’t tell, & just by thinking, I can’t remember or guess, since walnuts are often linked to brussels sprouts but pecans are commonly paired with pork. I could do a little fact-checking, but it seems irrelevant given the point, which is that the dish was a damned autumnal harmony in any case, the loin juicy & just a touch pink, the way it should be now that everyone agrees we as a nation cooked the shit out of pork for far too long.

Upshot: I’ll be back & back & back again, cubicle zombies & murderous farm kids be damned.

Fuel Cafe on Urbanspoon

¡Otoño en Rioja es muy rico! Duh.

So as I just said, there are circumstances under which I get invited to events I wouldn’t miss unless I was fairly sure I had leprosy & my sores were on fire. Last week, not even a mild case of food poisoning could keep me from a dinner showcasing the new fall menu at Rioja. Until, that is, it did; after 5 of 8 tastings, my tummy just pooped out on me (not literally at the table or anything, thankfully) & I had to admit that for once I was proving useless as a guinea pig, go home & curl up, whimpering, in the dark, where I stayed for 3 days.

But those 1st 5 mini-courses served as sterling (or “burnished”? that sounds more autumnal) reminders, not that I needed them, of just how hard Rioja rocks.

And by the way, if you’re thinking, well, you were a guest at a press dinner, you *can’t* be publicly critical under those conditions—well, right you are, by & large. Thus I only write about press dinners that truly impress. Should they fail to, I return on my own dime & do a double-check or 2 before sounding notes of disappointment/warning, here or elsewhere. Fair is fair, eh?

In the case of Jen Jasinski, however—who, by the way, is coming out with The Perfect Bite, her 1st cookbook, soon!—I imagine my saying the woman can do virtually no wrong in the kitchen is about as obvious & uncontroversial as statements about the Denver dining scene get.

1. Seared sea scallop with fennel-parsley compote, chamomile buerre blanc & a hazelnut-phyllo napoleon layered with carrot & parsnip puree

Riojascallop
In trying to highlight the sweetness of sea scallops via contrasts, from charcuterie to root vegetables, many a cook seems to forget that they’re still delicate little creatures, to be treated gingerly. Jasinski doesn’t, as this balancing act of softly earthy flavors attests. Granted, there isn’t much you couldn’t slather that compote across—pork loin, roast salmon, your toes. My toes.

2. Warm brussels sprout & roasted delicata squash salad with pancetta-apple vinaigrette & pistachio pistou

Riojabrussels
Combining crisped, brunoise-diced pancetta & half-inch cubes of apple, that vinaigrette made a splash in every sense, bringing the pistachio-studded sprouts to life. They’re sleepy little veggies by their lonesome, but find a way to wake ’em up & they’ll keep on moving & shaking in your mouth & down your gullet. Knocking sprouts is so 7th grade.

3. Duo of soups: chestnut with foie gras–topped brioche crostini & spinach velouté with roasted squash wedge & parmesan tuile

Riojasoupduo
My fave of the 5—both so rich in texture, yet so pure & clear in flavor. Unlike its predecessors, the triumph of this dish inhered not in the combination of elements but in their separation: when I go back & order these soups—& I intend to ASAP—I’ll eat them very carefully, taking 1 spoonful of the soup, savoring, swallowing, then 1 bite of the garnish, savoring, swallowing, & so on.

4. Tortelli with quince mascarpone, pine nut brown butter, juniper gastrique & organic arugula

Riojaquincepasta
Silken case, fluffed-up filling—the exemplar of pillowy pasta. While the gastrique lent a little zing, I’m not sure the dish needed zing—comforting mildness & tenderness was where it was at for me.

Then again, that comment may say more about where I was at at that moment—namely fading fast. Which is why, of

5. Salmon 2 ways: grilled with apple-vanilla puree & pomegranate-cured with celery root–crème fraîche slaw,

Riojasalmonduo

I could barely get past the soothing (yet vibrant) applesauce. Of course the fish was perfect, moist & near rare at the center, & the roulade, from 1 bite, seemed a nifty simultaneous play on the classic deli lox platter & sake maki.

But no matter; as I said, I’ll be back soon enough for the courses I missed, namely duck breast over saffron-Manchego risotto with pistachios-&-pine nut–stuffed Medjools & a saffron-almond cracker (hell, as I reread that description, I’d just as soon skip the duck to make room for more risotto, dates & crackers); braised beef shortrib with gorgonzola-creamed farro & candied walnuts in a sherry reduction; & hazelnut tortamisu (although the angel food cake with not only strawberry-cava consommé but also strawberry–rooibos tea sorbet & strawberry-almond-basil salad that’s on the current menu sounds even dreamier to me).

Oh, & an order of the famous pork belly. Never can pass that up.

Oh, & an order of the housemade mozzarella. Never can pass that up either.

Oh, &…

Rioja on Urbanspoon

A downhome pranzo con Panzano up at Bear Mountain Ranch

Sometimes I get lucky—or pitied—in my real life, & nice people invite me to nifty gatherings. Such was the case this past weekend, when I headed up amid new snowfall to a ranch near Idaho Springs—a ranch that raises cattle (Angus & Scottish Highlands) expressly, & sustainably, for Panzano’s Elise Wiggins, who has made it her mission to make the most of the meat, every inch, every week. This was an opportunity to get the full skinny on the Panzano steer program.

Here’s What I Learned on my Field Trip to Bear Mountain Ranch, by Denveater

1. Bear mountain owner Debbie Medved’s goal is to operate not only as organically as possible but in ways that cause the least stress on the animals. There are even outdoor speakers that pipe music over the pasture, so “my cows listen to music, everything from Motown to country.” (Personally, if my aim were to avoid Angus anguish, I’d go easy on the honky tonk ballads, but maybe cows have a higher threshold for cheatin’ hearts & blue eyes cryin’ in the rain than I do.)

2. The hay storage facility contains 2 different types for the cows & horses. That’s 1 more meal choice than you get on most airlines. It’s locked to keep rodents from burrowing into it & filthing it up; it’s humidified in winter so the hay doesn’t dry out (which lowers its nutritional value); & it’s pest-proofed with bee larvae, which apparently eat fly larvae & then conveniently up & die. It is, in short, better maintained than any place I’ve ever called home.

3. Scottish Highland cattle, bascially overgrown sheepdogs with horns, take twice as long to raise but yield sweeter, less cholesterolic meat than Angus. But Angus taste really good.

Well, there was a lot more, but I was getting hungry. And sure enough, besides hearing the winning spiel & taking a tour of the facilities, which were designed in part by none other than Temple Grandin—CSU’s famed professor of animal science—& which included a riding ring

BMR1

& stables handsome & clean enough to host a luncheon in,

BMR2
we also, naturally, had lunch in the stables that were handsome & clean enough to be hosted in. Mingling among such rootin’-tootin’ Western decorations as

BMR3 BMR4
this sconce with dancing bears & this pistol-armed barstool,

not to mention whole sheet pans of focaccia,

Panzanofocaccia
we partook of passed apps galore—

Panzanogrilledcheese Panzanosoup
fat, truffled grilled cheese wedges, neon-intense smoked mozzarella–tomato soup shooters, &

Panzanosliders meatball sliders like you wouldn’t believe—

just this side of rare, some slathered with pesto, others layered with crumbled gorgonzola & cubed pancetta—until you learned that

BMR5 Wiggins & crew

used 60/40 Angus beef to make them, & then you really couldn’t disbelieve. As a pal asked later, “60/40—isn’t that flammable?”

They were followed by enormous bowls of Panzano’s signature pappardelle Bolognese,

PanzanoBolognese

whose sauce is surprisingly light for being so meaty. Or maybe not surprisingly—I’ve suggested before Wiggins has a critical sense of balance.

We were sent home with a little pumpkin fudge—& oh, kids, such vivid dreams of the Motown-bred bistecche in our near future. I hope mine got an earful of Stevie.

This is just to say: Panzano’s a real plum

Call ’em refrigerator poems like the William Carlos Williams classic, call ’em lunch poems per Frank O’Hara, call ’em throwaways. Whichever, counter to Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” they pretty much tell it straight. It’s not the telling but the it itself that’s slanted, the subject matter, our world. As Williams also said, “No ideas but in things.”

All of which is just to say: go to Panzano. There’s my review. If you haven’t been, or haven’t been in a while, go; it tends to get lost in the shuffle of chefs & next big blurs precisely because it’s so solid, such a sure thing, so easy to take for granted, helmed by a chef whose passion doesn’t reach its logical extreme in restless ambition but rather rests in the daily determination to keep on keeping on, doing what she does best. In an era in which franchising is the rule of success rather than the exception of selling out at even the highest culinary echelons, it’s so heartening to come across people like Elise Wiggins—or, in Boston, Gordon Hamersley, or anyone else who puts all of his/her heart & soul in one place.

Actually, it had been a while since I myself had made it back there until recently, only to be undeservedly rewarded for my absence with a meal that was as smooth from smart to finish as it could be. No service kinks to work out; no chefly flourishes that weren’t totally assured. Wiggins knows her ingredients & honors her own sensibilities through & through, & the result, be it a signature dish or a seasonal one, is always an exact balance of creamy & bright, silken & meaty, refined & rustic. Has anyone coined the term sophisticrustic yet? So-FIS-ti-KRUS-tik. Someone should. Done.

And it all starts with that bread basket accompanied by one of the best spreads in town, a way tangy blend of olive oil, balsamic, sundried tomatoes, kalamatas, garlic & anchovies.

Panzanobread Panzanodip

And it all should start, every time, with the

Panzanocrepe crespelle ai funghi,

tender, brown-bubbled crepes wrapped around sauteed Hazel Dell mushrooms & set in a pool of truffle-scented fonduta. Here’s what true Piedmontese fonduta isn’t: mere fondue, mere melted cheese with maybe a little wine & starch. Here’s what it generally is: fontina melted with butter, egg yolks & milk/cream—yielding just the sort of luxuriousness you might expect from the land of Nebbiolo & tartufi bianchi.

The dish is rich enough, indeed, that just a simple salad suffices, even for me, before the main course. In fact the Director & I split the grilled Caesar that night, or rather they split it for us. (It occurs to me croutons don’t assume a way, shape, or form I don’t like. Flat, fat, soft, crunchy, lightly golden, deeply golden, plain, herbed—so long as they’re not stale [stale croutons & croutons made from stale bread being 2 different things], they’re all to be admired, aren’t they?)

Panzanosalad

Not that we needed, as it turned out, all that much of a breather. What followed were 3 (my ma was in tow) of the most refreshing entrees I’ve had all year, maximally flavored without being overly caloric.

Topping a list so top-heavy it threatened to topple was the black-pepper fettuccini d’estate with green beans, microgreens, toasted almonds & dried blueberries in a lemon-basil sauce. The name alone (d’estate means “of summer”) is a warning it won’t be around much longer, so step on it if you want to partake of such snappy stuff. While the blueberries & almonds take you to some kind of fascinating parallel moment in space where granola & pasta can coexist, it’s the lemon-basil sauce, so ordinary-sounding, that actually gives the whole thing its zing.

Panzanopasta

As is the case for most serious eaters, it’s the rare chicken dish that catches my eye, since it’s typically the most compromised item, meant to flatter pedestrian tastes. To my own tastes, outside of Asian cuisines, that sad truism extends to shrimp as well; I almost never order it in Euro/American restaurants, because the offerings thereof so often err on the bland side.

Not so at Panzano. These jumbo-babes are stuffed with Medjools, the most sugar-smacked of all dates; swathed in house-cured pancetta; sprinkled with gorgonzola; & set over properly puddingy polenta. Amid all the increasingly annoying injections of bacon into sticky buns & bubble gum & petit fours & whatnot occurring these days, it’s nice that someone remembers that the light sweetness of shellfish complements the heavy salt of pork better than just about anything.

Panzanoshrimp

The Director’s pesce fresco del giorno was swordfish,

Panzanoswordfishrisotto

& while it was perfectly well prepared—almost overdone, but not, still just moist enough—the accompaniments were where the dish was at, from the velvety pea broth to the even earthier mushroom risotto to the crispy-juicy fried shallots on top.

No ideas but in things; in Panzano’s things is the idea that I should partake of them far more often.

Panzano on Urbanspoon

In which Potager drops some philosophy on Denveater, who swallows it almost whole

Remember the goody-goody you loathed in grade school for being cuter than you, tidier than you & quicker than you, with spiffy penmanship, a firm grasp on the multiplication tables & a smug mug in your direction whenever the teacher chewed you out? I’d have bet, especially after reading the high-toned and spell-checked vision statement on its website, 10 x 10 bucks Potager was the restaurant equivalent of Tara Little.

But I’d have been happier to lose all 90 (heh—I kid, I did finally memorize the correct answer, 110), because the repast I had there recently was a refreshingly snappy retort to my snide assumption. Coming from “a waitstaff that…takes pride in [its] techniques and expertise,” our server did ask whether we’d dined with them before—my least favorite tableside question after the oafish “You still working on that?”, leading as it usually does to a righteous harangue; but she proceeded to keep it long on the smarts & short on the self-satisfaction.

And then she proceeded to bring the Director the best gnocchi I’ve had in years, literally—me, an Italophile who’s traveled half the Boot, who gladly bled herself dry paying rent in one of the nation’s most celebrated Italian neighborhoods (Boston’s North End)—& who hasn’t, with the exceptions of Panzano & Bonanno’s joints, been largely overjoyed by the Italian options offered me by the Mile High City (granting that I’ve yet to take it up on too many, & emphasizing too that what I’ve lost in some cuisines I’ve gained in others—that’s just the way of the geographical world).

Potagergnocchi

And as the best, it’s the very picture of Potager at its best—of what chef-partner Teri Rippeto apparently does best: put the ultrafresh, microlocal, sustainably produced ingredients she’s so committed to in service of deceptively simple, good solid cooking. Developing with the movement toward locavorism has been a somewhat disingenuous tendency on the part of many chefs to repeat ad nauseum the mantra that their goal is to acquire the best ingredients they can and do as little to them as possible. Really? Because, you know, I can do that. I call it staying home & making a salad (more on which below). Meanwhile, I go to restaurants to experience the technique a talented & trained chef can bring to bear on her materials. And if Rippeto truly, per the Lanza del Vasto quotation on the menu, seeks “the shortest, simplest path between the earth, the hands & the mouth,” I’m glad she doesn’t seem to have found it yet. Instead she seems to be treading the most thoughtful one—which is indeed sometimes short & simple, but hardly always.

So her gnocchi unfolded in soft little bursts of earthiness, punctuated in ideal measure by the tang of capers, fried breadcrumbs, & bits of broccoli, olive & parmesan.

And the generous bite of lobster—roasted in basil butter, then set in a pool of peach soup atop a corn souffle & salad of grilled peach, corn & prosciutto salad—one pal gave me proved a total gotcha. On paper it had looked to me like an error on the side of congruity, a mere ditty of sweetness minus the depth a little dissonance provides. But in my mouth it sang a more complex tune, which just goes to show the power of a) multitexture & b) proper seasoning.

Potagerlobster

Not going quite as constantly gaga over mussels as The Director does, I also didn’t expect to be titillated by ogling them naked in a steambath of corn, cream & marjoram. But in fact it was a bit of a orgy, all the seemingly mild-mannered ingredients coming together, teehee. Those babies got sauce.

Potagermussels

And the zucchini carpaccio served as a rejoinder to my regular assertion of bold tastes over subtle. Julienned, speckled with toasted almonds, parmesan & fresh mint & drizzled with a distinct olive oil, it’s the kind of dish that makes you a better eater, encouraging you to think about each bite & the intriguing, crunchy-smooth, green goings-on therein.

Potagerzucchini

Of course, at a place as persistent about produce as Potager, the odds that something would fall off the tightrope of subtlety to land on its back in an embarrassing spotlight of blandness weren’t all that low. If you know how much I dig great gobs of salad, you’ll get how bummed I was that the Big Salad (as it’s called on the menu) of mixed leaves with chicken, feta, almonds, olives, peaches, cukes, green beans, tomatoes, red peppers, basil & corn didn’t amount to much, underdressed & lacking cohesion. Was the chicken poached? Was all the rest raw? Somewhere, an opportunity was missed to grill a thing or two, roast a thing or two, season a thing or two, just enough to catalyze the latent oomph of the whole.

Potagersalad

The rather similar appetizer I preceded it with was somewhat more successful, if too light on the La Quercia** prosciutto, especially in proportion to a wonderful sheep’s milk ricotta that proved once & for all “milky yet pungent” is not a dumb thing to say except about somebody’s mama. It too came with almonds & peaches mixed with lettuces, though in this case I detected (imagined?) a harmonizing touch of honey.

Potagerhamandcheese

And if the fresh pappardelle with goat cheese, green beans, pine nuts, capers, currants, garlic & basil lacked the magic of the gnocchi, it was this close to capturing it. A few more crumbles of cheese, a sprinkle or two more of S&P, & voilà, I bet.

Potagerpasta

But then, given my streak in this post so far, I’d better not bet on anything beyond the fact tha
t I bet I’ll be back at Potager ASAP. That one I know I can win.

**whose website strangely doesn’t come up amid the hundreds of slavering mentions on Google…

Potager on Urbanspoon

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

The gateway drug of dining deals: Rioja’s Tuesday Sips & Snacks

It sounded too good to be true: 4 sips, 4 snacks, 15 smackers at Jennifer Jasinski’s jewel of a Mediterranean joint? Gleefully sniffing fish, friend Mo (whom you may most recently have met here) & I decided to investigate.

It looked too good to be true on paper: the tasting menu—designed according to the evening’s theme, Wines of Spain—read like the entire lexicon of my 1-track subconscious: “brown butter,” “pork belly,” “parmesan dust,” “this cava is full of butterscotch.”

It looked way too good to be true in reality:

Riojasips

Riojasnax

To give you a fuller taste, from L to R:

Sip/snack 1: NV Gran Gesta Cava with “apple, pineapple & white raisin flavors that are big & smooth”;

warm Goose Point oyster with anchovy aioli, parmesan & parsley puree

Sip/snack 2: 2006 Uriondo “from the Basque region…mingled with wet earth notes”; roasted delicata & spaghetti squash salad with matsutake mushrooms, micro lemon balm, preserved lemon & brown butter vinaigrette

Sip/snack 3: 2005 Castell del Remei Gotium Bru; crispy Kurobuta pork belly with chestnut-apple-vanilla chutney

Sip/snack 4: 2002 Rotllan Torra Reserva; housemade lamb chorizo with poblano–pine nut pesto, Haystack Mountain goat cheese

It all sure as hell tasted too good to be true. Jasinski’s knack for the bold combo of bright & dark, for capturing the—I will not say chiaroscuro I will not say chiaroscuro I will not say…fuck it—chiaroscuro landscape of the Med palate is thrilling. Meaty yet mild as they are, Goose Points proved the perfect tofu-style foil for their sort of desconstructed Caesar dressing of a garnish; the salad (which is also on the current regular menu) juggled the nuttiness of the butter with the butteriness of the spaghetti squash with the sweetness & light of the delicata squash with the clean citrus squeeze of the balm & preserved lemon in 1 direction, then the other (neat trick); while I kind of feel pork belly isn’t pork belly unless it’s a slab—a square inch isn’t space enough for melting fat to be its meltingly fatty self—you know how I feel about chestnuts, & for that matter about the charoset the chutney reminded me of (putting aside, you know, the fact that it accompanied treyf): whee! As for the chorizo, it was the Altoid of sausage balls: curiously strong for its size, a real spice whopper. So maybe it was the Whopper of sausage balls. Whatever, it was dandy as candy, especially coated in a swirl of goat cheese–dotted pesto.

And so it was finally too good to be true, damn it all: Turns out that fishiness we smelled was emanating from our own piranha appetites, which, having tasted blood, were bubbling to the surface of our good intentions looking to gorge. We stayed put for a 3-course feast, thereby defeating the purpose of coming for a deal.

On that note, I ask you, if your appetite were a killer fish & a big fat pig were lying dead in the water above it, would it snatch just 1 little crouton off its abdomen & swim cheerfully away? No, thought not. It would rip that gut to shreds. Thus did Mo order the signature pork belly with fresh garbanzo puree, about which enough has been worshipfully said—& lovingly drawn—to bear merely alluding to rather than repeating.

Riojaporkbelly

Cabbage slaw, poppyseed vinaigrette, bacon aioli & spicy ketchup is an awful lot of condiment for 1 little slider to handle; without much room to maneuver, they kind of all got mixed up in the two-inch-wide-shuffle of this trio of oyster po’boys on brioche. But the shuffle itself was luscious; if no 1 ingredient could quite stand up to another, they sure all rolled around together happily.

Riojapoboys

By contrast, the accompaniments to Mo’s grilled striped bass were sharply distinctive, from the horseradish potato puree & vodka-pickled beets to the fennel slaw & Pernod crème fraîche—ultimately, she felt, overpowering the main ingredient altogether. I didn’t wholly disagree, although the Ashkenazi in me gets so goofy over the combo of creamy potatoes, beets & horseradish that I didn’t miss the taste of bass so much as just wish hard for herring.

Riojafish

Speaking of goofy, since the gourmet geek in me could literally not see past the words “candied lemon gnocchi,” I didn’t notice until after I’d ordered it that it was paired with poached Dungeness crab, zucchini, grape tomatoes & a tarragon herb salad. Much as I admire all those goodies in & of themselves, my crest fell a little in this particular instance; somehow I’d assumed Jasinski would reinforce the candied & gnocchied elements of the dish rather than the lemony ones, yielding something super-rich rather than sprightly.

Which goes to show why they say what they say about the word “assume.” For all I thought I knew & loved about gnocchi, it proved more versatile than I’d given it credit for, adding soft, subtle little puffs of potato beige to the fresh pastel mix of beach & meadow savors.

Riojagnocchi

Like some sort of resolution retard, I’ve been stuffing down more desserts since New Year’s than ever before; in the pineapple upside-down bread pudding was further proof that such idiocy is bliss.

Riojabreadpudding

Topped with a tuile-capped orb of coconut sorbet & set in a splash of rum-ginger sauce, it was unusually, refreshingly light, putting the emphasis on the bread—housemade Hawaiian sweet bread to be precise—rather than the glut of egg & sugar that renders it a pudding, & giving the ring of pineapple plenty of leeway to do its shiny caramelized thing. It was almost more like a snack cake, almost some sort of wholesome thing you’d grab from your childhood kitchen before going out to play.

Riojabread

Of course, preceded by 1 too many snack cakes of another sort—goat cheese biscuits & lavender country bread slathered with butter—we hardly left Rioja pumped & ready to go kick any cans or anything. Buckets were more like it.

And that’s what I’m saying—as that first hit of weed leads to a gruesome heroin-addled end in a trash-strewn alley, so Tuesday Sips & Snacks spells “danger.”

Then again, so does “garden,” with a little rearranging. Does that mean the goodness is true after all?

Panzano’s panache

I’ve been to my share of medieval hill towns in Tuscany, but Panzano isn’t one of them. I can easily picture myself there though.

Panzano_panorama

In fact, after my long-overdue recent visit to its namesake downtown, rest assured that distended gut’s no caricature. Hooray!

You see, I’ve also been to my share of press tastings, namely as a features writer/editor back in Boston. Since moving to Denver & launching the blog, however, I’ve had little cause to attend them. Working alone in what I believe to be as near a state of anonymity as is feasible, I don’t want to be a mouthpiece. Just a mouth. & a big, big belly.

But the world is full of exceptions to rules, & a dinner at Panzano was mine, a) because the fellow who invited me is a highly congenial font of Denver dining lore & b) because the word around town on chef Elise Wiggins is so enthusiastic. Oft-self-described Italoelitist that I am, I wondered if I’d be echoing it or pooh-poohing it.

Now I know: echo-cho-cho-choing it, a la Ralph Wiggum.

Granting that one can’t judge a restaurant solely on a meal that, after all, occurs under special circumstances which guarantee special treatment, I’d point out that it’s precisely those circumstances that do allow one to gauge with a fair amount of accuracy the skills (or lack thereof) of its chef: if you can’t deliver the goods when it (arguably) matters most to your reputation, how likely are you to deliver when it doesn’t?

Dish after dish (after dish after dish after dish), Panzano’s kitchen delivered. I delved into a few of them, specifically the ones featuring Hazel Dell mushrooms from Fort Collins, here, but there were many other highlights, including melanzane fritte—an elegant update of eggplant parmigiana, lightly breaded, meltingly soft, goat cheese–topped & basil oil–touched;

Peggplant

the fichi caramellati al mascarpone,

Pfigs

no mere meeting of sweet & salty, pungent & rich, but a summit among slices of caramelized fig, dollops of pure mascarpone & thorough sprinklings of honey, truffle oil & bits of fried prosciutto—which one might expect to have ended in a drag-down brawl but instead proved a lovefest of strong personalities;

the signature tagliatelle alla carbonara,

Pcarbonara

which, I learned, boasts a gently fried egg rather than a virtually raw one mixed in at preparation’s end (as is standard) “so that diners can have the fun of breaking the yolk themselves”—& so I did, but not as much fun as I had eating it all: the pasta was (much as I hate the rote phrase) perfectly al dente, & dripping with riches from chunklets of house-cured pancetta to plenty of grated grana padano & chopped garlic;

& the pine nut–almond cookies—think Italian sandies, softened by poached cherries & cranberries & scoops of vanilla gelato.

Pcookies

Oh, &, come to think of it, the rosemary gelato accompanying the chocolate pudding cake: it was superb, redolent but not reeking, creamy but not heavy, with I’d swear the slightest lingering quasi-yogurty tang.

Pcake

While both the above & the aforementioned mushroom-studded items impressed me most, the rest hardly displeased; on the contrary. Only the pasticche, inadvertently true to its name, struck me as a bit muddled. I’m fingering the besciamella (I prefer the Italians’ term, naturally, putting stock in their claim that the recipe was brought to France by Catherine de Medici’s chefs over the insistence of the French that béchamel was their idea) as the main culprit; for, whereas the fig dish capitalized on the attraction of opposites, this was a matter of competing rich interests—the effects of the handmade cheese tortellini & the ragú di cinghiale (wild boar sauce, traditionally a touch sweet & sour) that IMHO were the twinned soul of the dish being dulled somewhat by the meatballs & the white sauce (which likewise might have been better off alone together), not to mention by a dash of cinnamon, a bit distracting for my taste. Each element was otherwise well executed, mind you—all the more reason to want to experience each fully.

Pmeatballs

Still, all that’s a question of tweaking, not wholly revamping. No tweaks necessary, meanwhile, for the grilled scallops in a saffron-gilded broth—somehow holding their delicate own amid the artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes, kalamatas & risotto, typically a vehicle for robuster stuff;

Pscallops

the fried bocconcini di mozzarella flecked with capers & fresh sage (3 to an order from the bar menu, not 2 & a hole as pictured, but that piece didn’t want its photo taken);

Pcheeseballs

the pepperoni pizza—while I personally favor a thinner, crispier crust, who’s to naysay a carefully made pie?;

Ppizza

the scaloppine di vitello with sundried tomatoes & capers over spinach & mashed potatoes (would you believe $4 during happy hour at the bar?***);

Pveal1

& the chocolate mousse–filled cannoli accompanied by almond-amaretto gelato & apricot-cherry compote—a thoughtful update of the classic Sicilian sweet, though as I’m still in mourning for my old North End go-to Maria’s, I couldn’t bring myself to do more than sneak 1 bite.

Pcannoli

Two last nods go to 1) a bread basket that wouldn’t quit—the springy, warm focaccia del giorno was potato–black pepper & came with a ramekin of irrepressible spread combining olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic & anchovies—& 2) the Sicilian—like a Manhattan but, I dare say, more interesting, combining Jack Daniel’s, Averna (my favorite brand of amaro after Cynar) & 10-year tawny port with a lemon twist.

In short, between Bonanno (see here & here) & Wiggins, I may not be pining for the fjords that were my old neighborhood very much longer.

***See more on this in Lori Midson’s happy hour roundup in the 10/2 RMN.

Panzano on Urbanspoon

Putting Pete on the A-List: brunch at Beatrice & Woodsley

If it’s much longer before Pete List, exec chef at Beatrice & Woodsley, is bundled up with Denver’s other dynamite sticks—the Bonannos & the Jasinskis etc. of the dining scene—I’ll eat my hat, & not just any old hat either, but something like this.

Hot_dog_hat

The optimism with which I moved to this city over a year ago—whereby the culinary landscape appeared so fertile as to bear copious fruit, by spontaneous generation as much as cultivation, any moment hence—has born repeating ever since, if with slightly less emphasis. Urbanity can be its own form of provinicalism, city-slickness just reverse naiveté—& it’s only now really beginning to sink in that, for instance, there’s a dearth of Cape Verdeans in the Rockies (how I miss this place), an even worse dearth of squid in the supermarkets & so on.

But to peruse B&W’s menu is to feel validated. Encouraged anew. & hungry. For brunch, List is currently offering stuff most American chefs wouldn’t offer even after cocktails, never mind before coffee: turtle soup, frog’s legs, lamb hash & lamb pie, croque madames. I wish I were his mother so I could beam with pride.

On the occasion of the Director’s 40th year on this earth, we started with the frog’s legs to go with our champagne, flanked by barely poached eggs & sauteed in what I’d call a sort of modified sofrito, very light in deference to the delicacy of the meat—if flavor were sound frog would whisper so soothingly. (Unless you dwell on it until you hear the wretched croaking of Kermit mid-dismemberment, so don’t.)

BWfrog

The Director’s pork belly, I suspect because it was grilled as well as braised, didn’t have that virtually liquid center one comes to expect from the cut; it actually had more of the texture of slab bacon, which was fine by me. Beneath a drizzle of honey, the griddled masa cakes evoked open-face sopaipillas.

BWporkandeggs

I didn’t taste yet more poached eggs in spicy tomato sauce, but the Director says there was a lovely chipotle-like smokiness there.

Instead I focused on the special of the day—corn-&-crab-stuffed sole with cherry tomatoes in a champagne cream.

BWsole

Now that there’s a (pete) list of ingredients that would make some chefs quake in their clogs. None of them are known for their pungency; wherein would lie the spice rub? Wherefore the study in contrasts?

But the dish was stunning—the sole absolutely, almost abnormally rich & juicy, the onion-enhanced filling vibrant, the sauce complex. Even the tomatoes added pop.

Keep on keepin’ on, List. Make forays into more & more offal, more & more obscure technique. Surprise us, challenge us, show us what’s what. I think this town’s nearly big enough for you.