Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Bonanno Bonanza: Luca d’Italia & Osteria Marco

I knew a Luca once, though unlike Frank Bonanno’s scion, the name was spelled with not 1 c to mean (per a citizen of ancient Lucania but 2, after the famed medieval Tuscan town Lucca—casa to Italy’s hence world’s best focaccia.

Lucca was the nephew of an old flame, the one I gobbled focaccia thereabouts with, & the yummiest little cherub ever. His response to forkfuls of cheesecake proffered repeatedly from across the room was Pavlovian clockwork—he’d toddle in his diapers faster & faster, over & over, his eyes hypnosis spirals—& his habit of dunking hot dogs into the birdbath before sucking them down made him the unwitting life of every family barbecue. As an infant, he would gum anything, just anything—wrists, book spines, table edges—calmly, eyes skyward.

It was in the pure preverbal solemnity of his gourmandise that I took such joy.

I thought of him—who must by now be nearly 10—for the 1st time in years the other night at Luca d’Italia, where I’d have wordlessly followed every last bite around the room in my underpants too.

As it happened, the first bite pretty much backed up into me; the very moment we were seated amid what seems to define hushed elegance here in the West—white linens against desert-in-sunset hues—our server descended with amuses bouches. The abruptness of the gesture—we’d yet to even open the wine list—grated on me a touch, though it has since occurred to me wonder a) when I became so jaded that I could criticize the timing of free snacks & b) whether it wasn’t a fair attempt to preempt the mini-nervous breakdowns many of us suffer in the interval between our arrival on unfamiliar dining turf & the acknowledgment of our presence by those whose grasp of the terrain & its resources is precisely what we’ve come to acquire. I’m sure Steve Dublanica or somebody has already sufficiently articulated the evolutionary psychology underpinning service-customer relations.*

At any rate, like Dudley Moore taking the money at the end of Arthur, I hardly waved away the pork liver pâté on a semolina crostino with cherry preserves, stone-ground mustard & pickled onions,


& though it didn’t fully come together for me—there seeming to be an awful lot of strong condiment & diversional toast crunch relative to the amount of really rather delicate pâté—I had to applaud the aplomb whereby it was not only produced but followed by a delectable bread basket (mmm, loved me those snappy herb-flecked breadsticks) complete with prosciutto bianco, a euphemism for lardo. The nonchalance with which Italians tend to treat the odds of there being any dietary prohibition other than their own never ceases to win me over. In the words of the aforementioned ex after I berated him for adding pancetta to a pasta sauce we were preparing to serve to vegetarian friends one evening: “This isn’t meat, it’s flavoring.”

Thus was a flavoring vinaigrette the salty-smoky counterpoint to—if not the whole point of—dulcet grilled octopus & melon, adding the shadowy contours to their light bright flesh.


Meanwhile, true to the standard, my braised polpette housed a pulverized menagerie of calf & cow as well as pig. Soaking up a deeply caramelized onion & tomato gravy as heady as mead, they went down without a hitch, meat made velvet.


The benefit of the douse did not, however, go likewise to the panzanella, whose dressing should be like a good spa treatment: while the blend of herbed olive oil & red wine vinegar is no jacuzzi you can just leave the grilled bread cubes alone to get funky in, it most certainly is a massage lotion with which you must rub them down until it gently penetrates their pores. They shouldn’t be soggy, in short, but neither should they be dry—then they’re just croutons.


Thus disappointed did I, like the littlest rascal jumping to peep over the fence where the big kids converge upon the treehouse, try to swipe bites of both my dad’s lamb—squirtingly tender down to the last bone-clinging shred—


& the Director’s exquisite rabbit three ways.


Though I’ll be darned if I caught a whiff of the white truffle supposedly in the sauce (& I’m quite the fungus-rooting swine), I nonetheless loved its savor, winey & cacciatorelike, helping slow the bunny meat’s generally fleeting earthiness to a pace we could follow, swallow after swallow—that is, until it finally brought us to a shuddering, groaning standstill.

Until until 2 days hence, when we started all over again at Osteria Marco, whose quasi-speakeasy vibe makes you wish there was a government ban on deli products & you could only gain entry by hissing open sesame in a tough’s ear. Here, too, was pancetta worth its salt—rallying round roast chicken, avocado, blue cheese, crisp lettuce & creamy garlic dressing until they all made 1 big zesty team huddle of a chopped salad.


By contrast, if ever a meat product were a delicate flower, it’s braesola; just budding when served alone, it opens up to fullest bloom amid ripe fig slivers & a drizzle of saba (aka vin cotto, a shade more syrupy than high-grade balsamic). Wanting to focus on the subtle gradations of all that dusky, musky rosiness, I found the gorgonzola chunks less offsetting than distracting, just so many bees buzzing around the garden.


Speaking of distractions: when I was but a tot, my dad used to tease me by making me look—pointing wide-eyed out the window or up at the ceiling only to nick a peanut or grape from the bowl before me. I suspect the grilled ciabatta he ordered served the same purpose. Thinned with enough olive oil to reach dipping consistency, yet still plenty thick with parmesan, the sundried tomato–speckled pesto it came with mesmerized me no less than that cheesecake did Lucca,


& it wasn’t until I’d nearly licked the dish clean that I realized his salad with shaved lamb & goat cheese, roasted peppers & Kalamatas was all gone—that he’d not left me, his own flesh & blood, a crumb.


Now that’s what I call buonanno.

*In my defense, in a thread I started in hopes of resolving my ambivalence toward this very subject on Chowhound’s Not About Food board, 1 adamant poster equated ill-timed amuses bouches with “popups on the computer screen.”

Luca D'Italia on Urbanspoon


but unlike Phil Collins I don’t feel so good if I just say the word—not lately, anyway.

Recently the Director—who I should emphasize right off the bat is a big admirer of Wayne Conwell—& I hit the bar at Sushi Sasa to do, as we do every few months, omakase. Having never noticed, because we usually split sake (after sake after sake), the selection of house-infused spirits, I got all giddy about the apple-lemon vodka. The waitress asked whether I wanted it on the rocks or with a splash of soda; my response—”whatever whoever created it recommends”—seemed to stump her; I suspect the average Sasa customer knows down to the last shrilly dictatorial detail what he or she wants. Finally we agreed on soda—which turned out, much to my chagrin, though it probably shouldn’t have been to my surprise, to be Sprite rather than seltzer.

To neither my surprise nor, certainly, any chagrin was the 1st dish: oft-served & always welcome is the fatty tuna tartare—studded with pine nuts, topped with a quail egg & a touch of caviar,


& accompanied by a little thimble of wasabi Sasawasabi

as well as a little dish of soy-based sauce, all of which you’re instructed to combine in ritual fashion in each utterly lush yet zingy bite.

A single juicy yamamomo, Sasapeach

aka Japanese mountain peach, acts as a sort of palate cleanser—like red round parsley or the nucleus of sorbet—for the next course, in this case what we both swore the chef called “3-line crying fish carpaccio” but must’ve been flying fish, because I just Googled “crying fish” to discover via Urban Dictionary that it’s prison slang for “a weak man raped by his first cellmate.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what these were slices of:


What it definitely was, flavorwise, was as delicate yet bright & fleeting as a whole flock of butterflies—which, come to think of it, that hunk of mozzarella somewhat resembles from this angle—amid strawberries, cherry tomatoes, capers & microgreens. The pale gold slick, blond soy truffle sauce, lent a hint of funk.

Next up, ever-extravagant king crab legs—sort of crullers among crustaceans; is there any shellfish flesh honey-sweeter?—with 3 dipping sauces: jalapeno ponzu, yuzu crème fraîche & soy something-or-other, their bowls set atop little thumbprints of wasabi.


I dipped dollops of crème into the ponzu & sipped them from the spoon like condiment soup, which the Director found very gauche until he tried it.

Dish 4 was actual soup—but it was here that our sushi chef said abruptly, without stopping his chopping (the man sliced octopus like he was shuffling cards), No pictures.

At our waitress’s next pass, I asked why. She explained that ingredients and presentations sometimes change, & they don’t want to misrepresent their offerings, lest diners with dashed expectations complain. Hence, she pointed out, the rather evasive website.

I bit my tongue to keep from lashing out: Where are we, Sushi Sasa or California Pizza Kitchen? I’m confident your customers are sophisticated enough to comprehend the difference between a portfolio & a picture menu—to not only expect the unexpected from a high-end kitchen whose bread & butter is the rare & rarer, but to relish it, even if they’re not doing omakase, the whole point of which is to indulge, & indulge in, the whims of the chef.

She then admitted that they were also concerned about culinary plagiarism.

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing: Where are we, Alinea? El Bulli? Obviously not—they have photos on their websites. In that light, the implications of her statement absolutely boggled—especially in reference to some broth with some pieces of fish & mushroom in it.

Tongue thus deeply bit, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the stuff.

But the meal went on. For the Director’s sake, I ordered some wine and washed just enough of the bitterness out of my mouth to badger anew the sushi chef, who had, after all, just been the messenger—& he continued to answer my questions as though I hadn’t just basically been accused of aiding & abetting the world’s crooked cooks.

& by the time we’d polished off a tray of nigiri, topped with translucent slices of white seaweed like Shrinky Dinks, I had an admission of my own to make: that without the camera between me & the meal, I was paying more attention than I had in some time—savoring more the unmediated experience, committing it to memory rather than a memory card. & so on through the trio of morsels from the kitchen—sea bass in black bean sauce, miso black cod the way it should be, like custard, & Colorado lamb that single-loinedly condoned locavorism—as well as a pretty little duo of desserts, including wasabi cheeseake.

So while I still think Sasa’s policies reflect a smidgen of delusion, I’m glad I swallowed the food for thought it gave me. Hence its continued classification under Eateries That Get Me Hot. Hence, too, the close-cropped photos above, an attempt to respect the chef’s wishes while showcasing his talents—the exception being the crab. But I’m positive he doesn’t claim to be the first person ever to place some crab legs next to some sauce. If he does, this will probably come as a nasty shock:


Sushi Sasa on Urbanspoon

Beatrice & Woodsley’s pretty little petri dishes

It’s not that he’s a molecular gastronomist or anything; don’t be expecting pistachio sponges with morel jelly & mandarin air. But whoever this Pete List fellow is (Googling his name as it appears, accompanied by the title of exec chef, on Beatrice & Woodsley’s small-plates menu yields only results for some Brooklyn-based beatboxer, whom I’m assuming he isn’t—which reminds me, there’s a documentary I’m excited to see about a guy who went around the world meeting all the other guys that turned up when he Googled his own name), he’s certainly taking enough risks—especially given the eatery’s location smack in the middle of the Baker District, where it’s surrounded on all sides by dives both legit & faux filled with sweet-potato-fry-eating, shot-pounding hipper-than-hipsters (not that I’m not down with shots & fries; au contraire, especially if you’re buying)—to qualify as a low-level, local-class experimenter. And judging from my 1st meal here, he’s clearly got the chops to pull off his mini-taste tests, from crawfish beignets with spicy powdered sugar to cauliflower gratin with shallot cream & pistachio crumbs.

His quirky repertoire is part classic French & part historico-regional American—think rillettes & ratatouille on the one hand, spoonbread & succotash on the other; intriguingly juxtaposed, they’re simultaneously joined in their contemporary reimagination. Take the sweetbreads, my fave of the eve:


Constituting a bit of a culinary pun in that they were set atop wedges of chestnut-honey cake that soaked up their juices most satisfyingly, the little nuggets were as buttery as could be—that telltale if subtle twinge of iron flavor softened even further, perhaps, by the white-peony tea with which they were seasoned (I can’t say I detected it otherwise).

The vegetable mousses were marvelous as well, a snappy dollop of fresh garbanzo offsetting the almost puddinglike nature of the carrot & parsnip; actually, given their garden sweetness, a sprinkling of sea salt on the matzohesque housemade crackers would have been a bonus.


Touches of pizzazz distinguished even the ubiquitous cheese plate, from hearty black-walnut bread to spiced pear slices & what we were told was mango jam but I’m sure was papaya, unless I’m developing the tropical-fruit equivalent of color blindness. At any rate it was super, like chunky punch.

Grapeskins from a wine press speckle the cheese in the background.

By the time the braised pork belly arrived, I was pretty much in my cups, as this addled little composition shows.


Come to think of it, though, it’s a fairly accurate image of what I tasted; I gobbled up those cute little potatoes & pickles & sort of forgot about the pork belly, which, as well as I can recall it, was perfectly adequate but didn’t quite reach the crispy-edged, melting-centered benchmark set by Rioja.

Still, the only real disappointment was the stew of cod & cockles. Charming though it appeared,


the seafood was overwhelmed by too much housemade pancetta; only the brussels sprouts & cubed potatoes could stand up to its saltiness. Somehow I don’t think “sprouts & spuds” would sell as well. Although seeing as how they’ve got the chutzpah to bill a dish of I’m guessing leafy greens as “market growies,” I might humbly suggest it nevertheless.

All in all, I’m rooting loud & hard for this wacky joint.

Back in Black (Pearl)

It had been a while since we’d stopped in at our neighborhood place, dear as it is to us, mainly because the wine list is all too dear: my 1 major, oft-stated complaint with Black Pearl is that the beverage markups are almost offensively disproportionate to the price of the food. Currently, there’s only 1 bottle of red under $40—Jacuzzi Merlot, for crying out loud. Who’s gonna order that without feeling like this?
The 2nd-cheapest is about $60. The gouge a bottle of white leaves is slightly shallower; we stuck with prosecco.
Meanwhile, my 1 minor complaint is that the menu doesn’t change often enough to suit us regulars, especially those with tastebuds as restless as mine. (Yours too, if Gray’s Anatomy’s to be believed:
You’ve got a whole seafloor of throbbing anemones & swaying tentacles lining that mouth of yours! Who knew?)
Much as I crave that chili-fried calamari, those shishito peppers & comme-il-faut moules frites, etc. etc., & much as I respect the integrity behind the implication that less is more when it’s coming from a small kitchen with limited resources, I still think the crew therein has the talent to take a few more risks a little more often. (Ditto Deluxe, by the by.) In all fairness, BP is doing a weekly-changing 3-course prix-fixe these days, but I’ve always found that sort of thing to be geared more toward the change-savers than the change-cravers.
Be all that as it may, we found ourselves swooning as usual over updated versions of our favorite signatures. Given the constancy of the menu from season to season, I’ve got to be that much more impressed by the unassailable soulfulness of the cooking; instead of seeming rote, everything’s done with such care as to seem fresh time & time again.
Last time we had the tuna, it was parsley-crusted and surrounded with lentil-sausage crumbles; now, it’s rolled in sesame seeds & accompanied by tiny crab fritters atop schmears of hollandaise as well as bias-cut asparagus. The fish was seared so perfectly & remained so tender it was a bit of a shock; the hollandaise was stirringly pure. That, in fact, is the collective rare gift of the BOH: its ability to remind me what something’s supposed to taste like.
That goes for the ribeye sprinkled with breadcrumbs & aged balsamic as well, although I think I prefer the former manner of presentation, in thin, delicate slices.
Actually, it doesn’t so much go for the smoked-potato hash beneath the beef;
I didn’t even know you could smoke potatoes (except like this
& it’s quite the sneaky treat. Like the hash-slinger at the diner was using the grill for an ashtray, in a really good way.
We downed a few oysters as well. I have a growing collection of shells (it’s scattered all over the beaches of the world—maybe you’ve seen it? No, wait, that’s Stephen Wright), as I like to swipe the ones that strike me as particularly stunning from the platter. But sometimes I slow my slurping pace enough to notice how gorgeous the meat itself can be:
Again, that’s Black Pearl’s forte: showing you clearly what you already know, reintroducing you to what you already love.

Dim Sum Bright Spot: King’s Land

There’s this flick I utterly adore & would never recommend to anyone called Frownland. In a bitter, frankly ill-fitting nutshell: it’s the post-slacker-era American übernebbish’s answer to Haneke’s godforsaken The Piano Teacher, whereby a hopelessly despicable anti-protagonist—if that; some would just say antagonist in the lead—lives a relentlessly miserable life, The End. Somehow, though, Frownland’s funny, if agonizingly so, & moving, if impossibly so.

My point is this: King’s Land’s no Frownland!

If it’s comparable to any other Land, it might be the Land of Dairy Queen (where there must have been a coup, as it’s now called DQtopia—I wonder if strawberry topping ran red through the streets)—except here streams of chili sauce dotted with stuffed-shrimp skiffs replace the hot-fudge rivers bobbing with banana boats, & the soft-serve spires give way to thatched taro huts:


Going in a clockwise spiral from top right, we had ourselves a slew of taro puffs; lollipops of fried shrimp ball with sugar-cane sticks; some soupy sort of siu mai; steamed banana-leaf packets stuffed with rice & sausage & such; saucy mushroom slabs; less soupy siu mai; shrimp dumplings; a different type of shrimp dumpling; bone-in pork ribs; more shrimp dumplings; more less-soupy siu mai; & stuffed shrimp that I’m seeing for the 1st time in this picture—damn! Gotta move quick among the crew I was with, I guess. Not pictured is a plate of roast-duck chunks—indeed just ducky—or bowls of congee that, being congee, pretty much looked like this:


Of course, all that was just the beginning. Someone counted & said we had 31 dishes total, for which we each paid a little over $15. What’s that, 50 cents a pop? Jaw-dropping. Button-popping.

Among the other savory tidbits:


still more dumplings, these fried & filled with pork


still more dumplings, these made with spinach


turnip cakes, whose gelatinous texture isn’t for everyone but whose earthy-creamy flavor is


salt-&-pepper shrimp—perfect, really, lightly crispy & greaseless

As for the sweets:


yolk-custard tarts & sesame balls—again, crunchy-gooey perfection


candied-pineapple pastry


turnovers filled with a crumbly sort of sugared-egg mixture & coconut gelatin cubes

In sum, there’s not much I can say that the photos don’t about the excellence of the dim sum at King’s Land—except to quote Captain Beefheart, from whom the smartie who directed Frownland, Ronald Bronstein, apparently swiped his title: My smile is stuck!

King's Land Chinese Seafood on Urbanspoon

Pimp My Meal! Part 5: Table 6

There are bricks. There are woodplanks. There are blackboards. There’s a communal table. There are two-tops and four-tops, not too many, spaced just so. Voices rise & fall; things clink & other things rustle. The familiar charms of Table 6 are so simple they’re almost caricature. There’s an open kitchen; when I glanced in, I saw the perfect chef, a bit plump, a bit scruffy, grinning, a salmon-colored ascot set jauntily about his neck. No, wait. It was a handtowel draped over his shoulder. Damn. Still, it was pink; it might as well have been a cravat. He might as well have been drawn that way.
He certainly cooks that way, the way you’d expect a cartoon chef to cook—with warmth & humor on the one hand, seasoned judgment & precision on the other. He cooks like he’s cranky & jolly by turns, like
Images3 + Images4,
only more French. His cooking shows he knows where humble meets haute. While, given bad directions, so many of his peers speed right through the intersection, he hangs out on its corners. That’s his turf, more than that of any chef I’ve encountered of late.
A case in point: the signature tater tots.
Where everybody else just keeps on adding truffle ad nauseum, he—Scott Parker, according to the website—studs his little cutie-patooties (yeah, I said it—see, I’m a softie when you get to know me & don’t serve me crap) with Marcona almonds, giving them at once extra crunch & suaver savor. Though I thought them slightly undersalted, they were otherwise perfect, right down to that smoky, slightly tart tomato jam—a jam to give that other jam I mentioned recently no mere black eye but a total Klitschkovian ocular meltdown:
Considering them along with the other cases in point, I’d go so far as to say Parker’s a master of texture. Everything balances the crispy with the creamy, the succulent with the firm until you’re just about to kiss your fingers and go, “mmmwwahhh!”, except then you’d have to admit this place was turning you from a secret softie into an open, running sap.
That goes, speaking of schmaltz, for the pot pie—sure enough “blitzed,” per the menu, with chicken fat & topped, per the Director, with a nugget of dark meat, “very juicy, very well-fried…a very nice touch” (hey, who’s writing this?)—
as well as my grilled striped bass atop a pool of malt-vinegar-infused mayo below a cylinder of celery-root kugel below a how-the-hell-do-you-like-that surprise piece of frisée tempura:
Between the two was enough technique to play a piano & paint a picture simultaneously from another room without eyes or hands. The pastry crust was rose-petal tender; the deep-fry batter was delicate enough to dip a feather in; the sauce had body & tang; the silky browned skin on the fish made me want to take it off & wear it, like the Ed Gein of piscivores.
Not having room for white-chocolate crumpets with blackcurrant jam (well, & not having trouble comparing myself to a screaming psychokiller), I went home a broken woman.
But I may be made whole again; salvation’s nigh. On March 16, Table 6 starts serving brunch. The biscuits come with lamb gravy. Pray they serve mine in a baptismal font.

Table 6 on Urbanspoon