Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Roast Beef-Chimichurri Sandwich at Park & Main, Breckenridge

After a terrifying, ice-slicked drive up I-70 to attend the 4th Annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival (of which more later), I arrived in town thinking nothing & no one could soothe me except the 1st distiller to ply me with copious amounts of hard liquor. But I was wrong, thanks to Park & Main, a lively little crayon box of a place dispensing equally colorful modern American eats, where I met a colleague for lunch & got a grip.

This in particular did the trick.

Complete with curlicues of golden-browned, unapologetically fatty bits that clung to creamy blobs of melted fontina, the mound of warm, shaved prime rib came slathered in a chimichurri so rich in garlic I could’ve gotten back in my car & cleared the roads with my breath alone. To its herb-&-vinegar kick, pickled onions added juice & crunch, & the grilled baguette was perfectly textured inside & out.

Nearly its equal was this veggie concoction, also en baguette drizzled with chili mayo: roasted sweet potato, braised kale & caramelized onions brought the soft, earthy bittersweetness, while pickled cukes & carrots brought the contrasting crispness & brightness. Piled so high, it was a bit of a mess, but that’s no complaint—on the contrary.

In fact, I’ve got nothing but compliments for the entire meal. Loved how baby arugula added a peppery bite to roasted-beet sliders generously smeared with tangy herbed goat cheese, laid on the eggy-sweet pillows of sweet-potato buns. But gigande-bean bruschetta, topped with slivers of good parmesan & lightly touched with some sort of fruity vinaigrette, proved an even bigger, heartier mouthful.

Breck has something special in this place, unassuming & casual as it may be—but I guess the locals know that, as it’s been there for a decade. Hopefully I’ll get over my utter dread of driving back sometime in the next 10 years. (UPDATE: My misunderstanding—it’s only been open for a year. For all that, it sure feels like a hometown fixture!)

Park & Main on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Chipotle- & Bourbon-Butter Grilled Oysters at Angelo’s Taverna

I’d never set foot in the previous, long-standing incarnation of Angelo’s Taverna—what’s another neighborhood pie parlor, eh? But “Denver’s only pizza & oyster bar” is a whole other matter—one worthy of scrapping my planned search for a place to watch the PPV Mayweather-Canelo fight last Sat., Mantonat convinced me.

He was right—& not just because the bout turned out to be a bust (no boxer will go down in history with more skills yet fewer guts & even less heart than will Floyd Money Mayweather). In fact, the real knockout that night went down on the plate on the left:

Them’s some honking oysters chargrilled in a mixture of chipotle- & Breckenridge bourbon–infused butter, adobo sauce & brown sugar; the result’s a wild ride of brine, tangy sweetness, smoke & spice whose complexity caught me by surprise.

No surprise on the right: just straight-up hot, crusty-gooey garlic bread covered in cheese. None below either: the stromboli’s pure goodness. With my choice of 2 of about 30 pizza toppings to supplement the filling of mozzarella, ricotta & classic marinara (which also comes on the side), I went with grilled eggplant & sundried tomatoes. Comfort food warrants far more discussion when it’s done badly: stale chips, soggy burgers, waiter there’s a fly in my pho, etc. When the construction is solid, when the ingredients are balanced, when you’re lulled into enjoyment rather than egged toward analysis, etc., as was the case here, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. (Note also the toasty glow coming from Soul Food Scholar‘s pizza with sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, mushrooms & olives.)

The rest of the menu’s a mishmash of red-sauce staples & more-contemporary Italian-inspired fare: there’s fried calamari & chicken parm, but there’s also a salad of arugula & toasted gnocchi in truffled herb dressing & Southwestern-style ravioli made with blue corn, red chiles & pepperjack. Same goes for the bar: there’s Bud & Pinot Grigio, but the cocktails skew craftward & the limoncello’s made in house (check out the jars in the display case near the entrance).

Granted, as Mantonat observed later, “Realistically, it’s not an easy menu to make a full meal from if you don’t want pizza or pasta.” Though Angelo’s does offer gluten-free crust, Mrs. M—who leans that way—& he opted instead for an appetizer of beef carpaccio with mustard aioli, plus sides of grilled shrimp & roasted mushrooms. Said the author of Westword blog A Federal Case—who you’d think would be getting his fill of Asian food these days—”the carpaccio was a little bland, but the mushrooms & shrimp were simple yet tasty. We actually stopped on the way home for a little sushi!”

Still, he scored the coup of the evening by noticing the quintet of oyster shooters on the beverage list. Being at that point 2 glasses of vino down, I declined to join him in a round, but the Chach—pepper vodka, cucumber, mint, lime juice—& the Webber with pale ale, housemade cocktail sauce, Cholula & a lime wedge continue to call my name.

In the end, I can’t say I know the ins & the outs of the place yet, but the statement it’s aiming to make is clearly thoughtful, & the questions that remain are minor. (For instance, what’s with the homage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers hidden in the names of the combo pizzas? And did we really accidentally convince our poor sweet waitress that Sudoku is a type of oyster?) What I can definitely say is that I’ll be back soon. From the rustic comfort of the dining room & the soulfulness of the eats to a could-be-much-worse Cal-Ital wine list & the fact that, on a busy weekend night, no one hassled us about lingering for nearly 3 hours, there’s no reason not to be.

Angelos Taverna on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Cake Batter Ice Cream with Crispy Pork Belly & Churros (& more!) at Harman’s eat & drink

I was sorry to see Phat Thai go, but I respected Mark Fischer’s insistence to Westword that closure was preferable to a P.F. Chang’s-style makeover. With the notable exception of Ondo’s, Cherry Creek just doesn’t do food that hasn’t been scrubbed clean of most of its original influences.

The food at its successor, Harman’s eat & drink, is therefore understandably clean. Though the menu does have its offhand foreign accents—Mediterranean, Latin, Asian—they’re added in service of a broadly accessible culinary lexicon.

With a few quirky exceptions, that is. Though the combinations of chocolate & bacon, salt & caramel have gone mainstream, most permutations of savory & sweet continue to strike most Americans as strange. Not so the denizens of any region that was ever touched, directly or indirectly, by Moorish culture, including the Sicilians—think melanzane al cioccolato& for that matter the Brits with their mincemeat pie; compare to meat dishes that incorporate fruit & baking spices, like Moroccan tagines & bastilla. But Harman’s dessert of cake-batter ice cream drizzled in rum caramel; topped with cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled, deep-fried pork rinds; & bathed in a compote of blueberries & chunks of golden-skinned pork belly—whew—is its own kind of triumph: cool & soft, warm & crunchy, the pork fat melting into the ice cream (or vice versa) amid bursts of fresh fruit. Way stimulating.

Pork rinds are also to be found among the appetizers, sprinkled in truffle oil & grana padano. Pal @Mantonat, who said he has “truffle blindness,” couldn’t really detect its funk; A & I certainly could, & indeed the suggestion of musk on pigskin was strong enough that a little went a long way for me, though it was balanced by impressive weightlessness & near-greaselessness.

Also greaseless, with vibrantly herbaceous, moist interiors, were the pea falafel balls with a dip that walked the line between the tzatziki it’s advertised as & aioli, only subtly tangy in its richness.

As for entrées, for all its emphasis on familiarity, the kitchen sure threw me with an Italian dish I’d never heard of: cianfotta. Upon looking it up, I—who does, after all, pride herself on knowing quite a lot about Italy’s regional cuisines—was embarrassed to discover it’s not terribly obscure; heck, Eater Denver’s Andra Zeppelin offered her own recipe for it a couple years ago. In any case, the Campagnan vegetable mélange is often, reasonably enough, compared to Provençal ratatouille; Harman’s version follows the model in that, rather than melded to a stew, the vegetables are cooked (perhaps, à la Jacques Pépin, individually) to stand out each in its turn: eggplant, crisp green beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms so meaty I thought they were shreds of chicken at first, & so on. Suspended in a marvelously light parmesan brodo, they’re barely seasoned beyond the generous dollop of pesto on top—which does all the work of salt & pepper once it’s stirred in.

I think I was even fonder of the roasted-vegetable crostini, however. Two thin, oblong slices of grilled bread were smeared with housemade ricotta & topped with a more finely chopped, balsamic-drizzled mixture of seasonal veggies that, if not doused in wine, sure tasted like it. There were cubes of eggplant & onion & peppers, of course, & wedges of something that had 3 of us—2 of us food writers—absolutely flummoxed. It was tenderly rooty, slightly tart—some sort of squash we couldn’t place? I literally put a piece in the hand of our server Chip & asked if he wouldn’t mind finding out. (I mean, I asked him first, I didn’t just suddenly smash food in his palm.) He came back with the supposed answer: radish. I’m still not convinced. Anyway, it was all tucked beneath a mound of vinaigrette-dressed greens to highly refreshing effect.

There were 3 dishes I didn’t try over the course of my 1st 2 meals here, but not because they didn’t appeal. Mantonat’s porchetta over stone-ground grits with fennel salad & fennel agrodolce (literally “sweet-sour”) looked plenty elegant (though to his mind, a bit more seasoning would’ve brought out the flavor of the meat better).

Even sans potato bun, the burger, smothered in white cheddar & caramelized onions, beckoned. I did swipe a sweet-potato fry, & yep, it was as good as sweet-potato fries generally are.

And for a small salad, my mom got a fair heap of kale Caesar.

So there you have it: Harman’s is aiming to please, not challenge, & thus far it’s working. (You still want Thai, head to Aurora.)

Harman's Eat & Drink on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Baby Vegetable Crudité (& more) at Opus Fine Dining & Aria Wine Bar

Let’s not mince words: Opus Fine Dining, now cohabiting with sibling Aria Wine Bar in Cherry Creek since closing shop in Littleton, is as spendy as it ever was—we’re talking major destination-level dollar signs. If you’re just wandering into the lounge for a few snacks, you may leave with a good old case of sticker shock. But you’ll also take along the memory of some pretty darned impressive eats, served by a bartender as friendly & comfortable in his skin as any I’ve met in a while. (Too bad I’ve forgotten his name, & it’s not on any of my receipts. But trust me—you’ll know him when he greets you.)

I won’t be forgetting this baby vegetable crudité any time soon, for instance. It’s an adorable little garden in a glass, with sliced radishes, peas, pickled white asparagus, & so on “growing” out of layered hummus, buttermilk dip, & crumbly black garlic “soil” to yield a delightful mixture of complex textures & flavors both earthy & brightly refreshing.

And practically the second you sit down, you’ll be treated to ultra-soft, yeasty-sweet rosemary focaccia alongside olive oil seasoned with pepper & smoked salt for dipping. I do so love bread baskets in all their vanishing glory.

And though I’ve only tackled the bar menu & the appetizer section of the regular menu (which overlap somewhat), the admittedly wee portions thereon register surprisingly large thanks to their detailed compositions. For all of 3 tablespoons of burrata, $12 is a bit outrageous—but the careful arrangement of the buttery cheese with the crisp, sharp radish slices, fruity drizzled olive oil & balsamic, & nutty toasted focaccia crumbs, plus a sprinkling of fleur de sel, brought a lot to the table.

Same went for the charred spring-onion ravioli over chunks of brisket, herb purée & braised chanterelles: sure, $15 for 3 pockets of pasta seems like a chunk of change when it’s not attached to the name of a chef like, say, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson—but the robustness of the tender beef, the depth of flavor in the sauce, & the silkiness of the dough managed to go a long way on the palate. That’s the thing about small portions that we Americans tend to dismiss in our obsession with “value”: they force you to pay attention to what’s really there.

As for the ballotine, ’twas a beautiful showcase for rabbit—a swirling kaleidoscope of rose-delicate meat, intense parsley purée, fried capers, more focaccia crumbs, & brown butter transformed into a funky powder.

The only disappointment in the course 2 visits was a cramped basket of twice-cooked—really somewhat overcooked & grainy—fries. Strangely, when a dish doesn’t meet expectations, its paltry size is more problematic than when it does. (You can skip the house nut mix by the same logic.) Excellent, potent housemade ketchup though.

Overall, it seems chef Sean McGaughey has picked up on & owned the pizzazz of original Opus talent Michael Long. Shelling out “a lot” for “a little” is always an iffy proposition, but at least his kitchen is working hard to make good on their end of the deal.

Opus on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: blackened catfish at Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar

I was no less sorry to see 8 Rivers close—I’ll never forget that festival bread—than I was jazzed to learn of chef Scott Durrah’s return to the scene with the opening of Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar a few months back. And after an overdue visit last night prior to the Maria Bamford show at the Oriental (my comic hero—do yourself a favor for an hour & watch this), I’m still feeling the afterglow. It’s just an earnest, comfortable, likeable LoHi joint all around.

The relatively short menu is heavy on the classics—fried chicken, barbecue plus all the fixings, a couple Low Country & Cajun/Creole specialties, cobbler & sweet-potato pie—though it takes a few minor twists & turns as well, from hummus made with black-eyed peas to the variation on a Caprese salad featuring fried green tomatoes (& the Brunswick stew is made with pork, not the traditional squirrel; here’s a great, if slightly raw, little short by documentarian Joe York on cooking up squirrel in the South).

We started with warm cornbread & honey butter; of the 2 offered types—plain & jalapeño-cheddar—I strongly preferred the latter, not only for the extra flava but because the fat in the cheese kept the little muffins moister. (Don’t hate on the word “moist.” When I mean “tender,” I’ll say that. When I mean “juicy,” I’ll say that. When I mean “of or relating to moisture,” I’ll employ the term thus defined, even if it turns a few stomachs.)

They also made a fine sop for the housemade jerk marinade, which strangely I saw only on our table—if it’s not on yours, ask for it. Addictively vinegary, if not especially searing.

The Director totally plotzed over his half-rack of ribs with mashed potatoes & gravy as well as green beans. I mostly dug them too, though I’m really curious to know what the kitchen’s smoking set-up is (if the answer’s out there, I’m not finding it)—they were borderline overdone, meaning almost falling apart. But not quite, & I disagree with the Post’s William Porter about the sauce, which I thought was great: sweet but balanced by acidity, St. Louis style.

Still, it was my honking portion of blackened catfish over hoppin’ john & sauteed kale that really won me over. The filet was eye-openingly flaky &, yes, moist, the seasoning perfect—not overwhelmingly salty & bitter as it so often was back in the 1980s, when Cajun cuisine swept the nation before the nation was ready. And the hoppin’ john was primo, both nuttier & sweeter than the traditional version for its inclusion of barley & corn kernels instead of rice. As for the gravy, it wasn’t like any red-eye I’ve ever had, being thick & seemingly tomato-based, but a nice counterpart to the greens nonetheless.

All in all Jezebel’s made a fine 1st impression on me—& the Director was so pleased he wants to go back tomorrow. It could happen.

Jezebel's on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Pane Bianco (& much more) at Udi’s Pizza Café Bar on Colfax

Since the Director’s place of employ is in the Lowenstein Cultureplex, I end up in those parts a lot. So I have to confess to some disappointment upon hearing the news that a branch of Udi’s would replace Encore on Colfax; a passable sandwich shop does not a twinkly, cozy hangout make.

But a full-service, contemporary Mediterranean-American restaurant with a well-stocked bar does a twinkly, cozy hangout make; as it turns out, I like almost everything about this place.

In fact, it’s not even all that distinguishable from its predecessor. The long, narrow space looks pretty much the same, & so does the menu—a smart, breezy collection of small plates, flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, & heartier entrees. One thing makes all the difference, however: THIS.

Pane bianco just means “white bread” in Italian, but here, the structured loaf you might expect is not what you get. Rather, the high-risen round is a lot like a giant puff of pizza crust: golden, crunchy, & touched with olive oil on the outside, airy, soft, & chewy on the inside. On 3 visits I couldn’t keep my hands off it until it was gone, & I’m craving it hard all over again just looking at it here, pictured with baba ghanoush—which, however, is a little too pure in eggplant flavor for my tastes; I’m an eggplant fiend (by all its beautiful names: melanzana, aubergine, berenjena, etc.), but it can be sharp on the palate, & in this case I think a little more tahini would soften those bitter edges.

Good thing the bread comes with all the other small-plate selections too, including these terrific Tunisian-roasted carrots:

root-sweet, loaded with smoky cumin, & accompanied by a smear of thick, rich tzatziki—which is also offered separately, doused in olive oil & sprinkled with za’atar. The word “intense” doesn’t usually apply to yogurt, but it sure works here.

Some of the sandwiches also feature pane bianco, including this French dip I got to go—which is great, because why shouldn’t tender, thin-sliced roast beef & aioli be the icing on the cake of killer dough? I didn’t even mind that they forgot the side of jus—for which I mistook the container of orange-balsamic vinaigrette meant to accompany my salad. Look, I’ll dip anything in anything, so what do I care. (Ever had sushi with hummus? Primo.)

In the above light, you’d think the pizza would be equally smashing. Not quite. The crust is certainly all that, as is the zingy fresh tomato sauce—& those are the most important parts, to be sure. But the toppings still need some refinement. Take the vegan kale pizza, which sounded intriguing but proved out of whack: it was basically just a pile of nearly raw kale, plus maybe two slices of mushroom, with the bare minimum of advertised breadcrumbs & no detectable note of the garlic or truffle oil it also supposedly included.

Or the version with prosciutto, béchamel, gouda & caramelized onions—sort of; the below pie boasted the right amount of the former 2 ingredients, but not nearly enough of the latter 2. (In the rare bites where I did get the full effect, it was a throbbingly vibrant one.)

The mushroom-sausage pizza with mozzarella & red peppers was, however, ready for its close-up, so clearly the potential’s there.

To take a quick carb break, Udi’s salads aren’t wildly original—you got your Cobb, your Greek, your chicken “Oriental,” etc.—but they’re solid. The combination of frisée, radicchio, poached pear, blue cheese, & slivered almonds in balsamic vinaigrette may not be conceptually fresh, but it’s literally refreshing, crisp, balanced, generous, & fine. You can have similar salads all over town, but I’ll vouch for this one.

Same goes for the beet, goat cheese, hazelnut, & watercress salad. Overplayed times a million, sure. But nicely done nonetheless.

To return to meatier stuff (click below to enlarge): the falafel burger’s a bit dry, but the earthy, nutty, herbal flavor’s delightful, highlighted by the chipotle aioli—& the Jerusalem chicken is superb: juicy, evocatively spiced, comforting in the extreme.

So next time you’re catching a flick at the Sie Film Center, stop by the bar—I’ll probably be there, face down in a bread pocket.

Udi's Pizza Café Bar on Colfax on Urbanspoon

Swimming in Thai Flavor

I never cruise through Aurora without spotting 15 places I want to try; it was a new East African joint that turned my head recently on the way to meet my pals/partners in chow crime Denver on a Spit (DOAS) & Mantonat at Thai Flavor, which sits in a strip mall next to a West African place (that happens to make amazing meat pies), the Ghanian-owned African Grill & Bar. As Mantonat puts it, “Peoria Blvd. is a kind of Bizarro World version of west Denver’s Federal Blvd. In fact, Thai Flavor lines up directly on an east-west axis with the the block of restaurants on Federal that I’ve been frequenting recently for Westword [see above link], as if the strip mall it’s located in is a slightly distorted mirror image of the row that includes Hong Kong BBQ or Lao Wang Noodle House.”

I’d like to say that, once inside, I stopped grasping at the riches around me & focused on the task at hand, but we all admitted afterward that we were a bit distracted—partly by DOAS’s hilarious little twin squirmers, but primarily because we were seated at a table near the entrance in the middle of the room in broad daylight. It’s always hard for me to concentrate when I feel like I’m circling my wagons on the prairie. (I definitely get that old urban myth about mobsters who insist on sitting with their backs to the wall.) Though the adorably gregarious old guy who, I assume, was the owner helped to make us feel at home, if we’d been concentrating more we might have sampled a broader selection; instead “we ended up with what seemed like several plates featuring the seafood mix—shrimp, scored curls of squid, & mussels,” as Mantonat observed later, adding that “the pacing of the dishes threw me off; I think I must have eaten half of your order before my curry came out and we realized that we needed to swap plates.” (What a gentleman. It was the other way around—I who took a big chunk out of his food before clarity set in.)

Then again, seafood is clearly the star here anyway, comprising Thai Flavor’s entire list of house specialties—with good reason. They do it right. Mussels in particular stood out: plump, juicy, perfectly cooked—& able to shine in every instance thanks to the kitchen’s light touch. The key difference between mediocre & quality Thai, in my book, is that the latter is surprisingly subtle. Thai-cooking experts often refer to the importance of balance between elements—sweet, spicy, salty, sour, bitter—and while I agree with that, I’d add that the ideal result is above all refreshing; the brushstrokes aren’t as bold as they are in, say, the neighboring cuisines of Malaysia/Indonesia/Singapore. Seemed to me Thai Flavor nailed that distinction in almost all the dishes we tried: from the steamed mussels with a vibrant dipping sauce—not the ubiquitous, neon-pink, sweet-chili stuff but a simple blend of fish sauce, citrus, & fresh chilies—

to Mantonat’s jungle curry

& the mixed stir-fry that both DOAS & I ordered (though neither of us can remember exactly what it was called—it doesn’t appear to be listed here),

which were all exceptionally light, fresh, crisp, & peppery. The seasonings highlighted the main ingredients rather than the other way around. Mantonat had that impression too: “The entrées showcased a more elegant side of Thai cooking; the sauces seemed more broth-based & less reliant on coconut milk or massive hits of spice blends. Despite ordering my curry ‘Thai hot,’ I never approached that moment of terror when you realize your tastebuds are being tortured but your brain has yet to receive the full impact (although I have been working on building my tolerance, much as the Dread Pirate Roberts slowly built up an immunity to iocane powder). The vegetables were definitely allowed to speak for themselves. I’m a fan of huge flavors that make me sweat & reach for a beer, but occasionally I like to be reminded that something as small as a green peppercorn can lend its little voice without completely overwhelming a dish, adding just a hint of peppery zing & a caper-like pop.”

DOAS, for his part, felt chili spice was a little underutilized in the kitchen, so he covetd the condiment caddy that gave me the sweats just to look at: “For an extra fun kick, the jar with the mix of red & green sliced peppers was tremendously hot, so I did get that familiar burn that builds and builds past heat through pain to the sort of numbed pleasure-state that I strive for when I eat Thai.”

I was likewise enamored with the accompaniment to the fish cakes, which I could’ve eaten by itself—again, I assume lime juice & fish sauce formed the base, but it was also chock-full of red onion, cucumber, cilantro, & crushed peanuts. I don’t think the fish cakes themselves

or the fried catfish

were quite as successful, simply because they weren’t quite hot enough, temperature-wise, to remain crisp for long. The potential was there, though—both dishes were put together well, the coating was deft, the flavors clear & bright.

As for the marinated-eggplant salad with shrimp, strips of sweet omelet, red onion, & basil,

I’d had it once before & remembered it vividly; the follow-up left no doubt in my mind that it’s the masterpiece here. It’s so colorful & unusual: by turns tangy & delicate, sharp & soft, crunchy & silken-textured.

For DOAS’s complete take on our oceanic extravaganza—& more comments from Mantonat—click here.

Thai Flavor on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: The Universal’s BBQ Chicken Salad Sandwich (& more!)

About a month ago, the nice little buzz The Universal—a downhome daytime joint at the edge of Sunnyside—was generating took a sharper tone when then-chef Seth Gray was let go. Having had just gone in for a snappy little meal, I was suddenly all the more curious to return & see what sort of impact his departure was having on the type & quality of the food served.

The short answer is none at all. That’s no knock on Gray, & it’s certainly not meant to justify or weigh in on behind-the-scenes decisions of which I have zero knowledge. It’s simply a fact that the menu remains the same, & the kitchen’s still executing it with flair.

As I’ve noted many times before, I’m really not big on the American breakfast table—egg dishes, pancakes & the like leave me pretty cold in theory & sluggish in practice; here, there’s not much else to go for—a few sandwiches & salads, a few dishes based on grits (the house specialty). But I appreciate a thing done right. And at The Universal, every thing is.

I hope, for instance, that this sandwich special I had last Friday—so technically the Dish of Last Week—is still available, because it was rooty tooty fresh & fruity, combining succulent, tangy barbecued-chicken salad on a chewy baguette with shaved brussels sprouts, chopped lettuce & tomato in a thick & zippy layer of cilantro aioli; a sprinkling of spiced walnut halves added crunch & a touch of elegance. And the side of velvety buttered heirloom grits—in all their cheesy richness, though they don’t contain cheese—were just as addictive as they were the first time I tried them

in my companion’s Nitty Gritty, with eggs & flavorful, juicy chicken-apple sausage.

My own griddled Brie sandwich with apples and onions cooked in white-balsamic vinegar on multigrain bread brought salt, sweetness & sourness together in a warm gooey, crusty package; a side of chard sauteed with onion wrapped it all in a pleasantly bitter yet silken bow.

In short, if there’s still discord in the back of the house, it sure hasn’t spilled to the front. May all parties find peace & keep the kitchen fires burning.

The Universal on Urbanspoon

Jackpot: Punch Bowl Social

Being shudderingly antisocial & unplayful by nature, I recognize I’m not the target market for the bananas hyperspace that is Robert Thompson’s Baker District bowling alley-pool hall-video arcade-watering hole-retro diner, especially given the strongly mixed reviews the latter, i.e. the only part I care about, has been receiving.

But as a big fan of Thompson & his exec chef Sergio Romero in general, I meant to give it a go eventually; a recent snowy weeknight seemed just the time to skirt the chaos inherent in all the parts I don’t care about. Maybe it’s the case that on a Friday night, the kitchen gets lost in the wild weeds of birthday & bachelorette bashes; I dunno. My experience, though, was totally satisfying; no reason I can see thus far that a neighborhood institution shouldn’t be in the making.

Because pickled eggs! The old-school pub staple ain’t fancy or subtle, just creamy, sharp & meaty by turns.

And housemade beef jerky with horseradish foam for dipping! Way barklike to be sure—I’m partial to jerky that’s a little more steaklike, as at Doug Born’s Smoke House & Sausage Kitchen in Montague, Michigan. Still, that doesn’t mean I kick this chewier style to the curb—so long as it brings such full-throated flavor.

And complimentary biscuits with herbed butter!

But nothing topped my pastrami sandwich. Layers of lovingly cured, pepper-crusted, shred-tender meat are slathered with sauerkraut, melted gruyère, & gribiche—a dressing of mayo, chopped eggs & pickles—then griddled on rye; the effect is warm & hearty & sepia-toned, an ode to delis gone by. Actually, one thing topped it—the baked beans it came with, richly textured & chock full of pancetta & cayenne. And get this—you’ll find the recipe in the Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table, edited by moi, when it comes out this summer!

Before you say you’re over chicken & waffles, listen up—PBS serves the soul-food classic with syrup &, not or, sausage gravy. The 1st time I ever had it, some 15 years ago just south of Harlem, that’s how it was done—but I’ve never seen it that way again until now. Kew-dohs. Not that that would matter if all the appropriate descriptors—hot, crispy, greaseless, juicy—didn’t apply to the bird, but they did.

You can’t hardly tell this is a Frito pie. Yet it is—an especially fresh, thoughtful twist on the trashy original.

Though this was my 1st meal at PBS, I’d been in previously for drinks—& every time I walked by the dessert case, something managed to catch my fancy: huge brownies, sticky cinnamon rolls, etc. Gotta love the effort to revive the pure Americana of daily-made, sky-high cakes & tarts à la Wayne Thiebaud—& the banana-cream pie was heartfelt, actually tasting of fresh fruit.

How ’bout that? Perhaps I just got lucky—but I don’t think so. Perhaps, rather, an operation of this size just needed some time to gel, & things will only get better from here. I for one am giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Sichuan Noodles (& oodles more) at Uncle

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s you know what! This LoHi noodle bar is almost everything it’s cracked up to be.

When the Director, Mantonat, Mrs. Mantonat & I arrived for dinner at 6, the casual, warmly lit little joint was already jumping. By the time we left at a quarter to 8, it was absolutely slammed; the line went out the door. As well it should. The menu is smart as hell: super-playful yet focused on the basic tenets of most Asian cooking—extreme freshness, cross-palate balance. There’s no “irreverence” without “reverence”; my own definition of “authenticity,” as I’ve said many times, hinges not strictly on tradition but on knowing the rules inside & out before opting to break them in good faith. Apparently chef-owner Tommy Lee believes as much himself.

Case in point: the steamed bao (Chinese buns).

Traditional bao are stuffed with a lot of delicious things—barbecued pork, bean paste, mixed veggies; you’ll find some of my local faves here, here & here. They do not generally contain avocado—a New World ingredient despite its adoption by Japanese sushi chefs—or breaded & fried cod, a fish whose importance to Atlantic & to some extent Mediterranean cuisines can’t be overstated, but which isn’t nearly so prevalent in East Asia.

Lee, however, has created a sort of hybrid between bao & sliders, & he gets away with it because a) the fillings are delectable—the cod firm & flaky & crunchy but not greasy, the grilled avocado almost custard-like in texture—& b) the buns themselves are beautiful, uniformly soft & silky. (I don’t know if they’re made in house or purchased, & I don’t particularly care, any more than I care that Biker Jim doesn’t make his own sausages. It’s cool when everything’s done on site, but a chef’s primary objective is to realize his or her creative vision with integrity & aplomb. Beyond that, so long as they get to point B, the route they take from point A is up to them. Sourcing’s no shame; they can’t all be churning butter & harvesting their own oysters.)

As for the beef tartare, whether or not you buy the story that it has its origins on the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes or whatever, it has a place here, in all its cubist glory.

The curious thing about tartare, to me, is its call for bold flavoring: if you season the meat delicately to let it “speak for itself,” it comes across as bland. If you go all out, the meat always seems to rise to the occasion—to see that spice & raise it. Paradoxical but true (think kitfo). Here, the use of sweet-spicy hoisin (&, I’d swear, fish sauce, though the menu doesn’t mention it) rightly highlights the bloody iron tinge of the minced beef; drag it through the sprinkling of minced garlic around the perimeter for an extra touch of pungency.

But the Dish of the Week, the one I loved most, may hew the closest to tradition: the Director’s Sichuan noodles.

Under that blanket of scallions & fried shallots are an abundance of thick, smooth, round noodles, lots of finely chopped pork & Chinese broccoli & a modicum of broth; when you mix it all up, what you’ve got is an immensely savory situation that has an almost creamy, gravy-like aspect. It’s not particularly spicy, despite the name; instead it’s memorably homey & hearty. Next time I’ll keep it all to myself.

Rather spicier was Mantonat’s kimchi stew, centered around a barely lightly egg; I only tasted the broth, but it was spot on with that sour, fiery, funky flurry of sensations.

Clearly—unlike the stereotype of its slobby namesake relative—Uncle is operating at an excitingly high level. So I’m inclined to judge it on its own terms—& therefore disinclined to give it a pass on a couple of kinks that could be easily worked out.

For example, I didn’t think my dish of rice noodles (pictured below right) was particularly well integrated; though the almost pâté-like wedges of herbed chicken sausage were killer, the charred brussels sprouts great on their own, the noodles the right texture, & the peanuts & julienned cukes a nice touch, they didn’t meld, perhaps primarily because they were dry—if there was any nuoc cham in there at all, I couldn’t tell. I ended up adding a lot of Sriracha not because the dish needed spice but because it needed moisture.

For another, the bibimbap (pictured left) was absolutely gorgeous but for one thing: because it wasn’t served in a stone bowl, it lacked the rice crust that, for me, is the cherry on top of the Korean classic. Now, according to this Saveur article, a dolsot isn’t mandatory; to return to that sticky authenticity issue, Lee’s decision not to use one is perfectly valid & by no means an indication of bad faith. It’s just: waah, no toasted rice!

Finally, while this isn’t & shouldn’t be the sort of place to stand on ceremony, ol’ Uncle probably should drag a few nieces & nephews in up the service quotient. As near as I could tell, there was only one guy working the floor the entire time we were there. And though he did an admirable job under the circumstances, the fact he was being pulled in every direction at every moment was somewhat disconcertingly obvious to all involved. Besides, with a little support he might have time for things like, say, getting to know the wine selection, especially if it’s going to include lesser-known varietals like Valdiguié—which, frankly, I’d never heard of, & I work at a wine magazine! Unfortunately, neither had he—or at least he couldn’t tell me where it was from, which a server should be able to do. To his credit, he did write the name down on a piece of paper for me (so I now realize that I actually do know the grape, by other names).

That said, I left Uncle exceedingly satisfied. It’s got gumption, pizzazz & soul in spades—& we’ve got a lot to look forward to from the young talent who runs it.

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