Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Pimp My Meal!, Part 3: ¡Holy mole! ¡Hola, Lola!

Two wrongs don’t make a right, Two Mikes Don’t Make a Wright (although they do make for one fantastic fluke of a film, especially Mike Leigh’s diabolical segment), & mixed feelings about two venues in the WTF-were-they-thinkingly-named Big Red F Restaurant GroupJax & Centro (as expressed here)—don’t make for high expectations for a third.

But it turns out that at Lola, which Slim picked for me to try in Part 2 of Pimp My Meal!, the pickings are anything but slim. They’re as gordo as they are guapo; though kudos are therefore undoubtedly due primarily to chef-partner Jamey Fader, as near as I could tell from our prime seats near the open kitchen—whence everything that emerged looked so vibrant, so multihued & multifaceted, as to nearly make the famished Director & me crema our ropa interior—it was sous chef Austin Hall who was running the show yesterday at brunch.

So my sincerest gracias go to him, first for this:

Salsa_trio_2

While I prefer thicker, slightly oilier, salt-dustier chips like the ones I used to get at La Verdad back in Boston,

Laverdadchips
(image swiped from the hopefully laid-back author of Minty Choco Chip)

& while the house salsa was routine, the salsa verde, made with tomatillo & what I suspected & confirmed was of all things green apple, was a sweet-&-sour startler; the one made with charred Fresno chiles & what I suspected but did not confirm were smoked tomatoes was so suave you almost forgot it was spicy, like Javier Bardem playing Dracula.

Thanks are due second for this:

Greenhameggs

Just for kicks, I happen to have read & re-read this well into my retarded 20s:

Images_2

But now, in my insatiable 30s, I’m planning on eating & re-eating Lola’s inspiration therefrom. The open-face omelet that formed the basis for my Green Ham & Eggs had a moist, dense quality that was vaguely reminiscent of a Taiwanese oyster pancake, but instead of shellfish, it was loaded with chunks of chorizo verde—not as spicy as I’d have expected from the noun, but as herb-touched as I expected from the adjective—& topped with a silken layer of queso añejo (aged, queso fresco tastes less like feta & more like, I’d swear, gruyère). Swayed by a slightly puzzling but no less tempting array of all-aquatic add-ons—blue crab, fried oysters, grilled shrimp, lobster, smoked salmon—I asked for the latter & got not sliced lox but shreds of a lightly smoked (presumably in-house?) filet. Though I’d rather have had the crab hollandaise that was supposed to come with the dish but didn’t, perhaps due to an incorrect assumption that I couldn’t be so flummoxed by my own taste for the excessive that I’d want to mix sausage & cheese & crab & salmon all together, it (the salmon) was lovely, mellow as opposed to briny.

Best of all, though, was that hash—the onions caramelized to a crisp; the tangy spangling that was, I believe, browned & crumbled cotija; the whole thing nicely spiced; the cubes of potato themselves fried to melt-in-your-mouth (an adjective I swear to use only when it truly, totally applies, & who’d have thought it might ever apply to the funky spud? but there you have it) perfection.

Thanks third for the Director’s Lola Huevos, an awfully humble name for a dish of lobster enchiladas smothered in some sort of chipotle cream, along with refried beans & the scrambled eggs that get all the credit.

Lolahuevos_2

As huevos go, these are the equivalent of that tattoo of the big-breasted chick whose owner endowed it with actual implants—above & beyond sexed-up.*

*I realize it’s entirely possible that this metaphor is above & beyond sexed-up, especially considering I just heard the guy’s body rejected them. Perhaps this post will do likewise. Still, good stuff. Good coffee too, robust & thick. Oh, & tiny boxes of Chiclets come with the check—a cute-as-hell gesture, the equivalent of a guy making his tattoo of a chick wiggle her hips. I’ll stop now.

Lola on Urbanspoon

A portrait of Hugo Matheson as Courtney Love

In case you’ve been living under a rock—which, after all, as Boulderites, you may well be (look, mother Earth, no footprints!)—this bit of common knowledge bears repeating:

Kitchensign

Although it’s this bit of perhaps less common knowledge that caught my nystagmic eye: according to The Kitchen’s website, “We give the open bottles of wine to our staff at the end of the night.” No wonder they’re called ecoholics.

But just because I’ve already implied it doesn’t mean I’d go so far as to say The Kitchen fakes it so real it’s beyond fake. (Now that’s having your sticky toffee pudding & eating it too, which I did, & it was all it was cracked up to be—as adorably spongy as it was ridiculously sticky & pecantastic to boot.)

Toffeepudding

I’d say rather the sheer simple goodness of the food says it all about chef-partner Hugo Matheson’s ethicurean stance & its distance from mere posture—from the brand spanking newness of this soup,

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tasting of the very branches whence the tomatoes & the olives (see oil drizzle) sprang, to the most curiously heartfelt, painstaking approach to a salad ever,

Choppedsalad

with its chewy golden raisins & crunchy hazelnuts, smooth globules of goat cheese & sharp shreds of radicchio, confetti of meaty purple Cherokee beans & nutty, news-to-me desi chickpeas & its unusually subtle yogurt dressing—all besprinkled with a brunoise dice of beets & carrots that practically made me choke up. Someone back there really cared about this fucking salad. & so did I.

I’d also say “with dolls called honey,” because that’s what I wrote in my notebook. That’s what it looks like, anyway, so it took me a while to remember that one of my lunch companions was telling me about these little dolls called Homies—whose novelty to me I guess goes to show I’ve been trapped under some sort of heavy object myself. Anyway, talk about ethicurean stances

How Now, Ha Noi

Upon lunching here with the Director at the invitation of a friend & Federal Boulevard flâneur (is there a nickname for this stretch of Asian & Latino markets & eateries of which I remain, as a relative newbie, blissfully unaware? Or have local developers with Dean & Deluca dreams truly yet to thrust the likes of FeBo or B-Fed upon us?), it occurred to me how deliciously delusional pho (in this case pho tai bo vien) can be.

Pho

1) These meatballs think they’re sausage, smooth & bouncy as coins on a bedsheet.

2) The noodles think they’re the bean sprouts—snappy, with hardly any give.

3) The broth thinks it’s any sort of tea—gently redolent of anise & lime, faintly bitter—except the one you might expect, ye olde freaky Victorian beef tea (i.e., broth for the smelling-salts-sniffing, laudanum-swilling, lace-encrusted set).

4) The scallions think it’s springtime in Saigon. Look how green! They’re practically reanimating—taking root & shooting forth anew right there in the bowl.

5) The medium has no idea how gut-implodingly extra-large it is.

Happy illusions all! But if this pho thinks it’s better than the bun thit nuong cha gio, it’s about to get bowled over (heh) by this other think coming.

8_2

The Director mixed in a little nuoc cham & a little chili paste &, voilà, a sort of goi was born—as in Vietnamese salad, not non-Jew, not least since lo, such a creature as might rise from the murky depths of fish sauce would more properly be termed a golem. As you can see, they don’t bear even the remotest resemblance.

Golem_3

Besides, this was tangy-sweet & salty & spicy & nutty & herbaceous & crunchy & soupy & chewy all at once. A golem is, I believe, only crunchy.

Ha Noi Pho on Urbanspoon

Fuck it, I’m the next Marlon Brando: Chopsticks China Bistro

Depp, DiCaprio, Gosling, Ledger (sometime before last week), Stallone (sometime before this millennium)—they’ve all laid claim to the glorious title, only to lose it in their total failure to take it to its logical extreme & actually become him. (I suppose Ledger’s come closest.)

That leaves me—voracious, bloated & largely incoherent—to step in. Or waddle, or roll.

That’s right, if you could have sworn you saw ol’ dirty Brando himself, alive & dribbling down his bib at Chopsticks China Bistro one night last week, you now know ’twas really me, morphing with gusto over a feast that followed by mere ticks of the clock the aforementioned lunch at Centro.

Yes, yes, ’tis but the name that is thy chowhound’s enemy. Why not Moo Goo China Enoteca or Ye Olde Flied Lice China Sub Shop? They’re all wrong. But the food is truly all right, as I found out by trusting the word of Joey Porcelli—not because she’s co-author of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range with Clay Fong, who also graced the table that night, but because, speaking of names, hers is Joey Porcelli. It’s just like the biggest, gooiest bowlful of sound-pasta ever.

“Would-be honeydew,” I thought upon tasting the barely-there winter melon in a so-so bowl of soup with chunks of pork rib. Clay thought better: “the celery of melons,” said he, while noting the sesame-oiliness of the broth.

Wintermelon_2

Faring far better in our esteem was pretty much everything else. Take the Director’s shredded pork with garlic sauce, an old standard prepared in good faith; for once, you wouldn’t swear “yu hsiang” must translate as “corn syrup” or “blood clot,” but rather as “turnin’-churnin’-finger-lickin’-kaleidoscope-of-garlicky-chili-y-salty-sweetness.”

Garlicpork

Or the walnut shrimp or the fish braised in hot bean sauce, likewise serving as rare reminders that sauces, dressings, aiolis, chutneys, relishes, compotes, etc. etc. supposedly exist in service of the main ingredient, not the other way around (buttercream* being an arguable exception):

Walnutshrimp2

Fishhotbeansauce

Or my hot pot, chock-full of fat & clean marine flavor, whole roasted garlic cloves &—strangely best of all—chunks of fried tofu we all chomped like soy candy.

Seafoodhotpot

Or dumplings worthy of the name—at once velveteen & al dente, filled with somehow creamy-sweet crabmeat, truly exemplary:

Dumplings

Or, the pièce de résistance, crispy duck with pancakes. Back in Boston—I’m thinking in particular of beloved Chinatown dive King Fung Garden—an order of Peking duck required 24 hours’ advance notice; the reward for planning ahead (what, as opposed to planning behind? Ha, the redundancy of that phrase is almost as bad as the puke my brain just recently had to wipe up from the “premiere issue!” of a certain local mag (for which I guess I will now never write): “Some people may have a preconceived idea about what they think of when they picture what a ‘prefabricated home’ looks like.”) was 3 full courses: the crispy skin served with pancakes & hoisin, followed by the stir-fried flesh &, finally, duck soup (no wonder, when Rufus T. Firefly demanded to know what a traitor was “doing over here,” Chicolini replied, “Well, the food’s better over here.” Yeah, yeah, but I just saw it for the 3rd or 4th time.) What was my point? Oh, flawless ducky: skin as golden, firm & well-oiled as the young Stallone’s (he’s the next Daffy!), flesh as juicy & musky as the young Stallone’s (I’m guessing), all available within minutes of ordering it. Sweet. Great pancakes too, basically Chinese injera.

Pekingduck_2

Speaking of rewards, ours for closing down the place were sesame balls oozing with bean lava. Just goes to show you: to the annoying go the spoils.

Sesameballs

*Heh! Surprise!

Chopsticks on Urbanspoon

…And again (sorta)

Sometimes you’re too pooped to party. Sometimes you’re too drunk to fuck. (Oh, then you’re Jello too?) Sometimes you’re—I’m—too both to bother. With whatever. In this case, too liquored up and lazy-boned to do my job-hobby (my jobby!) and actively, alertly critique what I’m eating.
Thus it was the other night at Sushi Den, where my pal Emily—the kind of pal with whom a gal seeks and as often as not finds trouble—& I got (as a poetry professor once described me at a post-reading reception, smilingly if backhandedly) “delightfully looped” before we’d ordered a thing.
Honestly, as I gobbled it all up, sloshing and slurring about, I thought—way at the back of my mind where the booze had missed a spot—that the mackerel lacked something of its usual smack, that the crab was just shy of sparklingly sweet, that our sushi chef (one of the dour ones—doesn’t it seem they’re all either startlingly giddy or grumpy, that there’s a void at the center of the sushi-chef personality spectrum?) sauced with a rather heavy hand (the baked roll a tad overglazed, the scallop a bit mayo-mucky). But since I was sauced with a rather heavy hand myself, let’s just assume that (going clockwise from top of photo) the jalapeno roll, baked spicy roll, mackerel, snow crab with domestic caviar (lumpfish?), scallop and, looping back around the crab, tuna tataki was as defishilicious as always.
Sushi
Or perhaps there’s a bit of truth to Bourdain’s old saw about seafood on Sunday & Monday. Still, having crapped on the place before for its flashily cramped conditions—like Ellis Island for yuppies eagerly cradling their guest pagers, envisioning a land where the streets are paved with goldfish—I have to admit I find Sushi Den comfier for the casual, everyday sushi run when the basics are in order than I do Sushi Sasa, where the omakase is exquisite but the space is so coldly, whitely art-galleried out I feel as though I should be discussing my sashimi’s mix of textures in tones just hushed enough to show you I’m not secretly hoping you’re impressed by the witty insights you’re nonetheless close enough to catch.

Deluxe: Delish, Dish for Dish

If, as I’ve claimed, all that keeps Black Pearl from being my neighborhood ideal is its budget-blasting wine list, and all that keeps Steuben’s from same is occasionally amateurish output, then all that keeps Deluxe from the title is precisely nothing.

This totally jazzy little joint—all black-on-tan and leopard print, the warm hum of wining-and-dining grown-ups counterpointing the cool silvertones of big-band swing—just wins me over with its easy pizzazz. I’ve mentioned my predilection for bar seating, the only disadvantage being less privacy; well, get a load of Deluxe’s two-seater—a veritable canoodling corner for borderline drunkards like us! I’ve given Steuben’s Abra the nod for the discretion that is the better part of friendliness; now, meet Derek (Derrick?)—funny & enthusiastic, but only to the extent you invite him to be. I’ve complained about wine lists whose boutique leanings belie the casual ethos of the eateries they supposedly represent; here, the wine list seems as though it was written just for a plain old ordinary oenophile like me—select yet unfussy, favoring ballsy reds from places other than California, it hovers around a price point commensurate with the pricing of the food.

And, on that note, the food itself? Likewise unfussy, but not for a moment uninspired. Robust, but not so you bust. The menu’s laden with signatures, so cravings for faves rarely go unmet, but the kitchen knocks out nightly specials to keep restless tastebuds from roaming too far from the home-away-from-home it has established itself as. (Sticky syntax is, in my case, a sure sign of epicurean excitement. Bear with me.)

Cases in point are the 2 appetizers we shared a few nights back. First, stellar steak tartare: textbook in almost every way, from its near-deliquescence to its perfect balance of secondary flavors—yolk, Dijon, caper—this staple diverges from the classic only in its all-the-more-luscious use of foccaccia rather than baguette points.

Tartar

Second, a special of potato skins—that foolproof fave circa 1985 that seems to be making a welcome, and classy, comeback—in this case via a mound of smoked salmon, caviar and tarragon cream. All told, a study in textural contrasts and salty complements.

Skins

Moving on to mains: while my huge smoked pork chop was, to my taste, just slightly overdone, as I welcome a hint of pink in my pig, it was by most standards done to a turn; but what really made the plate were the whipped sweet potatoes—intriguingly spiced, not merely nutmeggy, and not at all cloying—and the tender-crisp brussels sprouts, bathed in a bacon-sprinkled cider reduction.

Porkchop

My dear DC—let’s, from here on out, call him the Director (with a nod to galleygirl & her Commodore)—didn’t care quite as much for his grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto, avocado, black beans and hominy as he did for my chop; conversely, save for the fish’s slight (but only slight) dryness, I may have liked his even better for its tropical snap.

Swordfish

The fact that it all began with a fine flatbread reminds me it will soon be time to expound upon the importance of bread baskets to the overall dining experience. And also that right now it’s time for supper.

Flatbread

Goldilocksian: The right place at the right time, part 2

Last spring I wrote a piece for Boston’s Stuff@night magazine that sought, with the help of local chefs, to define the quintessential neighborhood place in an era of (IMHO) rampant misappropriation of the phrase. If it weren’t for a grandiose wine list—with bottles starting at $40-plus (there are maybe 1 or 2 exceptions) and the majority running much higher, it’s strikingly and shamefully disproportional to the menu pricewise—Black Pearl would fit the profile, at least as I sketch it, perfectly; as it is (and as I’ve said), it comes close enough for me to pop in at least a couple times a month. Here’s how:

Stylishly cozy digs. Though in their thoroughly adult ways both stand together against the family place, a neighborhood joint is not the same as a corner dive. When a round of white Russians, jukebox nostalgia, another round of white Russians and increasingly sloppy turns of pinball are on the agenda, the latter’s what matters (and Gennaro’s, for one, delivers). The former, meanwhile, possesses just enough pizzazz to put the gleam in (rather than a glaze over—see “white Russians”) the eyes of couples, but not so much that singles don’t feel comfortable too. Snug & dim, woody & moody, Black Pearl strikes the ideal balance.

Stylishly cozy eats, for that matter. As the setting goes, so goes the menu. If, on the entire spectrum of independently run restaurants, you’ve got corner dives at one end and five-star destinations on the other, than somewhere in the middle is a subspectrum of neighborhood places with, say bar-and-grills at one end and contemporary cafes/bistros on the other. In the kitchen is neither a celebrity chef-tyrant nor an ever-changing lineup of hash-slingers, but a real cook, putting heart and thought into a menu whose ratio of creativity to comfort is roughly 1:1.

Perhaps, then, the closest synonym to “neighborhood place” is “home away from home.” The food that emerges from its kitchen bears close resemblance to what you’d cook yourself given greater resources/better skills than you’ll ever actually have. If it bears no such resemblance, being too esoteric of ingredient and/or elaborate of preparation, it’s likely neither palate nor wallet are up for the challenge of regular visits. If it bears an exact resemblance to what you already can and often do cook at home, then the point of regular visits is what, exactly?

On that note: behold Black Pearl’s grilled romaine, a smart defamiliarization of the Caesar—one of the ultimate litmus tests of a kitchen’s integrity, being so easy to compromise. Here the warm greens add a nifty twist with a hint of bitter char; grilled bread topped with fine white anchovies and a roasted garlic clove puts plain old croutons to shame; and the dressing is all tang and twang, just as it should be.

Caesar

Stylishly cozy service to boot. They may well know your name, but they don’t take the liberty of using it too often. They ask all the right questions and offer all the right suggestions—and none of the wrong ones—effortlessly. You have neither to flag them down nor wave them away with the promise/threat to flag them down if need be. Enough said, really. It’s all about genuine goodwill on the one hand and no-nonsense discretion on the other.

To be continued…

Celebreating

Recently my sweetie pie scored a super-duper new job title with the word “director” in it; I, in turn, scored a congratulatory dinner on his shiny new dime. We decided to add Izakaya Den on South Pearl to the sites we keep in heavy rotation come revelry-time (above all Rioja and Sushi Sasa). Having dropped by a couple of times to be pleased but not wowed, we hoped the third time would be the charm. (Though why it should be is beyond me; doing a quick Google search for the origin of that phrase yields only brilliantly shruggy non-answers like “Three seems to be the right number of times to try [something]. Two isn’t enough but four is too many.”)
Five small plates (izakaya are, essentially, Japanese tapas) and mumble-mumble glasses of wine later (a rich Salentein Malbec, not too juicy, $36), my first impression remains intact: in contrast to its stupidly popular sibling Sushi Den a few doors down—where each admittedly exquisite bite has to be taken into account to determine whether any given meal was worth the neo-yuppie hassle—Izakaya Den seems to me greater than the sum of its parts.
First of all, it’s a gorgeous joint—equal parts cozy, rustic Japanese cottage and cool sleek exhibition space, oozing with nooks and their unique vantage points. As at most places, we’re fond of the seating at the darkly glinting bar (not the sushi counter); it seems to be a truism that chowhounds prefer the discretion of bar service to the interjections of table service (I’ll explore the myriad reasons for this in another post). Second of all, the menu is just a joy to peruse; it’s hard to believe each tidbit could have so much in it.
On that note, as will become increasingly clear, my tastes are not subtle. In fact they’re pretty fluorescent, pretty blood-and-guts. So while I can appreciate, say, the precision of a classic French composition, my favorite dishes tend to be jumbles, throwing a bunch of wild flavors together and letting them work it out themselves or tear each other to pieces. (Boston’s Neptune Oyster [espeically under former chef David Nevins] again comes to mind—in fact, certain dishes never really leave, like the fried oysters with pickled beef tongue. And warm gruyère. And Russian dressing. And sauerkraut. Oh yeah. Pure edible chutzpah.)
And yet, at Izakaya Den, the simpler turns out to be the better. Could that be a function of Japanese culinary tradition—a reflection of its essential sparkling minimalism, its (if you will) ethnic purity, as compared to so-called New American cookery, all done in one big bold melting pot? Because while I got, for example, a guilty kick out of richness of the salmon roulade (see photo)—a vaguely Philadelphia roll-esque concoction—it doesn’t quite come together; from the smoked fish to the sake crème to the mango-jalapeno jam, each ingredient seems to pale next to the next.
Salmon
By comparison, the miso eggplant (see photo) is so lush and sweet, so velvety, that bright bits of red pepper and shiso leaf can only stand out in perfect contrast. Likewise, the short ribs are all about the deep, dark marinade, no more and no less, that renders their flesh so—don’t make me write it!—OK, toothsome. (Why is that word so embarrassing to food writers? Anyone have a theory?)
Eggplant
We’re celebreating again tonight, so make vicarious room in your mental belly.