Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Pinche Taqueria: All that & a bag of chips—mostly

After all the slavish mania surrounding the Pinche taco truck & its brick-&-mortar extension, I finally headed in the other day, salivating at the thought not of what so many have been calling the best meal in town—but rather of the way that I’d relentlessly expose what would surely prove to be an emperor in ludicrously opulent new clothes. After all, the Director—who knows his local taquerias y loncherias inside & out—can barely muster a shrug for the jammed little Colfax joint, despite its shoulda-been-dream location on the ground floor of his office building. A taco purist, he bristles at all the bells & whistles sounding over what he feels should speak straightforwardly for itself in the language of slow-cooked meats atop simply garnished palm-sized tortillas—never mind at the extra charge they entail (chump change indeed).

But here’s the thing: as I’ve opined ad nauseam, authenticity’s a bugaboo. On that score, I’ll only reiterate my belief that so long as you know by heart the rules of the cuisine in question and opt to break them in good faith, you’re golden. The fact that Guy Fieri apparently botched the living hell out of General Tso’s doesn’t mean the Chinese-American neo-classic can’t be a pleasure, however guilty. To put it another way: Olive Garden’s chicken Alfredo pizza, bad; lovingly crafted New York-style pies, though far from the Neapolitan original, good.

And damn it all (the Director’s opinion included), Pinche’s output is mostly very good. In fact, the only item I actively disliked over the course of 2 visits—once joined by Denver on a Spit (DOAS; his take on our meal here) & his missus, once by Mantonat & Amy—was the fish taco (top of picture): the battered pescado bland, cold, bordering on limp. Bummer—but hey, nothing wrong with the creamy slaw, pineapple guacamole & pickled onions surrounding it.

Meanwhile, the tacos de lengua (pictured bottom) ruled. Diced & cooked to a light crisp with a tender chew, the tongue lolls in its own umami richness; neither a dollop of tomatillo salsa nor a sprinkle of raw chopped onion nor an intense squiggle of chile-&-honey-spiked mayo can obscure it, only highlight it. I didn’t try the “green eggs & ham” (top right)—a brunchtime combo of pork belly & scrambled eggs doused in tomatillo green chile—but the pork-belly taco I have tasted,

the sweet-&-sour-tinged “agridulce” with cilantro slaw, a fat clove of candied garlic & a side of jus, is just swoony. That there’s the cotton candy of bacon.

Also a kick in the knickers is the brunch taco called “Pinche hash” (at 12 o’clock on the below-pictured plate). Undergirding those luscious scrambled eggs in green-chile hollandaise is a disk of shredded, browned potato & caramelized onion whose thinness belies its fluffy texture—not to mention its filling of literally mouthwatering, like gland-activating, carnitas. And finally, the chicken taco (at 10 o’clock) is a homey, earthy delight with spinach, salty-sharp cotija & chipotle & sour creams.

No, it’s not inherently, intuitively tacoesque; those toppings would be just as good slopped into a bowl over cilantro rice. But so what? If the big flavor picture’s honest & true—& it is—I don’t care how it’s framed.

That said, ya gotta heart the presentation of the queso fundido—light, hot, fresh chips spilling from the paper bag they’re scooped into.

As for the stuff itself—not a dip so much as a fork-twirl & pull—I vote for the tequila-spiked, tomato-brightened, strangely more flavorful & velvety vegetarian version; DOAS & I couldn’t help but notice, upon ordering the carnivore’s alternative, that the chorizo was lacking compared to that in our neighbor’s order. As a result, it seemed drier & duller. Then again, it was still bubbling, melted cheese, so olé etc..

And the much-ballyhooed churros con chocolate? The slightest hint of grease burn notwithstanding, the airy, buttery interior couldn’t be more winning—frothy, pleasantly bittersweet sauce not even required.

Just as a side note, the salsa trio doesn’t top the samplers at Los Carboncitos, Chili Verde or even Lola Coastal Mexican for zest. But they’re ultra fresh, which counts.

So I’ll be back, happily, with or without the Director.

Pinche Taqueria  on Urbanspoon

Tom’s Urban 24: Looking Good!

Let us count all the obstacles Tom’s Urban 24 had to overcome to impress me at a media preview Fri. morning: 1) American-style breakfasts bore me; most egg dishes leave me cold, and my sweet tooth, limited as it is even come dessert, positively shrinks into the cavity before dinner. Also, bacon shmacon. 2) While I recognize that eponymous owner Tom Ryan’s résumé is remarkable—apparently he invented Pizza Hut’s stuffed-crust pizza and McDonald’s McGriddles before founding Smashburger—my assiduous avoidance of all things franchised means I’ve never experienced any of its highlights for myself. 3) I was resoundingly hungover.

But like that, like that, like that, the Samba Room’s replacement on Larimer Square cleared those hurdles lickety-split. Provided the kitchen can realize the potential it showed today on a 24/7 basis, treating paying customers the way it treated us, this place is gonna be a huge hit.

The look skews retro,

but the mural reveals a thoroughly modern concern for local sourcing (those commodity-shaped magnets can be moved around to indicate where the ingredients are coming from at any given time).

Admirable as that may be, it pales in comparison to the use of that most massive of mass-produced foodstuffs, boxed cereal, as a squealingly delightful topping for warm, fresh, stickily glazed doughnuts whose airy-crumbed texture & lightly buttery savor was utterly dreamy. Flavors will change daily, but I adored the Cap’n Crunch embedded into white icing (ditto Froot Loops); the chipotle-chocolate—rich but not too sweet, the heat filtering through subtly toward the finish; & the maple-bacon, which, yes, even I appreciated for its 2-toned lusciousness. Unresponsive sweet tooth, melted.

All the further by housemade Pop Tarts, whose fillings—both sweet & savory—will also rotate on a daily basis; we tried vibrant apple, strawberry, &, my favorite, the deeply intense, at once dark & creamy fig & goat cheese. But here too, it was the texture of the pastry above all, tender & delicately flaky, that won me over.

Pancake flavors will change daily as well, from red velvet & poppyseed-lemon to pumpkin spice & banana-caramel (pictured); I didn’t try this stack, but Eater’s Adam Larkey was practically swooning.

Pal @MO_242‘s Treehugger Benedict with avocado & (added) bacon was perfectly respectable,

but my 4-egg chorizo-&-green chile omelet was even better, I thought. Yet again, texture made all the difference; the dry ingredients—chorizo, green chile, blue-corn tortilla chips—were chopped as fine as confetti, while the 3 cheeses oozed out from every angle, giving the springy, fluffy eggs an almost casserole-like aspect (as Mo rightly pointed out). The jam is made in house—with butter. What?!

A quick glimpse of the corned-beef hash, clearly chock-full of veggies.

In short, color me happily impressed indeed, and hopeful that quality control will remain a high priority. With the start of the film festival next week, believe you me I’ll be heading back for walnut-bourbon caramel corn, matzoh-fried chicken with green chile gravy, & maybe even a WTF cocktail or 2 just for giggles (look it up). See ya there.

Tom's Urban 24 on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Manaeesh at Amira Bakery

The name for these Eastern Mediterranean quasi-pizzas can be spelled about 1001 ways—but it all adds up to deliciousness, any way you slice it. The easygoing Lebanese counter joint near DU that turns them out from its traditional ovens with such aplomb, Amira Bakery, offers a full range of Levantine staples, including shawarma, hummus, baba ghanoush & more, much of which comes with terrific, puffy, toothy, fresh-from-the-oven pita—I had to snap a pic on my car seat before it deflated.

And the falafel’s damn fine too. Though they need to update the posted menu to reflect price changes—everything’s a couple bucks more than listed—they also give you a little extra, so it all evens out in the end. These puppies are moist, crunchy-fluffy rather than flour-dense, with lots of parsley as well as chickpeas—so they’ve got an herbaceous zing that barely needs dressing (that said, a side of tahini sauce beyond the meager dribbling on top would’ve been a plus).

Still, the pies are Amira’s ace in the hole. Of 14 different kinds, I’ve tried 3 & adored them all: the lahmbajeen (from the Armenian lahmajoon), topped with a robust, juicy mixture of ground lamb & beef, bits of pepper & pinenuts;

the za’atar, named for its strongly aromatic, earthy-tart spice blend of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac & more, enhanced by a drizzle of olive oil;

& the chef’s special, which combines lebni, kashkawan (aka kashkaval) & a goodly pour of honey for the sticky-gooey, sweet-salty win.

The lebni they use is so thick & smooth it’s almost like cream cheese; the cheese is a cousin to mozzarella. For all I know you could replace both with Kraft’s finest & get the same results. What a guilty, finger-licking pleasure all the same.

Amira Bakery on Urbanspoon

The Squeaky Bean: A Love Letter, An Apology

Sigh. ‘Tis true: though I rarely let my conscience get in the way of a hot food shot, there was something in the air at The Squeaky Bean on Wednesday night that deterred me from full-on flash action; everyone around us seemed immersed in deep conversation, to the point where such a gauche breach of etiquette was bound to earn me grand opprobium. Since snapping on the downlow got me nowhere—to wit:

—you’ll have to heed my verbiage.

Despite the seriousness of the clientele & the level of culinary prowess on display, it’s clear that Max Mackissock & his crew aim to pour on the playful charm from the moment you scoot into a booth through to the gut-busting end of your meal. The 1st thing you’ll note is that the menu is a heck of a juicy read—not only in itself (“variations of radish”! “whipped verjus”! “marrow emulsion”!), but also because it’s attached to a vintage cookbook: I got Vegetables, the Director Cooking on the British Isles. Adorable!

Not seconds after its arrival, you’ll be treated to a little thirst-quencher from the bar—in our case zippy cucumber soda—& garlic knots (of all things) so buttery, fluffy & soft they’re gone in a flash (no pun intended). And eventually, if you order right (not that it seems possible to order wrong), you might be presented with a little treasure chest whose lid is opened to reveal a pair of doughnuts filled with foie-gras mousse, sprinkled with foie powder, & topped with figs (top pic). Cartoonishly eye-rubbing as the presentation may be, these babies could be slung on a paper plate or just tossed in your general direction from the open kitchen and their deliciousness would remain intact. They’re as flaky as goldleaf, as creamy as pudding, as awash in sweet-salty funk as all get out.

Dehydrated, roasted, shaved & arranged neatly in a bowl of potage de Crecy poured tableside, “variations of carrot” (unpictured) are so intensely pure of flavor they almost overwhelm; good thing Mackissock, smart cookie that he is, keeps them in check with smidgens of lime cream & a tart-savory dollop of kaffir-lime ice cream topped with crushed “citrus peanuts”; the transformation that occurs as the elements meld is something to behold.

For the main course (middle pic), the Director went for the fat-wrapped Berkshire pork loin with corn pannacotta; though beautifully executed overall, the standout for me was a side of peaches so thoroughly roasted they transcend peachness—indeed, they’re suffsed with a startling but fascinating mushroomy savor. I opted for corned teres major with mustardy polenta, fried-to-a-crisp leaves of broccoli di cicco, roasted kohlrabi & slivers of white cheddar; that beef, my friends, is just nuts—so tender yet so aromatic & pungent, taking me right back to childhood in a way few things do (okay, maybe Chipwiches & eating spaghetti sauce out of the pot).

As for dessert, the one item that survived the move from LoHi to LoDo is the Fluffernutter (bottom pic): this, full disclosure, was brought out to us gratis with glasses of Pineau des Charentes, so I technically shouldn’t review the concoction of sweet brioche slathered with peanut-butter mousse & toasted marshmallow & drizzled with peanut caramel—but it hardly defies belief to admit the thing’s beyond rich & gooey, only enhanced by the lift it gets from the alcohol & zest of the stellar pairing.

Is it the best new restaurant of 2012? No doubt it’s among them, along with Bramble & Hare, Trillium (if that counts, since it opened at the end of 2011), &, I say rather to my own surprise, Central Bistro & Bar. But then, with the exception of Trillium, I’ve had only one meal at each candidate, so I’ll reserve my final verdict for the months to come. In any case, it sure has been a bang-up couple of years for this town, eh?

The Squeaky Bean on Urbanspoon

The necessity of Central Bistro & Bar

Does Denver really need yet another cheeky-chic purveyor of contemporary farm-to-table comfort food & craft libations? Rhetorically speaking, the answer would seem to be a big fat no. But the real-world answer is a bigger, fatter yes—provided the chef is Lance Barto, now installed in the kitchen at this killer LoHi newcomer. He will make you drink the cool kids’ Koolaid & like it.

I’ve been lax about posting for the past few weeks due to a slew of dragon-breathing deadlines exacerbated by a 7-day trip to Champagne. As special as the latter was, the meal I had the night at Central the night before I left for France hardly pales by comparison (both 1] apples & oranges & 2] hard to fathom as that statement may be. The thing is, you can only eat so much foie et fromage). Assuming my one experience so far is typical—except for the part where my table of 4 snarfed about 1/2 the menu—what’s going on here pretty much epitomizes the verve of our current dining scene.

Since I’m still under fire workwise, I’ll let the photos mostly speak for themselves (click to enlarge): suffice it to say the food, to a dish, is as thoughtfully conceived yet flat-out punchy as it looks—with the PS that if you, like me, think you’ve had just about enough of the pork craze, surprise: you haven’t even begun. Sticking a knife into any given cut was like stabbing a pink silk pillow. Bravo.

Left to right: crab mac & cheese with sourdough crumbs; corn & bacon risotto; superlative fried chicken—best I’ve had in some time—over johnnycake

Kandinksy-esque raw-vegetable salad & white gazpacho with green grapes, almonds & basil sorbet

Pork (belly) ‘n’ beans. Sigh—flawless.

BBQ pork chop with peach salad: bigger sigh. (Every bit as good as the chop I had last fall at the rather-underrated Satchel’s on 6th, which I named one of my favorite dishes of 2011.)

Lamb sirloin over spiced carrot puree

Striped bass over creamy tomato with beans (the current menu mentions lobster emulsion & clams; either this preparation was different or one of my companions got to the shellfish before I did. Either way, savvy).

Special of succulent bacon-wrapped halibut with root-veggie puree/garnish

Dessert sampler, including a chocolate torte to remind you why they became ubiquitous in the 1st place

You get the idea. My experience was up there with those I’ve had at twelve, Linger, Bramble & Hare, & other stars of the upscale-casual, modern American genre; one more visit & my rating might hit 5. Put it on your short list tout suite.

Central Bistro Bar on Urbanspoon

First look at Ace Eat Serve (UPDATED 12/12)

I was hoping to have a second look by now, but it turns out Ace Eat Serve doesn’t in fact feed or serve before 2 on Sundays, so when I arrived at noon I had to mope around longingly instead.

Which means this will be updated eventually, but here’s what, IMO, you need to know in a nutshell: the place could not be cooler or more exuberant. Spacious, urbane yet earthy amid woods & metals recycled from the garage that used to occupy it, scattered with cool retro knickknacks (love those vintage flyers from Thailand)—a lot like Steuben’s, in other words, only with all the pingpong action that lends it its name.

The pan-Asian menu, meanwhile, is deceptively simple. It’s short, & so are the descriptions; you only have a general sense of what you’ve ordered until it’s in front of you. Take the chicken-thigh bao, for example.

Owner Josh Wolkon’s partner, Matt Selby, told me that one poor guy on the line has been making all the buns himself since day 1, & you can tell; mine was as good as any I’ve had on Federal, anyway—really—& the shredded dark meat that filled it turned bright with shreds of mango; as for the sweet pickled mustard seeds on the side, they, like the sesame-seed paste I touted last week, were worth the price of admission. In short, it’s the the unexpected add-ons & seasonings that bring Ace’s output to life.

As seasoned as Selby & exec chef Brandon Biederman are themselves, though, they’re still tweaking the menu; whether the bao will remain on the menu in their current form remains to be seen, I’m told. So get ’em while you can. What’s more, I think the lovely stew I had might already have been axed; I could’ve sworn it was called “red-chili beef,” which I’m not seeing on the online menu right now. (UPDATE: it hasn’t gone anywhere! It’s called “red-curry beef.” Yay.) Anyway, the coconutty broth, brimming with herbs & chunks of beef, Thai eggplant, tomato & more, was deeply satisfying, complexly spiced & all that jazz, accompanied by proper sticky rice. The blistered long beans with garlic in back could’ve used a touch more salt or soy or something, but they were snappy for sure.

The celery salad, meanwhile, was as crisp & light as could be, studded with cubes of pickled daikon & gently dressed in a subtle vinaigrette. After having some gailan (Chinese broccoli) in oyster sauce richly studded with chunks of salted fish from Jaya Asian Grill the other day, I may never again eat vegetables without them, but then I’d be missing out on something as refreshing & cleansing as this was. (On the other hand, should you be disposed to funk it up, that’s what the fermented black beans on the table are for.)

Damn, dessert was special. A scoop of lemongrass ice cream bobbing in housemade ginger soda—so clean, so effervescent not just in form but in flavor. Zing. And the mochi filled with strawberry ice cream—so much pure goodness in such a tiny thing! I don’t believe they’re made in house, which is no biggie—sourcing’s half the battle of a solid kitchen.

As for a solid bar program, I presume these guys have it covered, just as they have at Steuben’s—well before most in town seemed to know what bitters were. As evidence, though, I can only offer a virgin sipper for the nonce: this housemade bitter-lemon soda, bright & bubbly & nowhere near too sweet. (There’s also an array of fresh juices, including a cucumber-beet-kale blend that has my number.)

That’s the story so far; I bet it has a happy ending.

***

After Xmas, I finally got a chance to find out. I’m hearing mixed reviews out there, but I dig the place. They’re doing what they’re doing—a broad, mod interpretation of pan-Asian eats, not a strict imitation—& doing it well.

Sure, we’re all sick of brussels sprouts—until we’re not. In a special this week (pictured top right), they were tossed with shishito peppers, garlic, & sesame seeds, fried to a blistering crisp, & paired with a lime cream for dipping; hot & cold, salty & sour, crunchy & smooth. Really nice. So were those pork-chive shumai (bottom left); minus the tomato sauce, they reminded me more than anything of little lasagna blossoms, rich & sturdy (not heavy, mind you, just structured, like pasta rather than tissuey skins).

Whether the crispy tiger wings are always as pungent as the batch pictured below left were—not spicy, but smoky to the point of bitterness—I dunno. Either way, they weren’t my top pick of the litter (or brood or flock, as the case may be)—but the beef ramen special did me a surprise solid. I missed the part in college where I was supposed to develop a taste for ramen; whoever stocked it in the collective cultural pantry forgot to offer me my share. So this is a case—a rather rare case, I’d like to think—of my having no basis for comparison other than the goods at Oshima Ramen. There, the broth tends to be light & delicate—herbal, floral, lots of ginger & scallions; Ace’s version is earthier, favoring warm spices & bright veggies like carrots & chilies both fresh & dried. Gathering further savory steam from the ample ground beef, it coats the noodles in its sheen. It really grew on me.

As for the chicken-thigh buns with fried onions & pickled mango, they were every bit as delicious as last time. And while a tiny sip of my companion’s rum-&-Chartreuse-based cocktail, The Girl With Green Eyes, wasn’t for me—I’ve just grown to detest St. Germain; it’s a personal thing—look at that ice cube (or rather rectangle)! Must’ve been 8 inches tall, at least.

So have I been inordinately lucky? That would be a first. Perhaps I’ve been inordinately lunchy—both of my visits occurred in the daytime—& the reported problems are occurring when the joint gets slammed at night. Or maybe I’m just right that there are more hits than misses, & those who say otherwise are wrong. Or maybe they’re right & I’m wrong…Nah. But only one way for you to find out.

Ace Eat Serve on Urbanspoon

Duo: There’s a reason

it’s got a permanent place on the short list of local go-tos, one that has everything to do with the well-roundedness implied by the word “yet.” Rustic yet modern vibe. Polished yet laid-back service (if the pace is a bit slow when the dining room is full, which is always, so be it—the point is to relax over fine wine in good company). Smart yet sensual food; ever-changing yet grounded menu. Duo’s got nuance down-pat.

Hey, I think I just said it all. I wish my camera had done a better job of saying it for me, but the battery died after the first shot, so the cell lens had to do.

Saltine-crusted crabcake: moist, perfectly seasoned, light on the filler, hardly requiring the red-pepper aioli or the sharp, bright corn relish.

Crostini spread with luscious housemade ricotta & melting leeks under a bit of tomato, sparkling sweet-sour anchovies, & small dollops of salsa verde, parsley-fresh & caper-pungent.

I didn’t try the smoked lamb ribs over green tomato-Napa cabbage slaw, but a taste of the whiskey-infused bbq sauce made me wish I had fries with that.

Accompanied by caraway-flecked flatbread, house-cured gravlax with dill-&-cucumber-scented yogurt & pickled red onions was pristine yet soulful—as straight-up as it gets.

We’d only on planned on happy hour, but our little quartet stayed through dinner, a fact that speaks volumes about our comfort level here. The Director’s fried chicken showed a little too much greaseless restraint for my tastes—I guess I like it drippingly down & dirty— but the smooth buttermilk-mashed potatoes & tangy take on hoppin’ john hit the spot.

And my perfectly grilled hunk of ribeye, smothered in more of that luscious salsa verde, was tops, over a gorgeous (photo notwithstanding), snappy panzanella enhanced by green beans & shreds of fresh buffalo mozzarella.

Giving up on the camera, I didn’t capture A’s pancetta-&-spinach-layered rabbit roulade with carrot puree & mustard jus, though it was a thing of delicate beauty, nor M’s market fish special, nor their shared goat cheesecake with housemade graham cracker & mango sorbet. I think you get the picture nonetheless. This is savvy stuff: intelligently conceived, effortlessly executed. It’s as simple as that.

Duo on Urbanspoon

The Return of the Black Pearl

***Brief respite from blogging over at Globeater, in turn a brief respite from blogging over here.***

Long story short: Girl moves to Denver, girl falls in love with Black Pearl, Black Pearl loses girl with a string of iffy chef shuffles, girl returns on a whim that reignites the crush—this time with Seattle transplant Mitch Mayers. He’s a keeper.

Taking family there last week, the Director & I were presented with a menu that boasted all the much-missed hallmarks of the restaurant’s original, splashy style—bold flavors in unexpected combinations—with none of the recent drawbacks (what either were smaller portions at higher prices or simply seemed to be because I was annoyed; see “much-missed hallmarks”). It’s funny—it’s not as though Denver’s devoid of creative contemporary cuisine; far from it. But there’s a certain rare flair for surprising juxtapositions that speaks to me personally, & Black Pearl’s best chefs have had it in spades, to the point where I positively crave nearly everything they’re dishing up, be it deviled-egg salad with maple-horseradish vinaigrette or a bacon-stuffed bison burger with brown-mustard mole or goat-cheesecake with sage-granola crunch & red wine-marinated strawberries—& yes, all of the above are on the current menu.

We started, however, with an old favorite, the sesame-crusted calamari in sweet aged soy, tossed with slivered scallions, toasted garlic & pistachios. Having written about it often, I didn’t bother to snap a pic, so here’s an old one—

but rest assured it’s as good as ever. In his retirement years, the Director’s dad discovered he actually liked squid okay; as we smugly surmised, that was probably because he’d had it prepared properly for the first time in his life.

Speaking of firsts, he also gave the agave-glazed wild-boar spareribs over Moroccan-spiced quinoa with baked plantains & beet chutney a shot, & so pleased was he with the gorgeous results I didn’t dare ask for a taste.

Same went for his missus’ classy, throwback shrimp & crab salad with lemon velouté in a puff pastry shell (which, get this, was retro-colored in real life!).

Not that I wasn’t busy with my own entree: edamame-corn cakes topped with sauteed zucchini & served over chipotle crema-drizzled refried black beans.

Dense but fresh, pure & naturally sweet, the cakes stood up admirably to the smoky-rich beans, making for a smart play on masa & frijoles, while the squash ribbons added a dose of levity.

Of course, I was also busy with the Director’s hickory-smoked game hen.

Over nutty orzo, that crispy-skinned bird just kept adding to its own pilsner-splashed jus, accompanied by unbelievably silken quarters of grilled artichoke heart; the “hoecake” (really more like a corn muffin) pretty much gilded the lily.

I still say the markup is too high on the bottle list, however sizeable & interesting the cellar may be; wines by the glass & cocktails are a better way to go. And I do hope the warm chocolate-chip cookies & milk return to the dessert menu someday. But that’s just quibbling for the sake of not slobbering too hard or jinxing the delicate balance currently being struck at this sometime neighborhood ideal.

Black Pearl on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: BBQ Beef Tongue Potstickers & more at Adrift Tiki Bar

Well, isn’t this place more fun than a barrel of shrieking monkeys aged in rum.

Located at the edge of the Baker District on S. Broadway, it’s quite the jazzy throwback to the Polynesian-crazed mid-century era of Trader Vic’s—all bamboo & sunset hues, fishnet-strung & blowfish-shaped lanterns, ukelele-playing hula girls & booths upholstered in embossed alligator print.

Since Adrift doesn’t seem to have a website or even a Facebook presence yet (hey, like it really is the 1950s!), I snapped the cocktail & small-plate menus (click to enlarge)—you’re welcome indeed.

 Given that 6 of us covered a good chunk of both over the course of our stay, I’ve gotta give props to our server, clad in some sort of flowery caftan, who managed to keep the entire order straight without writing it down—smooth! We started with drinks, natch; my favorite among the 3 (unpictured) I tasted —which are mostly fresh & fruity tiki classics—was the Suffering Bastard, a blend of gin, brandy, ginger beer & lime cordial, garnished with mint, that kept sweetness in check with spice & citrus notes.

As for eats, I admit I kind of pined for just 1 or 2 old-school snacks like rumaki or spareribs, but the contemporary, non-cheesy versions thereof were overall pretty swell—better than I’d expected, certainly.

I’m anointing the barbecued beef-tongue potstickers Dish of the Week not because they were the best thing I’ve had in the past 7 days—they weren’t even the best thing I tried at this meal—but they were the most intriguing. The minor problem was the blandness & chewy texture of the dumplings, more like unwieldy ravioli than silken guotie; but the filling, with big chunks of tangy, tenderly marinated tongue, proved a nifty innovation on pork—& shiso leaves plus a zesty sweet-soy dressing ensured the slaw beneath was more than just a token attempt to round out the plate. Soft, savory-sweet fried green-plantain patties in coconut-rum drizzle went down way too easy as well.

Although the below brioche toasts were too hard—the stuff really does go stale so fast; might as well not use it if you’re not equipped to keep it fresh—the little coins of airy foie-gras mousse, awfully tough to top in themselves, came smartly, subtly enhanced with drops of tea-thyme syrup.

And though the black-bean sauce on the fried calamari was a touch too sweet for me, & the squid itself not particularly flavorful, the light, ultra-crunchy breading had a lot going for it—I almost thought there were crushed nuts in there. Macadamia, maybe? If not, kudos for the illusion.

I passed my threshold for voluntary ahi-tartare consumption years ago, even topped with avocado mashed with crabmeat. But some friends who ordered it offered up a yucca chip whose delicacy I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the likes of before—so thin & crisp it evoked phyllo. Impressive.

Top marks, however, ultimately went to—color me surprised—the most seemingly stolid of selections: lemongrass-roasted, pan-sauced chicken thigh alongside coconut black beans & pineapple-tossed rice, all perfectly cooked & harmoniously aromatic & flavorful.

Just goes to show that cheeky retro flourishes on the one hand & novelties on the other, delightful as they can be, don’t always trump square fare, even for a jaded so-&-so like me.

Adrift Tiki Bar on Urbanspoon

How Do You Drop a Benjamin at Phoenician Kabob?

Very, very carefully.

First, you & the Director arrange to meet Denver on a Spit (DOAS), Mantonat, & their blushing brides for a late lunch at this Lebanese sleeper on Colfax; then, you hardly eat all morning, to ensure you’ll be nice & saber-toothed by the appointed meeting time; meanwhile, you chip away at some looming deadline, so that hunger & work stress will swirl into a perfect storm of determined debauchery, a play-by-play of which, complete with full dish descriptions, you’ll find right here at DOAS.

By the time your companions arrive, you’ll both be on your 2nd of 3 glasses of Château Kafraya‘s red blend from the Bakaa Valley of Lebanon, & you’ll have polished off much of the 1st of 2 orders of your favorite, most vengeful of garlic dips with pita fresh from the oven.

Then DOAS—otherwise known as the only soul in all of Denver who can eat as much as you–will suggest you start with the pizza-like specialty known as manaqish (or, sometimes, lahmacun) heavily sprinkled with the region’s famed, earthy, slightly bitter spice mixture, za’atar, & dotted with, all of things, cornichons & Japanese-style pickles (aka tsukemono).

The fact that, being wonderfully airy but slightly dry, it doesn’t quite beat your favorite local version, that of Amira Bakery,

which also makes a killer pie topped with ground lamb,

will not keep you from digging in whole-heartedly.

DOAS will also suggest an order of fatayer filled with lamb, onions & pine nuts,

unusual to me for being open-faced rather than turnover-like, which as far as I know is more common. The pastry’s flaky, almost puff-like, but also slightly on the dry side (perhaps that’s a point in favor of encasing the filling completely, so the dough soaks up the meat juices)? Still, nothing a little tzatziki can’t fix.

Of course, you & the Director will have ordered separate combo patters: yours vegetarian with falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, dolmas, rice & the richest of yogurt dips, lebne, 

his topped further with chopped gyro & chicken.

(Meanwhile, one member of your party will order a daily special, comprised of enough saffron rice, beef & potatoes, along with more tzatziki, to feed a whole bunch of normal people.)

By now, not even you can stomach the thought of dessert, much as you adore baklava, kunafa, & the like. Coffee that’s nearly thick as fudge batter will have to do.

If, like me, you dig Arabic, Cuban & all the other coffee styles that are at once intensely bitter & well sweetened, you’l be set, but DOAS warns: “I hate sweet coffee & love strong, black coffee, so I was torn, though I appreciated the copious amounts of sludge on the bottom of my mini-cup (I think I got extra sludge & really did like it). And 3 or 4 pours had me going the rest of the day.”

And that, folks, is how you blow stacks of cash at Phoenician Kabob, & how you’ll no doubt do it again someday soon.

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