Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Kicking It at The Kitchen Denver

The sequel that surpasses the original is, of course, a rarity in any medium, be it film, lit, or cuisine. It’s too early to say whether The Kitchen’s LoDo outpost will be that surprise gem, but I’ll tell you what: ambiance-wise it’s got the Boulder flagship by the balls, at least in my book. Where the latter, especially downstairs, always feels cramped, the new branch sprawls—filled with light & air, the tables generously spaced, the old woods & antique accents gleaming gently. Neither cluttered nor cold, it’s the kind of place you feel at home instantly. (I guess I’m not the only who digs it—check out this Denver Post profile on designer Jen Lewin.)

Cozying up to the bar at happy hour recently, the Director & I couldn’t get enough of one not-so-small plate in particular: pictured at top left, the burrata—boasting that characteristicly thick yet airy creaminess, plus the slightest pull—was smeared with pungent dollops of anchoïade (a garlicky anchovy dip) atop some of the best country-style bread I’ve had in ages: crusty, vaguely sourdoughy, grilled with enough olive oil to ooze flavor as well as moisture. Under all that cheesy goodness, I couldn’t tell if it was the same bread, clearly caraway-flecked, that accompanied the coarse-chopped pork terrine (made even funkier with the addition of chicken livers), but either way, & whether made in-house or bakery-sourced, it’s all good chewy stuff. The online menu refers to a porchetto tonnato, rather than a terrine, that I admit I felt a slight pang at not seeing on paper. Though it’s more commonly made with veal, this specialty of northwestern Italy is undersung stateside—thin slices of cold meat smothered in a creamy, lemony tuna-&-anchovy sauce? What’s not to love?)

Chock-full of root vegetables—parsnips, potatoes, celeriac—the turlu turlu was cooked a bit too al dente for my tastes, but the bright yet earthy flavor, highlighted by chickpeas, tomatoes & a cumin-scented yogurt (plus a squeeze of lemon), was plenty refreshing—& I could have polished off more than 1 smallish piece of the tortilla-like Indian whole-wheat flatbread known as chapati.

Still, for me the surprise hits of the evening were the proprietary house pours. Apparently wine director Tim Wanner had a hand in their making; if so, it was one assured hand. The white, a Chardonnay-Riesling blend, is at once full & elegant; the red, combining Syrah with Cabernet, balances candied violets & baking spices. Nicely done, sir.

***UPDATE, 5/19: Upon returning to interview co-owner Hugo Matheson for Eat Drink Denver, he bid me share an order of gougèresas the classic French cheese puffs are known.

Most commonly oozing with Gruyère, these—which are almost more like fritters than flaky pastries—contain a ticklingly pungent Gouda-style goat’s milk cheese. Bright-hot, crunchy fun.

The Kitchen Denver on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Loaded House Chips (& More) at Russell’s Smokehouse

Last fall, the news that Frank Bonanno was expanding the subterranean space behind Wednesday’s Pie & Green Russell to open a barbecue joint met with some understandable skepticism, which I to some extent shared. As talented as he is, the move from chef to brand is one that precious few in the industry make with grace & integrity intact (the saga of Todd English being, for an ex-Bostonian, the ultimate cautionary tale). And as genuinely broad as his culinary interests may be, the barbecue buffs I know—& they’re a vehement lot—favor depth over breadth when it comes to pitmastery: the hallmark of the genre is a total, lifelong immersion in the ways & means of meat smoking & the culture in which it’s contextualized. Though that’s not limited to the Deep South, it doesn’t go much further north than the Mason-Dixon line or further east than Kansas City (&, she admits grudgingly, Texas). For connoisseurs to admit that a Jersey-born, French-trained toque could naturally deliver true ‘cue would be a stretch.

Then again, to say that a Jew with a background in modernist poetry who scratched & clawed her way out of Oklahoma as a teen could naturally be any sort of expert on true ‘cue would also be a stretch. My point is this: I’m no expert on the stuff. I’ve done some studying as a food writer, & I know my bark from my smoke rings, my regional variants, & so on, of course. But what I do know, above all, is how something should feel in the mouth & taste based on the technique used to cook it.

And thus far, the crew at Russell’s Smokehouse has dispelled any concerns I might have harbored as to whether they can deliver accordingly.

Which brings me to the Dish of the Week: the loaded house chips, (pictured below right—by all means click to enlarge). A pile of hand-cut & fresh-fried potato disks is drizzled in funky gorgonzola cream & topped with pulled pork that’s not only tender, hickory-tinged & richly sauced but crisped in places, such that I wonder whether it was given a quick pan-fry out of the smoker or something. Adding a tangy, juicy kick are hot pickled red & green cherry peppers & fresh halved cherry tomatoes (which I think would be even better oven-roasted, but that’s a minor quibble).

Pictured above left is a dish I already knew I adored: mushroom dynamite—a truly inspired take on the seafood-based, mayo-enriched casserole you find in stateside sushi bars—served with a warm, crusty baguette for spreading. It’s robust & gooey & every bit the equal of many a Bonanno signature, including his burrata.

I already knew that because I’d gone gaga over it back at the friends & family opening last October, when the Director & I also split a combo plate that was solid but not stellar—the brisket a bit flabby & the pulled chicken a bit dry. That the pulled pork on the chips was so rockin,’ however, suggests to me the kitchen worked out some of those initial kinks (which is, after all, the point of soft openings).

Likewise indicative: the evolution of the sliders.

The inaugural version contained pulled rabbit, which I applauded on paper but which in practice didn’t quite gel, the flavor of rabbit being a little too delicate to withstand the sloppy-Joe-style treatment.

And although I was less enthused by the idea of the barbecued duck sliders currently available—they’re standard issue these days, after all—their execution proved a clear improvement: these sliders had punch inside & out, not only thanks to the stronger-flavored meat but because the buns are now housemade, with much better structure & chew than before.

Moreover, the sauteed collard greens are downright killer, with lots of vinegar to balance their naturally iron-y, earthy savor & a generous smattering of crumbled bacon for salt & crunch.

To state the obvious takeaway: don’t dismiss Russell’s Smokehouse based on preconceived notions of barbecue & its traditional environs & gatekeepers, any more than you’d dismiss, say, Phat Thai on similar grounds. Bonanno may be especially ambitious, but he’s not blindly so; he takes a clear-eyed approach to improving on both what’s not working & even what is, across the board. That’s been evident in my experiences at his joints, Lou’s Food Bar being a notable case in point—& that’s what cements his status as one of Denver’s key movers & shakers.

Russell's Smoke House on Urbanspoon

Superfluous Thumbs Up for Pizzeria Locale

Here’s what’s wrong with Frasca’s year-old, Neapolitan-style sibling: it’s in Boulder, not Napoli. That’s it & that’s pretty much all (well, I’m still not feeling the year-long trend toward drab-gray walls in restaurants either, but I seem to be alone in that).

And since there’s not much any of us can do about the fact that we exist outside of Italy, I’ve got to give boring, obvious, me-too props to the crew at Pizzeria Locale for giving it their all to transport us in spirit.

For starters, far be it from me to steer you away from the exquisite wines—both Locale’s own pizza-friendly selection & Frasca’s supplemental offerings, justly famous far-&-wide. (After a recent working lunch, I can vouch for the fact that some major players on the national sommelier circuit were all about the underappreciated Locale list.) But truth be told, I’m a sucker for the spritzes, be it the pictured late-summer version made with fresh cantaloupe juice or my recent fave (unpictured), called, IIRC, the Thistle; made with Cardamaro, it’s like a lighter, bitter-er cola.

As for antipasti: I’ve been lucky enough in this life to become jaded about insalata ai frutti di mare. From Venice & Camogli to Atrani & Palermo, I’ve had seafood salads as tear-jerkingly exquisite as arias—this one in particular—& others as shoddy as you’d expect from Olive Garden (one learns to translate congelato the hard way). Locale’s (pictured below right) is, it almost pains me to admit, every bit as good as the best I’ve ever savored in Italy, even seaside, where the calamari is so fresh & tender & buttery it melts your heart. Here, it’s not the likewise excellent, deeply flavor combination of squid, octopus, mussels, clams & shrimp that wows so much as the whole vibrant package, which also boasts crispy thin-sliced potatoes, artichoke hearts, capers & lots of lemony tang. On the left, disks of roasted pepper stuffed with excellent imported tuna pack an awesome wallop as well.

My torrid love affair with Sicilian arancini, documented here, is such that I can’t fairly comment on any stateside version. Suffice it to say these are perfectly good.

Keeping in mind, then, that intensely personal history tends to color all my Italian-food experiences forevermore—that, in short, my standards are extremely high, perhaps even unfairly high—you can rest assured that I believe in Locale, above all where it matters most: in its approach to pizza.

I understand it’s had its share of complaints about the fact that the pies arrive uncut. Folks, Locale is, as we’ve noted, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, & in Napoli (& Perugia & Lucca & anywhere else I’ve ever had pizza in Italy), this is the way pizza is served. If you can’t deal, then by all means skip it in favor of a good old corner parlor slinging head-sized slices you can fold & cram down your craw in seconds flat. (I don’t say that critically; I may be an Italophile, but I’m Kansas-born & Oklahoma-bred, hence fond of shoveling as well as nibbling.) But if you’re on the fence, look at it this way: the knife-&-fork ritual forces you to slow down a little, enjoy the company you’re keeping, maybe even recognize the sensation of fullness before it’s too late.

Anyway, I like just fine the slightly spicy Bianca with buffalo mozz & pecorino, lardon-cut sausage, rapini & garlic—

but I adore the Mais with corn, prosciutto cotto & crème fraîche (+ more buffalo mozz). It’s not often one can call a pizza delicate or subtle; this baby is.

In case you were wondering, corn is not an uncommon pizza topping in Italy, though it is, in my experience, typically combined with chunks of oil-packed tuna over red sauce, senza formaggio (mixing seafood & cheese is verboten there, though that’s one of the few rules of Italian cuisine I’m all for breaking. Come on, shrimp & feta?)

Budino, meanwhile, doesn’t require any life experience to appreciate. It’s butterscotch pudding. Done.

Pizzeria Locale on Urbanspoon

Axios Estiatorio: A Big Fat Roundtable, Part 2

***Continued from Part 1 at Denver on a Spit!***

Moussaka

Denveater (D): Come on. Layers of ground beef and creamy-textured eggplant, nicely spiced with cinnamon, cumin, & co., and a custardy besciamella topping. I ate that whole huge slab minus the few tiny bites you all took.

Mantonat (M): I had one bite, but it’s probably what I will order when I return. The topping was creamy & rich, & the ground meat was tender & moist from slow cooking. I think this is a perfect example of food made with love.

Denver on a Spit (DOAS): I just had a small bite too, but I agree that it was excellent. I also agree with Mantonat [see final verdict below], though, that here is where a little modernization might go a long way—even if not with the dish itself, maybe with the presentation. As I remember it, it was just sitting all alone squarely in the middle of your plate. But then again, good food is good food.

Lamb Kebab with (unpictured) Sides of Roasted Beets & Potatoes


M: The lamb cubes were tender, succulent, well seasoned, & perfectly cooked to order (medium-rare). The grilled veggies added some nice crunch & char to the dish, but the rice was an afterthought on the plate: too starchy & flavorless to add anything.

The beets were served with crumbled feta cheese & seemed to be lightly dressed. I really liked this as a side dish despite—or maybe because of—the simplicity (sorry if we didn’t share!). The potatoes were also very simply presented: pan-fried in oil with a hit of coarse salt. They should just do the potatoes as the side on the lamb kebab dish & get rid of the rice altogether.

Baklava, Fig Cake, & Olive Oil Cake


DOAS: The olive oil cake was amazing. I loved the strong taste of the olive oil & the almost complete lack of sweetness. The cake itself was moist (as it should be, with all that oil) & it went really well with my fig cake, which was sweeter (though not overly so) & stickier. So what I am saying is order both.

M: I had one small bite of each & enjoyed them all, but the fig cake stood out as my favorite. The combination of ingredients really emphasized the fig flavor & texture without being cloying.

D: I can happily say the same for all three desserts: like the fritters, they were all about what they were all about—nuts, honey, dried & zested fruits, olive oil—and not about sugar. I’ve never had baklava quite that big & buoyant; it’s traditionally so much thinner & denser.

Our final take on the whole Axios shebang:

DOAS: I really, really wanted to like Axios. I think Denver is missing more variety in the realm of Greek dining, which in my opinion is one of the world’s great cuisines. Overall I did like it for a few well-done classics, its friendly & informative waitstaff, its nice selection of Greek wines & all the babies eating there on a Saturday night (I like that now, of course). I didn’t like my entree really at all, but I don’t hold one dish against them. So chances are I will be back (with my babies in tow) & will keep working my way through their menu.

M: The food overall was pretty solid, so I look forward to trying more of the menu too. The restaurant was full & lively with a good mix of customers. I’m glad they didn’t go overboard with cheesy Greek/Mediterranean decor.

Some of the dishes could use a little modernization in the thought & presentation. I love traditional cuisine, but I really don’t need sides on a plate as color or filler that don’t enhance the dish. The Greek wines were a pleasant surprise. Finding good wines that you never even knew existed is like find a 10-dollar bill in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn in a couple of years.

D: Well, 1st of all, was my honor and pleasure to introduce Denver On a Spit and Mantonat, along with their awesome Mrs.-es; knowing the whole gang’s gung-ho chowish attitudes, I knew it’d be raucous & decadent, & with just a little more imagination, I’d probably even have guessed that it’d end with the Director & I in the ER for 6 hours while one of us, never mind who, passed a kidney stone.

The fact that I’ve been back to twice since, traumatic flashbacks notwithstanding, should tell you how I like it: a lot. Part of it is that I’m a recent to convert to Greek wines, and the owner, Telly Topakas, obliges with a varied list and serious knowledge to accompany it. The other part is that I simply adore Greek food, and I’ve yet to hit on a dish there I don’t really like; the chef, a Mizuna alum, has a soulful bent for sure. A few more tidbits below.

***

While the dolmades below are covered in Part 1, the keftedes—beef meatballs in lamb-fat-infused tomato sauce & sprinkled with pecorino-like kefalotiri—are not, & rest assured, they’re dandy too: after all, many of these dishes are cut from the same robust, tangy, rich-textured cloth. The pita’s not made in-house, but it is baked locally & served all warm & fresh.

How many times have you had stale yet greasy, tinny-tasting spanakopita? Yeah. Can you tell by looking with what delicacy this version is handled by comparison? I reckon you can.

I’ve only had a few nibbles of the classic, lasagna-like casserole known as pastitsiobut enough to know that it shares with Axios’s moussaka the fluffy custard & moist, warmly spiced beef filling—while throwing dear macaroni into the mix.

And again, Telly Topakas’s fascinating selection of Greek wines—including a high-end retsina & some beautiful dessert pours—is worth exploring thoroughly.

Axios Estiatorio on Urbanspoon

Phat Thai Hits the Sweet (& Spicy, Salty, Sour, Green) Spot

One can’t help but feel a twinge of reverse ethnocentrism upon entering Phat Thai, can one? It sprawls, it gleams, it caters to the yoga-lean leisure class of Cherry Creek, & in short it’s the squeaky-clean antithesis of the tiny, gritty holes in the wall wherein most of us first fell for Thai food. Although the concept of authenticity is ever nebulous, each of the world’s cuisines does, at any given point in history, possess certain core characteristics by which it can be identified; Carbondale-based chef-owner Mark Fischer’s first Denver outpost looks a little too much like a glorified Chipotle for the comfort of one who fears that a hallmark of Thai cookery—its careful balance among spicy, salty, sour, sweet & herbaceous—may not translate against the paradoxically yet blandly colorful backdrop.

But that same one has hopefully done enough homework to know that Fischer’s no dummy—that Fischer himself would have done his homework before opening the first Phat Thai, & that even if he might put a contemporary twist on his menu here, a local spin there, & run a thread of flexibility to suit all manner of palates throughout, he’d remain essentially true to the tenets of the cuisine. That is in fact the case.

Indeed, while I’m inclined to adore the Soup Nazis of the world myself, one could argue that Thai cookery’s aforementioned hallmark is a matter of, if not compromise exactly, subjectivity rather than precision—what’s “balanced” to someone who’s sensitive to salt is going to differ from what’s balanced to a chile-head. In that light, I’m all for the table caddies equipped with containers of sugar, crushed red pepper, vinegar infused with sweet red pepper, & housemade nam pla, so that diners can doctor their dishes as they see fit—dishes that are already darn well balanced. Not that I didn’t add some seasonings here & there, but I did so in full recognition of the fact that my own palate is none too subtly in favor of salt, tartness, & heat over sweetness. (The only outright disappointment over the course of 2 meals was a bowl of phat si iew that both I & my companion found lacking in oomph, though the noodles had great texture. By contrast, whole tilapia took no prisoners w/r/t oomph.)

That palate was made for the simple but zingy appetizer of fresh green (as in young, unripe, hence tart) mango wedges (already half gone when I got around to snapping the below pic), served with chile-&-sugar-seasoned sprinkling salt.

And for the lovely herb salad with grilled calamari pieces & pomelo sections, topped with fried shallots & a dressing not unlike nam pla, plus a dollop of crème fraîche. Bitterness here, juiciness there, plus a touch of umami…intriguing all the way.

“Sticky” needn’t be a synonym for “cloying,” & here it thankfully isn’t; the 5-spice-dusted pork riblets are more aromatic than they are sweet per se, a trait that effectively cuts a bit of the fat too.

The red curry in which I swear an entire roast duck was bathed (that leg on top was just the beginning) was one of the things I did find myself adding a bit a salt & spice to; so velvety, so coconut-creamy, it was just a touch too sweet for me—though again, that doesn’t at all mean it was objectively too sweet. Rather, chunky with halved Thai eggplants (those cute round ones) & cherry tomatoes as well as bamboo shoots & gai lan (aka Chinese broccoli) & scented with kaffir lime & fried garlic, it was quite the elaborate, festive concoction—& the meat itself, in its luscious depth of flavor, just shone through it all. One of the best takes on duck I’ve had in some time.

Likewise dark & funky, goat, I’ve often thought (well, not often, but occasionally), is sort of the ungulate answer to duck. Kaeng massaman pae, or coconut-based goat curry with sweet potato, peanuts, tamarind, lemongrass & red chilies is no less lively for being wonderfully rich.

“Chicken basil” sounds boring. It isn’t. Decidedly on the savory rather than sweet end of the spectrum thanks to a blend of black soy & oyster sauce, gai lan, chilies, the namesake Thai basil & Thai chilies—a fried egg is the cherry on top—it’s much more multifaceted & flavorful than it has a right to be.

I didn’t try another companion’s phat thai with dried shrimp, tofu & turnips, but the visual suggests it’s no reluctantly proffered requisite; looks like it’s executed with care & panache to me.

It’s no fault of the kitchen that this photo of the fried rice I got to go is so ugly. The dish itself is tops; so often fried rice is blandly undergarnished, but here it’s almost cartoonishly chock-full of scrambled egg, chunks of sweet potato, bits of gai lan & scallion & jalapeño, & crushed peanuts, boldly splashed with both dark & sweet soy as well as fish sauce.

Whatever you get, trust me when I say you’d sure as shooting better wash it down with drinking vinegar in any of 4 flavors (I heart the tamarind). No, it’s not like taking a swig of straight acetic acid; both fruit-infused & sweetened, it’s also topped off with soda water, result being a light, bright, sweet-tart cooler. Chug, glug, smack lips, repeat.

Phat Thai on Urbanspoon

Mood Indigo at Crimson Canary

Like Interstate Kitchen & Bar, Crimson Canary sports a retro, specifically mid-century, theme; unlike its sibling, said theme is urban rather than rural—CC’s doing the kind of blood-&-marinara-splattered, East Coast–mafioso song & dance that I got my fill of back in Boston’s most blatant tourist traps. So I’m happy to report that at least they don’t overdo it (unless you happen to be sitting in a booth beneath an unadvisedly grisly crime-scene snapshot); on the contrary, the vibe is quite twinkly & mellow. That’s especially true of the kitchen & bar menus, which borrow from Italian-Americana all of the commendable elements, none of the schlock. In fact, I think the food’s better than that at Interstate, perfectly likeable as the latter is.

Take this savvy twist on panzanella (but don’t call it that; when I asked about it by the Italian name, I was told, “I don’t think we have that.” My dining companion & dear friend Beth—whose photos these are, & who’s documenting her tenacious ride on the rollercoaster of life here at 12 Cities 1 Year—heard a few such hiccups from the bar staff; they’re an amiable bunch, but need a bit more training with respect to Italian food in general and their own menu in particular).

In my time I’ve had versions of the Tuscan bread salad that were so precious as to be unrecognizable as well as some that confused “peasant-style” with “cheap-ass.” Ultimately, the real deal comes down to good-quality bread that’s somewhere between the day-old & the crouton stages, plus careful dressing (traditionally local olive oil & red-wine vinegar). This one succeeds on both counts, & it replaces with equal consideration the standard parmesan & marinated tomatoes, peppers & red onions with gorgonzola, gently pickled onions, sliced pear & mixed greens. Though not cornbread, the cubes have an almost cornbready heft; dig.

And damn these smoked mushroom–ricotta ravioli were good.

Truth is I rarely order pasta in American restaurants anymore. Of the 100,000 options out there, 99,900 of them are a waste of your daily-allotted carbohydrates. But that remaining 100? Bacio, bacio. Any number of Italian restaurants in this town could take a page from Crimson Canary in its handling of pasta dough (never mind its presentation—the above’s gorgeous, right?): this was just silken & tender enough, with that telltale al dente resilience & flavor of its own; the mushrooms, meanwhile, were its firm, meaty equal, as the fresh cheese & herbs provided deceptively delicate balance.

Even better, however, was the fettuccine accompanying the terrific veal scaloppini.

When I ordered the dish a couple of weeks ago, it didn’t get so much as a name-check in the menu description, though I see that’s now changed, justifiably—it’s glossy, snappy, textured with a dusting of herbs & cheese, & the perfect contrast to the meat, which is really just expertly handled: the plump cutlet beautifully browned, adding crunch to its velvet, the mushroom sauce with Marsala & cream the exact opposite of the glop so common at the joints CC’s supposedly emulating. Ditto the throwback but not throwaway cocktails & a wine list that pays homage to emerging regions like Alto Adige & Calabria.

So, yeah, nuova cosa nostra in the Baker District.

Crimson Canary on Urbanspoon

The Penrose Room: “If You’ve Been Here, You Know.”

That’s the trademarked motto of the legendary Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, & while it’s pretty meaningless from a literal standpoint—if you’ve been to a crack house, you know what that’s like too—the ultra-elite implications are clear, not least with respect to the historic 5-star resort’s most celebrated restaurant, The Penrose Room. Come to think of it, though, the motto still doesn’t make much sense, since even if you haven’t been here, I bet you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the experience. Posh. Elegant. Lavish. Formal. Twinkling lights & tinkling crystal. Prix-fixe & multi-course. Extravagant from the bread basket service & the amuses bouches I wrote of earlier to the take-home gift bag bearing a block-sized marshmallow—compliments of head pastry chef Rémy Fünfrock, who with exec chef Bertrand Bouquin boasts a sparkling résumé dotted with names like Daniel Boulud & Alain Ducasse & the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie.

Here’s what I, having been there, definitely know: it’s really not my kind of place. The whole VIP rigmarole with all its bells & whistles tends to make me nervous, in direct opposition to its intended effect. I feel too closely watched & kinda trapped, & in short I’ve never found fine dining terribly sensuous. Heck, I was far more attuned to & comfy in my environment yesterday at the Drunken Fry in OKC, where I sat in near-darkness surrounded by, among other things, retro votives & real live ashtrays, headless spattered mannequins & paintings of PBR-pounding dinosaurs & the ever-spooky sounds of Roy Orbison, while knocking back a Dubbel & a shitload of Belgian-style frites with cheeseburger sauce & curried mayo.

That said, if you are indeed into pure luxury & penthouse views & all that jazz, then The Penrose Room will bowl you right over.

I & my companions—whom, it should be said, were from the hotel’s PR department, as I was on assignment, but who did not pay for my meal—opted for the 4-course tasting menu, which gets you 2 appetizers, a favorite being the lone signature dish on the otherwise seasonal menu: good old Caesar salad prepared tableside.

The value’s all in the entertainment, of course—otherwise there’s not much point in ordering the perfectly well-made but perfectly common concoction. You’re here to luxuriate, so you may as well delve into the delicacies. You can even (for a supplement) order an appetizer tasting, which might look a little like this:

That pristine slab of foie speaks for itself, but my favorites were 1) the frothy cream of white asparagus soup with watercress coulis & a dab of caviar & 2) the lobster carpaccio with horseradish-caviar cream—the one classic, the other inspired. Lobster doesn’t get played with enough; I’m actually not sure I’ve ever seen it thin-sliced before.

Between the amuses & the appetizers, it seemed soup is one of Bouquin’s fortes: I also loved the blue crab bisque, ultra-smooth with an inxplicable, almost hazelnutty savor.

But my own pick, the wine-braised calamari, was terrific too. Over favas & chunks of bacon, the little pouches were as thin as cellophane & nearly as translucent; I don’t even recall what they were stuffed with, so enamored was I of the texture.

Overall, it was clear Bouquin favors a light touch in summer, which failed him only with respect to my entrée. “Ravioli” that were actually scallops sliced & filled with a dollop of American caviar, arranged over a sauté of diced purple artichoke & sunchoke in tomato consommé, & topped with basil foam sounded extraordinarily inventive, but lacking any sort of anchor—a rich ingredient or even a bit more seasoning for counterbalance—were so light they were nearly flavorless. (Supposedly there were capers too but I didn’t encounter any.) I don’t even mean the dish was bland, quite—more like ghostly, there but not there. Which is kind of fascinating in & of itself, but still.

Ultimately, though, a meal like this inheres in its lovely little flourishes—coffee service being a prime example, coming complete with a full dish of chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Finally, Fünfrock’s dessert selection, as the display in the foyer suggested,

changes even more frequently than the main menu, but it too is a study in refreshment & refinement more than comfort & decadence. Pineapple charlotte, for instance, wasn’t exactly what I expected, being mostly fruit topped with a small slice of coconut-lime dacquoise. But after all those coffee beans, I hardly needed a chocolate bomb.

As for the wine list, it’s far deeper than it is broad—the emphasis is firmly on the Old World rather than emerging regions, châteaux more than boutiques. But again, that’s to be expected at a place whose 50-year reputation is built on royal splurges. Why come but to succumb? (Now there’s an apt motto.)

Penrose Room on Urbanspoon

Tacos Jalisco Keeps It Verdadero

When I moved here 4 years ago almost to the day, one of the 1st things I did was log on to Chowhound in search of the city’s main Mexican squeezes. The thread I found was rife with what I now know to be among the usual suspects: El Taco de Mexico. Chubby’s. Santiago’s. Jack-n-Grill. Tacos y Salsas. Los Carboncitos. Patzcuaro’s. And Tacos Jalisco, which I finally crossed off the list this week—with a flourish.

The moment I set foot in the main dining room, in all its lively if well-worn warmth, I had a good feeling—starting with the fact that I hadn’t yet slid into the booth where pals M & A were already holding court when the kid manning the host stand asked me (from behind, even), “Can I get you something to drink?” Like there wasn’t a moment to lose. Young man, you’re going places.

In that spirit, while perusing the entrées (M recommended the Camaron Diaz, which A & I actually used up a few precious seconds of our lives looking for), we ourselves wasted no time ordering snacks on top of the chips & salsa trio that come out pronto—starting with queso fundido.

Having been traumatized in my youth by “kwaysoh” as served in the Meximerican joints of the Midwest, I hadn’t ordered anything of the kind in years. Turns out it’s not, in fact, glue de Velveeta. It’s real Mexican melting cheese like Chihuahua or asadero, in this case mixed with crumbled chorizo. That’s it & that’s all—pure, simple, salty & luscious.

Same goes for the chicharrónes (technically a side dish). If a bowl full of seasoned, deep-fried pork rinds with chunks of meat still attached here & there doesn’t speak for itself, I don’t know what does.

Being unsure how the poblano plate differed from the chiles rellenos, I ordered it. The answer: not significantly. The poblanos are topped rather than stuffed, & they’re not breaded—but then, that’s true of some versions of chiles rellenos I’ve encountered. What I remain unsure of is whether they actually yielded the advertised mushroom cream sauce. If so, I didn’t see or taste it amid the cheese & chicken—which was itself a slight disappointment; I’d assumed it would be shredded, which is neither here nor there, but the chunks were tough & a little dry. Still, all mixed up with guacamole & sour cream, diced tomatoes & shredded iceberg alongside perfectly good beans & rice, it went down nice & easy.

If I understand the definition of alambre correctly, it specifies the technique of cooking on skewers (the word literally means “wire”); I believe that’s how Los Carboncitos uses the term on its menu. But it’s applied more loosely to a particular type of taco that contains bacon as well as ground beef or steak (&, in this case, ham), as well as peppers & onions & all the usual trimmings. Chop & char, that’s all right by me meatwise, especially when contrasted with fresh, crisp, cooling veggies & squirts of lime—though the peppers were a little too crisp, not quite softened/blackened by the grill.

Speaking of telltale markings, M pointed out the pale lines on the surface of the warm corn tortillas that indicate their pass down a conveyor belt—housemade versions are, after all, an unfortunate if understandable rarity around here (I hear Araujo’s might offer them; true? Any other tips?).

No qualified praise, meanwhile, for A’s camarones adobados—it was simply great: fresh, firm, sweet shrimp slicked with a sauce that boasted the consistency of marinade, not too thick, & a well-seasoned balance between smoky & sour elements.

Since the Director couldn’t join us, he asked me to bring him some tacos de carnitas & al carbon—as good as M’s not least for offering up a whole blistered jalapeño that we split with wide, watering eyes.

Amid the furious fleet of mobile loncheras, it’s good to remember there are some brick-&-mortar longtimers out there that aren’t budging.

Tacos Jalisco on Urbanspoon

Ceci n’est pas un review of Ocean Prime (thanks, Oceanaire!)

A few weeks ago, on a dreary, chill Sunday afternoon, I met my pal Beth—now departed on an awesome road-trip project, 12 Cities 1 Year—at the downstairs bar of Ocean Prime for happy hour, which, far from bubbling, was so dark & quiet it felt like a dive despite the glitz. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the doldrums being my element. Nor did the fact that Ocean Prime doesn’t actually host happy hour on Sundays faze me; our goal was to score some oysters, bargain or no.

But there’s a difference between that which isn’t a bargain & that which is a ripoff. With only one type in the house, Ocean Prime’s offer of 6 oysters for 16 bucks seemed like the latter. Much of the joy of ordering a platter of oysters on the half-shell stems from sampling an array; barring that, at $2.60 a pop, the option to go à la carte should at least be made available. Add to that an egregiously marked-up (4x? more?) list of wines by the glass, & Beth & I knew we’d be out of there after 1 drink & a few handfuls of stale popcorn.

Good thing Oceanaire was there to remind us that high-end seafood chains aren’t all gloom & doom. Though it’s been a while since I’ve posted a full review, rest assured the 14th Street outpost is plenty reliable; the menu may change, but the quality doesn’t. So I won’t belabor too many points here, just give you an up-to-date taste.

Oceanaire’s happy hour menu—which is offered on Sundays; take that, Ocean Prime—includes crisp, greaseless cornmeal-fried oysters with aioli & fries & a trio of juicy “grilled beefsteak bites,” i.e. steak sliders, with caramelized onions & horseradish mayo on fresh, fluffy little buns.

Spears of parmesan-crusted fried asparagus, being jumbo, were a little too al dente, & the tomatoes in the blue cheese–tomato “fondue” were underripe & woody—never mind the fact that the mixture was no fondue; it was just, well, a mixture. But the right bites of this app, at the tips, were a bunch of fun nonetheless.

Still, charred green beans with tomato-bacon aioli, technically a side dish, were their superior by far—garden-sweet & popping in the mouth, dipped in the smoky, tangy, creamy accompaniment.

Oh, & about those oysters? We got them too: a choice of 9 or 10 varieties, all priced à la carte (or 3 for $6 at happy hour). As far as this Boston girl is concerned, that there’s what defines a decent raw bar.

Cliff Lede Vineyards & A Mighty Fine Wine Dinner at Elway’s

Just passing through the dining room at Elway’s in the Ritz-Carlton, one understands where Tom Ripley was coming from. The merest snippets of conversation whisk you around the shadowy corporate boardrooms & echoing legislative chambers where shit goes down in milliseconds of inner turmoil that make you yearn for the rich & powerful so-&-so you meant to be.

Then again, I was just passing through because I was on my way to the private dining room for a wine dinner hosted by Elway’s extremely gracious young sommelier, Justin Jelinek, & Jack Bittner, the VP/GM of Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, CA. So for all I know the VIPs thronging the place were jealous of me. Ha!

I’d have been jealous of me if I weren’t me, because the meal was terrific as well as revealing in terms both of the Napa winery’s portfolio aesthetic & what this kitchen is capable of beyond classic steakhouse fare. Seems to me that sous chefs Marco Ugarte & the excellently named Sayre Yazzle, to whom exec chef Robert Bogart handed over the reins for the evening, are capable of quite a lot.

The natural creaminess of scallops served al carpaccio with spicy guava drizzle (as well as frisée & red Fresno chiles) beautifully complemented a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (almost wholly varietal, containing just a touch of Semillion) that downright startled me at first, so literally unctuous I could feel it clinging to my lips like balm. Tropical fruits & pink grapefruit were present in abundance, but the buttery mouthfeel remained almost to the finish.

Smoked over oak & napped with berry jus—primarily blackberry, I believe—over roasted new potatoes & sauteed chard, the duck breast wowed me such that I was hoping I’d see it on the regular dinner menu (not at present, sadly). Pinot Noir & duck is a classic pairing, & the 100% varietal from Cliff Lede’s sister label, Breggo—which, according to BIttner, “started in a 1-car garage with Soviet-era technology”—was no exception, its aromas of water flower, leather & spice mingling with the smoke off the meat. As Bittner observed of the winemaking process, “You’re almost worried that the fruit’s not gonna ripen. You kinda have to be on edge with cool-climate Pinot Noir”—but the results are “that bacon-fat quality” that highlighted the duck’s fat-ringed skin, crisped to mahogany.

Consisting of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon (the rest being a blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, & Petit Verdot), Cliff Lede’s 2007 bottling from the Stag’s Leap District offered milk chocolate, dried plums & ripe blackberries in spades as well as a dash of cinnamon sugar—all apropos for the wild boar that filled two large ravioli topped with a chunky mixture of fresh heirloom tomatoes & herbs lightly sauteed in olive oil to yield a few exquisite final spoonfuls of juice (plus shavings of Mahon, Spain’s slightly subtler answer to parmesan).

As with the duck, I’m sorry to say lamb osso buco is not a regular item, because the giant shank, braised in wine & sprinkled with gremolata (a mixture of lemon zest, parsley, & garlic that’s integral to the original, veal-based, Milanese version of the dish) was near-perfect: fork-tender & velvety as well as deeply robust. Thoroughly crusty grilled bread made for a satisfying sop.

And the wine? A glass of 2007 Poetry, Cliff Lede’s Cab-dominant, single-vineyard signature wine, was likewise velvety & meaty—& actually not my favorite pairing of the evening, craving as I did a touch more acid to balance out the richness. In fact, close as it came to to evoking raspberry-chocolate truffles, the wine showed up even better against the single, bitter-edged lozenge of dark chocolate-almond bark with which the meal ended—

on a sweet note, in short.

Elway's (Ritz-Carlton) on Urbanspoon