Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Sink Your Teeth into The Red Claw

If you’re drawing a blank on the concept of Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine, let me fill it in for you a little. A few years ago (as reported by, among others, the New York Times) a uniquely American type of restaurant started popping up throughout the South & along the Eastern seaboard. Based on the “boiling points,” or crawfish shacks, of Louisiana, these rustic joints shared one unexpected feature: ownership by the sons & daughters of postwar immigrants from Vietnam, who were incorporating ingredients from the homeland into the standard Gulf Coast repertoire.

Here in Denver, the very arrival of The Red Claw a year ago this month marked a simultaneous departure—namely from owner Danny Duong’s pho-focused neighbors on Federal. Serving not a drop of beef-noodle soup, The Red Claw looks every inch the classic boiling point instead, from its modest dockside motif to the tables sheathed in plastic & littered with the tin pails, crawdad tails, & chicken bones of shellfish boils & wing platters as they’re systematically dismantled by diners with gung-ho grins & sticky fingers.

But all isn’t quite as it first seems. Despite the physical resemblance they bear to their Cajun Country counterparts, these specialties are as likely to smack of tamarind, sesame, and ginger as butter & Tabasco. In fact, the wings doused in house fish sauce are among my pet picks: not breaded but nonetheless fried to a glistening golden crisp, they’re smoky, spicy, sweet, & funky all at once.

Meanwhile, much of the rest of the menu falls even more firmly on the left side of the Vietnamese-Cajun hyphen—offering a whole new perspective on bar snacks, or mon nhau (“drinking food”), as one whole section of the menu is labeled. Here you’ll find snails steamed with lemongrass and pork-stuffed squid as well as fiery stirfries, accompanied by warm baguettes for scooping up every last morsel. Try the de xao lan

generous chunks of goat meat in a dark, coriander-redolent curry with chilies, peanuts, lemongrass, & mint—or the lighter, brighter, more coconutty ech xao lan,

heaped with plump, tender frog’s legs along with sliced peppers & onions. (Don’t miss the papaya jerky salad, either.)

If only the drinks lived up to the food they accompany: to round out the small selection of mass-produced wine & beer as well as dubious daiquiris, I’d love to see some ruou (Vietnamese rice liquor). Then again, given the sheer amount of booze you have to knock back to subdue the high spice of your meal, maybe cheap bottles of low-alcohol industrial lager are all for the best.

The Red Claw Seafood and Wings on Urbanspoon

TAG|RAW BAR: Cocky Pop!

Yes, at TAG’s snug new subterranean sibling, streamlined & gleaming as a snack bar in a Japanese airport, they really do yell “Poppycock!” when you come in, both as a disconcerting but cute greeting & a promise of the namesake amuse to come—a sweet-salty mix of candied popcorn & nuts as well as pieces of roasted kombu.

But by the time you leave, it may be the anagram that’s ringing in your ears, because the trio of young guns behind the bar—chefs Sam Freund & Shaun Motoda along with mixologist Joshua Smith (who’d wowed me at the ROOT cocktail competition I judged a couple months ago)—exude a brash energy, a cocky pop indeed, that suffuses the whole place.

The menu’s printed daily, a sign that it’s tweaked according to the availability of ingredients. This is a good thing not only insofar as listings du jour are SOP for any raw bar worth its sea salt, but also because my one beef was that, of 10 seafood preparations, fully 7 were based on either ahi or hiramasa. I’m assuming the lack of variety was just a fluke (ha! no pun intended), because clearly these guys love playing with whatever they can get their hands on. Freund in particular was practically giddy over his soon-to-be unveiled experiments with housemade burrata, nacho cheese powder from Savory Spice Shop, & frozen treats from the Paco Jet: while proffering me & my lunch companion, Andra of French Press Memos, a quenelle of intensely pure, creamy banana sorbet, he told us of his plans for a beet, tomato, & cucumber “sorbet salad.”

Sounds refreshing, right? Well, that’s par for the course: deceptive simplicity, lightness & brightness are the primary hallmarks of the food here. Chunks of cucumber were just barely splashed with rice vinegar, agave juice, bonito (dried, smoked fish) flakes & sesame seeds; the green beans mixed with garlic shoots, sesame oil & chilies positively squeaked.

All that hoopla over the kangaroo tartare TAG first introduced a few weeks ago is deserved. The meat is wonderful, robust & sweetly fleshy, like a cross between beef tenderloin & (speaking of) ahi tuna; topped with a quail egg, tiny sunchoke chips crackling beneath an almost burnt-sugar veneer, & a cinnamon-touched foam,* it’s suave yet vibrant, carefully balanced & fully realized.

But it wasn’t my favorite dish. That title goes to the lamb loin.

A sprinkling of coarse salt smoked over oak chips from Chardonnay barrels brought out the savor of the seared meat—so distinctive, good lamb is, like fresh blood mixed with dried herbs, or vice-versa. Some sort of boldly sweet contrast was a given—but rather than your average port reduction, whiskey-peach gastrique the color & consistency of sap was more than just an accompaniment; it was a deeply tangy thing I had to scrape up on its own.

The name is awesome; the Los Chingones roll itself, filled with chopped ahi & avocado & topped with dynamite sauce & kabayaki, is just fine—technically proficient if not especially novel. Sushi, I figure, is a matter of extremes. Purists insist on the basic building blocks, nothing more, nothing less—fish of exceptional quality & cut; perfect, lightly vinegared, sticky yet firm rice; fresh grated wasabi—& roll their eyes at wacky house concoctions laden with America’s favorite food groups: salt, sugar, fat. I think there’s a place for the latter as well as the former; this roll falls somewhere in between, so next time I’ll try the Bulldog with hiramasa, kimchi & apple, a combination more in line with this kitchen’s penchant for clarity of flavor.

On that note, the Persian lime–drenched hiramasa tiradito—oft-described as a cross between ceviche & sashimi that reflects the Japanese immigrant influence on Peruvian cuisine—was unassailable, as though you could taste sunlight glinting off the surface of the sea.

And yet, & yet, the real trick is to apply such a light touch to the richest of rich ingredients; Freund & Motoda did just that with this torchon of foie gras, barely denser than whipped cream & complemented by bittersweet kumquat marmalade.

Assuming they keep this up, I have an alternative suggestion once “Poppycock!” gets old (which it will): “Crackerjack!” Because, you know, when you’re really good, that’s what they call you.

*Apparently, as Freund explained & as Laura Shunk noted here, there’s duck-liver fat in the foam too. I couldn’t detect it, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t serving a purpose, at least in terms of body. Be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison with a foieless version.

Tag Raw Bar on Urbanspoon

Brief, Bright Escape: Second Home Kitchen + Bar

Two years ago, Second Home opened in the J.W. Marriott to somewhat mixed reviews; observing at the time that my own praise for the place & its mod twists on retro comfort food was stronger than most, I wondered if I’d overrated its merits based on 1 visit. And kept wondering, idly, now & then, without bothering to follow up—until a couple of weeks ago, when I met a friend for lunch on a lark & was pleased enough anew to return for dinner the next night.

I’ve always had a soft spot for hotel lounges. Be they the shadowy, lonely haunts of traveling salesmen on the seedy fringes of airports or glittering, tinkling piano bars in the sunken lobbies of downtown luxury high-rises, something about them always feels like a secret, where what happens among strangers stays put. Second Home, of course, falls into the latter category; with its woody, gleaming surfaces, boxy yet plush nooks & spacious patio hidden from street view, it aims for cachet among knowing locals as much as its captive audience of out-of-towners. To that end, it has to play to the neighborhood, to hold the attention of potential regulars—& whether or not it succeeded from day 1, it certainly seems to be doing so now.

Take the chunky, Pernod-scented smoked salmon rillettes.

More like a compound clarified butter than an integrated spread, it showcased a brightly variegated mosaic of flaked fish & diced vegetables that, with a dollop of crème fraîche, outshone the oversalted version I’d had at Lou’s Food Bar a few weeks prior.

This photo of the chopped salad doesn’t do justice to its ingredients—

not only roast chicken & mixed greens but also bacon, gorgonzola, peas, cucumber, red onion, carrots, & “crisps”—bits of fried wonton—in a spunky, refreshing celery-seed dressing. Yay celery seeds, totally underrepresented in American cuisine, along with caraway seeds & poppy seeds! (My theory is that they tend to be used in cuisines in which tartness & bitterness are valued more highly than they are here. In any case, glad to see them pop up.)

Even better, however, was the frisée & watercress salad, with its unexpected combination of duck confit, dried cranberries, & toasted hazelnuts in warm bacon vinaigrette.

It was so satisfying precisely because it was so oddly balanced & strangely restrained; as tired as I am of roasted beets, goat cheese, candied pecans & the like, the left-of-center mixture intrigued with each bite, in its varying proportions of smoke & salt, bitterness & sweetness, chewy bits here & crunchy ones there. I couldn’t help but imagine a different chef adding a little aged cheddar to round it all out, & yet I was glad this one (i.e., Jeff Bolton) didn’t.

The housemade sausage duo consists of spicy lamb with harissa & beer-braised veal bratwurst with a veritable fluffy cloud of mustard sauerkraut;

though both were good, the tender, mild, beautifully grilled brat was especially fine, mingling with the cabbage whose tang was unusually delicate.

I keep bitching about the cliché that is tuna tartare, & I keep encountering exceptions to the rule—maybe to the point of disproving rather than proving it. Among them, the one with tabbouleh & mint chimichurri at Summit at the Broadmoor comes to mind; so does Limon’s version with quinoa, black olive tapenade & avocado-lime mousse. And now, so does Second Home’s very simple, very fresh & very generous portion with wonton chips.

That said, it also made me pine for the seared tuna noodle casserole I still remember fondly from my 1st visit 2 years ago. That dish was a keeper; were it to make a comeback, I’d be returning even more frequently than I intend to now, the lush at the bar regaling passers-through with wild tales of adventure & romance over drinks like this juicy, invigorating blend of Lillet with Meyer lemon, parsley & cucumber,

enjoying the feeling Second Home provides of being far-flung just moments from my real home.

Second Home Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Parallel Seventeen: Still Rockin’ the Latitude

Better late than never: that’s how I feel about how I feel about Mary Nguyen.

Since moving here in 2007, I’d been reading breathless reports of this angelic creature: beautiful, kind, smart, talented, ambitious…skinny…In short, she appeared on paper to be everything I didn’t want to think about while acting like a wino & stuffing my face. So I avoided Parallel Seventeen altogether; there were, I figured, plenty of downhome Vietnamese joints in town where I could do my grubby thing in ignorant bliss.

But with the opening of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, curiosity finally got the better of me—& the experience was eye-openingly encouraging. Given my lovely virgin visit there, & in light of the spate of contemporary Asian (pan-continental, East-West, etc.) joints springing up all over town—following the lead of Bones & TAG, we’ve seen ChoLon, Se7en, Japoix, Den Deli-cum-OTOTO Den (or OTOTO Food & Wine, or whatever its official name is), the brand-new i-Fish (as reported by Westword this week), & so on, & so on—I decided it was past time to give good old P17 a fighting chance.

The verdict, based on 2 lunch entrées & 2 sandwiches to go: it’s still a winner.

In the classy corner space—like Nguyen herself, petite, light, streamlined, with just a few scattered hanging sculptures in organic shapes to serve as tellingly Eastern accents—I hunkered over a half-portion of short rib that, I’m sorry to say, appears to have been struck from the menu in the space of a few short days, but nevertheless offers a bright, clear picture of the kitchen’s sensibilities.

Rubbed with coffee, the fork-tender chunk was suffused with a dark, smoky aroma & a bittersweet savor that lingered along with the coconut breath of the rice, balanced by earthy-green, quickly sauteed gailan & a scoop of spicy mixed pickle. I had the delightful feeling that I was eating with my nose as much as my mouth.

A few bites of the Director’s grilled pork loin were likewise thoroughly redolent, in this case of ginger & pickled plum. The meat was ever-so-slightly overcooked, but jasmine rice lightly fried in duck fat came out just right, a proper rejoinder to the mound of brown grease that passes for fried rice at many a take-out joint.

By contrast, the sliced roast pork on the “Saigon sandwich”—essentially bánh mì—was perfect: just touched with pink, smooth as pâté, spread with spicy aioli & covered in crisp, fresh shredded lettuce, pickled daikon & carrots, & a cilantro leaf or 2 along with sliced tomato & jalapeño. Plusher than most, the baguette kept chewiness in check. And the juicy slab of grilled chicken on the other version was equally fine.

We didn’t try our companion’s tofu sliders, but they sure were cute—too bad they, too, are no longer on the menu.

That said, the sudden switcheroo has yielded a slew of new lunch-menu temptations, including a charcuterie platter featuring, among other things, head cheese & Sapporo beer mustard as well as an awesome-sounding Asian take on a salade Niçoise with raw cured tuna, salt-roasted beets, poached quail eggs, wasabi greens, olive tapenade & miso vinaigrette. I take it all as a good sign that Nguyen is committed to keeping her flagship as fresh & fun as her junior venture. Good on her—the skinny bitch. (Oh! That’s just a jealous joke.)

Parallel Seventeen on Urbanspoon

Lou’s Food Bar: The Second Time’s The Big Old Charm

So yeah. Somewhere between the chicken & waffles Steuben’s Brandon Biederman rustled up for the Mixed Tastes lecture at the MCA last Friday night—where my pal Adrian Miller gave a fascinating talk on the history of the dish—& the midnight pizza I’m pleading the Liz Lemon 5th on (more about that when I recover from the shame), I hit Lou’s Food Bar for dinner with Mo & Beth. My 1st impression was that my worst nightmare had come true (or 2nd worst, after the one about sleepeating)—that exec chef–owner Frank Bonanno was finally spreading himself too thin. After all, I figured, it had to happen sometime (with the specter of Boston’s Todd English, who began to lose his mojo not long after branching out beyond his first 2 restaurants, ever looming). If not at Osteria Marco, or Bones, or Green Russell, all of which I wholly heart, then when?

Well, I feared, with the 1st bite of the rillettes du jour—in this case pork. Even granting that, at their most basic, rillettes are nothing but the meat in question, the fat of the meat in question, water & salt (more complex recipes may include other spices, wine &/or garlic/onion/shallots), these were way too salty. Though the texture was gorgeous—as smooth as the cream you’d have applied to your face in circular motions after your evening bath if you were a starlet in the golden age of cinema, or that crazy cousin of my father’s who used to dab butter pats on her cheeks at Furr’s Cafeteria—we had to ask for extra pickled onions to balance out the salt. There’s a thin line between enhancement & compensation; accompaniments should offer the former, not the latter.

By that logic, however, I could justify the equally extreme saltiness of the duck confit under the egg in the salade Lyonnaise, tempered as part of a whole with bitter greens & more pickled onions. (On that score, however, I was outnumbered by my companions, who still found it too salty.)

Things got better, if not mind-blowingly awesome, from there. First of all, as a wink-wink gesture, garlic bread is nonetheless fuckin’ heartfelt! Second, as a serious gesture, the selection of 6 housemade sausages is solid. Bursts of cheddar accentuated the otherwise only subtly gamey aspects of venison—& I like it wild, so those were the best bites for me (though for non-game lovers the mildness will be a plus). And, as I’ve already noted in my most recent Dish of the Week post, the sour-meets-unctuous notes of the accompanying bacon sauerkraut really tied the room together (see: compensation vs. enhancement). Same went for the green-curried potatoes with the Thai pork-&-duck sausage (top left, below), which didn’t taste very Thai but did taste very rich. I like rich as much as I like wild. (That’s not, by the way, a double entrendre—I like my men to mostly watch movies & order takeout with me on an old couch.)

Then there was dessert. Given that the pie was from Bonanno’s own Wednesday’s Pie, we had to have a slice, right? Except that it was Friday. The chocolate–peanut butter filling was great—silky & fully suffused with nutty tang rather than merely swirled here & there, so that it was just sweet enough. But the crust was kinda…I hope I’ll never again have to use this word in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears: hard, perhaps even stale, not flaky in the least. Finally, a quick glimpse (this description will matter later) at the cocktail list made me go huh? Yes, the offerings were clearly craft, containing quality ingredients, but they all swung fruity.

Anywhere else, I would’ve considered a mixed first-time experience a decent experience, a hopeful one. But in the same post in which Bonanno’s name appears, a mixed experience is a disappointment. So I had to go back pronto to determine whether it was a fluke on their part, a matter of excessive crankiness on mine—or whether Lou’s would, in fact, be the dent in Frank’s thus-far-shining armor.

OK, enough drama. My 2nd impression, in the company of none other than the aforementioned Adrian Miller, amounts to this: all’s well that ends really, really well.

Even if the rillettes, chunky with salmon this time, were still awfully salty, they weren’t quite too salty, enriched with housemade cream cheese. This time, then, the accompanying pickle—including super-garlicky julienned carrots & pearl onions, which I’m always happy to see—acted as a proper complement rather than a needed supplement.

Now, of course the mahi mahi on my fish sandwich was salty—it was blackened. Even so, the presence of the moist, sweet filet wasn’t lost in the mix of contrasts beneath its spicy coating: fresh, chewy, butter-toasted country bread; lots of crisp lettuce; ripe sliced tomatoes despite the season; & a generous smear of remoulade (which didn’t taste distinctly of the celery root it contains, but garlicky creaminess is garlicky creaminess; I had no complaints).

Speaking of Furr’s Cafeteria—this Oklahoman couldn’t help but be touched by the homely appearance of plate of Adrian’s fried chicken & whipped potatoes, as deliberate, I’m sure, as the wing & 2 legs were textbook: tender & juicy, the batter crunchy, virtually greaseless & judiciously seasoned (i.e. not too salty). Adrian—who is, after all, writing a book that may well turn out to be the book on soul food—observed that he actually likes his breading slightly less crunchy, a bit more “cohesive,” but he also explained that that was a personal preference, not an objective judgment call.

And then, again, there was dessert—warm brownie bread pudding awash in crème anglaise. And finally, my mind was blown.

So simple, yet so profoundly memorable—it was served with forks, but spoons would have sufficed. In a word, it was pure—of egg, of chocolate, of cream & vanilla, with a texture so soft it nearly disappeared on contact.

In the afterglow, I took a second glance at the drink list—& while the signature cocktails still didn’t do much for me, the list of house-infused spirits & syrups caused a double take: lavender, tarragon & black pepper, coffee…Now that’s more like it!

I should note in closing that even as I moved from doubter to potential devotee, I wasn’t once skeptical about the service—I got the same guy both times, & he was an unerring pro: cheerful, knowledgable, attentive, helpful. What I didn’t get was his name—but I discovered that he’s an aficionado of North Carolina barbecue, so there’s a clue to resting assured you’re in very good hands.

Lou's Food Bar on Urbanspoon

Silla: A He-Said, She-Said Review with Denver on a Spit

I helped give birth to twins! Denver on a Spit & I foisted so much food on Mrs. Denver on a Spit at Silla a couple of weeks ago that I think it pushed her (or rather them) over the edge, & the next time I heard from him 2 days later, they’d already been at the hospital for 23 hours. (The Director did not for his part drop a tot, though he was so full we thought for a while he might. The poor thing just does not have the stomach for my line of work.)

In between feedings, the new dad found some time to back & forth with me on our experience (as we did with Red Tango); his answers to my questions appear here, while my response to his queries—wherein I wax ecstatic about naeng myun (below right), among other things—are here.

Denveater: Silla was quite the hot spot on Friday night…Describe the setting.
Denver on a Spit: Bustling. Korean. I haven’t been to an overwhelming number of Korean BBQ places in Denver but Silla is always packed with Korean familes & couples, young & old. I think we got the last open table & it never slowed down. The dining room is nothing fancy: well-lit, sparsely decorated, but at the same time with all the people in there it is warm, cozy and inviting.

D: What do you like most about Korean cuisine in general?
DOAS: I love the bold flavors along with the varying temperatures & textures of the food. And of course as far as Korean BBQ goes, I love when my meat cooks before my eyes. Possibly the best thing, however, is the fact that there never seems to be enough room on the table for all the food.


No kidding.

D: Why are you a fan of Silla in particular—what do you consider its strengths?
DOAS: The BBQ is ridiciously tender & flavorful. I think we all use the term “melt-in-your-mouth” too much but that galbi—the marinated short ribs—are just that. And I’m glad we all four felt comfortable enough with each other to gnaw on his or her respective bone gristle, because that is likely the best part. Hope I didn’t grunt too loud at any point.

Also the care & quality of execution that go into the numerous ban chan—this is one of the things that makes Silla shine. [They’re mostly very simple—pickled seaweed & eggplant, cabbage & daikon kimchi, stirfried pea stems & broccoli & tofu skin, potato salad, & other odds & ends—&, as such, cooling, soothing & addictive.—D.]

And the button. How many restaurants have a button that summons your waiter? And where your waiter expects you to use it & comes smiling to your table after you do? Granted it didn’t always work in the quickest fashion, but still, you have to admire the thought. [Yes, I bet the button mainly serves as a calming placebo for impatient diners—for all we could tell from the servers’ comings & goings, the thing didn’t even work. But if they generally do, I can think of several places around here I’d want to install them in.—D.]

D: If you count all 12 pan (or ban) chan, we shared 16 dishes (excluding the rice and green salad). What were your five favorite bites, however large or small?
DOAS: There was a salad? [Heh—not only was there a simple green salad (just visible at the far-right edge of the photo above), you were the only one who actually ate it, my friend.—D.] My favorite ban chan was the freshly pickled cucumbers. I thought they were going to be marinated & cold zucchini, but I was pleasantly surprised to bite into an excellent, crisp pickle. The giant dumplings were also a nice surprise. Not sure I have ever had dumplings that big.


This big.

And the bi bim bop, served on a hot stone platter, is divine.

D: You talked about getting dessert afterward…
DOAS:
I threatened to go up the street to Sunburst & get a big bowl of the Filipino dessert halo-halo, & I might have if it was summertime, but once we got back in the car I just wanted to go home and unbutton my pants.

D: We also talked a lot about Korean film. Two of my personal favorites are Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy and Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle, both of which contain scenes that depict memorably shocking acts of cruelty toward seafood. Do you have a fave you’d recommend to fellow cinephiles?
DOAS: The Host is a brilliant film. I saw it at the Mayan a few years back where it played to a packed house. It is probably the greatest modern-day monster movie, so to see it in a theater full of half-drunk & wildly enthusiastic audience members was fitting.

It’s also probably a fine metaphor for our meal, the way we mutant creatures attacked everything in sight…

Restaurant Silla on Urbanspoon

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro: Suddenly It All Makes Sense

Not to mince words—I hate the name of Mary Nguyen’s new Pan-Asian Englewood outpost. Exactly what is Street Kitchen Asian Bistro supposed to conjure? Is it indoors, outdoors, bare-bones, upscale? How about Hawker Stall Steam Cart Pub & Trattoria? Or Floating Market Cantina y Brasserie? Never mind the fact that the acronym is SKAB.

But I guess I just gotta get past the souped-up moniker, because the place itself looks like it’s gonna be a winner. Mod & streamlined yet glowing with color (love those perforated, rectangular wooden pendant lamps), the space is super-inviting, striking just the right balance between energy & intimacy. Our server did likewise—showing her personality via banter while keeping her wits about her. In short, she read the table right. And the menu’s got sauce, in G. Love’s sense of the word—a playful mix of dim sum–style small plates, noodles & curries that pays homage to cooking traditions across the Asian continent while upping the presentation angle, as with this pretty little quartet of mixed pickles.

While not quite as all-fired inventive as the assortment I inhaled at SKAB’s Boston-area equivalent, Myers + Chang, it still packs heat & cold, sour zing in equal measure, from the cabbage-jalapeño combo on the left to the lightly curried mixture of diced carrots, cukes, what I think was shredded tofu skin, & chopped cashews on the right.

Points for presentation also go to the roasted, garlic-&-chive-speckled pork belly. So often these days pork belly is disguised in the form of precious little cubes; it’s refreshing to see it looking like the bacon it makes, striped with pure charred fat. A few bites were tough, but I liked its honesty, & the contrast between its smokiness & the cool of the excellent coleslaw it came with—crisp & perfectly dressed, lightly sweet-sour & just creamy enough.

I didn’t sample the happy-hour dumplings & buns my pals Mark—the former Denver Drinks Examiner who really should start a cocktail blog—& Amy ordered, but I was assured they were “delicate & texturally interesting enough” to compare with those of more traditional dim sum joints. The butterfly-shaped scallop dumplings sure looked like feats of dexterity.

Meanwhile, the highlight of my own meal was the Thai-style roast chicken I got to go. It’s worth noting that Nguyen’s attention to detail extends even to packaging: the box was fastened with a little sticker on which the name & description of the dish were printed—a handy way to keep track of multiple orders when the boss springs for take-out, thereby avoiding those awkward moments when you realize you’ve polished off half a colleague’s X & stuck her with your Y, to which she’s allergic. (Or whatever—office politics are not my area of expertise. The point is I assume the chef-owner is catering to lots of workaday-techie traffic.)

But what was in the box, despite losing its looks in the translation of transportation, was just great. Over a bed of more coleslaw sat half a chicken, marinated in coconut milk with lemongrass, ginger & Kaffir lime leaves & then roasted;

the result was extraordinarily moist meat & crackling, glistening skin, all gently suffused with the richly aromatic kick of the marinade. Best bird bits I’ve had in some time, word. In the end, if the name reeks of an identity crisis, at least the kitchen is crystal-clear on its mission.

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Rabbit Sausage with Chive Dumplings at Bittersweet

***UPDATE 1/5: Bittersweet is now open.***

Between her insane schedule & my merely neurotic one, pal K of Big World Small Kitchen & I don’t get together as often as we mean to. So on the rare occasions that it happens, we talk so much we almost forget to eat; we could really be anywhere with chairs. (Reminds me of that old Jackie Mason joke: “If there’s a Jew on a vacation, he’s only looking for one thing—a place to sit. He sees a chair, it’s a successful vacation. Jewish resorts are the only place that advertise ‘Brand new lobby!’ Here’s the lobby, that’s the chair.” But I digress, as usual.)

However, on Friday night we weren’t just anywhere with chairs: we were at the soft opening of Bittersweet, which officially opens its doors on Tuesday. Having (like many others) been impressed by Olav Peterson since the early days of Bistro One (click here & here for reviews), I had high hopes. (I’m less optimistic about the fate of his former place of employ, already hurt by its poorly trafficked location on Antique Row, but I sure do wish it well & plan to visit it in the hospital as it recuperates from its chef-removal operation soon. Stay tuned.)

Those hopes were well met immediately—at the door, in fact, where I was excited to see Dustin Swenson, recently of Divino. He’s a great get for what I’m sure will be a stellar wine list; certainly the house wines he was pouring for us were distinctive.

And both appetizers easily qualified for Dish of the Week. But since I can only name one—my blog, my rules—I’m going with the rabbit sausage, a downright delicacy as handled by Peterson.

Both it & the mustard sauce were ultra-suave & subtly tinged with sweetness—cider? honey? simply the right white wine?—while the potato-chive dumplings proved soft & light as bubbles.

Meanwhile, the chowder’s already getting a lot of love from local writers—deservedly.

In the center sits a potato croquette topped with a clam (FYI, it’s supposed to be a razor clam, but none were available that evening) & “crispy pork,” basically a glorified slice of bacon. But it was the soup itself that stunned me, like the dumplings a triumph of smoothness & subtlety. Over the course of 10 years in Boston, I had my share of pasty, clumpy clam chowders; for that matter, I’ve had my share of superb chowders. This utterly silky rendition is among the most accomplished, based on a from-scratch shellfish broth.

I didn’t try K’s monkfish with lobster-cauliflower hash in a pool of cauliflower bisque, but it sure looked pretty.

So did my entrée—gorgeous, in fact—but it was the one disappointment of the bunch, perhaps a little too subtle; from the hash-browned spaghetti squash in intensely hued but barely-there butternut squash broth on bottom to the herbed squash tortelloni on top, it lacked depth of flavor. Much as I respect Peterson’s considerable talent for showcasing ingredients as such, these would shine brighter with a dash more seasoning.

That said, let’s keep in mind the place hasn’t even opened yet! At the rate it’s going, it’ll be one of the white-hottest restaurants in town before, I dunno, Christmas.

Beautifully moist yet fluffy apple cake confirmed as much.

It was also confirmed for me that the dining room we were sitting in (there are 2) would be decorated further; good thing, because between the gray walls & the cement floor it either looks like a jail cell or I’ve seen too many episodes of Oz lately. (The latter is entirely probable.) I’m all for minimalism, though, so I’m not asking for much: a painting or two, a rug. I bet I get it, & then the Bittersweet experience will be nothing but sweet.

Bittersweet on Urbanspoon

News of the Week: NYE Dinners at Beatrice & Woodsley & Vesta Dipping Grill; hot pots & more at JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant

Many an industry pro considers New Year’s Eve—along with Valentine’s Day &, well, pretty much every Friday & Saturday—amateur night, an overhyped, pack-’em-in, toss-’em-out shitshow.

If there’s 1 restaurant I’d trust to be the stunning exception to the rule, it’s Beatrice & Woodsley, which positively killed it last Halloween. I wish the menu for this 6-course (7 if you count the amuse) were a little more detailed—given the $100pp price tag, I’d at least like to know, say, what comes with the veal or what precisely will rock that carrot-ginger soup (cause I guarantee something will); still, it’s a promising start. Betcha big bucks it sells out, so call 303.777.3505 nowish to make reservations for 7:30pm.

Amuse Bouche

1st course
Grilled diver scallop, sauce romesco, candied fennel & bacon
Domaine Giachino Jaquere, Savoie

2nd course
Seared Hudson Valley foie gras, petite minced meatless tart & tellicherry pepper essence
Castelfeder Schiava, Alto Adige

3rd course
Carrot-ginger soup
Selbach Incline Riesling, Mosel

4th course
Lobster & champagne “risotto”
Viña Santa Maria Torrontes, Mendoza

5th course
Assiette of milk-fed veal
Il Faggio Montepulciano, Abruzzo

6th course
Chocolate savarin cake, brandy & morello cherry ice cream
Dom Pérignon “Andy Warhol Colors” Special Edition 2002, Champagne

I can’t make similar promises for Vesta Dipping Grill; I enjoy the place, but given how crazy busy it gets on weekends, NYE could be a black sucking vortex. Still, they’ll be serving up some specials that actually sound special (again, with prices to match, suggested wine pairings not included—see: amateur night). Call 303.296.1970 for reservations:

Crab & house-cured bacon, triple-cream béchamel, butter-grilled brioche ($12)
Gruet Blanc de Noir

Grilled sea scallops, lobster risotto,creme fraîche–leek salad, tarragon demi ($36)
Maysara Pinot Gris 2009

Chocolate cheesecake cupcake, Nutella buttercream ($8)
Dow’s Late Bottle Vintage Port 2004

***

As I noted on this week’s Gorging Global blogpost, Cantonese joints like JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant tend to specialize in seafood. But JJ also serves up a slew of hot pots, both the DIY variety—whereby you choose your broth & ingredients & cook it all up yourself at the table—& a more casserole-like array from the kitchen. Since the online menu doesn’t begin to indicate JJ’s wealth of menu options, here’s a look-see (click to enlarge):

“Chicken soup base” doesn’t do justice to the aromatic broth, speckled with jujubes (the Chinese date, not the drive-in candy), goji berries & ginger bits:

Our pal Keith got his with chicken & wontons; not unreasonable, but had it been my order, I’d have gone nutso on seafood & veggies. These hot pots also come with a so-called satay sauce, which isn’t the peanut-based dip of Southeast Asian cuisine but rather a cumin-&-garlic-dominated bowl of wonders I’d have gulped down like soup had I been slightly drunker. (Speaking of drinks, JJ offers two Chinese wines by the bottle. They ain’t cheap—$60 a pop—but they might be worth a shot for curiosity’s sake; rest assured the East Asian wine industry is primed to explode in the next decade or so.)

My own hot pot with was a fine, glistening mess of fatty chopped spare rib & its absorption by eggplant & tofu; if I said it tasted like green-brown & orange-yellow, would that make as much synthesic sense to you as it does to me?

Anyway, more to the point, I urge you to head over to Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful to immerse yourself in fried & salt-cured fishies.

JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Colt & Gray: The Dish That Got Away…& Them That Didn’t

Less than 24 hours after working myself into a tizzy over the seafood fritto misto featuring sea urchin I’d spotted on Colt & Gray’s online menu, the Director & I hurried in, only to find the repertoire had changed completely & literally overnight. Good thing I was able to drown my sorrows about the fish fry that got away with a superb cocktail, namely the gin-based, herb-&-citrus-redolent Misty Rose, splashed with Aperol & Lillet Blanc (Italian & French aperitifs, respectively) & tinged with sage.

Better thing I was able to stuff down my sorrows with some mighty fine substitute eats. Not having paid a visit to the place in quite some time—the last being rather heavy on the booze & light on the food (as well as rich in conversation with some local aces of alcohol, including C&G barman Kevin Burke, whose obvious talent has rightly had nothing to do with the recent, justifiable concern over his career trajectory)—I can now say with certainty the next trip won’t be so long overdue. It’s damn good, in short, & occasionally great.

For instance, as bar snacks go, snails fly far too under the radar. Served here en baguette with garlic-sorrel butter, they’re fat little morsels, rich & earthy…tasting, in fact, so much like wild mushrooms that I’d almost have suspected that’s what they were. Only their shape, & maybe a slight, mmm, fleshiness convinced me otherwise.

By contrast, beets have been looming far too large on the radar for far too long. Look, I’m part Russian Jew; I was born to love borscht. But—& I’ve been saying this for a few years now, to no avail—enough with the beet salads already! At least beet burgers are a little more creative. Whether they were entirely successful is another matter; I loved the idea of replacing slider buns with sweet, crunchy-topped corn muffins & adding a schmear of cream cheese, but the tablespoon or so of diced beets just didn’t warrant the full sandwich treatment. Nice, super-lemony vinaigrette on the greens, though.

On the other hand, blood pudding, chopped over a strip of puff pastry, was grand. I think Cracovia gets the gold for this particular type of sausage—C&G’s was a little less nutty, & it’s that quality, due in the Polish restaurant’s case to the use of barley, that really gets me—but this version came close, enhanced by its dousing of sauce chasseur, based on meaty espagnole mixed with white wine, mushrooms & shallots. Quite the autumnal comfort.

Even better were the sweet potato gnocchi with wild mushrooms (guess I was in a fungal state of mind). If I hadn’t been told the little dumplings were made from sweet potatoes, I’d have sworn they contained parsnip; their sugar content didn’t seem quite that high. But that’s neither here nor there; they were well-made, light, with an unusually, appealingly crisp golden exterior. And while the combination of brown butter, chopped hazelnuts, sage & parmesan, may not be so unusual, that’s with good reason—it’s reliably awesome.

Speaking of classic combinations, I’m interested in lamb & lentils about an eighth as often as it’s offered. But I couldn’t keep my fork out of the the Director’s braised lamb shank & green lentils (aka lentils du Puy)—

partly because the meat was so silk-tender; partly because the lentils, cooked just a touch past al dente, had a peppery kick; & partly because the creamed kale wasn’t creamed to death—it still asserted itself in the mix. The hunter-style sauce added a soft tang.

I didn’t have an inch of room for the potted cheesecake with salted caramel, so it’s on my list for next time. Which had better be soon, or it’ll go the way of the urchin, & then I’ll have to start all over again, sobbing into yet another stellar quaff all the while.

Colt & Gray on Urbanspoon