Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Why I love Chowhound, Chinese menus in English, & East Asia Garden

While researching my Gorging Global piece on East Asia Garden for Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful blog, I wound up in an e-mail exchange with a typically avid hound from Flushing who posts as scoopG.  He very kindly sent me a bunch of menus from Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurants out his way.

Photo 97

Scouring them, I’m charmed, fascinated, yearning to discover for myself such stuff as:

Seafood & blotch soup
Smoked chicken bone
Loofah dumpling steamed
Jelly flower w. shallot
Stew miscellaneous fish w. homestyle cookies
Sea cucumber w. elbow
Coriander herb (that’s all it says)
Crystal pig skin frozen
House special red bean pasta
Sauteed squid head w. spicy peppery
Moo shu persimmon soup
Pork-fried soba noodles halogen
Black fungus with yam
Red beans in egg whites (dessert)
Smiling (that’s all it says; dessert)

Obviously that’s just the beginning of the stuff I’m not familiar with, never mind the stuff I am & love.

It all reminded me to remind you to check out East Asia Garden for yourselves, now, as soon as possible. Driving by yesterday, they had a sign out front:

Try us You like us!

It’s true.

24-Hour Dispatch from Vail Part 2: Kelly Liken (insert your choice of pun here)

I don’t need Google to know there must be a million of ’em: Kelly Liken—what’s not to liken? or We be lovin’ Kelly Liken! or whatever. Especially now that her stint on Top Chef D.C. has made her a household name.

And I don’t need to incorporate a pun of my own into the title to foreshadow a positive review of her eponymous Vail restaurant. Between her résumé & the raves she’s garnered over the past few years, the name alone is synonymous with culinary distinction. Presumably, something would have had to go horribly awry for me to have been colored unimpressed (what color is that, anyway, gray? puce?). And given that, as I noted in Part 1, I was a guest on a press trip, a bad meal was even less likenly (okay, just 1).  Moreover, had such a fluke actually come to pass, rest assured you wouldn’t be reading about it here; biting the hand that literally fed me would be beyond uncool. That’s why I rarely accept this type of invitation as a blogger; when I do, it’s with a fair amount of confidence that any praise I have for the place will be unassailable, from the cocktails & amuse-bouches to the assorted sweets that come with the check.
KLamuse KLsweets

The trip was billed as a tour from market to table; sure enough, on Sundays in season, to coincide with the Vail farmer’s market, Liken forgoes the regular menu to offer a 3-course prix fixe built around produce from rotating local farms—in this case Granby’s Morales Farms, Platteville’s Miller Farms, & Palisade’s Wynn Farms—along with a supplemental Colorado wine pairing (which, at $15 for 3, is a stellar deal, especially in light of a wine list that includes a $10,000 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti).

Fitting, then, that among the standouts was the simplest of salads; the below photo doesn’t do justice to this showcase for incredible fresh spinach—mild but still truer to its funky roots than, say, baby spinach—set off by lightly pickled radishes & crispy bits of onion, all lent warmth by a bacon–red pepper vinaigrette.

KLsalad

Make that, then, the deceptively simplest of salads; its flavor profile was actually fairly complex compared to that of the caramelized spring onion soup, light in texture but intensely sweet, with only the slightest telltale allium nip. (My guess would be that it was purely vegetarian; I tend to appreciate the umami heft that meat stock gives the classic version, but I admire the desire to derive every last drop of flavor from the bulb.) In the center sat a parmesan-sourdough crostino that got soggy quick but was good while it lasted.

KLonionsoup

As a table of 3, we got to share the entire selection of entrees, but I was secretly thrilled to be the official recipient of the grilled pork tenderloin.

KLpork
Beneath the juicy, tender, rose-delicate meat was a roasted cauliflower puree so rich & creamy that I wrote in my notebook, “just like foie gras!” Surely that was the booze talking…or was it?! I’ll put it this way—I’d bet money there was something unusual about its preparation, a bit of stock whisked in or something. An spunky spring onion pesto & wedges of caramelized spring onion also added zing.

Herbed risotto (see the left edge of the pile) enthralled above all for those wedges of globe squash, lightly brown-buttered & a touch sweeter than, say, late-season zucchini; spooned around the edge was roasted yellow pepper puree, & on top, a blossom of what according to the menu was crispy eggplant but mostly tasted like crisp (nothing wrong with that).

KLrisotto

Similarly, it was the clean, clear, exquisite tomato-tarragon nage that stole the show from the pan-seared striped bass with potatoes, asparagus & chives (& more spring onion).

KLfish
For that matter, the same went for the sable tart—so named for its crumbly, sandlike consistency—with vanilla mousseline; lovely, light & crunchy as it was, the spirit of the summertime dessert inhered in the juicy zestiness of the strawberry-rhubarb compote.
KLtartlet

In short, if the Sunday Harvest Dinner is any indication, it’s Liken’s ingredient-driven sense of restraint with respect to technique that may be her greatest asset. Those who really know how to cook also know when they don’t much have to.

Robbing Korea House

I left Korea House last night feeling like a common criminal.

Make that a blotto, bloated henchman to mastermind Joe Nguyen of Asia Xpress.

It was he who’d cased the joint enough to know we could get away with it: splitting a combo platter meant for 3 2 ways right under the noses on their innocent, smiling faces

KHmeat
& leaving all of $28 apiece for it. A downright dine-&-dash.

Close enough, anyway. Get a load of our stash: in addition to the above-pictured fresh bacon, chadol (brisket) & kalbi (marinated short ribs) for the table grill, accompanied by slices of onion, garlic, potato, mushroom & jalapeño,

we got salad (chopped lettuce in a light, vibrant, fish-sauce-based dressing), steamed rice, our choice of soup—
KHsoup

in this case spicy beef, chock full of greens, sprouts, potatoes & chunks of meat both on the bone & off, all in an addictively smooth, chile-reddened broth bubbling with oil in its stone pot—

plus 9 pan chan,

KHpanchan2
I mean 11 pan chan,

KHpanchan1

plus 2 dipping sauces—bean paste & a salted sesame oil—

plus a (not pictured) dessert of sugarcane juice mixed with brown rice (which actually reminded me a lot of Chilean mote con huesillo ).

Plus, drum roll, the pièce de résistance: a half-bottle of soju. (Not, by the by, to be confused with sake—it’s a common misconception that soju is rice wine when in fact it’s distilled rice liquor.) Pouring our 1st shots almost to the rim, Joe told me about this Asian custom—whether Japanese or Korean, he couldn’t recall—whereby one’s host makes one’s cup literally spilleth over as a supposed sign of generosity. It sounded like a waste of liquor to us. (Screw that cultural sensitivity stuff if it comes between me & my drink.)

KHsoju

Of course, it’s not hard to put out a lot of food. What’s hard is to put out a lot of good food, each bite distinctive. What impressed me about Korea House was not only the quality of the raw meat but of the attention paid to every last morsel, especially in the pan chan. There were garlicky half-moons of zucchini & buttery, meaty slivers of yellow squash. Fresh daikon & firm bean sprouts with just a little zing. Kimchi, of course, & smoky slices of tofu as well as tofu skin. Broccoli in a teriyaki-like sauce. A couple of things I couldn’t even identify. And best of all: my dear ddeokbokki mixed with carrots, cabbage & a bit of pork in a thickish, gently sweet gravy. Only the potato salad struck me as off, mixed with a little too much sugar.

If I said Joe & I ate all of it over the course of 2-1/2 hours I’d be lying. I think we left a couple of bean sprouts. I should mention that Joe is a several-time champ of the Labor Day ice-cream eating contest at A Taste of Colorado. Dear reader, I do believe I’ve finally met my match. (Heading to the restroom through the rather pretty main dining room with its central wooden platform between rock walls covered with ivy & waterfalls [okay, the rocks, vines & falls are fake, but they do the trick], I stole glances at other tables, empty but not yet cleared, to see how normal people ate. To a plate, there were leftovers galore: untouched pan chan here, chunks of pork stuck to a grill there, a good 5 or 6 kalbi over there. Silly, silly normal people.)

And there’s still so much loot to return for. The sight of naeng myun on the menu—a refreshingly sour cold noodle soup—made my eyes cross with anticipation, as did promises of raw skate, “codfish spawn stew” (could this actually be the elusive shirako, as it’s known in Japan?) & “entrails casserole,” all preceded by the key adjective “spicy.”

Meanwhile, there are so many other Korean houses in the area to hit, like Han Kang & Seoul BBQ. By the end of this streak I’ll be rich, rich I tell you!

Korea House on Urbanspoon

You Go, Zengo!

The Sichuan rice noodle bowl may have been Exhibit A in Zengo’s successful appeal to my sensibilities, but it wasn’t the only compelling piece of evidence presented before my own private court of opinion last week. A number of other dishes convinced me to change my verdict against the Little Raven still-hot spot from guilty to gung-ho get out of jail free.

For instance, though the fried calamari in & of itself didn’t impress me—the ratio of breading to ring being disproportionate—the dish as a whole was refreshingly imagined as a veritable salad, what with a tangle of mizuna, sliced avocado & the bright, tangy mingling of red chile & tomato-guajillo vinaigrette.

Zengocalamari

The pork belly, too, nearly knocked Rioja’s stellar signature version off its top perch as a result of its richly sophisticated presentation.

Zengoporkbelly
So fatty it reminded me of lardo, the chunks of belly practically melted into their pool of congee ringed with Vietnamese coffee sauce & with a sort of chayote coulis, an inspired pairing just tinged with green bitterness (although the supposed inclusion of boniato, a tropical sweet potato, didn’t make any impression); their crispy skin found an echo in the fried shallot rings.

And Zengo’s take on black cod was the most luscious I’ve encountered in a long while.

Zengocod

Broiled in a chipotle miso & drizzled with a lemon-togarashi (7-spice) aioli, the sizeable filet, silken of texture, was so creamy & sweet in its way it could’ve been dessert.

That said, unexpected sweetness was the fatal flaw of the Thai lettuce wraps.

Zengoshrimpwraps
A cloyingly fruity sauce overwhelmed the mélange of shrimp, chorizo & peanuts, such that the side of tamarind chutney just added insult to the injury of integrity; had the main ingredients been replaced with scallops, salami & cashews, you’d barely have noticed.

Still, the current big picture at Zengo is as remarkably focused as it is vibrantly panoramic. After a 2-year hiatus based on disappointed hesitation, I won’t let another month pass before my next, far more enthusiastic visit.

Zengo on Urbanspoon

The Absolute Magnitude of Star Kitchen

Lest you slept through Astronomy 101, absolute magnitude is the measure of a star’s intrinsic brightness, in contrast to apparent magnitude, which measures a star’s brightness as seen by an earthling.

As seen by a Denverite, Star Kitchen doesn’t look like much—which is, of course, neither here nor there; decor is no more reliable a way to gauge quality than visible shine is for gauging actual luminosity, especially below a certain price point. Decor, however, isn’t quite the same thing as ambiance, which goes beyond layout & furniture & lighting & such, even beyond the visible.

And sure enough, Star Kitchen has got ambiance in abundance, at least by my standards. Consider that:

1. The 1st time I went in, I was the lone gwailo (gwaila?) of about 20 customers; the 2nd time, I was 1 of only 4 in a roomful of roughly 50. Though demographics are also not total guarantees of quality—bad taste is hardly exclusive to white America—they’re a start; without introducing the vexed notion of authenticity, we can certainly say in general that those who grew up with cuisine X are more likely to know better where to go for cuisine X and what to order there than are those raised on cuisine Y, especially when there are language obstacles to negotiate.

2. The 2nd time I was there, the TV in the corner was airing a Chinese-language soap opera, complete with wacky gumball-colored ads; the speakers were blaring a Cantonese cover of Jefferson Starship’s god-awful Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now so awesomely bad it put the original to shame; & my sake came in a makeshift bain-marie.

SKsake
So far, so shiny happy. But with ambiance ultimately a matter of apparent magnitude, the only true measure of Star Kitchen’s absolute magnitude can, of course, be the food. That & the size of my belly after a couple of take-out blowouts,* itself now absolutely magnitudinous.

So, having sampled a fair number (if not a broad array**) of dishes, I can promise you that if this Hong Kongese/Cantonese joint isn’t quite a Cygnus OB2-12, it’s at least an Eta Carinae. In short, it’s pretty brilliant. (**For work purposes, I stuck mainly with dumplings & buns—& have deliberately left out a couple of my favorites here in order to profile them elsewhere later. Keep your eyes peeled.)

Lightness of touch is a hallmark of the kitchen; yeast doughs are light & fluffy, wrappers thin.

SKscallopdumplings SKshrimpdumpling

Honestly, I’m not quite clear as to whether the scallop dumplings (on the left) should be wrapped more tightly or whether this is simply a lesser-known style—though I’ve seen open, end-pinched envelopes a few times before, acquaintances in the know suggest it’s a no-no. That said, I personally don’t care, so long as they hold together, & these did; above all, they were luscious, with thick slices of sea scallop & a sprinkle of tobiko topping a mound of chopped shrimp, carrots & scallions. The shrimp dumplings, meanwhile, were little engineering wonders—note the high number of pleats & the stuffed-to-bursting plumpness.

And though char siu bao, baked or (as below) steamed, is the standard-bearer,

SKsteamedbuns
I actually preferred SK’s chicken filling (below left) to the barbecued pork, whose moderate gumminess had me imagining there was grape or strawberry jelly in the sauce. The chicken, meanwhile, chopped with mushrooms & (probably) cabbage, made for a fresher savory contrast to the very slightly sweet bun.

SKchickenbun SKporkbun

Firm, cabbage-&-onion-juicy baked pork-vegetable bao appear below left; better still, on the right, are deep-fried, twist-tied pouch–shaped, wonton-like dumplings such as I’d never seen before. Shatteringly crunchy on the outside, each contained an entire fat shrimp, perfectly cooked. They came with mayo, which they hardly needed, but which I can hardly pretend I didn’t use—although I also dunked them, like doughnuts in coffee, into the broth for the wonton soup.

SKpanfriedporkbun SKfriedshrimpdumplings

No need, I presume, for a photo of the broth, which I actually didn’t care for in & of itself—too starchy—but the array of goodies to drop therein (below left) was lovely: not only squirting pork-&-shrimp wontons but whole shrimp, slices of barbecued pork (much better without the aforementioned sauce), chunks of steamed chicken, straw mushrooms, carrots & still-snappy sugar snap peas.

As for the “sizzling” beef rib with eggplant in black pepper sauce (right)—

SKwontons SKrib

of course it was no longer sizzling by the time I got to it, but I fear the sauce would’ve been on the gloppy, off-seasoned side (too much salt & sugar, not enough pepper) in any case; the rib, meanwhile, was rather chewy, but there was plenty of it, both on & off the bone, & the eggplant spears were just as I like them—glistening & silken.

And the best may be yet to come; the sweet-&-sour swills & blahs with blahcoli that dominate more compromising, Americanized repertoires are very few & far between on Star Kitchen’s menu, which instead features hot pots, clay pot rice casseroles, & major faves like salt & pepper shrimp in the shell & salty fish & chicken fried rice, making no bones along the way about its use of frog’s legs, duck’s tongue, tripe, lotus leaves, bamboo pith, bitter melon, sea cucumber & so on—as well it shouldn’t (though I do wish eel were an option). And who knows what secrets the “special late-dinner menu” may contain—but rest assured I’ll return soon to find out, hopefully to the tune of Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

*Take-out again, you ask, with a justifiable air of skepticism? Aren’t you distorting the dining experience, not to mention short-shrifting the food—risking its degradation over time & distance? Truthfully, yes. But even I couldn’t eat all that by myself, & the Director had films to screen here at home. No excuse, just a fact of our dinner-&-a-movie lifestyle.

Star Kitchen on Urbanspoon

New Saigon: Don’t Go for the Goi, but Stay for the Chay

Call me a heretic, defame my name, chop me up & throw my parts in boiling oil, I’m going to stand by my opinion that, while house of local worship New Saigon is solid, it’s no better than Dong Khanh/Saigon Bowl, at least with respect to the standards.

In fact, when it comes to salads (goi in Vietnamese), I give the edge to the latter.

SBsalad2

Saigon Bowl’s shrimp & pork salad (goi tom thit)

NSsquidsalad New Saigon’s squid salad (goi muc)

You can tell by looking that Saigon Bowl’s goi is more closely tended to—the veggies more carefully chopped & balanced, the peanuts chopped coarser for more interesting texture. You can’t tell by looking that the dressing is better as well: both are nuoc cham–like with fish sauce, acid (presumably lime juice) & sugar, but Saigon Bowl’s is a bit lighter, tarter & spicier with a daub of chili, whereas New Saigon’s errs a little too far on the merely sweet side. And the squid was a bit tough & scrappy; bigger pieces like so would not only have been prettier but less likely to overcook.

Granted, between the enormity of the menu & the constant crowd in the dining room, the prep cooks here would have to be superhuman, morphing & teleporting all over the place, to execute with both speed & precision 100% of the time. As it is, 2 different takeout orders of bun (noodles) at 2 different times can make 2 very different impressions: on a busy Saturday night, the bun tom quet with, supposedly, rice-paper-wrapped, deep-fried shrimp paste

NSshrimppastenoodles

was sloppy & dull, offering scant chopped peanuts, fried & green onions, herbs & such for the glut of rice noodles, bland with or without the one-note (sweet) nuoc cham. As for the “shrimp paste,” it was like no shrimp paste I’ve ever seen; instead, it appeared to be a very flat chopped shrimp omelet. Though the highlight of the dish, it was nonetheless a head-scratcher.

In any case, compare to the bun with grilled pork & egg roll we got on a sleepy Tuesday night.

NSporknoodles
Boasting a much better ratio of toppings, including sufficient cilantro & mint, to noodles, it was also covered in almost jerkylike (in a pleasant way, really), thoroughly sweet-soy-marinated & grilled pork as well as chopped pork egg roll.

Consider, however, that the roll was pretty clunky, & it all adds up to the fact that for the freshest, crispest, brightest Vietnamese basics—your bun, your pho, your stirfries—my, erm, dong’s still on Dong Khanh. It’s for the jackpot of less common regional specialties that I’ll keep betting on New Saigon.

Among them is the Indian-influenced, coconut milk–based South Vietnamese ca ri (curry), served in its own pot over an open flame. The ca ri chay with tofu recently got the nod from Westword’s Lori Midson,

NStofucurry

& I myself preferred it to the ca ri tom dac biet with shrimp.

NSshrimpcurry

While the shrimp themselves were excellent—giant, firm & sweet—I’d be willing to bet they got that way by separate cooking or a last-minute add, meaning that they didn’t really have time to adapt to their environment or lend any character to it in turn; they didn’t blend into the whole, whereas the tofu did. It’s nonetheless an interesting dish, rustic in style, thick & mild with huge chunks of both white & sweet potato as well as carrot & acorn squash. But when our server volunteered his own recipe—”it’s more hotter. I cut up whole chicken, whole duck. We eat everything”—I couldn’t help but wish for a side-by-side taste test.

Do chay dac biet looked like every other Asian veggie stirfry I’ve ever had,

NSveggies
but the sauce of coconut milk–black bean sauce, creamy but with that slight funk of fermentation, really distinguished it. The veggies & tofu were neither here nor there, the former a little overdone, in fact; I wound up pouring the sauce over the accompanying rice & eating that instead, happily poking around for the scattered split beans. To what extent this is a typical preparation, by the by, is something I’m still trying to determine via this Chowhound thread; though coconut milk & black beans make for a traditional dessert, the combination is new to me in a savory context.

The same goes for the use of grape leaves in a dish of frogs’ legs (though it’s likely a byproduct of colonialism, as it was the French, bien sûr, who planted vineyards in Vietnam). Stirred up as I was by the sight of it on the menu, I was subsequently crushed to learn it’s no longer available. Settling instead for the frogs’ legs stirfried with lemongrass & onion, I expected something light & zesty; what I got was pretty oily &, again, sweeter than I’d hoped, though balanced well enough by chili & garlic.

NSfroglegs2

The meat itself was beautifully cooked, moist & tender, slipping clean & easy from the bone. For all the squawk about frogs’ legs tasting like chicken, they’re at least as evocative of a flaky, firm white fish such as cod.

Squid excepted, then, between the shrimp, the frog & the pork, I’m thinking meat/fish cookery might be the kitchen’s forte. It even dries beef with pizzazz:

NSjerky

That there is sesame-cashew jerky ($22/lb.; I got $8 worth) & it’s snazzy—soft, slow-burningly spicy & fruity too. (Fruit’s a common Asian jerky flavoring; this guy says it’s usually strawberry jam, despite labels that simply list fruit punch concentrate, like the one on the bag I got a while back at Pacific Mercantile.)

In the end, I don’t intend to join the New Saigon congregation. But I’ll certainly show up for services now & then—namely when seeking enlightenment in the form of snails & duck feet or an answer to the mysteries of suon non ram man & suon no xao thom; according to a friend, the servers discourage whiteys who ask about them (the menu offers no description of either), though Google indicates suon non are simply pork spareribs. Hmm. Anyway, the point is I’m not so much a heretic as a searcher, still holding out for not just good but transcendent Vietnamese food in Denver.

New Saigon on Urbanspoon

Kaos Pizzeria Has It All Under Control

A few weeks back, I feared the name might fit all too well, my 1st pizza from Kaos being, however intriguing in concept, haphazard in execution.

But on 2nd try, the chaos theory didn’t apply in the least. Hooray scientific method! And hooray Kaos, which in fact puts the “order” in, well, “order.”

Besides the loaf of love that was the garlic bread (most recent Dish of the Week), the Director & I split 2 specialty pies: the wild mushroom with pesto, provolone & mozz, caramelized onions & shallots—a natural combo of rich & earthy—

Kaosmushroompizza

& the pepperoncini with tomato sauce, provolone & mozz, pepperoni & red onion.

Kaospepperoncini
You can tell a thing or 2 just by looking, no? For instance, compare the large, lusty slices of pepperoni & mushroom—with good coverage across each wedge—to the pale shriveled pennies most parlors cough up. Or the balance of sauce & cheese: not grossly dripping, not stingy, just right. The crust, too—neither saltine nor doughball (though I still prefer a bit more char). And the relative cut of the onion: thicker in the case of the caramelized sprinkle of yellow onion; the red onion, presumably added raw before baking, thin & barely there as the smoke rings of a temptress in a noir. Downright artful.

Like the pesto, the tomato sauce had that classic savor: slightly spicy, its blend of red pepper & oregano tangible, but not too heavy like the ’70s-era spaghetti sauce lesser pizza slingers ladle on.

Can’t wait to try the Sopressata with pesto, potato & a cracked egg to which 5280’s Amanda Faison gave high praise, or the white pizza with white anchovies, or my own concoction—blue cheese, roasted garlic, baby spinach & oven-dried tomatoes, baby!—or, hell, just about anything else.

And since I can’t wait, it’s a good thing I don’t have to—so far the folks on the phone have nailed their delivery times. No rolling my eyes & tapping my foot—just sitting back & feeling well taken care of.

Kaos Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Bistro One: Lemonade Stand of Antique Row

The horrendous, endless construction project along South Broadway between Mississippi & Evans has put a huge, almost literal dent in many an already-economy-bruised business, as this Westword post pointed out as early as last fall. But Bistro One—about 1/2 full on a recent Tuesday night—is doing what it can to make some proverbial lemonade, with only the occasional & only slightly sour note, from the lemons it’s been handed.

The Director made fun of me for taking a picture of bread, but it’s an illustration of how this smartly mod little spot continues to exceed my expectations. The freshly house-baked loaves come out warm, soft & in ever-changing flavors with dishes of seasoned olive oil; this one was green olive–feta (as you can see if you click on the image to enlarge it).

BObread

There was much to dig in the black bean soup (really more a thick, smooth puree) with cubed Tasso-style duck ham (those pomegranate-seed-looking bits) & cilantro sour cream;

BOsoup
its assets, however, were the flip side of its flaws. As it was quite spicy—welcomingly, but surprisingly—I found myself wishing it were actually cream of black bean soup, with more of the dairy garnish blended in for balance. It was also a tad oversalted, a fact the pungent, crispy ham only highlighted.

By contrast, the smoked garlic Caesar was lackluster—neither smoky nor garlicky nor much of anything else. Though I’ll give the kitchen the benefit of the doubt that they were housemade, even the croutons were bland & a bit stale. If it’s token, it ain’t smokin’; Caesars being one of not only my but many diners’ main litmus tests for a restaurant’s overall quality, I humbly submit the chef get his together with a punchier dressing, a white anchovy or 2, seasoned croutons, etc.

BOsalad

But if apps fell a bit short, mains went above & beyond. The sweet soy–marinated buffalo

BObuffalo
arrived truly rare and tender, its drippings (visibly! look close) enriching the creamy ginger buerre blanc that, though not sharply gingery, was a veritable liquid spice cake. And meat & sauce came together beautifully with sweet potato spaetzle & mushroom hash—each bite a smooth, earthy-sweet little burst of dumpling & juice. If I did ties, this dish would’ve handily tied for Dish of the Week with Il Punto’s crudo di seppie.

Meanwhile, if the Director’s lamb bourguignonne with fresh pappardelle, bacon, &, as I recall, fresh goat cheese was less imaginative, it was no less accomplished, from silky noodle to blood-rich wine sauce to the refreshing sprinkle of fried leeks & fresh herbs on top.

BOlamb

We skipped dessert—but, lovely as it sounds, the lemon–olive oil cake with candied lemon & lemon crème fraîche only further indicates this place has got the juice to squeeze sweet lemonade until summer shines once again on its newly smooth stretch of South Broadway.

Bistro One on Urbanspoon

Den Deli Done Decent—So Far

Oh, to be young again. And lesbian.

I’d be skulking around Den Deli Seafood Market & Japanese Noodle Bar day in & day out, awkwardly stalking the counter clerk with the milky skin, pert features & furious red curls, asking all about

DenDeli1 DenDeli3
the potato salad & the pumpkin snow mountains

DenDeli2 & the nikumaki

in excruciatingly shy lieu of asking her out.

As it is, I may be doing the Den Deli Shuffle daily anyway.  It all depends on how fully it lives up to its pedigree (it is, of course, part of the Kizakis’ mini-empire at the corner of Old South Pearl & Florida, along with Sushi Den/Izakaya Den) . . . not to mention its prices. After a month, it’s still showing more promise than actual polish, but time will tell.

Of course, it’s a treat just to browse here, just to sit & look around the urbane café with its requisite brick walls, wood floors & exposed ceilings, its blackboard menu & open kitchen, its display cases filled with hors d’oeuvre-worthy morsels—Greek salad scooped atop cakes of tofu (sourced, I’m told, from Denver Tofu), miso eggplant stacks, thick-sliced smoked salmon filet—& a seafood counter lined with not only fish & octopus tentacles & fat scallops but also wasabi by the root, whole yuzus & the like. There’s also a small selection of dry goods & prepared condiments like miso & a very simple cabbage kimchi (no daikon or scallions), pungent to be sure but not painful.

DDkimchi2

To my piggy American eye, though, the Bento boxes near the register look pretty skimpy, with little more than a tablespoon of any given side & a cup tops of the main item. And on that note, skimping is so far my biggest complaint. Take this 12-buck quart of what’s listed as tomato udon with tiger shrimp & scallops I got to go:

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First off, I’d expected something more like this, not a rich & creamy soup base. I’ve got no beef with rich & creamy, granted, especially when balanced by excellent, chewy, housemade noodles & greens, but the description could’ve been a little clearer. That goes double for the shellfish: in that whole container floated exactly 1 shrimp & 2 scallops. If I had an ounce of gumption I’d have hauled my ass back out & given someone an earful, but I don’t, especially in snow, so I didn’t.

Speaking of earfuls as well as skimping, one of the line cooks got a bit of one after searing the duck for our order of pan-fried udon, also $12.

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I couldn’t hear why, but I wish it had been for the portion size. Even just 1 or 2 more slices—or, conversely, 1 or 2 fewer Washingtons—would have gone a long way toward a sense of goodwill if not wholesale generosity. Am I being greedy? If so, I blame the duck—it was just so lovely, as delicate as its color suggests, with a fragrant, juicy broth, sliced shiitakes, & those same stand-up toothy noodles.

And I certainly don’t blame Den Deli for this mess;

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the signature mashed potatoes & pork potstickers with the standard sweet soy-based dipping sauce are much more attractively presented in-house. So goes takeout.

But I will bitch about the fact that I shelled out 15 clams for it—5 for the potstickers & 10 for 2 orders of the spuds—especially because the former were surprisingly tough & near-flavorless (day-olds from the elder Dens?). To be sure, as was not the case with the made-to-order noodles, I could see what I was paying for before I paid it, so I harbor some complicity here. Besides, the potato salad, at least, was damn near worth it: chock-full of ham, egg, seemingly lightly pickled cukes, carrots & raisins—yes, raisins—plus a couple of strips of fried sweet potato (which serve as garnish, per the pic at the top). The occasional bite that contained no such toy prizes, just potato & mayo, was a little bland, suggesting the salad as a whole could use a smidge more S&P. But I nitpick where I’d rather just picnic.

A 2nd potato salad, by contrast, was bland all over. With wedges of cold roasted red potatoes, cherry tomatoes & coins of octopus, it certainly should’ve been a winner—& no doubt it can be; all it needs is a stronger vinaigrette à la (I’m afraid so) Batali.

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The same, I hope, goes for Den Deli; it just needs to get a little more seasoned. Per the blackboard, a selection of sandwiches is coming soon, from tuna salad to Japanese French dips; regarding them apples, I’ve already got loads of questions for my little red-haired girl.

Den Deli on Urbanspoon

Molto Carino Dolce Sicilia Italian Bakery

Molto carino means “super-cute.” Dolce Sicilia means “Sweet Sicily” (cf. dolci siciliani, which means “Sicilian sweets,” just FYI). Italian Bakery means panificio italiano (or panetteria italiana, or about 3 other synonymous terms. You know, like the Eskimo words for snow).

All together, it means yes oh yes, I’m home. Back in Boston, every other place within a 2-block radius of my North End apartment looked like this little stop-in at 32nd & Wadsworth—

DolceSicilia
the cases lined with cannoli & sfogliatelle, cantuccini, amaretti & pizzelle, loaves of ciabatta & pane di semola, pan pizza & calzones; behind the counter a cooing matriarch with a thick accent, her sons & grandkids popping in & out.

And the flavors took me right back too, starting with a delicate, none-too-sweet bite of one of the petit fours (top left) among the cookie assortment pal Rebecca of From Argentina with Love got to go,

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& continuing with the spinach-ricotta calzone

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& pizza with feta, roasted tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives & oregano.

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Though I could’ve done without the grated parm & chips from  bag, the calzone itself was a delight—the crust thin yet firm, like a good hard roll hollowed out; stuffed more than an inch high with gobs of spinach & just enough ricotta to moisten & mellow it; & sauced with a simple, chunky marinara, all tomato & herb rather than salt & sugar: an exemplar of perfectly healthy Italian street food in contrast to the Americanized dirty bombs stateside suicide snackers are always detonating in their own guts.

Same went for the pizza, proof that “humble” & “elegant” aren’t necessarily antonyms, that there’s a happy—& arguably most authentically Italian—medium between a Domino’s MeatZZa Feast & the lobster-&-caviar-topped stuff of the rich & ridiculous. Though thin, the crust had chew enough to support its balanced layer of bubbling brown mozzarella spiked with the salty tang of crumbled feta & whole olives; tomato & artichoke added hits of sweet & sour.

I’ll need to return for a sausage calzone to be sure, but Dolce Sicilia may soon find a place right next to marzipan-crazed Maria’s & all-night shitshow Bova’s in my ragù-bleeding, pastry-wrapped heart.
Dolce Sicilia on Urbanspoon