Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Izakaya “Isacrack” Den

On the sort of whim we yield to far too often given the shape of our wallets, the Director & I snuck into the Den looking for a quick fix before the rockin’ Calexico show a couple of weeks ago. I’d just read on Cafe Society that chef Gabe Stallone had had a rather spectacular falling out with the owner; having once happened to hear the former insist on the down-low that some of the creations the latter apparently takes credit for were really his, that much came as no surprise to me, but what remained to be determined was the extent to which his brawn, brains aside, defined the operation. Would there be a marked difference in quality for better or worse? Often as I find myself at its altar, I tend to stop short of the worship the Den is largely shown; it could, I figured, go either way.

But it didn’t. Neither in the kitchen nor behind the sushi bar was the drama still being played out, & the execution was as smooth as ever, which is to say fairly but not uniformly.

For instance, the much-touted “fresh Japanese wasabi sashimi”—namely hamachi, aka amberjack or yellowtail, not to be confused with yellowfin, which is tuna, nor with an apricot blossom, which is what it evokes from its pale-pink hue to its silky texture to its virtually fruity savor—remains a wonder laid over a light marinade (I’m guessing mainly shoyu & rice-wine vinegar), although as the line between admirable shows of restraint & ripoffs goes, I’d rather this one were thicker, & that for all the exceeding delicacy of the dish they’d go ahead & double the daub of grated wasabi. Fishwise, mind you, the dish is nearly a steal at $16.50 (a regular 2-piece order of hamachi sashimi, composed of smaller slices of fish, goes for $5.50)—but since it’s the wasabi that gets top billing on the menu, so it’s the wasabi the chefs should be showcasing with a bigger-than-average schmear.

IDhamachi

If memory serves (& admittedly, it’s rarely inclined to raise a finger at my bidding, unless you count that 1), the inaugural version of the short ribs—every order has been different—was the best, on the bone & glazed. Ever since, they’ve been a little dryer & tougher. I guess they’ve gone from barbecuing to grilling, & I guess they should go back, is all. But the green beans sizzled with garlic as all god’s creatures should.

IDshortribs

The nikumaki may just look like the short ribs got all twisted up with their beans, but no—these asparagus-stuffed tenderloin rolls were super-umami au jus, richly meaty & soy-spiked.

IDsirloinrolls2

The tsukemono, meanwhile, got me down.

IDtsukemono

Obviously brined in-house, these slivers of cucumber, radish & carrot constituted a refreshing dressed salad, but I wouldn’t call them fully realized pickles—however embarrassingly glaring the likely fact that the fluorescent, hyperpungent tsukemono I’m hereby privileging

Images_pic-medium-25825-tsukemono

eecue.com

are prepackaged veggie sponges of salt, sugar & artificial coloring may be.

As for the Cajun crawfish roll, it was plenty tasty all topped with jalapeno, green tobikko (flying-fish roe) & sesame seeds, but I wouldn’t have known the batter-fried stuff inside from shrimp or krabstick or piranha. I’m willing to go on record with the claim that tempura maki is a mistake unless the fried item remains in 1 big piece to yield the maximum ratio of meat to batter,

IDcajuncrawfishroll

like so.

0c53ebe5f3d8cdc9_m

Still & all, the place exudes suave warmth & the promise of sake to wash down that exquisite panzanella with crab, goat cheese, pistachios & plum wine vinaigrette (the camera positively shivers just thinking about it) in addictive measure.

IDpanzanella2

Hence the crack den crack—the cravings we get for the Den’s output aren’t so much euphoric as chronic. We just keep crawling weakly back.

Izakaya Den on Urbanspoon

Stellar eclipse: Super Star v. King’s Land

Of the few groups a flag-flying misfit like me finds herself belonging to, aesthetic minorities make up the majority. I’m oddly far fonder of lesser prizes—of modestly showcased semiprecious gems rather than their spotlit, velvet-swathed precious counterparts, speaking both literally

Pakistan-peridot3 >  Diamond-ring

& figuratively; for instance, I’ll take Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later over either of his more celebrated smashes, Trainspotting Slumdog Millionaire—neither of which boasts zombies going from zero to 60 in hilariously terrifying, gore-splattered seconds—or the extended remix of “Rain” over not only all the rest of Madonna’s A-sides combined but also, say, Radiohead’s entire oeuvre (how’s that for waving the contrarian banner?).

Likewise, I realize I’m among a select local lot (joined, I might add, by the Director &, I hear, Boulder Weekly dining critic Clay Fong) who officially if incrementally prefers King’s Land to Super Star.

Mind you, it’s partly a matter of vibe; in my experience, to contradict the above remark about gems (very well, then, I contradict, containing multitudes for better or worse, especially post–dot hearts), dim sum’s the stuff of gaudy, echoing faux-temples where the cartpushers have room to swoop around Busby Berkeley–style

28dvd.2.300

Warner Bros., in case they care

rather than holes in walls where what should be hustling & bustling is bumping & grinding. Thus bumped & ground on a recent trip to Super Star (kindly invited by CulinaryColorado’s Claire Walter, who rates the rivals roughly equally; to cast judgment once & for all, I propose a tiebreaking double-header—back-to-back, cross-parking-lot dim sum. Who’s with me?), I myself had less room to swoon over the best of the bunch—including the jiaozi (steamed pouchlike dumplings), their pork filling visibly juicy;

Porkdumplings

Dumplingfilling

these pan-fried, shrimp-filled chive dumplings (as they were identified for me in this Chowhound thread, much to my eventual acceptance but initial surprise, since the chive dumplings I was most familiar with & keen on, from Boston Thai fixture Brown Sugar, were only & entirely filled with minced chives, whereas the green shreds in these were relatively large—suggestive of the leek version that is listed on Super Star’s menu rather than of any chive version that isn’t; perhaps it’s a question of translation &/or semantics?);

Greenshrimpdumplings

this special order (scored by Claire’s other guests & new pals—fellow bloggers & “world residents,” in her words, Dimitri & Audre) of snails sauteed with green peppers, celery & onions—each poked-out gastropod pure umami on a toothpick;

Snails

these clams, essentially snails redux;

Clams

this eggplant dish, full stop. Though logicosyntactially I should really keep this sentence going until I’ve covered all my faves, aestheticoemotionally (to use the least aesthetic, indeed most annoying word I may ever have lazily coined) I must here pause to opine, as an above-all-else Italophile, that no one does eggplant like the Chinese (well, except maybe the Japanese, Turks, Indians &, as long as I’m at it, the Italians). Here thick slices were pan-fried & fitted with an oval of what, according to the menu, was shrimp. If it wasn’t in fact minced whitefish of some sort, I’ll eat my hat, & probably insist afterward it tasted like whitefish. But either way it was moist & flaky & crumb-coated atop world’s sweetest nightshade, seeping oil from every fleshy pore. What more could you ask for, besides a ream of blotting paper?;

Stuffedeggplant

this Goldilocksian congee—the 1 dish I’d deem hands-down superior to King’s Land’s, being just right—neither too thin nor too thick, recognizably ricey rather than generically glutinous, & clam-dappled;

Congee

this super-chunky seafood noodle soup with firm-fleshed whitefish, gailan & red peppers in your typical (but therefore fine-by-me) egg-drop-type broth;

Noodles

& this perfectly fried rice bedecked with bits of egg, peanuts & greens.

Friedrice

Less best were the char siu bao—

Porkbuns1

like some sort of freak hybrid between barbecued pork buns & jelly donuts due to overly sweetened filling;

Porkbun2

these whole fried shrimp, greasier & heavier than King’s Land’s;

Shrimp

yet more shrimp dumplings, also made with a somewhat heavy hand;

Shrimpdumplings

this cheung fun, or steamed rice noodles wrapped around yet more shrimp—neither here nor there as oral sensations go (IMHO, that is, though I learned a thing or 2 about them I could appreciate via this other Chowhound thread);

Shrimpcheungfun

the ubiquitous fried taro cake, no better or worse than the competition’s;

Turnipcake

this ho-hum, prefrozenesque crab-stick roll

Krabroll

& really?-more-shrimp? roll;

Shrimprolls

this gailan, stir-fried nicely but sided by that offputting black pudding—practically half a bottle’s worth of oyster sauce;

Bokchoy

these underfried sesame balls;

Sesamebals

& that milquetoast of all Chinese sweets: coconut jello cubes, here studded with seemingly raw red beans (compare to these, which as cubes of milquetoast go actually look appealing).

Cocojello

At the opposite end of the gelatinous spectrum, however, I confess to getting quite a kick out of these cubes of congealed blood (to use this CulinaryColorado commenter’s term), I’m guessing from a pig; tasting like you’re simultaneously licking an aluminum pole & biting through the freshly spilled bowels of a moonlight sacrifice, they put those indescribably obscene Jello commercials in a whole new, much more fun light.

Bloodsausage

In (dim) sum—though I enjoyed & stuffed myself as silly as ever—thus far I’d rather be living off the Land than swinging on that particular Star. Take me up on the proposed rematch, though, & all bets are off (or, for that matter, on).

***Thanks to ninelives, gini, a l i c e & yumyum—Boston Chowhounds & pals all—for your assistance in itemization!

Mateo-kay!

For all my abiding gastro-Italophilia, I remain at gut-level a modern American in 1 crucial way: For me dinner, not lunch, is the crowning meal. I prefer to eat lightly & work hard(ish) all day so that come evening, I can enter into a drunken &/or gluttonous stupor free of guilt on the 1 hand & on the other any dread of the rude awakening that a post-siesta return to the daily grind would constitute.

That said: when in Rome. Or, in this case, when in Mateo—not an Italian restaurant, mind you, but it is Provençal, which is as close as the French get to being Italian. For that matter, when anyplace that offers a gratin du jour. Yesterday’s contained green beans, whole roasted cloves of garlic, parmesan & cream.

Mateogratin

You know that corny old joke where the girl goes into the soda fountain and asks for like a meat lovers’ triple banana split topped with hot fudge, butterscotch, peanuts & popcorn & extra sausage, flambeed in Jäger, & then when the soda jerk asks “With a cherry on top?” she says “Heavens, no, I’m on a diet”? That nice, light dusting of breadcrumbs on top of Old Smokey there is basically the cherry. Beneath it those green beans just floated peacefully like spa clients in their own immersion tank of peppered & cheese-thickened cream, garlic cloves going by like jet bubbles.

F425fs22

In short, yum. After all, a gratin is rich by definition; I expected no less than a fine mess into which my dining companions & I might plunge with hunks of excellent country bread. They actually came with a black-olive tapenade,

Mateobread

but much as I love olives themselves, in their pulverized form their saltiness somehow always strikes me as excessive. Rarely make the stuff myself without adding sundried tomatoes for balance. Still, if the textbook version is what you’re into (in the buff, bein’ rude, doin’ stuff with the food), this one was it.

As was the signature bouillabaisse, save for the fact that I didn’t really catch the rouille, which traditionally serves as a garnish, particularly atop the croutons, as well as an ingredient in the broth itself. While I missed its extra kick a bit, I could hardly complain about the bubbly crust the toast did boast.

Mateoboullabaisse

Et le soupe was magnifique, with nice, big, firm chunks of lobster meat & monkfish, juicy mussels & clams, fat shrimp & a wonderful broth tinged with saffron that may or may not have been smoked (the menu reads “saffron fumé,” which I initially assumed was a typo, since fumet is the seafood stock with which bouillabaisse is made, but now suspect the spice itself actually is gently fumé. Wow to that. Given how precious hand-picked saffron is, smoking it’s got to be 1 delicate process. Screwing up would be like sneezing on your last gram. Or so I hear).

Enthralled with all that, I didn’t even try my companions’ dishes, but they were awfully jolie, from the baby spinach with gorgonzola dolce, grilled plums (the kitchen was out of the usual peaches) & warm pancetta vinaigrette

Mateosalad

to the Cobb—not a classic rendition, lacking tomato, but of all its ingredients, that’s surely the most dispensable, especially in the face of such fine specimens of chicken, bacon & blue cheese (as well as avocado & chopped egg).

Mateocobb

Still, being a bit Cobbed out lately myself, I more greedily coveted the gnocchi with chanterelles in a velvety-looking mushroom (say it with me now kids) fumet.

Mateognocchi

Good thing it’s on the dinner menu too, as I plan to drag the Director up to Boulder sooner rather than later.

Mateo on Urbanspoon

What happens at The Kitchen stays in the parking lot

Having, on the strength of some simple but vibrantly satisfying soup, salad & sticky pudding, declared myself a sucker for The Kitchen early last spring, I was psyched to return recently to meet this really funny chick I dig (we’ll call her FC) for happy hour, which turned into 2, 3, 4 & 5 hours, which turned into me letting the whole remaining-upright thing slide & just slithering back to my little Ford Focus (or Unfocus as the case may be) to sleep it off for awhile before driving back to Denver in the darkest of night.

FC made some particularly lush & insightful comments about the Grüner Veltliner she sipped & I pounded; perhaps she could be persuaded to repeat them here for your enlightenment, if she hasn’t been so scandalized by my sloppiness that she’d just as soon not come forward as my oenocompanion.

She also said, when the fries—thoroughly crispy & golden, refreshingly plain with sea salt & herbs & no volcanic ash or gold flakes or dried leaf of Afghani opium poppy or what all fries are getting sprinkled with these days—

Kitchenfries

arrived with a ramekin of ketchup, “Look, it’s the baby Jesus.”

Kitchenketchup

You can kinda see it.

Images

My only beef with the wood-roasted mussels in a chorizo-infused cream of a broth would’ve been that there weren’t quite enough for 2, amounting to a mere handful in the small bowl—except that at the special “tasting hour” price of $5, there certainly were enough for me to chuck said beef.

Kitchenmussels

Not having subsequent dinner plans, I also ordered a bowl of house-marinated olives—which I don’t recall as being noticeably laced with any nonoleaceous savor, like citrus zest or chili flakes, but that was no skin off my nose (such as might rather befleck really fancy fries), since the olives themselves were just gorgeously pungent, nicely firm yet juicy, as though each were hand-picked (mushy, overripe olives, which pop up in some eateries way more than they should, are a huge peeve of mine):

Kitchenolives

The house-spiced nuts, by contrast, were nothing if not magnified (hence the close-up! or because I no longer had upper-body motor control) by the mixture with which they were tossed.

Kitchennuts2

Judging by my once close familiarity with Sally Sampson’s swell cookbooklet Party Nuts! (I used to entertain a lot more than I do now—I mean deliberately, as opposed to inadvertently behind my back), I’m guessing there was a lot of chili powder & salt, a little brown sugar & a little egg white as binder, but I could be totally off. Anyway I don’t think I left one behind.

PN

Finally, the vegetable antipasto seemed at 1st glance pricy for its size, but proved painstakingly exquisite enough to justify the tag:

Kitchenveggies

Between the marinated radish slices, braised buttered (I’m guessing) baby carrots, warm yellow tomato chunks with pesto & grilled zucchini disks with aioli, , each element fully realized, I had a jolly time picking & plucking & mixing & matching.

I continue to categorize The Kitchen under Eateries That Give Me Hope rather than Eateries That Get Me Hot simply because I’ve yet to have a full meal there. But I suspect it’s only a matter of time. Like when the hangover finally subsides.

Piecemeal: Black Pearl

*** Gentle reader: this post was originally a series thereof. I’ve now assembled them into 1 ridiculously long post for your convenience &, hopefully, mild pleasure.

My mom has a penchant for the most rococo & corny—rococorny—of interjections. One is crimuhnutleys!, as I’m inclined to spell it. Needless to say Google is useless in this wise. Maybe it’s Yiddish, maybe it’s gibberish. All I know is it roughly translates as Jesus H. Christ! (at least in my obviously non-Yiddish-filled book).

On that note, crimuhnutleys, it’s been a rough couple of weeks workwise, and the next couple are looking even rougher. Thus my latest adventures in gut-busting will likely be recorded piecemeal. Hah! pun totally intended.

For instance, 2 weeks ago now MO, Mr. MO, the Director & I spent a hyperleisurely (sounds contradictory, isn’t) evening at good old Black Pearl, which just so happens to have a good new fall menu whose highlights I promised to detail last week.

Having bemoaned BP’s overpriced wine list ad nauseum, I’ll let it suffice to say this smug little attempt at oenologic humor ain’t 1 of ’em.

BPwinelist

But the chili-fried calamari, though actually a longtime signature rather than a recent introduction, certainly is. Much justice as the Director’s fine illustration thereof does it, this snapshot adds little beyond showing how deftly crumbed rather than clumsily breaded the nice big buttery chunks of squid are, how judiciously smeared with a more nutty-sweet than spicy glaze.

BPsquid

One dish down, a slew to go. As layers of nacre form slowly around an irritant to create a pearl, so I’ll work around my deadlines to gloss over our meal a bit more each day(ish) until it’s covered. To be continued…

***

When we last left our hungry heroes, they were hanging from the cliff of a first course at Black Pearl: following a round of prosecco & oysters, they had moved on to such specialties of the house as calamari, pan-fried shishito peppers—ever so pleasantly glistening with oil & accompanied by sesame-spiced salt, with a grassy savor that MO the following day called “luscious, although I was still tasting them this morning when I woke up”—

BPpeppers

& the old standard that has become “exquisite” parmesan-&-truffle-dusted fries (not pictured) with a simple aioli. According to MO, it was at this point that Mr. MO apparently recalled with a shudder that his wife was “not capable of going to a restaurant without trying half the menu” and “throwing lots of other shit on the bill.” Over on our side of the table, the Director was likewise querying as to just how far MO & I intended to take this whole face-stuffing thing.

Like him, you’ll soon find out.

***

Does catatonia translate into print? Suffice it to say I’m working so hard these days that my downtime amounts to occasional fleeting moments of, as Merriam-Webster defines the disorder, “marked psychomotor disturbance that may involve stupor or mutism, negativism, rigidity, purposeless excitement, and inappropriate or bizarre posturing.” Bingo, minus the excitement part.

Hence, as warned a few days back, these bits & pieces—dribbles & gurgles, really—will keep coming. But perhaps it’s a nice change from my usual endless rambling, & my deadline is so close now I can reach out & smack it, so all will be back to normal, whatever that means, soon enough.

For now, please enjoy this jaw dropper of a dish (which, granted, could in turn be a bit gag-inducing for whomever’s seated across from you who order it) off BP’s fall menu:

BPporkbelly

lozenges of pork belly that are truly the savory, carnivorous equivalent of lemon bars, crusty on the outside & squishy in the center—only with the maddeningly exquisite fat of a pig rather than citrus curd.

285210470_d22a07b79d[1] not quite, but almost

But if the pork was exemplary, what sandwiched it—kabocha squash cakes below & fried Fresno chiles above—were exceptional: the latter expanding upon the crispness of the skin, the former upon the softness of the flesh, & both contributing their own touches of vegetable sweetness. The squash in particular was beautifully done, intense but not cloyingly so, no candied sweet-potato casserole of sad Thanksgivings past:

225_10651_Candied whew! not even close

To be continued, seemingly forever…

***

Feast that lasts for days on end: awesome. Post that lasts for days on end about a feast that didn’t: not so much. So, in conclusion:

Much Palatino have I already spilled about Black Pearl’s breadcrumb-&-balsamic-sprinkled steak, but since the kitchen has a way of tweaking the presentation slightly every time—kinda like some avant-jazz combo reinterpreting an old standard several nights running at the Knitting Factory, only pleasurable—it’s always worth a look-see:

BPsteak3

The Director ate it all up, while MO assured us her salmon with mussels & panzanella, which she requested without sausage, “was perfectly balanced even sans chorizo—far superior to the lackluster $36 salmon dish I had at [Disneyland’s] vaunted Napa Rose a couple of weeks ago. It’s been a while since I’ve ordered a dish with mussels where at least 1 or 2 either weren’t opened or were gritty.” In your little fairy-dusted face, Tinkerbell.

BPsalmon

& as for Mr. MO’s crab cakes—

BPcrabcakes

they were quite the crustacean bongos I just wanted to bang on all day & eat all night.

Black Pearl on Urbanspoon

India’s Pearl: pretty cultured

Peeking in the windows of the short-lived BB’s on Pearl as it underwent renovation, I saw things. Suspicious things. Creepy things. Like someone sleeping slack-mouthed on a banquette. And a signed black-&-white photograph of some jaunty mustachioed buck in a toque. And a banner promising fine wine. Things, in short, I was inclined to associate less with the Indian eatery Platt Park sorely needed—presumably (not necessarily, of course, but more likely) humble & low-key—and more with, say, the great expectations of a once-promising young chef turned bitterly determined schizo, soon to be haunting the ruins of his failure like the Denver dining scene’s own Miss Havisham.

But now for the Dickensian twist: turns out I might be the naysaying schizo! A, the autographed glossy I swear I saw & interpreted as a sign of delusional grandeur is now, I swear equally, nowhere in obvious sight. B, the promise of fine wine I scoffed at is being fulfilled: the fact that, according to our server, the proprietors of India’s Pearl also own a chain of liquor stores shows not only in the breadth of the 7-page list—it runs the geographical and varietal gamut—but in the converse narrowness of its low-to-mid-price range.

C, as for passing out on the premises—there but for the grace of God. This is some hearty, heady stuff indeed. Like the wine list, the menu is long & laden with not only the Punjabi standards but also potential surprises like syal machchi (fish in a caramelized onion sauce), tandoori pheasant & lobster, & an apparently Pakistani intrigue called illachi beef pasanda—tandoori beef in cardamom-papaya sauce. Lassi gussies up in the form of rooh afza—milk with rose syrup—& milk badam with almonds, cardamom & saffron.

These days, many a high-end Indian restaurant prides itself on cooking everything to order rather than batch cooking. Yet depending on the circumstances, both methods have their pros as well as their cons. While it’s true that spicing can be more precise in the former, it can also have less depth than in the latter. I don’t doubt the chef at India’s Pearl—who, our server noted, was recruited from Chicago—is making his sauces in quantity. But given their quality—which we experienced via what most Americans would consider the basics, hence what I tend to treat as litmus tests—I’ve got no beef with that.

The naan we started with was plenty airy, not at all the wet rag that sometimes scrubs your gut with a bucketful of ghee, & yielded garlic galore.

IPnaan

Papri chaat proved exceptional: fresher & more carefully considered than most versions, festooned with green chickpeas, potato cubes, cilantro, sev (those fried noodles on top) & fried wheaten wafers that stayed crunchy even as they got all mixed up with not only yogurt & tamarind chutney but a strong brown curry.

IPchaat

Baigan bharta, the classic eggplant curry, often has a love apple–derived veneer of sweetness; this one was, I think, devoid of tomatoes, greener both to the eye & on the palate than any I’ve had.

IPeggplant

Apparently my camera time-traveled to a red-sauce parlor circa 1973 to capture Mamma Giuseppe’s meatballs in marinara. Where we were, this was a lamb vindaloo as dark as the eggplant was green. The kitchen kept the spicing to a dull roar, though; I suggest you fire breathers specify your desire to weep copious drops of blood.

IPlamb

Whole peppercorns & caraway seeds speckled the rice, perfectly nice.

IPrice

Finally, to return to the fine wine: we opted for a $21 Grover Vineyard cab-shiraz blend from the subcontinent itself—not the most structured jug of grape juice I’ve ever gulped from (the La Reserve, which we tried at NYC’s Chola & which is also available here, is better), but no less a pleasure to discover for discovery’s sake.

IPwine

In sum, my own expectations for the success of India’s Pearl have, with a single meal, increased considerably.

Osteria Marco mostly hits the marko

Osteria? Not even closteria. Not in my book, anyway, which is literal & filled with snapshots of snug, humble spots in Orvieto & Agrigento & Trieste; not to my mind, full of memories of the kind of place where you might catch glimpses of a lumpy old mamma in slippers at the stove through the kitchen door, stirring pots & plating your fettine di cavallo arrosto (a horse is a course, of course, of course) while her son il cameriere brings round shots of grappa every time his team scores in the soccer game on the little black-&-white set at the hostess stand. An osteria is not sprawling & sleek & buzzing with lovelies freshly descended from their 400-million square feet of Lodo loft.

Misnomer aside, though, Osteria Marco is a pleasure, sheer & simple. Aided by a bartender who was engaged, savvy & honest—a rare combo, though less rare, it strangely seems to me, among bar staff than among waitstaff—we grazed & grazed & grazed some more, basically laying waste to the fecund field of meat & cheese that is the menu while drinking deep from the red red springs of the Quartino.

Speaking of fields, I sowed the inaugural soil of Denveater with the seeds of a Top 5 list that has since lain fallow from not neglect so much as the lack of crop potential. Until now. OM’s much & rightly ballyhooed burrata’s officially up there with Black Pearl’s calamari, Rioja’s pork belly & Sushi Sasa’s black cod. In fact, it’s the literal cream of the crop, a sort of deliquescent mozzarella. Or the salty marshmallow of cheeses. I’d totally use it for fluffernutters, especially between chargrilled slices of country bread like these.

OMburrata

Gnocco fritto usually evoke nothing so much as mini-sopaipillas; here, they’re more like cheese crackers. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re more like, otherwise known as frico, only solid instead of lacy. See for yourself:

OMfrico

OM’s gnocco fritto

Foto000111

typical gnocco fritto

Fc53kt089

typical frico

Be it another misnomer or not, the result is a fine mouthful—all peppery, cheesy crunch.

As for these utter rose petals of braesola—wine-cured beef—

OMbraesola

their thinness may actually have done their flavor a disservice; to say that braesola is salty by definition is not quite to say that it’s definitively salty. Like good pastrami, it should still register as beef. Still, they’re just so heartbreakingly pretty, no? In fact, forget rose petals, they’re enough like cross-sections of the still-beating heart of a redheaded beauty sacrificed to the gods only seconds before that maybe I wasn’t even supposed to eat it, just eye it in awe.

That said, the mozzarella in carozza was also sliced too thin; as it’s basically a grilled-cheese sandwich, the bread should, IMO, squish a bit, the cheese ooze a bit, beneath its toasted surface. This was nothing but toasted surface, hence rather on the dry side, juiced up mainly by those pickled onions.

OMcarrozza

Not so the exemplary grilled artichoke; tender even at its outermost & glistening with olive oil, it was almost as good as the best carciofi alla giudea I’ve ever had in Rome—which isn’t even a fair comparison, because the latter have the incontestable advantage of being fried.

OMartichokes

The above being a spot-on suggestion from our smart bartender—our smartender (whose name I wish I’d gotten, but keep your eye out for a lanky 20-something bearing a passing resemblance to the guy who played Randal in Clerks)—I asked for his thoughts on dessert, stipulating contradictorily that I didn’t actually want dessert, I wanted more cheese.

He recommended the ricotta, which was indeed as light as it could possibly be & still exist, paired, by his own accord, with a dish of strawberries in syrup—

OMricotta

a sweet touch in every sense of the adjective.

Osteria Marco on Urbanspoon

Hosannas for Mosaic

***UPDATE: Mosaic is now CLOSED.***

Before we caught, in every (except the literal) sense, Dengue Fever at the hi-dive last night (if you’re unfamilliar, get familiar: the doll-like lead singer wears what our friend Keith pegged as a gently used prom dress & sings mostly in Cambodian; the guitarist channels some sort of Hasidic Castro; the bassist is a 7-foot-tall black bouncing ball of winningly awkward sexual exuberance; the keyboardist has some sort of Rob-Reiner-as-Meathead thing going on, and every number’s like a cross between a TV spy-show theme, a torch song you’d, if you were a GI in some wartime cabaret overseas, cry in your warm, watery beer over, & early-’80s ska), we drove out to Parker on something of an Open Table–generated whim to check out Mosaic.

To the extent that you can be ambivalent about your own whims, however, we were. Wherefore the dearth of press coverage, the wordlessness-of-mouth? Why stuck way out on the barren corner of a freeway exit in Parker in a squat building whose darkened exterior suggests some sort of industrial paint outlet? Is the guy in street clothes who left his cocktail at his seat at the bar to come greet us at the host stand a customer? Should the lounge be so aura-destroyingly fluorescent? Why is the dining room, much more handsomely if sci-fi-ly mood-lit by this Star Trekkian fireplace

Mosaicfireplace

(cf. 390955750_6c78eb96dd)

& the fishtank behind it as utterly empty as it is ambitiously spacious? What’s with the spooky video loop of the tropical waterfall on the smattering of flatscreens? Why is this 14-year-old in a Nehru collar—actually, the question could end there—serving us an amuse bouche before we’ve even opened the wine list, & why is he calling it “honeydew, sundried tomato & corn ceviche with a wonton chip”? If it’s fishless, isn’t it just honeydew, sundried tomato & corn with a wonton chip?

Mosaicamuse

But then we tasted it, each little chile-peppered cube producing a burst of juice (& hence a flood of fond memories of this gum—love that squirt!),

Gum

& our questions began to yield to answers, doubt to delight. Of the 5 dishes we sampled, 4 totally startled us with their gorgeously wrought complexity, which the menu descriptions rarely even came close to capturing.

This, for instance, is not lamb tempura. This is a lamb fritter, & no less fabulous for that,

Mosaiclamb2

thickly but crisply battered, cumin-scented & tamarind-glazed. Nor does “mascarpone & macadamia nut relish” begin to cover what lies beneath;

Mosaiclamb1

the smoky-bright, sweet-tart stuff contained dark & golden raisins & bits of orange & fresh cranberry too, here & there mingling with scant dollops of spicy mustard.

What the menu intriguingly calls “Balkan meat & potato stones” are basically croquettes, in themselves crackerjacks—beneath their outer shell the potatoes hot, soft & moist as if freshly whipped, with just a whiff of good old but ever-welcome truffle; the lamb & beef at the center ground to a near-paste that made me wish they made meat-flavored Crest—but especially fascinating for being smothered in a sesame oil–tinged, smoked Thai chili–corn sauce so deliciously elusive we could have sworn it was cheese-based, but no—& yet yes, in spirit, I believe it was:

Mosaicstones_2

By the way, those are also called “small plates.” Ditto this “sauteed feta,”

Mosaicfeta

its texture somehow reminiscent of frittata, its saltiness mellowed not only by the cooking method but also by the brown-bread slices the squares sat atop, so thin & crisp they were really hot brown crackers, & of course by the drizzle of balsamic syrup, but at the same time echoed (the saltiness) in the daubs of what the menu lists as baby spinach, pine nuts, raisins & caperberries—which again, given the myriad facets of flavor those tiny baubles of condiment contained, I’m betting was indeed all in there, & possibly olives too, as they clearly evoked tapenade.

While I kept on going strong with a superb signature salad that was like nothing so much as smoked-fish gorp, the Director suffered the only blow of the evening, delivered heartily—the only thing delivered heartily—by what was supposed to be pan-seared salmon & scallops in a smoked onion broth with lobster, corn & potato hash & kiwi-watercress salad but seemed just mostly to be some fish in some liquid, all the rest melting away. Where everything else had been subtly layered & swirled, this was just muddied.

Mosaicsalmon

Still. I’d gladly wade through a little sludge to get to another meal as originally conceived, smartly executed &, get this!, fairly priced—the entrees hover around the $20 mark; wines rarely break $40—as this one.

Izakaya Denny’s

That might as well be its name, the way we always just sort of end up there through no real will of our own. We hit it like it was a pit stop on our long way to somewhere else—plopping down wearily and, with nary a thought, like our chins were propped on our open palms, elbows on the table, eyes half-closed, ordering up the Med-Asian equivalent of the Lumberjack Slam. But instead of a stack of buttermilk pancakes there was, recently, needlefish,
Idneedlefish
whose sea-clean taste & surprising firmness reminded me of abalone. Instead of bacon—a warning phrase if ever there were one—there was gorgonzola-&-balsamic-sprinkled carpaccio,
Idcarpaccio
whose flavor was not only not like bacon but not like anything, inhibited by the fact that it was served, appallingly & inexplicably, ice-cold. Someone sit that poor beef down by the hearth & pour it a brandy, it’ll come round.
Instead of sliced honey ham there was grilled tenderloin in puff pastry with shiitake, enoki & eringi mushrooms in a tarragon-ginger sauce, scattered with chive flowers and saffron threads.
Idtenderloin
A terrific little dish, this twist on beef Wellington, beautifully balancing its earthy & bright contrasts.
Instead of sausage there were short ribs—which apparently just got even shorter, since they used to reach our expectations but this time couldn’t quite.
Idshortrib
Formerly they dripped & smacked of Korean barbecue; now, they’re like your baby as opposed to my baby in that old song by G. Love & Special Sauce. At least the warm, creamy, quasi-Germanic potato salad offsets their new austerity.
Instead of eggs there was saffron-roasted halibut with grilled white asparagus, seaweed & yellow tomato–butter sauce.
Idhalibut
“It’s almost all about texture,” said our friend who henceforth shall be known as the Whistler because “it’s my superhero name, though it makes more sense as a serial-killer name,” & I had to agree—about the dish, I mean; while it tasted as vibrantly multifaceted as it looks, it certainly wasn’t about the halibut, which could’ve been replaced by any white fish without anyone’s knowing or caring. For all we knew we were eating tilapia & the halibut’s photo was on the back of a milk carton.
Instead of hash browns or grits there were roast duck-&-forest mushroom ravioli.
Idravioli
While the pasta itself was lovely—no surprise there; after all, ravioli are basically just Italian-style shumai, which as I’ve said the Den does a bang-up job of making—its pointless submersion in an unmemorable broth did come as a surprise to the Whistler’s ladyfriend (ha, as opposed to his mother), whom we’ll be calling the Mad Russian. As she pointed out, the menu listed red-pepper coulis, of which there were driblets, but made no mention of downright soup. Or cheese, for that matter, likewise superfluous.
& instead of choice of bread there was glossy, super-honeyed sesame chicken with a salad of palm heart, bok choy, Fuji apple & almonds atop a wash of prickly pear beurre blanc, prettily peridot-toned but otherwise totally lost amid all that tangy sweetness.
Idsesamechicken
Oh, wait. Did I say sesame chicken? I meant alien fetus.
Idalienfetus
It’s kinda the new foie gras.

The often exciting & always true conclusion of Pimp My Meal!: Mission to Fruition

If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s crappy endings. Tragedy. Chaos. Anticlimax. In one or more of these do life’s episodes most convincingly conclude. As Amos Tutuola’s title character puts it in the Palm Wine Drinkard, “And so all our trials, difficulties and many years’ travel brought only an egg or resulted in an egg.” Though I don’t exactly recall what that means anymore, the redundant little flourish says it all, still makes me laugh with a sad face. Show me a good happy ending & I’ll show you a movie with Dudley Moore & Liza Minnelli in it, & that’s about it.
So I wasn’t inclined to trust a place called Fruition. & a perusal of the menu didn’t change my angle, as I indicated when my dinner mechanic, MC Slim JB, handed me the keys & bid me take it for a test drive against Opus. Fruition, it even sounds like a Ford model, doesn’t it? The 2008 Fruition—now it comes to you.
Well, I went to it, looking more forward to the company of a cool lady I know who grew up seeing the same bands I did (Defenestration! Chainsaw Kittens! Flaming Lips!) than to the “sophisticated comfort food” whereof the website boasts. The phrase gives me the willies—& I don’t really know what those are, which makes them even worse—for its oxymoronic presumption. Sure, I suppose anything could be comfort food to someone. I suppose if your parents were filthy-rich globe-traipsing gourmands, gold-dipped lobes of foie gras might be comfort food. If you grew up naked in the bush, live grubs might be comfort food, the wrigglier & squishier the better. But for most of us stateside in the 21st century, comfort food doesn’t have anything in it you don’t have to check the date on or smell before using. It doesn’t have any French in it, that’s for sure. Slim’s label, “slightly modernized Continental fare,” strikes me as far more accurate, but I guess that doesn’t quite a slogan make. You can’t put an exclamation point on the end of “slightly modernized Continental fare.”
You can, however, put an exclamation point on the end of this:
Fonionsoup
Wow, quelle soupe a l’oignon! The flavor had such depth you’d have thought, & certainly hoped, the bowl was bottomless. Sweet as well-browned onion made it, so the broth base made it intensely savory—was it veal? I think it was veal. I think it came from a calf made of velvet brocade & lavender jade. That’s how beautifully intense it was. And that spiral of gruyère—I’d swear it was mixed with mayo, for it too was tinged with sweetness & had a lovely dollopy quality. I was so into swirling & spooning up that stuff I forgot all about the braised short rib holding up the crouton until suddenly it was all that was left. & not only could I eat it with the spoon, I could practically have eaten it with a knife, just spread it on top of the crouton. It was that willing.
And then, from the looks of this photo, I could have turned the knife on the psycho who tried to serve me some evil Satan-worshipping monkfish bathed in blood blood bloooooood.
Fmonkfish2
Good thing the creepshow was only playing in my weird camera’s head. The pan-roasted monkfish with herb-flecked spaetzle, caramelized brussels sprouts, fennel confit & Meyer lemon beurre fondue was totally innocent. Well, except of one transgression: the filet was surprisingly overcooked, a tad rubbery. But the rest was dandy: the spaetzle al dente, the veggies thankfully not—sprouts’ quasi-grassiness overlapping with fennel’s anise veneer—& the sauce as sprightly as it was silken.
The cool lady (who posts on Chowhound.com’s Southwest board as rlm), meanwhile, praised her adorable! pasta carbonara complete with “angelic egg sitting on top”
Fcarbonara
for the “perfectly crisped” house-cured pork belly beneath it. My praise goes to (besides her manicurist) the stellar butter in that dish rlm’s holding in the corner, which I think was sprinkled with at least two different sea salts. The bread comes courtesy of a guy in a tie with a wicker basket on his arm, who asks you whether you want French white or whole wheat. Since my answer is Yes, I’ll allude once more to the great American bread-basket post, full of intrigue & heartbreak, I will one day compose & note that Fruition’s won’t crack the top 5 for 2 reasons: 1) the rockingest bread baskets contain at least 1 surprise treat, mini-muffins or baby biscuits or slices involving olives &/or nuts &/or cheese &/or dried fruit &/or herbs & 2) the rockingest bread baskets aren’t in the crook of someone else’s elbow, they’re on my table, so I can stuff my face & complain afterward about how it snapped up all my stomach’s most valuable real estate only to turn it right back over to me for an obscene asking price.
And while, as rlm said sweetly & with a winning smile within earshot of our waiter when I noted she hadn’t finished her entree—roast duck breast over risotto with smoked-duck prosciutto, arugula & red-onion marmalade—
Fduck_2
“if I’d had more duck to go with it, I’d have eaten more risotto,” heh, the only major disappointment for me was the very dessert I’d drooled over in the aforelinked post. Though the cream-cheese ice cream was great—as tangy as all get out, as though it got low low low low low low low low in baggy sweatpants—the blond carrot cake was rather dry. My camera couldn’t even be bothered to focus on it.
Fcarrotcake_2
So the meal, mighty fine overall, didn’t end with a bang so much as a pfft, didn’t quite come to fruition. Maybe they should rename the place Only An Egg.
***
All due thanks once again to MC Slim JB for his input & insight! Any of you fellow Denveaters planning trips to Boston will want to check here &/or here for more words of dining wisdom.

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