Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

A Peek at Izakaya Den’s New Rooftop Lounge

As the long-celebrated owners of Sushi Den & the now-adjacent Izakaya Den, the Kizaki family doesn’t touch anything they don’t turn into gold—& the just-opened lounge above the Izakaya’s dining room is no exception. It’s simply gorgeous, from the stairwell

on up to the soaring space with its retractable roof; expanses of wood, stone & marble; & tranquil mood.

I got a chance to speak briefly with the new chef de cuisine, Daniel Bradley, whose résumé lists no lesser landmarks than Berkeley’s Chez Panisse & Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. He’s got big plans for the menu, with visions of an ever-changing repertoire that includes more vegan & raw dishes dancing in his head. Here’s a look at the current, non-sushi side of the selection:

But you can expect an update within a matter of weeks, one that hopefully includes a few items on the lavish spread the kitchen laid out for the opening, like this pinenut gazpacho with carbonated plum purée

or these veggie rice cakes over spicy corn puree with avocado sauce.

Slow clap all around.

Dish of the Week: Seafood Dynamite at Sushi King…

in Albuquerque. 

I generally aim to bestow the extraordinary honor that is Denveater’s Dish of the Week only on Coloradan concoctions, but this New Mexican sushi franchise offers such an oddly delectable departure from the bubbling, creamy dynamite I’ve come to know & sheepishly covet at local Japanese joints (not to mention Russell’s Smokehouse) that a tip of the old paddy hat seems only fair.

Rather than being smothered in chili mayo, this was judiciously drizzled; the seafood was a mixture of fin & shellfish, including what I’d swear on my last tastebud was swordfish (I was told the contents change constantly depending on what’s cooking); & the whole mess was brightened with a sprinkling of flying-fish roe & sesame seeds. I want more right now.

 

 

Taki Sushi, Mecca Grill, & a Sofa Spud

Countless times I’ve admitted to the mistake of delivery sushi—antithetical to the organic, immediate, intimate sushi bar experience, hence unfair to both the purveyor & the consumer thereof. Countless times I’ve ordered it anyway, because I’m lazy like that. But after a recent order from Taki Sushi, the Director finally, officially revoked my sushi-delivery privileges—his nigiri & the California roll we got for free (standard with a purchase over $25, mind you, not something we’d ever actively choose) being, he griped, flaccid & tasteless.

I got luckier; my nigiri—spicy scallop, black tobiko (flying fish roe) & wasabi-infused tobiko—were just fine, tightly rolled, eggs a-popping, shellfish firm yet luscious. (I also appreciated the fact that they could be ordered by the piece rather than by the more common pair.)

But what I really dug, she admits sheepishly, was the Pearl Roll (at bottom).

My excuse for snarfing such an abomination of Japanese tradition: look, it’s summer, & I pine for the days I spent traipsing up & down the Massachusetts shoreline to get my fill of breaded, deep-fried bivalves at seasonal landmarks like The Clam Box. And here they were, crispy breaded oysters whose flavor wasn’t totally lost amid the rice & seaweed topped with salmon & avocado in a more-sweet-than-spicy chili mayo. Pretty good for being so bad.

Granted, 1 glance at the loose rice in the Cali roll above it justifies the Director’s complaints—& I wasn’t too keen on the miso eggplant either. Recipes can vary, & a sauce as thick & sweet as this isn’t necessarily wrong. But it seemed to have just been slopped on top, not broiled with the eggplant to integrate the flavors. So it evoked a sort of eggplant-pudding parfait. Rather disconcerting.

Still, there was enough I liked about Taki at a disadvantage to want to try it in the presumably more flattering light of an actual visit.
***

Since the ban on takeout/delivery applies only to Japanese food, I’ve been taking advantage of the Director’s falafel fetish to get my fill of Mecca Grill. It’s actually a cute place, humble but colorful & cozy, in its little strip mall on Downing—but see “lazy like that.” I’m also boozy like that; Mecca’s dry, & my house isn’t.

We’ve ordered 3 King Combos in the past week or so, all of them slightly different—I suspect the kitchen adds whichever meats are at its immediate disposal. We’ve seen chunks of beef, lamb & chicken kebab, chicken shawarma, kofta, &, once, though it’s not even listed as an option, thin coins of the superb, literally melt-in-your-mouth spiced lamb-&-beef sausage otherwise used for sandwiches. To a piece, they’ve been moist & tender—even the chicken!—as well as nicely charred & seasoned.

The vegetarian items haven’t changed: there’s the baba ghanouj I just named Dish of the Week; stuffed grape leaves whose luscious near-gooeyness contrasts with their hyper-lemony tang; tabbouleh with a surprising paprika kick, whether due to its mixture with other items or its own recipe; crunchy, nutty falafel from which the scent of herbs actually wafts; & just-right rice. The uncharacteristically bland hummus isn’t quite up to the rest, & I seriously doubt the claim on the menu that the pita is housemade. But overall the combo rocks.

The same could be said of Mecca Grill in general. The only thing I won’t be ordering again is the fatoush. Though abounding in vividly crisp, ripe veggies, it was also swimming in the oil of a dressing that, given the expert condimenting of everything else, was a disappointment. If it did indeed contain olive rather than vegetable oil, it wasn’t extra or even plain or even born-again virgin, & the advertised flavor of mint went undetected. After a few bites I just picked out all the pita chips before they got soggy & left it at that.

Meanwhile, though they required a bit of knife action (roughage is a bitch), the cabbage rolls—a family recipe, we were told—were wonderfully stuffed with rice & ground lamb cooked in a bit of tomato sauce, redolent of cumin & a touch of cinnamon. So soft & soothingly homey.

You’ll often see the dish below listed as foul moudammas (or some variant spelling thereof); you might also, as here, see the name translated simply as fava beans. Which they are—mature, dried favas that are nothing like the flattish, fresh, green ones you see in their pods at the market in season but rather evoke smoky, meaty pintos.

In any case, the garnish of juicy diced tomatoes & sliced pickle adds a layer of zing to the beans, popping just so in your mouth.

At this point, I’m half-tempted to stop whining about wine & stop in for a feast, washed down with a banana milk “cocktail.”"

Taki Sushi on Urbanspoon

Mecca Grill on Urbanspoon

Vaguely Interesting News About iFish, Joyce’s Famous Pizza

A, it appears Jake Rand has already bolted from brand-spanking-new Ballpark sushi joint iFish. That was quick.

B, it looks like Joyce’s Famous Pizza on S. Broadway is moving all of half a block further south; its former digs, according to a sign in the window, will now house another Original Famous Pizza. Just because it’s news doesn’t make it exciting.

I wish these 2 tidbits had something to do with one another, if only for the sake of narrative elegance, but they don’t. Still, it’s nice to know there is such a thing as sushi pizza, as well as fast-food sushi (close enough)—both signs of the apocalypse if ever there were any. And the end of days is certainly big news at present, right?

KiKi’s Comforts

***This blogpost originally appeared on Monday, 4/18, on Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful blog as part of my Gorging Global series; I will be reposting some of my favorites here.***

I’d bypassed this strip-mall storefront on South Colorado a hundred times, taking it for a mere peddler of cut-rate California rolls. But its name kept popping up: a kind word from a Chowhound here, a little bird Tweeting its praises there. When curiosity finally got the better of me, I discovered with delight that Domo, for all its deserved fame, is not the only Japanese comfort kitchen in town.

Though Tokyo-born chef-owner Michi Kikuchi does serve sushi, a sweeping glance around the tables reveals where his heart really is: in heaping rice & noodle bowls, steaming soups & stir-fries — the stuff that sticks to your ribs. In fact, to an Oklahoma girl like me and my Iowa-born-and-bred sweetheart, much of the repertoire looked startlingly familiar.

Take the hayashi. Described simply as “hashed beef, onion cooked Brown sauce,”

it’s virtually indistinguishable from shredded, barbecued brisket, smothered in a rich, tangy tomato gravy. Sure, it’s served à la carte with rice, not slopped on a bun alongside fries, & the fat is unapologetically intact rather than trimmed. But the overall effect was to transport me to the downhome rib shacks of my youth.

The same went for my love’s katsu-karē (literally, “cutlet curry”). After all, breaded, fried pork tenderloin is an Iowa tradition; this dish is precisely that, only it’s covered in a thick, mild, cumin-&-turmeric-dominated curry sauce, introduced to Japan by the British following their colonization of India.

And so it goes: from classic sukiyaki (a type of hot pot) & teriyaki (meat or fish grilled and coated in a sweet soy sauce) to ramen & dumplings (both pan-fried gyoza & steamed shumai), KiKi’s menu is one big comfort zone. But if you’re determined to step out of it, try the sanma shioyaki.

It’s a simple enough dish: a pair of saury, also known as mackerel pike, grilled and&served whole with nothing but a scoop of fresh grated daikon & a slice of lemon. (Note that in Japan, sudachi, a type of native citrus, is the more common garnish.) But it’s not for the squeamish insofar as digging in with chopsticks invariably means coming up with some guts & bones along with the pungent, oily, succulent flesh & blackened, crackling skin.

Such soulful cooking is only enhanced by the atmosphere. Though tiny — with maybe 10 or 12 tables and booths flanked by a barely-there sushi bar — the dining room is warm & quaint, all blond wood & brightly lacquered bric-a-brac.

Factor in surprisingly quick service, & you’ve got a solid pick for a casual date, intimate but not so romantic that you’ll regret having tangled with fish innards.

Kikis Japanese Casual Dining 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

This Week (& Last) on Gorging Global: Viejo Domingo & Sushi Tora

In case you missed it in all the turkey-feathered chaos, last week’s column over at Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful featured Sushi Tora in Boulder, where new chef Ray Srisamer is taking the traditional Japanese repertoire in contemporary directions, as with this shiitake, oyster mushroom & shiso leaf tempura accompanied by green tea salt for dipping:

This week, I turn to Argentine cuisine, stuffing my face with beef at the few-month-old Viejo Domingo on 38th, this garlicky beef empanada being just the beginning:

Check ‘em out, answer the Questions of the Week, and join my quest to discover Denver’s globe-spanning gastronomical wonders!

This Is The Last Time I Write This Review: John Holly’s Asian Bistro

A long time ago, an old friend of mine whom my thoughts are always with & who remains my favorite living poet, Chelsey Minnis, wrote a poem that began with the line “This is the last time I write about the moon.”

That will probably be the most interesting thing I say in this blogpost, & the recommendation that you read her work will be the most satisfying recommendation I make.

Because how many times can I get delivery from some pan-Asian joint I know is going to be so-so to begin with, find it to be so-so indeed, & write a so-so review about it? We’ll see, I guess. For now, I’m saying no more times. Oh good, it’s 5 o’clock.

***

Now I have a glass of wine, & I’m going to try to pull this off in the sudden haze of melancholy. There don’t appear to be many pro reviews of John Holly’s Asian Bistro; the fact that Warren Byrne supposedly liked it 8 years ago means next to nothing to me. Then again, the fact that there aren’t many pro reviews means next to nothing to me; we all have our moments when we just need someone to feed us hassle-free in our own homes, & the majority of eateries that provide such door-to-door service are the ones whose so-so-ness is a given. So if no one else is going to bother, I might as well; while quality matters less than convenience in said moments, it’s still nice to know which dishes might taste a little better than which others.

This is the filling for the lettuce-wrapped chicken. The lettuce isn’t pictured, since I assume you know what lettuce looks like. I’d have taken a picture if it had been wilted or rusted or otherwise deficient, but it wasn’t.

JHchickenlettucewraps
It’s listed as hot & spicy on the menu; it’s neither hot nor spicy (not that I’m sure what the difference is). But it isn’t bland either, or worse, too sweet; it’s a standard brown sauce marked by a touch of sweet chili smothering ground chicken, peas, red peppers & onion.

Speaking of things I’m not sure about…well, I could go on forever, but I was definitely curious as to how much lobster could possibly be included in a $3 lobster spring roll. I’m still not sure. Somewhere between “not very much” & “a tad more than not very much. Or not.” Could be a krabsticky version of lobster, or a mixture of real lobster & krab. In any case it isn’t pure lobster meat.

JHlobsterroll JHlobsterroll2

Which isn’t, again, to say it’s bad; given a warm, crispy-crunchy shell shiny with just enough grease & brain-clearing hot mustard as foils for the mildly sweet whatever, how could it be?

Its clear superior, however, is the steamed roll with beef.

JHbeefroll
To be clear, while the roll as a whole is steamed, the strips of beef inside are nice & fried with chunks of egg, cabbage, whole green beans & onion. I could make a meal of a few of these. Granted, I could make that same meal at home, but so what? The point is it’s nice not to have to.

Holly’s Lamb, according to the menu, is “sliced top round lamb…stirfried with low-sodium oyster sauce & a pinch of black pepper & cumin seed.” I like salt. Lots of salt. When I was little I’d pour a mound onto my palm & lick it off. I drink pickle juice. Etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this dish,

JHlamb

which isn’t salt-free, rest assured; the sauce is richly savory, & the chunks of meat, red onion, red pepper & snowpeas generous.

As for the sushi, even keeping in mind that I was not in the hands of a master itamae here but chefs of the pile-&-stuff-&-pile-some-more school of American maki, I still thought the rolls I ordered were too much. Granted, I ordered ‘em; but that’s the kind of sucker for umeboshi (pickled plum) & shiso leaf I am: the roll on the left is the Kimberly, filled with salmon, avocado & asparagus, topped with seared albacore, & supposedly the ume was in there somewhere too. The roll on the top right is the Osaka, filled with spicy tuna & avocado & topped with mackerel, egg, & shiso. (On the lower right is Japanese squash.)

JHsushi
I definitely didn’t see, nor did I taste, all of the listed ingredients, & the fact that I don’t know whether that’s because the combos were just too busy or some things were actually left off is the whole problem. As it was the rolls were coming apart a bit at the seams.

JHsushi2
In sum: Not great, not bad, okay for weeknight delivery, like 100 other places I’ve covered.

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Japanese Cheesesteak, Den Deli

A day late & way more than a dollar short: it’s a sorry state to be in for too long, a sludge whence I emerge only when grubbing something groovy—or the Director makes me laugh, or the Celtics spank the Lakers. You know, the lovely little things life’s made of.

And speaking of Kobe in a pile of shiitake, it was this Kobe-shiitake mixture that made everything OK enough to get my kudos as Dish of the Week 5/31–6/6.

DDcheesesteak
Whether the goodly amount of thick sliced, perfectly medium-rare beef on Den Deli’s so-called Kobe cheesesteak is actually certified Kobe or merely Wagyu, I couldn’t say; while the Kizaki brothers are certainly known for sourcing quality ingredients, the former is notoriously expensive, & this isn’t. It’s succulent in any case, served on a buttered hoagie roll with grilled onions, shiitakes & the lusciously strange combo of provolone & wasabi mayo that really sets it apart.

The sandwich comes with either fries or potato salad; the latter’s obviously the better choice, housemade with chunks of ham, cukes, carrots & an extra squiggle of mayo. For more on the goodies this sub shop-meets-noodle bar-meets-seafood market dishes up on Old South Pearl, click here.

Dish of the 8-Day Week: Unagi Tojimono at Domo

Grubbing & shrugging, grubbing & shrugging. Though I pigged out plenty last week, more on which to come, as Sunday rolled around I just couldn’t get whipped up enough about any of it to name a Dish of the Week. By Monday I knew why—I was destined to wait for a taste of an old favorite: Domo‘s tojimono.

Domoomelet2

To Google the word is to get the sense chef-owner Gaku Homma made it up; it only appears in connection with his restaurant. As it’s served in the breathtaking cabin of wood & stone & antique bric-a-brac or in the garden out back (for more views, along with a full review, click here),
P1060212

it’s essentially a cross between an omelet & soup. With a choice of both broth base & meat, smart cookie that I am, I went for miso & eel, the inherent sweet muskiness of each of which suffused the ragged-creamy eggs ringed by shiitakes, bok choy & wakame. Earth & watery depths, earth & watery depths.