Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Where I’ve Been: Zagat Denver

You may have noticed I’m not posting here much of late; that’s because I’m doing it all over at Zagat’s new Denver blog instead. The site’s still new and tender like a baby, but check it out for stories galore, and I hope you’ll follow me @ZagatDenver!

Hanna Ranch Premiere & Brunch Panel This Weekend!

As the Post’s Lisa Kennedy reported earlier this week, Hanna Ranch—a documentary about the demise of traditional family ranching, centered on Colorado cattleman Kirk Hanna—premieres tomorrow at the Starz Denver Film Fest; tickets are still available here (note advance tix for next week’s screening are already sold out).

What’s more, the associated “Land That Feeds Us” panel & brunch, scheduled for Sunday noon at RedLine, should be a capital-E experience: not only will producer Eric Schlosser—that’s right, the author of Fast Food Nation, who also co-produced Food Inc.—be in attendance, but Daniel Asher, culinary director of Root Down & Linger, will be doing the dining honors. Think globally, chow down locally, etc.

A Look at Il Pastaio, via Boulder Weekly

Since former Boulder Weekly correspondent Clay Fong had already covered the trio of lasagnas that features on the lunchtime buffet at rightly beloved Italian café Il Pastaio back in 2010, I focused on other favorites in my review, now live on the publication’s website.

Which doesn’t mean I could resist a bite of the beef-filled version (there’s also turkey & veggie)

before my companion devoured it, & before I did the same to the rigatoni described in the article.

That there’s a heck of a deal for 10 bucks. To give you a full account of the cafeteria-style offerings, we could also have opted for classic sausage & peppers or chicken Marsala as an entrée, as well as Costa Rican black beans & rice, roasted sweet potatoes, scalloped potatoes, sautéed zucchini, or carrots instead of the new potatoes & broccoli we chose as sides.

Dinner, though still casual, is a sit-down affair, starting with the giant rolls also provided at lunch

& continuing through antipasti like these—lest you need a reminder of the delights inherent in the Italian language, by the way, cauliflower with butter & almonds translates as cavolfiore al burro e mandorle

& onward through primi & secondi piatti like this sausage ravioli in tomato cream & this eggplant parmesan, which comes with your choice of pasta (e.g., gnocchi in pesto cream).

Though I skipped dessert, all your old friends are here: tiramisù, cannoli, spumoni.

Happy reading, happy eating!

Il Pastaio on Urbanspoon

A Look at the Beehive, via Boulder Weekly

My review of farm-to-table haunt the Beehive is now live at Boulder Weekly; click here to read all about such signature dishes as the gaufrettes with spicy aioli & deviled eggs (along with cold dilled leek-potato soup):

gougères & devils on horseback (blue cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates);

the Harvest, a chunky, egg-topped vegetable stew over polenta, & potted-salmon salad;

& the Angus burger with housemade sweet pickles,

as well as this lovely lemon-&-raspberry profiterole.

I didn’t have as much room in the review to as I’d have liked to compliment Beehive’s bar program, but it’s a smart one, with a number of wines to pique the more-serious drinker’s interest plus some well-thought-out seasonal cocktails. You’ll get some idea of the offerings here—but don’t use the website for meal planning, as it doesn’t reflect the ever-changing reality on the ground. That’s not a complaint, or at least not a realistic one; sample menus are to be expected from restaurateurs whose kitchens revolve around daily market finds. Just a heads up.

Beehive on Urbanspoon

Newsflash: Reviews at Boulder Weekly, A Taste of Iceland, Harvest Week

So, looks like I’ll be doing some restaurant reviews here & there for Boulder Weekly; you can check out my debut here, wherein I give Pupusas Sabor Hispano a thorough going over. This is just a sampling of the results:

Behold the wacky pacaya, & behind it a fireball disguised as a dip 

Empanadas, dissected, including chicharrón & fiddlehead fern with cheese

Angela’s Plate, featuring a green-bean relleno

While you’re waiting, no doubt breathlessly, for my next installment, a couple of major events down here in Denver next week can tide you over:

A Taste of Iceland at Coohills & 3 Kings. You’ll find details about this series of Nordic isle-inspired prix-fixe dinners, cocktail classes & concerts here; for a full menu, go here. The dessert alone sounds reservation-worthy.

Harvest Week. Yeah, it’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers! As usual, among Eat Denver’s lineup of blowout bashes will surely be some for the record books.

 

 

CapRock Farm Bar Set to Roll

At the center of The Source—which continues to shape up in ways that suggest the reality will match the ambitious vision for this urban marketplace (see also my report on the opening of Cantina Comida)—is an island bar, flanked by a handful of cafe tables, called CapRock Farm Bar.

(Can you spot the rock-star chef in this snap? Here’s a hint. Here’s another)

Behind the venture is Lance Hanson, owner of organic/biodynamic Hotchkiss winery Jack Rabbit Hill as well as Peak Spirits Farm Distillery, whose list of nips & nibbles (click to enlarge)

is as neat & clean as his grappas, of which I’ve long been a huge fan—though it’s his celebrated gin, whose key botanicals make for a nifty display on 1 corner of the bar,

that stars in the majority of the libations.

Like a good neighbor, Mondo Market is there

to provide the edibles—

& sell me a bottle of the locally, organically made Elevation Ketchup in the process, which I first fell for at Punch Bowl Social—as is Babette’s Artisan Breads.

The grand opening’s Tuesday; to whet your thirst, here’s the text of an article I wrote about Hanson’s grappa a couple of years ago for the now-defunct Denver Magazine.

***
Grappa. Even the word is hard to swallow; it sounds like something that’s going to grab hold of your gullet and wring it out with gusto. Admittedly, that’s a fairly accurate description of the role grappa has played in the Italian diet for centuries. Distilled from the pomace of skins, stems, and seeds left behind in a wine press, this grape-based spirit has historically amounted to firewater — good for digestion but rough on the palate. Since the 1970s, however, its reputation has improved markedly, thanks to the efforts of Italian producers who began incorporating single varietals and small-batch techniques to yield sipping grappas every bit as fine as France’s great marcs, or clear brandies (which is essentially what they are).

Here in the States, where the European tradition of after-dinner digestifs is finally catching on, grappa is slowly but surely earning its place among the liqueurs, cognacs, and dessert wines with which we’re already familiar. It’s even being produced domestically nowadays; in fact, Peak Spirits, the acclaimed Colorado distiller behind CapRock, makes five — one of which, distilled from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (two of the three varietals used in Champagne), has become my nightcap of choice.

“Grappa was a slam dunk for us,” says Lance Hanson, who, with his wife, Anna, owns Peak Spirits and Jack Rabbit Hill Winery in Hotchkiss. “Here we were making wine; we had the material. And I have a soft spot for grappa, because it’s a fun challenge — what you get is totally different” than the wine of which it’s a byproduct. Like his Chardonnay and Riesling grappas, Hanson’s Pinot blend is made in a pot still using only estate-grown grapes. “While we wanted to preserve some of the cherry and dark-berry aromas that are in the wine, we were hoping for a woodsy spiciness” from the distillation process, he says. The result “is very true to the character of the fruit.” Remarkable smoothness is its hallmark, along with a hint of herbs and flowers on the nose; you can drink it neat in copitas (sherry glasses), or add a splash to espresso to yield what Italians call caffè corretto—“coffee the correct way.”

Mea Culpa: Panzano’s Tribute to Brian Polcyn

First of all, it’s been years since I’ve read Michael Ruhlman’s classics on chef training, The Making of a Chef & The Soul of a Chef, so I had no memory that the larger-than-life character

leading the charcuterie-making presentation that preceded the wine dinner held in his honor last Sunday at Panzano was also depicted so colorfully in those pages. If I had, I might’ve minded my Ps & Qs better at the media table where I sat next to Brian Polcyn & his wife—because second of all, at meal’s end he walked over to me, squeezed my shoulder, & proclaimed me the heaviest drinker at the table. That’s a label I’d generally wear proudly, but when you’re being singled out for sloppiness by no lesser a sharp-eyed perfectionist than the author (with Ruhlman himself) of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, & Curing & Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curingit’s a little unnerving.

I blame it on Panzano’s ever-suave GM, Josh Mayo, as I assume it was he who created the wine pairings for the multi-course meal—most notably a wonderfully balanced 2011 Rocca dei Leoni Falanghina Villa Matilde & the oh-so-juicy sparkling red, Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui Pineto, that came with dessert.

As for the food, well, what do you expect? The range of plates below should serve as a reminder to visit & revisit not only Panzano (which I do semiregularly anyway) but also YaYa’s Euro Bistro, Beast + Bottle & Fuel Café. Though I didn’t feel comfortable disrupting the festive flow of the lobby reception to snap pics of Aaron Whitcomb’s passed apps, the tuna speck with black-garlic aioli; sausage-stuffed, barbecued quail legs; & lamb’s headcheese convinced me I need to make a point of getting out to his Greenwood Village kitchen. Who’s with me?

And I’m embarrassed to admit that, though I always got a kick out of Paul Reilly’s now-defunct Encore on Colfax & I now live around the corner from his new hot spot, I’ve yet to get there. The rustic spiced jagerwurst over beet-green pierogi with apple-beet vinaigrette acted as a sharp rebuke to that oversight.

Cotechino sausage atop lentils & grilled radicchio with pickled mustard seeds & rye-beer jam illustrated the understated flair that is Bob Blair’s calling card.

And robust playfulness has long been Elise Wiggins’ hallmark: accompanying her roast duck roulade with hazelnuts & butternut squash was an unassuming little sphere that surprised with bursts of foie gras & orange-cranberry filling.

Ditto the cranberry-&-pistachio-studded chocolate adorably shaped to resemble salami.

Nearly a week after the event, I’m left with the ironic sense that, for a food writer, I don’t get out enough lately, being too busy food writing! Such a great time to be part of the Denver dining scene, yet so little time to do it the way it deserves to be done…

 

Comida Cantina at The Source: Ready to Rock Your Whole Face Off

You’ve long worshipped at the wheels of Tina, Rayme Rossello’s big pink taco truck; perhaps you’ve hit up the Longmont brick & mortar upon occasion, only to wish it was just a smidge closer to the downtown action. Amigos—insert wild guitar lick here—THAT DAY HAS COME. Denver’s own Comida Cantina—the first outlet to arrive at The Source, that ultra-cool one-stop shop of boutique purveyors you’ve been hearing about, which over the next month will see the launch of Peak Spirits’ CapRock Farm Bar and a liquor shop, The Proper Pour; cult brewer Crooked StaveAcorn, the new restaurant from the geniuses behind Oak at Fourteenth; a cheese retailer called Mondo Market; Babette’s Artisan Breads, whose killer loaves you’ve encountered at Cured; & much more, including a butcher counter, florist & produce vendor—opens TODAY.

A few weeks hence, the chefs will begin to throw some specials into the mix, but otherwise the menu & the bar program are exactly the same as those of the flagship. So you can count on the same attention to detail that has always distinguished every morsel & drop Rossello’s crew turns out—corporate hacks have shredded the integrity of the word artisanal, but remember when it meant something?—be it the use of Tender Belly bacon in the griddled tacos that also contain jalapeños & a cheese blend of cotija, smoked gouda & asadero;

the sourcing of fresh bolillo rolls from the aformentioned Babette’s for the tortas—in this case citrus-&-chile-marinated fish, served alongside veggie escabeche;

the fact that the refritos on the nachos—presented almost more like a casserole—are cooked in housemade chicken broth & a touch of lard;

or the perfection that is the flan, which shows not an ounce of the gelatinousness of lesser versions, just creamy caramel richness:

It all adds up to the truth about Mexican cookery, whose essence is complex & even subtle—not despite but precisely because spice is so key to its balancing act. Comida brings the color & the freshness as well as the fire every step of the way—as with the watermelon-jalapeño margarita that will kick you where it counts (behind it are the hot fried tortillas—not chips, whole rounds—with guacamole).

As with the housemade crema studded with more jalapeños & cucumber, along with all the other salsas offered here, including an eye-popping carrot habañero & sprightly pineapple pico de gallo.

And these tostadas stuffed with roasted chicken & poblanos.

And the savory, tequila-based, tomatillo-&-guava-laced Cabana.

Even these chocolate-chip cookies, alongside Mexican wedding cookies, are spiked with rum.

Gorditas, quesadillas, sides that show Rossello’s Southern roots—jalapeño grits. smoked gouda-sweet potato mash—& virgin beverages like housemade horchata & aguas frescas round out the menu, while the cocktail program is supplemented by beers, wines & sipping tequilas & mezcals.

This place is gonna earn every kudo it elicits.

Comida Cantina on Urbanspoon

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.

IMPORTANT UPDATE! re Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table Release Party, 8/25

Word to the crew who plans to attend the reception a week from Sun., 5pm at Trillium: as noted, reservations MUST be made in advance by calling the restaurant at 303-379-9759. So please do—I’d love to see your bright & shiny faces!