Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Scintillating Stuff: Ferrari Wine Dinner at Barolo Grill

True crime confession: before last Thurs., I’d only been to Barolo Grill for a bite at the bar. But I’d long hankered to go full splurge—& now that I’ve had the opportunity on someone else’s dime, I’m gung-ho to repeat the process on my own major chunk of change. Though what follows is a photo essay, not a review (which I’ll save for said return trip), that should tell you what I thought of the luxe northern-Italian longtimer.

The occasion: a visit from Marcello Lunelli of Ferrari, which makes traditional-method sparkling wines from the Trento DOC. As fellow guest Claire Walter of Culinary Colorado has pointed out, most Americans don’t realize Italy has a tradition of bubbly outside of Prosecco & Asti, but indeed it does, mostly in northern regions where the climate is best suited to its production—including that of sparkling reds like Lambrusco & Brachetto d’Acqui. Unlike all those examples, which contain indigenous grapes, Trento wines follow the Champagne model: only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier & to a lesser extent Pinot Blanc are allowed. (For more on the appellation, you can purchase a copy of the article we at Sommelier Journal ran back in Feb. here.)

What many casual wine drinkers also don’t realize is that bubbly is not just a celebratory aperitif—on the contrary, it’s got major pride of place on the table, as my piece on summer sparklers for Imbibe explains. I mean, you might not want to serve an extra-brut blanc de blancs with BBQ brisket, but there’s a style for virtually every dish you can think of. And if you’re used to classic profiles marked by brioche, lemon, pear, apple, chalk & so on, you might be surprised to discover they can possess notes that run from smoke & herbs to truffles, Parmesan rind, brine & salted caramel: I detected all that & more (in various permutations) both in Ferrari’s 2006 Perlé bottlings, the Rosé & the Blanc de Noirs, & in its tremendous Riserve del Fondatori Giulio, especially the 1994 & 1993. Those were just 4 of the 10 wines we sampled throughout our 7-course dinner, preceded by an amuse bouche of house-smoked salmon with crème fraîche & caviar

& continuing apace with a truffled egg custard so silken & intensely pure it was like I was eating an egg for the first time. I don’t think I’ll be able to put another anywhere near my mouth for some time.

Equally gorgeous was the foie gras terrine with peaches so ripe they were practically papayas, as well as dots of pistachio cream.

And quenelles of baccalà—salt cod pureed with olive oil—accompanied by tempura artichoke, pea puree & black-garlic aioli.

An eloquently minimalist salad of raw crimini, chanterelle & royal trumpet mushrooms.

Plin, a ravioli-like pasta from Piedmont, stuffed with rabbit sausage over cardamom-spiced carrot puree.

The main event: chef Darrel Truett’s take on cassoulet starring cabbage, white beans, seared halibut cheek, grilled prawn & a disk of wonderfully delicate seafood sausage—primarily scallop, it seemed, surrounded by a pretty vegetable confetti.

And finally, the most limpid vanilla-bean panna cotta with local honey & microbasil.

All around, a superb experience. Now I’m on a quest to determine if it’s this good on average.

Barolo Grill on Urbanspoon

Save the Date: Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table Release Party, 8/25

It’s almost here: this collection of NEARLY 80 recipes from LITERALLY DOZENS of your favorite area restaurants & bars, edited & annotated by moi & illustrated with dreamy photos by Christopher Cina, comes out next month.

To celebrate its release, dish publicity has organized a book-signing party at Trillium, where featured chef & host Ryan Leinonen will serve up signature cocktails & hors d’oeuvres; the price of entry includes, of course, your very own shiny new copy of Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table.

Herewith the deets; I’d be honored to see you there!

Where: 2134 Larimer Street

When: Sunday, August 25, 5pm

Cost: $40 plus tax/tip

RSVP: 303-379-9759

Dish of the Week: Foie Gras-Plantain Mofongo Shumai on Zengo’s Test Kitchen Menu

Wowee. When I was invited in to Zengo recently to check out the specials on its rotating Test Kitchen menu—whereby the crew behind globetrotting restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s Asian Fusion showcase focuses on 2 specific culinary centers, currently Hong Kong & Puerto Rico—I was happy to do so; after all, chef Clint Wangsnes has proven a rather-undersung talent since he’s been on board. But I didn’t know just how happy I’d be once these shumai passed my lips.

At 1st nibble, I was almost disappointed; silken as the pouches were, & as much as I always love the earthy zing of the Chinese black vinegar they were perched in, I could only discern ground pork. But upon the 2nd, they positively blossomed with the velvety-smooth yet distinct savor of foie & green plantain—a combination that might’ve have been jarring in less-deft hands.

A sizeable portion of pork ribs whose tangy-sweet marinade blended ingredients of adobo & sweet-&-sour sauces was satisfying as well—the tender, plentiful meat coming clean off the bone alongside fluffy, more-please potato croquettes stuffed with bacon & jack cheese; chayote slaw reminiscent of green-papaya salad added cool contrast.

Of the 2 Test Kitchen entrées, I preferred the plump, moist Hong Kong roast chicken with “Shaoxing tomatoes”—blistered little pops of juicy fruit that I’m guessing were marinated in the namesake rice wine—over Moros y Cristianos, i.e. black beans & white rice (the un-PC translation is “Moors & Christians”); the overall effect was as vibrant as it looked on the plate, with its pool of jus & herbed oil & its heap of Chinese broccoli.

Mind you, the gorgeous whole crispy fried fish was no slouch, but it was a lot for the palate to tackle, served in a funky black-bean vinaigrette over a puree of malanga that evoked Hawaii’s infamous poi—meaning that it’s probably an acquired taste. If you’re down with eye sockets & starch, then by all means.

Besides, the effervescent, floral lychee Bellini will help lighten the sensory load.

You’ve really got to respect Zengo’s efforts to evolve & stay relevant on the very fast-moving dining scene that it helped to rev here in Denver—especially considering its high sizzle-to-fizzle rate.

Dish of the Week: Jax Glendale’s Pickled Fried Green Tomatoes (& oh so much more!)

Breaking the mold of the downtown & Boulder branches, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar’s 4th location at the edge of Cherry Creek in Glendale (there’s also one in Fort Collins) is sleeker, bigger & brighter than its predecessors.

It also differs in that it’s open for lunch, which is when I was there for a media preview this week. If, like me, you’re a longtime fan of exec chef Sheila Lucero & her crew (Duane Walker oversees the kitchen here), the sheer verve of the seasonal seafood will come as no surprise, but the item I’m dreaming about today comes from the land rather than the sea: the pickled & fried green tomatoes accompanying this Southern-inflected dish of grilled shrimp over a vibrant succotash-like mixture of corn, favas, greens, & smoked ham plus a dash of classic rémoulade.

Provided the batter is crisp & well seasoned, fried green tomatoes are always a treat—but these go to 11 thanks to the hit of acid (& another of creamy sweetness should you swipe the disks through the sauce).

My fellow guests & I were also loudly smitten with the ultra-buttery brioche croutons on the Caesaresque grilled-romaine salad,

but the whole thing was deliciously funky, from the frico-like grana padano crackers to the egg-&-anchovy-based mound of gribiche.

Grana padano also infuses the broth in which lobster ravioli are immersed & topped with arugula pesto; if you’ve never sipped cheese essence before, I highly recommend it. It is choice, as Ferris Bueller would say.

Another favorite, this one a surprise: the flourless chocolate cake with orange chantilly (‘in other words, whipped cream,” laughed pastry chef Jennifer Helmore Lewis).

I usually ignore the still-ubiquitous 100-year-old fad that is flourless chocolate cake, but when it’s good—darkly rich, brownie-like, not too sweet—it’s really good, & all the better for the spike of cool citrus.

Also reveled in the tender-crumbed, salty-sweet, sugar-dusted corn fritters with caramel corn & bourbon-toffee sauce.

And though those were the standouts in my book, I didn’t try anything I didn’t genuinely like, from the peppercorn-crusted & perfectly seared ahi tuna with sticky rice

& the moist crème fraîche-roasted salmon over “beet-braised’ kohlrabi

to the lovely old-fashioned banana split

& springy, zingy monkey bread topped with Stranahan’s whiskey-brickle ice cream (all the ice creams presently come from Sweet Action).

In short, Jax is raring to go over here, & the second-floor bar, Hi*Jax, is soon to follow (on the 4th to be exact). You’d best be ready to live it up.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Coming up roses—& blondes!—at Elway’s Pink Patio Party

Granted, I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby, or a polo match, or a cotillon, but I’ve never seen so many yellow-headed, pink-clad dames in one place before—a number of whom I recognized from step aerobics sessions at 24 Hour Fitness. Heh. Like me, they were at Elway’s Cherry Creek on Wed. to sample some 55 rosés from 10 different local distributors so that this natty gent, sommelier Adam Vance,

                                                          (photo by John Imbergamo)

could get some input before choosing 3 for a flight of 2-oz. pours he’s putting on the summer wine list. The winners will also be available by the full glass & bottle:

2012 Merryvale Starmont Rosé, California
2012 Remy Pannier Rosé d’Anjou, Loire Valley
2012 Saint Roch Cotes du Provence Rosé

Vance told me that the Merryvale in particular was as fit for a steakhouse as rosés get & recommended it with a burger, so look for that one next time you’re bellied up alongside my gym classmates at the ever-packed bar downing some sliders.

Me, I didn’t expect my top picks to go very far, because they’d never sell—I seek out the weird stuff for better or worse. Take the Sangiovese-based 2012 bottling from Waterbrook in Washington, of all places; it can’t be all that easy to coax sufficient ripeness out of Tuscany’s famed grape there. Or Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare, a slightly savory blend of multiple Rhône grapes. Interesting stuff, fun evening, good time as any to think & drink pink…

Root25 Taphouse & Kitchen Breaks Ground in the DTC

I rarely have cause to be sniffing around the DTC, but after an invite to the media preview for this brewcentric newcomer in the Hyatt Regency, I took a glance at the goods & liked what I saw—not only a serious collection of local beers, both on tap & in bottle, but also a gastropubby menu that’s itself drenched in booze. I counted some 17 alcohol-infused dishes, from the chocolate malt-honey butter on the buttermilk pancakes for breakfast & the Avery White Rascal salad dressing to the chorizo-IPA consommé, beef-cheek pastrami sandwich slapped with Vodka 14 aioli, & hops-smoked pork shortrib with malted cranberry-bean puree & apple-mustard marmalade. And I liked it all no less when I saw it for myself; hotel director of food & beverage Ben Hardaway admitted to me that he’d had to make some noise to realize his vision in the face of corporate hesitation, but he did it. Good on him.

For this casual premiere, the team graciously put the spotlight on their purveyors above all—take this salad bar courtesy of Grower’s Organic, featuring some of the prettiest black radishes, baby carrots & teardrop tomatoes I do believe I’ve ever seen.

Or this spread of locally produced salumi & cheeses (think Continental Sausage, Avalanche, etc.), plus housemade accompaniments. That pan-fried pancetta in the foreground? I want some more RIGHT NOW. I want to wrap this apple I’m eating in it. I’m not even one of those bacon freaks who won’t give it a rest already, but the pancetta-apple scale definitely tips in favor of crispy pork product.

I didn’t manage to get around to the prime-rib carving station (but the Director, who adores the stuff—RIP Rodney’s—raved about it). Why not? Because I was too busy snarfing up the sandwiches: BLTs with house-cured bacon, green tomatoes, smoked cheddar, & cipollina aioli; grilled cheddar-&-swiss with roasted tomatoes, onions, arugula, & amber ale-infused Dijon mustard;

& the RIGHT ON whiskey barrel-smoked beef brisket with rutabaga sauerkraut & Hazel Dell mushroom ketchup on jalapeño-cheddar bread. One of those surprises that makes your pupils dilate—you think you’re biting into one standard thing that turns out to be a whole other rainbow thing. (It didn’t hurt that the delish cocktail I’d paired with it was whipped up by none other than that old smoothie Sean Kenyon, on hand to guest bartend.)

I was also loading up on wings & drumettes, for which the kitchen goes to town. The chicken itself is malt-roasted; then it’s coated in 3 different sauces—Wynkoop Black Lager buffalo, Left Hand Milk Stout BBQ, & spicy Dry Dock Apricot Blonde; finally, it’s served with housemade ranch & ridiculously chunky, good-quality blue-cheese dressing.

Dessert was a charm offensive of assorted Mason-jar pies, eclairs, & truffles.

And while the bartenders kept the flow of suds from Funkwerks, Elevation, Odell, Avery, Great Divide, Upslope & other beloved locals going, I was tickled to see their investment in a barrel-aged cocktail program—there must’ve been 8 or 10 of these on the counter for sampling (click to read the labels).

It goes without saying that you wouldn’t expect such passionate, community-conscious effort from a hotel oriented toward business travelers. Here’s hoping these guys get the crowd they aim to cater to.

Root 25 Taphouse & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Now Open! Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria

Think of the latest outpost in Frank Bonanno‘s sprawling empire, located way down south at the Park Meadows Mall, as a breezier, more streamlined, family-friendlier Osteria Marco. Though smaller, the menu shares obvious elements with that of its older sibling, including an assortment of formaggio fatto in casa & imported salumi, a few salads & panini, & above all pizza, here baked in a custom-built Italian oven. But you also got your crudo & your fritto—that is, raw & fried—selections, & at a family-&-friends preview this week I started with one of each as a real-world compromise to starting with all of each (my appetite floating in a whole other dimension as it does).

We all reach a point where we’ve had our fill of a trend: beets, brussels sprouts, marrow, molten chocolate, Fernet Branca, what have you. Because it’s our job to cover trends as they develop, food writers tend to reach that point well before the average diner. Then again, we also get over being over things quicker, I think—we’re reminded that before they become trends & after they cease to be, they’re just ingredients that have their time & place.

Take raw tuna. There are only so many ways to prepare it; I’ve had them all countless times, & since I’m usually on a mission to try the new & unusual, I tend to ignore it. I’m glad that, this time, I didn’t, because the sliced ahi crudo was terrific topped with a salad of chopped romaine, basil & olives in caper vinaigrette. Simple, straightforward, refreshing. I also liked the pan-fried polenta pictured with it below, though if I ordered it again I’d mix it up bite-for-bite with some house-cured lonza or something! Because why not!

As for the pies, come on—Bonanno’s probably been making pizza in his sleep since he was 12. Of course the crust boasts great structure, with crunch & pop & give; of course the toppings are premium. The question that remains is one of personal preference, so I can’t offer much guidance except to say that the fresh, velvety ricotta—which appears on 4 of the 10 combos—is just dreamy; it certainly made for a meltingly delicate counterpoint to the mozzarella, garlic, olive oil & chili flakes also on the punchy Walter White, along with, of course, Blue Sky crystals—I mean blue-cheese crumbles! Heh.

Meanwhile, earthy accents highlighted the overall lusciousness of my companion’s wild-mushroom pizza with béchamel, robiola, & truffle oil,

but the pie I’m jonesing to try next combines fontina, ricotta & sausage with broccoli rabe & garlic butter, which sounds like just the right balance between salty juiciness & jolts of bitterness.

Finally, Osteria Marco’s butterscotch bread pudding has made the trek to Lone Tree intact; it’s a springy, peachy take on a typically heavy dessert.

In short, it’s heartening to see an independent chef bringing octopus, burrata & Aperol spritzes to the ‘burbs, damn the old “will it play in Peoria?” dilemma. Here’s betting it will, at that.

Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Preview: Lunch Launched at Central Bistro & Bar

Last I gave Central Bistro & Bar some love, Lance Barto was heading up the kitchen; now Gerard Strong’s at the helm, & the CIA-trained Hudson Valley native is looking every bit as sharp as his predecessor. I had ample opportunity to arrive at that conclusion: the media preview of the lunch menu, which is now being served Wed.-Fri., included a sample of every. single. dish thereon (with the exception of the ice-cream sampler). Two days hence, I think I’m about halfway done digesting the 16-course meal.

Among them, there were only a couple items I could’ve taken or left—most made my eyes shiny & wide. Here’s a look-see, with my very very favorites in bold:

Dungeness crab salad with pomelo, avocado & housemade herbed yogurt

Caesar salad with a sprinkling of prosciutto bits; save some croutons for dipping into

the preserved tomato soup, the depth of whose concentration goes way beyond the bottom of the bowl

Beautifully nuanced cream of asparagus soup with green garlic & chives

Duck-fat chicken-salad sandwich on sourdough with a touch of apple & petal-delicate seasoned potato chips (they’re cut on the meat slicer)

More of those incredible chips alongside the roasted pork sandwich with charred onion, pickled red jalapeños & garlic aioli—the shaved meat is so impressively tender & gently seasoned—& the boxcar burger, easily as good as any of its kind (paired with fries, aioli & ketchup)

Central tartine with mushroom ragu, white cheddar, sunnyside egg—a beauty, eh?

The ubiquitous chicken & waffle with sausage gravy

Crab mac & cheese, unusually sprightly with mascarpone & pepper relish

Steak frites: grilled bavette steak marinated in soy, sherry vinegar & green garlic, topped with oyster mushrooms & accompanied by fries daubed with blue cheese

Seasonal vegetarian selection, currently hand-cut pappardelle with maitake mushrooms, asparagus, kale, green garlic & parsley in a white wine-butter sauce

The signature Nutella waffle with banana butterscotch & pretzel ice cream

And the surprisingly light & springy sweet-potato cheesecake with spiced-crumb topping, pecans & whipped cream.

The bar’s doing some nifty things too, offering half-pours of all wines by the glass & lower-alcohol cocktails so you can keep your wits about you midday—including the gin-based, agave-sweetened Blueberry Lemon Light:

Do it to it, kids.

Central Bistro Bar on Urbanspoon

March Madness, Mile-High Style: So Much Fun Upcoming Stuff!

Press releases pass my virtual desk daily, but time & energy being what they are for a working girl—limited—I follow up only every so often, when I’m genuinely interested. And right now the intrigue is at critical mass.

3/9: First up, apparently Sat. is National Meatball Day. I don’t generally put much stock in those sorts of PR-driven holidays—doesn’t it seem like National Pancake Day is every other week?—but since there are actually some deals to be had out there, OK: FREE albóndigas with drink purchase at Al Lado! Conversely, FREE beer with the purchase of a meatball dish at Wazee Supper Club! Also, fine time to check out The Slotted Spoon! Or Axios Estiatorio, for that matter, which gives good keftedes:

For dessert, head over to The Shoppe between 5 & 10pm, when the inimitable Andrew Novick is hosting Sweet Tooth—an exhibit of 1000 photos of sweetmeats from his collection of, well, everything. (Give him the old Google treatment, you’ll see what I mean.) And he’s whipping up fruit punch-lemonade cupcakes for the occasion to boot:

3/10: Assuming you’re skirting the chaos of Cochon 555, Panzano is launching a Sunday-night, monthly-changing, 3-course prix-fixe Tour of Italy ($35 per person/$50 with wine pairings). Well, you know how I feel about Panzano—& as for the inaugural region of honor, Trentino-Alto Adige, I fell in heart with it & its hard Alpine twist on Mediterranean cuisine during a media tour a couple of years ago; so I reckon will you. Check this out: just one of myriad vendors at the market in Bolzano.

3/13: In conjunction with the Boulder Wine Merchant, Flagstaff House is featuring Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead at a 4-course dinner ($125 per person) that caught my eye because I attended a killer soirée at the LMR guesthouse myself while in St. Helena last fall. Swell stuff.

3/15: As always, St. Patrick’s Day is on like leprechaun at the LoDo branch of Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant, starting with its annual St. Baldrick’s Charity Event from 10am to 7 pm: a head-shaving, fund-raising extravaganza for kids battling cancer. You can donate to the participants daring to shear their locks for the cause or chow down & let Fadó do the honors, which is turning over 20% of all food sales. And you know what? I had the corned beef & cabbage last weekend, & it really hit the spot—ultra-thin-sliced & tender under white wine-mustard sauce, plus delightfully old-school buttered spuds.

Behind it is the open-faced breakfast sandwich served with these batter-fried potato nuggets that you just shouldn’t say no to on Sat. or Sun.; Fadó opens for paradegoers at 8am & keeps the party going all weekend with live music, dancing, kids’ activities, etc.

3/16: Also on Sat., from noon to 2pm, TAG|Raw Bar becomes the home of Raw University: in this month’s installment, attendees will learn to make sushi for a lunchtime feast while being treated to cocktails (so careful with those knives).

Staying home is not an option.

Old Major: Purebred

…You know, like the prize boar in Animal Farm, whose name chef-owner Justin Brunson (of Masterpiece Deli &, more to the point, Denver Bacon Company) took for his ridiculously hot new LoHi spot. Others (such as the Denver Post) have noted the aptness of the moniker insofar as Orwell’s pig leads the way to a livestock utopia. Granted, it doesn’t work out too well in the book, because power corrupts & all that. Still, the idea that a crew of serious, natural, “pure” talents—not only Brunson but GM/somm Jonathan Greschler, pastry chef Nadine Donovan, certified cicerone Ryan Conklin (ex-Euclid Hall), & bartender Courtney Wilson (ex-Williams & Graham down the street)—could come together to nurture a team of engaged pros in both the front & back of the house, where everyone pulls his or her own weight for the sake of what they’re calling “deformalized fine dining,” is an enlightened one. Such sense of community colors everything they do & includes everyone they work with, among them Infinite Monkey Theorem’s tireless Ben Parsons, who’s not only making their exclusive house wines—currently a Viognier-Roussane blend & a Malbec, though the blends will change with the input of the staff—but also lending them a garden plot at his facility.

And so far, it’s all working like a charm (maybe this one). As always when I’m writing about media tastings rather than meals I independently paid for, I’ll note that this isn’t technically a review & keep the in-depth analysis to a minimum. But after all the buzz & buildup, you already know Brunson’s bringing everything he’s got to the table: technical chops, playful sensibilities & grounded integrity.

Exhibit A is the smoked fish plate I already dubbed Dish of the Week. As for Exhibits B-Z: check out the hot, crusty, chewy yet soft pretzel rolls, made traditionally in a lye bath, with mustard butter.

And the black truffle-pistachio sausage over potato puree in a clean, clear pool of herbed escargot vinaigrette that positively lifted the whole.

The pan-roasted striped bass over leeks, turnips & beets, spritzed tableside with lemon verjus; an unpictured side of braised rapini proved an insightful accompaniment, picking up on the appealing bitterness of the charred skin.

The meltingly fat-edged, pan-seared pork chop with parsnip puree & chips, brussels sprouts, tableside-poured pork demiglace &, the highlight, a chunk of deep-fried guanciale (cheek meat)—which I strongly suggest should be offered in a bowl as a snack, chiccharón-style. Holy roly poly.

An unusually light & lovely, strawberry-foamed variation on baked Alaska.

Candied-bacon crème caramel.

And last but hardly least, a take-home jar of “pork butter”—basically rilletes, except sweetly meaty rather than intensely salty.

We sampled a couple of cocktails, too, most notably the ultra-smooth Fair Deal: blended Scotch, Drambuie & Cocchi Americano.

But I can’t wait to play with Greschler’s iPad wine list, which is quite the eclectic grab bag of old familiars & up & comers. Lemme at it.

Old Major on Urbanspoon