Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Heads Up: An Argentine puerta cerrada, the PlatteForum unGala, & a street-food sampler

Hey y’all, my dear friend Rebecca Caro, cooking instructor & author of the blog From Argentina With Love, has launched a puerta cerrada (closed-door) supper-club series at her pad, aka Casa Azul in Littleton. You can find the details for the 1st 5-course feast, which includes a sparkling cocktail & 2 glasses of wine, here; I was once invited over a for a Christmas feast of lechon (roast suckling pig), & it was some kind of awesome, so go forth & have a ball.

Another dear friend, Judy Anderson, is the founder of PlatteForum, an arts-education program for at-risk youth; to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it’s hosting the unGala at the Infinite Monkey Theorem’s new facility on Larimer—a dance party/fundraiser replete with live music & DJs, artists’ demos, IMT wines & eats from Carmine’s on Penn & the Denver Cupcake Truck. More info here.

Finally, the Tap Room at Broomfield’s Omni Interlocken Resort & Spa is holding the kind of promotion I usually ignore, but this one caught my eye for its cleverness. Called Simply Street Food, it’s based on a culinary competition among affiliated hotels around the world; from among some 100 recipes, 6 were chosen to be featured on a menu that’s being served through the end of March.

Apparently the Tap Room has been undergoing renovations for awhile; I’d never visited before I was invited in to check it out, so I can’t speak to its previous incarnation, but it’s a woody, handsome sports bar, with foosball & pool tables & soon-to-be 26 taps devoted to Colorado craft beers (16 at present)—about which bartender Nick Zepeda, a furniture designer by day, knows all. He was also quick with quips like “You could put that dip on a rock & it would taste good” (& “the smaller they are, the more there is to say,” which was hilarious at the time, though I don’t recall what it means anymore).

Hotel sous chef Troy Micheletti was a sweet host, bringing out samples on paper plates (food here seemed otherwise to have been served on regular dishware, so I guess it’s part of the theme) & explaining their origins. Here’s what my pal (& Twitter wit) Mo Smith & I happily noticed: the kitchen’s really adept at meat cookery. While the whole lineup was fun, in every case the protein stood out—from the lamb braised with citrus & ancho on the tostadas (pictured middle) & the duck confit in the fried empanadas with lightly pickled slaw & smoked-tomato mayo (bottom)

to the sumac-marinated musakhan chicken in the Palestinian-style pita sandwich with curried mustard & chili ketchup

& the short rib on the especially fine grilled sandwich with cheddar, arugula & Breadworks brioche (top). I mean really delectable meats!

The Southeast Asian-inspired char kway teow (bottom) was oversauced, & I’m guacamole seemed unnecessary on the Bahian acarajé de orixá (1st picture, top) with smoked shrimp. But the black-eyed pea fritter itself was nice, most & robust, the overall concept was a kick, & I have a thing for out-of-the-way hotel bars. So I may just get back there sometime, along with Baca at the Inverness.

Soft opening alert: Epernay

Though my arrival in Denver only slightly preceded chef Duy Pham’s departure, I’d certainly heard tell of his exploits, so I was psyched for the opportunity to preview Epernay, the sleekly swanky, slyly clubby downtown restaurant & lounge that’s opening on Tuesday to mark his return to our fair city.

Now that I’ve had it, my curiosity isn’t sated. That’s a compliment; rather, I’m all the more intrigued at the thought of returning on my own dime—or rather dollar (cheap eats these ain’t)—when it’s in full swing to answer certain questions. For instance, will the service be as solicitous when I’m not an invited guest & the house is packed? Because on Saturday night, every detail was certainly seen to, promptly & with care, right down to the charming delivery of sushi condiments. (As someone who practically drinks the stuff like water on a daily basis, I’m all for nursing a veritable coffeepot of soy sauce.)

And: will I need to manually count the number of Champagnes on its list & that of Corridor 44 to confirm whether Epernay’s claim to the largest selection in town is true (it’s named, after all, for a town in the region, albeit sans accent over the initial E)? Are they including non-Champagne labels, of which they offer a number, in their tally? Eh, I don’t really care, so long as they’ve got some bottles I want to drink—& they do, e.g. Laurent Perrier & a couple of Alsatian sparklers that pique my interest. (One suggestion though: can we get a few more grower producers on there, like Chartogne-Taillet or Jacques Defrance?! I’ll totally be your best friend! Hell, if you can score an older vintage or 2 of Defrance’s Rosé des Riceys—one of the region’s few still products—like the ’82 or ’75 I tried last fall on a visit,

I’ll be your bitch 4lyfe.)

And: will geoducks make regular appearances among your specials, as they did the other night in sushi form? Because yay!

No questions about the regular menu, only praise for the chef so far. Whole-grain mustard vinaigrette furnished this gorgeous chunk of pork belly over mac & cheese with an unexpected touch of elegance;

a dish of poached salmon came together beautifully with parsnip puree, pine-nut pesto & especially those seriously luscious sous vide tomatoes mixed with braised fennel;

my companion’s perfectly cooked strip loin over bacon-fat baby potatoes & brussels sprouts boasted a blue-cheese foam that really made the dish—a heavier sauce would’ve been too much;

& best of all, maple crème brûlée with candied pecans & bacon bits was rendered with surprising delicacy. (How many exceptions to the rule of my indifference to custard must I encounter before the rule is null?)

When I return for a review rather than a preview, though, I’ll be all about the sushi—the full list of which wasn’t available during the soft opening—& the sake; I actually like the looks of that selection better than I do the sparklers. Stay tuned.

Epernay Lounge on Urbanspoon

Last day alert: Get yourself to Bittersweet for Ian Kleinman’s doughnuts, Sat. 1/26!

You may have heard that The Inventing Room’s Ian Kleinman’s been doing a doughnut & coffee shop pop-up this week at Bittersweet; tomorrow morning from 6-11am is your last chance to get in on the goods—& you damn well should, because they are so very good.

The selection of 10 flavors is posted on his catering company’s homepage; I tried 3, including the Tropical with mango buttercream, coconut mousse, brown sugar-braised pineapple & pomegranate bubbles,

the bananas Foster-inspired Banana-rama (below right), & the Carrot Cake (left) with cream cheese, candied carrots, rum raisins & crumbled walnut paper (fascinating).

If all doughnuts were as artful as these were—not just for their innovative & luscious fillings but for the pastry itself, its interior so tender it practically melted into the custard it was slathered with—the world would be a much better, albeit more somnolent, place.

A tablemate got the Oink (below top)—maple pastry cream, salted chocolate, spicy bacon & bacon-Nutella powder—& the PB&J (bottom) with burnt peanut-butter cream & grape caviar; behold:

I have just 2 suggestions for Kleinman: 1) how about some savory options, like a burrito-style doughnut with eggs, queso & green chile—or a Southern version with sausage gravy or ham & red-eye gravy! 2) how about opening a brick & mortar already? Your converts are waiting.

Welcome Mat(ty) at Corner House Neighborhood Eatery

The Jefferson Park space, already weathered amid recycled woods of all stripes (pine, cedar, hickory), is tiny. The menus are tiny, at least at present, listing only a handful of items for both daytime & evening. But Corner House feels big—filled with light & personality, above all that of big-hearted chef Matt Selby (“Matty” to many).

Prior to the opening on 1/11, the original Steuben’s & Vesta Dipping Grill vet has pared the original list of about 40 dishes down to just a few unanimous staff favorites; he’ll gradually expand it over time, but until then you’ll be privy to such nibbles & sips as:

Sean Kelly’s roasted almonds—named for the fellow longtimer Selby calls one of his heroes, they’re tossed with olive oil, garlic, rosemary & chilies, & I couldn’t keep my grubby mitts off them—& the PCP, whereby a glass of Port-style wine from Paso Robles’ Justin Vineyards is topped with shaved prosciutto San Daniele & Manchego, which you’re invited to dip into the drink or eat separately.

A sunny little snack of kampachi (a type of yellowtail) dotted with supremes of orange & yuzu, slivered Manzanilla olives & jalapeños, & a pinch of smoked salt; this is the kind of precise arrangement that bids you include a touch of each element in every bite for the full effect, which is much bolder than the sum of its seemingly delicate parts.

The tuna-poke bowl: poke is essentially Hawaiian ceviche, here served over a small mound of sushi rice & topped with sliced avocado & a sprinkling of roasted seaweed. The flavors are clean, clear, a touch herbal & fruity—instant classic. I could eat this for breakfast on a daily basis.

Chocolate duck-egg crème brûlée. Pal Tyler Wiard of Elway’s, Selby told me, “loves duck eggs. We were talking all the dishes he’s used them in & I asked, ‘What about crème brûlée?’ He thought about it & shook his head. So I feel like I beat Tyler to the punch with this.”

As someone who craves neither chocolate nor custard, I have to confess I was crazy about it—so toasty & smooth & mellow.

Speaking of brûlee, the Clay Street Collins was distinguished for me by its garnish, a torched lemon wheel that added a ray of warmth to the blend of gin, herbal liqueur, IPA (in this case from Avery, though it may vary), & simple syrup; between the citrus, the herb-&-barley tones, & the Ball jar it was served in, it possessed a rather soothing, tea-like quality.

Though the whiskey-based Three-Oh-Three contained both chai liqueur & apple cider, it proved surprisingly light & none too sweet, illustrating bar manager Gerard Collier’s knack for the balance so key to cocktailery.

About 10 wines & microbrews round out the beverage list, along with Novo coffee drinks for the morning shift. As for the rest of the repertoire, think deceptive simplicity: a panino of curry-smoked chicken-thigh meat with Brie, pickled onion & scallion mayo; roasted squash soup with lobster & mushrooms; foie gras cured in truffle salt, drizzled in pear gastrique & accompanied by pickled cauliflower & brioche.

Culinary theatricality, in short, is not the raison d’être of Corner House; low-key, comfy conviviality matters most. It all goes back to the origin of the word restaurant—to restore. To revive. To replenish. I foresee many an hour slipping by unmarked here.

Denveater’s “Year in Eater” Standbys

In Eater’s roundup of local writers’ top picks for 2012, I named Beatrice & Woodsley & Panzano my standbys. I’d have said the same last year & the year before that too, pretty much by definition. Granted, there are plenty of places I love equally, for all kinds of reasons. But a place becomes a standby for rather personal ones. It’s not just that everything on the menu appeals but also that you feel so good there: inspired & transported, as in the case of B&W, or utterly relaxed, as at Panzano. And whaddaya know—I’ve been to both in recent weeks, & done as right as ever by both.

If you’ve visited neither in some time, here are a few current items worth trying. At B&W, the wilted-greens cobbler with sausage & cheddar spoonbread (behind the cheese plate, below) boasts that bygone sensibility, that deeply homey savor that is chef Pete List’s hallmark, as though he’d found his recipes written in cursive in a yellowed old notebook, invoking potbellied stoves & well water. (Actually, he does do lots of research on historical American cookery, so there you go.) I once had escargots here that were way too salty, but this batch (pictured right) was spot on, bathed in butter spiked with Pernod & piquillo pepper alongside warm, soft olive bread—enough to sop up all the drippings.

The cod on the left came with bright pea brandade & smoked onions; how the delicately flaky fish stood up to both I can’t fathom, but it did. On the right, earthy, crunchy-velvety feta-&-oat croquettes made a splash amid spaghetti squash in tomato vinaigrette—much like a dish I dug recently at Euclid Hall.

As for Panzano—I usually avoid chefs’ counters, because putting my nose in their business while ignoring the business of the one that brung me strikes me as doubly awkward. But this place is an exception, because it’s too much fun to watch chef Elise Wiggins switch from English to Spanish while balletically navigating the closet-sized open kitchen with her crew.

Like everyone else, I’ve had brussels sprouts in every way, shape & form over the past few years; it seems they, of all things, have finally succeeding in nudging beets out of the top veggie spot. (What’s next? I hope it’s celery. I mean, celery’s key to mirepoix & so forth, but it rarely plays the central role its awesomeness warrants.) But here at year’s end, I’ve had 2 of the best takes on sprouts in quick succession: Ace Eat Serve’s & this one.

Both are fried, because fried! But while Ace’s skews Asian with shishito peppers, sesame seeds, & lime, Panzano’s version has an Italian agrodolce (sweet-sour) thing going on, tossed with toasted pistachios, reduced cider vinegar & rosemary salt & topped with green apple. Unexpectedly refreshing.

We also took delight in a special of baby octopus braised with tomatoes & capers over soft polenta. Set in a pool of spiced oil, this was, conversely, unexpectedly rich. Nothing wrong with that, of course, & Wiggins’ touch with every Italian starch—pasta, polenta, etc.—is so light & smooth.

That goes double for her gnocchi, which we had 2 ways that night: once made with pumpkin & served with the smoked pork chop I named one of my top 10 dishes of 2012, the other sauteed with rabbit confit, tomatoes, mushrooms, & leeks, then sprinkled with gorgonzola. Quite the cool combo, though I was so enamored with the chop I only had room for a few bites.

On that note, may 2013 be full of equally filling moments!



Year in Review: Denveater’s Top 10 Dishes of 2012

Damn. For someone who’s always bitching about everybody else’s pork fetish, this here’s a pretty piggy, veggieless roundup. What can I say? These are the dishes that lingered in my memory long after the last bite.

You’ll notice, too, that most of them are relatively simple affairs—things you could practically eat every day. (The links will take you to the posts in which they originally featured.) That wasn’t by design either; I’m a natural-born novelty freak. But perhaps this list, in its comforts, is all the more useful. After the 2012 we all had, we need them.

Foie longjohns at The Squeaky Bean (with renewed apologies for the cruddy photo)

Panzano’s smoked Berkshire pork chop with pumpkin gnocchi, gorgonzola fonduta & cranberry-rosemary marmalade (Actually, this has yet to link to a post, because I had it for the 1st time just last night. But wow, what a winner. Epitomizing chef Elise Wiggins’ lusty style, the meat put a hell of a lot of barbecue to shame, holding court with both the bracing sweetness of the preserves & the saltiness of the cheese sauce—& the gnocchi were just perfect, as if made by someone with air for hands.)

Amala with fish stew at Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine

Bramble & Hare’s Mulefoot rib with pork-skin noodles

Phat Thai’s whole fried tilapia

Pork & beans at Central Bistro & Bar

Sesame-seed paste at Ace Eat Serve (condiments being, after all, the most important food group)

Doughnuts at Tom’s Urban 24 (this comes as a surprise even to me, but so be it—they’re just that swell)

Stuffed buns from Paris Baguette

Mateo’s signature burger, an exemplar of the genre—one I crave more often than I’ve ever craved any burger

BIG NEWS of the cookbook ilk. That’s my excuse.

You may recall how, in the fall of 2011, I posted at the pace of an escargot while working on the Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder, which Globe Pequot released this summer.

And you may have noticed that this fall, I’ve been similarly mum.

That’s because I was slammed with a second GP project, this one titled Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table. The next-summer release will burst at the seams with recipes from over 50 local restaurants, not to mention sizzling photographs from gentleman-chef Christopher Cina.

Look for it, buy it, love it up.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some soul searching about this here opus. Having made my name as a food writer in Boston over the course of 6 years, I moved to Denver in August 2007 & started blogging in early 2008 as a way to immerse myself in the scene and promote my work at the same time. Though it took a while, I guess I’ve succeeded, with my share of freelance gigs, a full-time job that I love at Sommelier Journal, & 2 book titles under my (now much bigger) belt.

Writing about restaurants will always be my passion. But is this the best outlet, the best format? Of what use are my reviews to readers—those that are left following my absence? Given that I rarely do recipes & that Cafe Society’s got all the news coverage anyone could ask for, are there other things you’d like to see here?

While you & I ponder, I’ll get back to publishing the sorts of posts I’ve been dishing up for 4 years now, but I dunno. Could be time to hang it up or shake it up…

The smell of kimchi & aji in the morning: Zengo launches brunch

A few weeks back, Zengo launched a weekend brunch whose terms of service may seem highly irregular in the upscale circumstances: it’s all you can eat & drink for a $35 prix fixe. The average customer had better have a smaller appetite than me, or this set-up won’t stand—after all, we’re not talking about some sloppy buffet of oatmeal & link sausage but small plates that reflect flying restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s vision of Latin-Asian fusion no less than the dinner menu does.

Certainly the theme makes for some adorable hybrids, like salmon Benedict with kimchi & bao (steamed buns) spread with salsa verde, then stuffed with bacon & scrambled eggs, plus a sprinkling of queso Oaxaca.

The latter lacked something in translation—maybe the fillings would cohere better in omelet form—but a little tweaking would be no thing. Fully realized, however, were both the Peking duck chilaquiles & the short rib hash.

In the former (pictured left—click to enlarge), juicy, shredded roast duck, a little pickled onion, guajillo salsa & cotija both crumbled & infused into crema mingled beneath a fried egg atop hot, crisp tortilla chips—the flavors well integrated, the textures layered. As for the latter (right), glistening against glass, the poached egg ruled the roost of shredded beef rib browned with cubed yuca & onion, the yolk enriching the pan drippings.

The last of the sushi roll pictured in back & a quartet of potstickers were just fine if not, sans any Latin flourishes, especially true to style. But overall it’s a saucy extension of the repertoire. Bring on the guava mimosas.

7th Annual First Bite Boulder: If I were you, here’s what I’d do…

From Nov. 9-17, Boulder’s answer to Restaurant Week showcases the goods of participating area restaurants in a $26, 3-course prix-fixe format; not all the menus are live just yet, but having just scrolled through those that are, I can tell you where my head’s at:

Arugula’s gone above & beyond—looks like they’ve listed their entire menu, including octopus carpaccio, handmade spinach lasagna & pecan-crusted catfish in vanilla beurre blanc. Not a clunker in the bunch.

At Pizzeria Basta, an appetizer combining burrata & pork belly with leeks & flatbread & an entree of 36-hour short rib with smoked potatoes work for me.

Bramble & Hare is serving up head-cheese terrine with apple butter & a stout-infused chicken pot pie with an oatmeal-&-cracklins’ biscuit, be still my gut, as well as the mulefoot pork I lost my mind over a while back.

Pumpkin fritters with aioli at Cafe Aion. Come on!

The menu from The Kitchen [Upstairs] sounds even better than the one being offered in the dining room, what with celery-root custard in brown butter & cavatelli with golden raisins & sauerkraut.

Mateo, however, may have just clinched the deal: Mushroom bisque with blue cheese; pumpkin gnocchi with cranberries, hazelnuts, mushrooms, cognac & sage (!); apple pound cake with cheddar gelato (!!).

Plenty more where all that came from—plus, if you do it in a jiffy, you can enter to win a free meal. Yay!

The Lion, The Bear & The Brewmaster: Firestone-Walker beer dinner with Hosea Rosenberg, 10/10, 6:30pm

So this should be a hootenanny. Kicking off the Great American Beer Festival Tuesday from 6:30-9:30 pm at Mile High Station, the folks from Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company will be in town to pour, & I quote, “4 barrel-aged anniversary ales from our library, specifically rare sold-out vintages: XII, XIII, XIV and XV.” Blackbelly Catering’s Hosea Rosenberg of Top Chef’s season 5 will be doing the culinary honors—quite a menu, eh? At $75 per person, tickets include not only food & beer samples but also a souvenir snifter. Availability is limited. Get yours here.