Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Get thee to Cinque Soldi while the getting’s good—like, NOW.

Wow. What weird timing. Yesterday I finally made the all-of-6-block trek to Cinque Soldi Salumeria after checking out the menu online. All seemed to be in order at the adorably old-school little South Pearl deli, its display cases loaded with goodies from Il Mondo Vecchio, the gents behind the counter kindly & quick.

By the time I got home, though, the website was down. Odd, I thought.

Odd indeed. Turns out that, as of yesterday, Mark DeNittis is severing his partnership with the owners, per Westword, due to creative differences. According to Lori Midson, whether IMV products will continue to be featured there remains to be seen.

But I can’t imagine they’re going to just toss them all in the next few days. And the 2 sandwiches I wolfed down in short order—don’t judge—were still killer, so if you hurry, you can probably relish the last of these babies before the revamp.

Granted, the German panino was not as advertised.

Listed on the blackboard as containing headcheese, tongue, bierwurst, gruyère & sauerkraut, it was in fact headcheese-free (boo), & maybe tongue-free too, unless that was what the mysterious smattering of diced meat was…hard to say. Spread with spicy stone-ground mustard & pressed right on fresh, springy bread from Dolce Sicilia, though, it was nonetheless delish—hearty & pungent.

The porchetta, meanwhile—rough-chopped, skin clinging, & piled high with fried peppers on a grinder roll—was beautifully prepared: so tender, so purely flavorful & simply showcased.

Hopefully, the departure of DeNittis isn’t a death sentence; plenty of brilliant sandwiches get assembled day in & day out, all over the world, without his name on them. But only time will tell.

Cinque Soldi Salumeria on Urbanspoon

Punch Wars at Second Home Kitchen + Bar, 9/24 6 p.m.

I’ll be there judging; you should come get punched up too.

Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder on a bookshelf near you!

At long last, this labor of love is available at local bookstores, including Tattered Cover.

More tomorrow—new post long overdue.

Dish of the Week: Smoked Mulefoot Pork Rib at Bramble & Hare (soft opening alert!)

Five stars for a place that hasn’t even officially opened yet is a giddy amateur move on my part. But if the sheer skill & savvy Black Cat Bistro’s Eric Skokan & crew showed throughout their friends & family kickoff is indeed a sign of things to come—& one imagines it is—then Bramble & Hare is gonna see my bet & raise it twofold.

It’s all about the little things here: tiny rustic space, small plates (supplemented by a daily-changing 3-course prix-fixe), innumerable background details—like the fact that the clay on the walls is mixed with hay from Skokan’s barn or that his wife stuffed the pillows lining the banquette with wool from their own-raised lambs. (As if “chef-restaurateur-farmer” weren’t enough of a hyphenate for Skokan, he added “general contractor” to the mix while building out the new space.) You also can’t quite tell by looking that the “all-star team” he’s hand-picked to cook here hail from all over—Atlanta, Chicago, Maine. But you can definitely tell by tasting that it all adds up to something special.

I mean, this is just ridiculous.

The rib is cut from a heritage breed Skokan’s helping to breed back from near-disappearance, with good reason—its rare flesh simply melts away. (Perhaps the pigs spontaneously deliquesced.) Of course, it first fills your mouth with such complex, smoky richness that I told Skokan I don’t think I’ve ever had a better rib—not at a barbecue joint, not at a Korean eatery, nowhere. And I wasn’t just kissing his ass, I meant it—notwithstanding the fact that what originally sold me on the dish were the pressure-cooked pork-skin “noodles” bathed in Sichuan-spiced jus. A dab of them pure-fat apples’ll do you.

Of course, Skokan’s commitment to not just whole-animal but whole-vegetable sustainability is evident at every turn. Take the farm chips: last night’s beet & turnip crisps were just the tip of a bowl that may, at any given time, include fried kale, Jerusalem artichokes, chicken skin, or pig’s ears: “Whatever we have that’s in season, we’ll turn into chips,” he promises.

Pictured in back is yet another winner: chilled, roasted turnips tossed with broccolini & cabbage in a star-anise vinaigrette—such a smart touch, bringing out a whole new side of the earthy veggies.

Granted, the veggies alone had a way of bringing out a whole new side of themselves: a cold soup special of carrots & the whey leftover from housemade ricotta, though seasoned only with S&P & lemon juice, possessed a distinct, almost cinnamony spiciness. Skokan surmised that the recent heat spike may have concentrated certain flavor compounds in the carrot patch.

So the list of hits—most fully realized, a few potential—went on, & on, & on, from the steamed bun filled with chopped beets alongside a dollop of beet-dusted chèvre mousse that called to mind my beloved gnocchi di prugne

to gorgeous, giant Hama Hamas on the half-shell with kimchi vinaigrette

to duck liver mousse-filled sourdoughnuts with grapefruit marmalade

to a killer special of perfectly cooked pork shoulder over the silkiest, poppiest little pearls of couscous ever (plus yet more turnips! Can’t get enough of those)

to, finally, a juicy, fruity as opposed to sugary yet heartily streuseled wedge of cherry tart.

That’s still not all: while the craft beer & cocktails flow, Dev’s carefully curated wine list is not to be dismissed—chock-full of all the Zweigelts & Teroldegos & boutique Lambruscos to stir an oenophile’s cockles. Nor is the keen service (courtesy last night of on-the-ball Tyler).

Sure, this is one of those occasional googly-eyed Dear Diary accounts wherein I suddenly pull back to add a steely disclaimer: I came as a guest, not an anonymous reviewer. My experience can’t be separated from my familiarity with the staff or my prior admiration for Skokan’s work—at least not by me. It’s up to you to validate my vote of confidence (or not, for that matter). Keep me posted.

Bramble & Hare on Urbanspoon

Restaurants for Refugees: 6/9-6/15

***This just crossed my desk, & though I’m too swamped right now to do anything but give the press release a light edit, it’s way worth a heads up.***

Denver’s African Community Center announces “Restaurants for Refugees: Global Flavor, Local Good,” a Denver-wide awareness and fundraising event to be held at 9 Denver restaurants Saturday, June 9, to Friday, June 15, to further their efforts in Colorado Refugee Resettlement.

Local chefs have paired with refugee community members to create unique specials, inspired by the flavors of the latter’s home countries, in honor of the difficult and hopeful journey that 46,000 refugees have undertaken to rebuild their lives and their homes in Denver. Restaurants for Refugees is a symbolic coming together of cultures, fusion of flavors, and celebration of the richness and diversity found in our own neighborhoods.

A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of each dish goes to ACC, which welcomes approximately 500 refugees who have fled violence, persecution, and war each year. ACC bridges the gap between hope for a better life and economic self-sufficiency in Denver through social, educational, and employment services.

Participating Restaurants:

Appaloosa Grill (535 16th Street, Suite 110, Denver, CO 80202)

Aria Inspired Cuisine (250 Josephine St., Denver, CO 80206)

Caveau Wine Bar (450 E. 17th Ave., Suite 110, Denver, CO 80203)

The Corner Office (1401 Curtis St., Denver, CO 80202)

Le Central (112 E. 8th Ave., Denver, CO 80203)

Lowry Beer Garden (7577 E. Academy Blvd., Denver, CO 80230)

Snooze (Ballpark Location, 2262 Larimer St., Denver, CO 80205)

Vert Kitchen (704 S. Pearl St., Denver, CO 80209)

Watercourse Foods (837 E. 17th Ave., Denver, CO 80218)

 

Studio F, the Sequel: Bravo, Jenna Johansen! (+ a word on Ian Kleinman)

Distilling her experience as a globe-trotting contestant on Bravo’s new series Around the World in 80 Plates down to 5 courses over 3 hours, Jenna Johansen led a hell of a posse at Studio F last week, including chef-owner James Mazzio (far left) & Il Mondo Vecchio maestro Mark DeNittis (aka Mr. Johansen to be, second from left); the tall drink of water in the middle, Iain Chisholm, is the proud papa of soon-to-open Amerigo. This pop-up being the sequel to the inaugural, Charles Dale-cheffed blowout last month (which I also had the fortune to attend), it might well shed light on the kind of wild ride guests of The Inventing Room’s Ian Kleinman, whose 9-night run starts tomorrow, are in for. I’ll keep it brief.

Kicking off the whirlwind culinary world tour (enhanced by piped-in music from each featured country) was a trip to Spain: we started with a light rosé sangria

& 3 passed apps, including my favorite, the skewer of tangy marinated beef heart, tomatoes & croutons

as well as chorizo empanadas

& blistered pimientos de padrón.

The first sit-down course took us to Thailand via a cocktail based on mekhong (a sugar cane-&-rice based spirit) & flavored with lime, pear & papaya, as well as a salad combining cucumber, onion, cilantro, peanuts &, above all, abundant slices of Il Mondo Vecchio’s addictively spiced lap cheong (a Chinese sausage known in Thailand as kun chiang).

The second found us in Italy: Johansen paired a biodynamic Pinot Grigio from Friuli with a springtime risotto swirled with a huge dollop of risotto, chive pesto & bits of green garlic & asparagus.

Next up was France: a superb hunk of beef cheek prepared bourguignon-style (& accompanied, of course, by a glass of red Burgundy).

Last stop, Morocco: a type of coiled pastry called m’hanncha—flavored with orange-flower water & almonds & garnished with a honey-&-almond-stuffed Medjool date—alongside a potent mint-tea cocktail.

Check out the lovebirds at work.

As for Kleinman’s gig, here’s a sneak preview:

Cocktails
· Lemondrop martini with blueberry caviar
· Rosemary vodka, St. Germain & grapefruit juice with rosemary foam
· “Maple Mark”: Maker’s Mark, lime juice & ginger beer poured over maple-syrup cotton candy
· Jalapeño-cucumber “rita” with jalapeno bubbles

Small Plates
· Liquid nitrogen bruschetta popcorn
· Marinated tomatoes & strawberries with tandoori mozzarella sheet, whipped burnt balsamic & candied micro-basil
· Lump crab crème brûlée with soy sugar, ginger-poached pears & habañero tobiko
· Strawberry yuzu sorbet with frozen olive oil & goat-cheese jelly
· Sous-vide spiced beef shoulder with baked potato-stuffed mushroom, candied shallot & smoked pudding
· Lobster crêpe with black truffle caviar, Mornay & saltwater bubbles
· Berbere-fried pork belly with Israeli couscous carbonara, poached egg & smoked spinach

Sweets
· Apple pie ala mode: 20-hour apples, warm green-apple gel, brown-butter pie-dough wafers, crème fraîche streusel & liquid ice cream
· Vanilla-encased carrot cake with orange cream-cheese crisps, dry-salted rosehip caramel & buckwheat-honey almond cubes

2nd Annual Colorado Urban Winefest: A Ridiculously Quick Preview

Well, from the 10-second glimpse I got around the media preview before I had to bail, this should be good.

The 2nd annual Colorado Urban Winefest, held on June 9 to cap off Colorado Wine Week (June 3-9), is a fundraiser for CAVE, a taste-around of pours from 42 state wineries—& as someone who spends a lot of time researching regional wine festivals, I can tell you that’s a whole hell of a lot—& an educational extravaganza. Digging on the “interactive wine wheel”—

a lineup of ingredients whose aromas you’ll find in the featured wines. When you’re wondering how wine writers come up with this stuff—(“pencil shavings”? “horse blanket”? “cat urine”? etc.), this is how: the some 2000 compounds that can be found in wine are also found in jillions of other Things in Our World. The more you smell, the more you taste, the more you learn & appreciate, repeat.

And you’ll have plenty to see you through that cycle, judging by tonight’s event, which was just for starters:

Of course, there’ll be plenty of industry folk on hand to further lead you on the path to oeno-enlightenment, including Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar’s bright & shiny Jensen Cummings.

So, ya know, be there, otherwise be 4-sided.

Who puts the “color” in “Colorado cuisine”? A word on Drink Local Wine

Or, for that matter, the “ado”?

Your answer will depend largely, of course, on how you define Colorado cuisine—on the relative importance you assign to ingredient sources v. technical styles v. demographic & cultural influences, etc. How would a Moroccan tagine made with locally raised lamb, say, compare to green chile containing peppers from Hatch rather than Pueblo? Or perhaps a Denver steak (you know there was such a thing, right?) cut from Texas beef v. a New York strip courtesy from Colorado’s finest? Which is more “local”?

For me, it’s like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s legendary claim about pornography: modern Colorado cookery is hard to define, but I know it when I see it. And while I don’t see it in the output of every chef who’s made a personal mission to source from his/her neighbors—that’s not a complaint in the least, just a stylistic fact—I sure as hell saw it, perhaps more than I have to date, in the exceptional 4-course meal Black Cat Bistro’s Eric Skokan & Daniel Asher of Root Down & Linger prepared for the Governor’s Residence Dinner that kicked off the Drink Local Wine conference last Friday.

Pressed to pinpoint the secret of its success, I’d say it wasn’t the wealth of homegrown ingredients, or the level of innovation, or even the extent to which the food genuinely complemented the wine (& vice-versa); rather it was the easy confidence—& obvious joy—with which Skokan & Asher brought all these elements into play.

To accompany Bookcliff Vineyards’ Dry Muscat Blanc 2010 & Cottonwood Cellars’ intriguing Lemberger 2008—a German grape that may prove to have some legs around here—the duo offered up 2 passed apps: cider-&-beer-braised goat tacos on Raquelita’s tortillas with red sauerkraut from Five Points Fermentation Co. (about which I’ve been hearing many good things of late) & Ugly Goat feta—whew—as well as pungent tartlets topped with sauteed dandelion greens & Windsor Dairy’s Gruyère-like Glendevey. Way to go all Colorado on our buttocks!

The 1st sit-down course featured 2009 Chardonnay from Settembre Cellars & Creekside Cellars’ blended Rosé 2011 alongside a truly imaginative & snappy salad of bitter foraged greens & watermelon radish in an invigorating clover honey-toasted cumin vinaigrette that I would put on anything, garnished with a scoop of pea-mascarpone gelato that, as it melted, further dressed the foliage.

Wowee. The main course showcased pork from Skokan’s own Black Cat Farm 3 ways—loin, belly & sausage—that was so fleshy & luscious it hardly needed accompaniment by fingerlings & melting smoked cabbage with golden raisins plus just a touch of mustard (but they certainly didn’t hurt). Frankly, I think simplicity’s overrated; all that lip service so many chefs pay to “getting quality ingredients & not fucking them up” goes in 1 of my ears & out the other, since I can hack simple cooking in my own kitchen. I’m a sucker for skill & creativity & transformation, man! All that said, when you’ve got it, flaunt it—& whatever Skokan’s doing for those pigs, feeding them gilded chestnuts or massaging their ears with baby oil or whatever, it’s working. (The dish was paired with a Guy Drew Vineyards Riesling 2010 that didn’t stand much of a chance against the 50/50 blend of Petit Verdot & Cab Franc that was the Anemoi Zephyrus 2010: generous but not slutty; distinctive, with staying power, but not exhaustingly so.)

Of course, giving props to worthy local producers was par for the course all evening, but Skokan & Asher did me a personal solid by prefacing dessert with a platter of Black Star Chocolates: basil-lemon-white chocolate & pomegranate-raspberry-rose. Just beautiful little things—clear of scent, ethereal & complex on the palate.

We finished with cute, not-too-sweet cups of Ovaltine chocolate pudding topped with freeze-dried berries & milk crumble as well as outstanding squares of blood orange-ricotta cheesecake, almost like silky blond fudge. The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey’s Port-style 2010 Merlot, Divinity, had its charms, but if you ask me Whitewater Hill Vineyards is the one to beat when it comes to Colorado dessert wines, and this evening was no different: its Riesling Ice Wine 2011 was surprisingly light & more flowery than honeyed.

Anyway, the candidates for king & queen of Colorado Cuisine are many & varied—the crew at The Kitchen, Potager’s Teri Rippeto, & of course Fruition’s Alex Seidel all come to mind (though I might rule out the latter insofar as his style is so clearly European-influenced). But for their audacity & graciousness in representing, I’d be hard pressed to vote for anyone other than Skokan & Asher right now.

Studio F: Permanent Pop-Up!

One space, countless restaurants. That’s essentially what longtime star chef James Mazzio is making of Studio F, where the plan is to host a series of communal feasts helmed by the equally bright culinary lights he recruits in succession. Swinging into town for the inaugural multi-course dinner was Charles Dale of Encantado in Santa Fe,

whose gorgeous tidbits—now intricate, now luscious—were, I must say, really well paired with wines from Sutcliffe Vineyards, headed by the English-born bon vivant John Sutcliffe. Character alert.

At long tables overlooking the warmly lit open kitchen that dominates the Ice House space (aka Mise en Place), we lucky guinea pigs started with a savvy little duo of amuses bouches: tuna tartare atop blue-corn blini & a goat cheese-&-masa-stuffed peppadew relleno. Raw seafood really needs to be given the Southwestern treatment more often; the tuna popped against the earthy blue corn, as I bet it would against beans & squash. (Hey, Italians pair tuna with cannellini & zucchini, so why not pintos & crooknecks?) As for the pepper fritter, its fruity, spicy filling, while mellowed by the tempura-like breading, was also enhanced by the rosé it came with, a 100% Cabernet that evoked nothing so much as fresh watermelon sprinkled with salt & pepper.

Next up: a velvety rich yet purely vegetal asparagus soup suffused with the aroma of smoked trout & funk of “chipotle caviar,” sparkling little ruby-toned roe. A super-peachy, slightly minty Viognier made for clean, juicy contrast.

Meanwhile, Mazzio & Dale tag-teamed on the next course,

a custard-textured chunk of pork belly & mahogany-seared sea scallop over creamy yet vibrant edamame-celery root puree garnished, I was told, with the aromatic leaves of bull’s blood beet & coriander. Paired with a Napa-sourced Chardonnay that tasted exactly like a Napa Chardonnay—a little lacking in acid structure for me, but it held up well enough.

The show-stopper might have been this spice-rubbed short rib with pillowy, poblano-infused gemelli—just a beautiful, spoon-tender, saucy hunk of beef tinged, I believe, with the dense Syrah that accompanied it.

Equally comforting was the final course of butterscotch pot de crème sprinkled with toffee crumble & cocoa powder & topped with a rosette of whipped cream & a gingersnap. Why you don’t see butterscotch on dessert menus more often is beyond me—I love the brown-sugary stuff.

Last hurrah: we were sent home with a goodie bag of cookies & truffles. If every pop-up is as well orchestrated as this one, Mazzio’s got a winning concept on his hands.

Bang-Up Brunch Launches at The Village Cork

I tell you what, Chef Samir Mohammad was on a roll Saturday in his little crow’s nest of a post at the center of The Village Cork, which was doing a mock service in advance of the debut, next weekend, of brunch.

Having said before that I think breakfast & brunch represent nothing so much as missed opportunities by the majority of American chefs—on menu after menu, the same narrow, interchangeable array of dishes comprised of the same limited number of ingredients; where’s the Turkish-style spread or the Malaysian morning fare?—it’s amazing how far just a little ingenuity, a few simple upgrades to & twists on the standard, can go. Mohammad—who knows better than most how to maximize—has come up with a selection of dishes that actually, truly appeals to me top to bottom. French toast laced with cream cheese & custard & brown sugar & pecans & whipped cream? That’s a lot of awesome. Stuffed, baked camembert-cheddar sandwiches with tomato soup? I can’t quite even picture that yet, except in my belly.

But it took all of 30 seconds after receiving menus for the Director & I to immediately zero in on the same 2 items: biscuit-cut brioche in duck-sausage gravy

& a take on Benedict that layered more brioche rounds with slices of truffled duck-liver mousse, beautifully fried eggs & Hollandaise.

As we were polishing off the last few bites, Mohammad came over to our table & expressed dissatisfaction with the brioche; he thought this particular batch was too dry. What could I say? The crust was crusty, the way I like it by definition; if the interior wasn’t in fact tender on its own, we sure couldn’t tell, since our share was draped in the velvet folds of classically executed sauces—butter & yolk or cream & duckfat in all the right places, yeah. That both dishes came with the platonic ideal of home fries—carefully cut, crisp but not dripping with grease & tossed with slippery bits of onion & pepper—was just the frosting on the cake.

And the icing roses were a duo of madeleines atop a pool of lemon glaze for dipping.

In our interview for Eat Drink Denver, Mohammad had shared with me his hopes that opening for brunch would help stanch the bleeding on Old South Pearl following the new year’s string of closures. Between that & the arrival of Salumeria Cinque Soldi, the ‘hood is already looking more like its old self for sure.

Village Cork on Urbanspoon