According to its homepage, “Giacomo’s is the place where you will find the food is exquisite, the service is of the highest standard, and the environment is relaxing.” The awkward wording says it all as to just how goffo (that’s Italian for “goofball”) this red-sauce joint sitting amid the fast-food chains off I-25 in Pueblo is. Since the food’s really pretty awful, I would have categorized it under Eateries That Give Me Hives if it weren’t for the soft spot I have for such casas di kitsch as this.
At lunchtime on a weekday, I was the youngest customer in the dining room by far; the garden club set was out in full leisurewear force, trading notes on hedgerows over iced tea & spumoni or whatever.
As for the repertoire, you know everything’s scampi this & parmigiana that. The lunch menu’s also heavy on the sandwiches—not panini but red-white-&-blue basics proffered in charmingly retro lingo (“ground sirloin char-broiled to a desired temperature & served on a golden egg bun”). The early bird menu (natch) has, get this, a section labeled Pasta & another labeled More Pasta. And the dinner menu boasts all manner of golden oldies, from escargot in garlic butter & fried cheese sticks to broiled orange roughy & trout almondine.
The cooking itself, though, isn’t so old-fashioned. Minestrone was supposedly homemade but had Campbell’s written all over its mushy cubes of beef & carrot in salt-tastic broth.
But it wasn’t all bad. Spaghetti fritto may sound & look silly in that heap topped with a giant sprig of rosemary—presentation is not Giacomo’s forte—but it tasted okay all right, sauteéd in butter & garlic with peppers, onions & mushrooms.
Better still was the side that came with it—a small meal in itself, composed of a meatball & a chunk of sausage, both housemade, in marinara. Seemingly mostly pork, they were nice & rich if quite mild (no peperoncini or fennel seeds here).
Earlier objections notwithstanding, a plate of those in a low-lit, still-life-hung & faux-ivy-strewn dining room with Sinatra (you expected who else?) in the background has got to beat the heck out of a McAnything gulped down in the glare of a corporate pit stop.
Before I start spewing I feel compelled to acknowledge that with the exception of Peaks Lounge, of all places, & Saigon Bowl, it seems to have been quite a while since I’ve posted a mainly positive review. Not fancying myself the unacknowledged Pauline Kael of Denver dining, I’d just as soon keep the focus on the fun fun fun of eating out—the whole convivial shebang, not just the food. And I’m all too aware what a tough business running a restaurant is—the majority of restaurateurs, chefs & floor staffs alike love what they do & work long & hard at it. Look, I’ve devoted the past several years of my life to making their business my business; I only piss & moan for the same reason I give praise, because I love.
But my 1st experience at Root Down rubbed me in so many wrong ways I’ll need a full-on Banya session getting beaten with twigs to smooth out.
It actually started before I got there, with a look at the website. Not only is it splattered with twaddle—”Like Jazz, we are the summation of different flavorful perspectives rhythmically combining seasons and foods into a [sic] asymmetrical masterpiece”; ”We’re the [sic] all about the convention of life in all it’s [sic] eclectic glory”—but, as the quotations also show, it’s riddled with typos (“terriyaki,” “pommegranate,” “coissant,” & “grens,” to name a few; & while “shitake” actually is a legit variant of shiitake, is it really the one you want to use in a supposedly appetizing context?).
What does poor spelling have to do with the quality of the dining experience, you protest? As I’ve argued before, possibly nothing—but potentially everything. To me it suggests carelessness at best, ignorance about the tools (ingredients, techniques, regional/foreign traditions, what have you) of one’s own trade at worst.
The curtain on the shitshow of pretension really lifted, however, upon our entry into the former gas station, now a temple of postironic retro chic screamingly teeming with the sorts of fetching smarty-pantses whose turf is by definition the place to be at any given moment. The dining room is actually a welcoming space, warmly lit, with a lovely view of the downtown skyline; less hospitable, though, is the bathroom, whose decor is likely supposed to be cheeky but frankly just strikes me as mocking.
Granted, the offense I take undoubtedly says more about me than about the designer. But in response to the implied message that I should be thinking about my weight, my inclination is to nod, cancel my order, go straight home & mutter blackly over a bowl of soup.
Maybe even my own take on Root Down’s roasted beet & parsnip soup.
After all, it wouldn’t be very hard to recreate; given its very fresh but otherwise unremarkable, one-dimensional flavor, they can’t have done much more than hit a button on the blender. The only real oomph came from a sprinkling of walnut-orange gremolata & a drizzle of yogurt; perhaps with another heaping tablespoon of the latter & a little more good old S&P, it might nearly have been worth $5 for all of a cup (that said, the price is actually $7. And that’s for the full portion, too, not the $4 half, which must be doled out in an eyedropper or something). The counter to the oft-made argument that a chef’s job is to get out of the way of his ingredients—to showcase them in all their pristine glory—is that I can do that too. Minimal prep is what home cooking’s for.
I’d asked our server if the panzanella would be sufficient for a main course; he said he thought so, because of “all the bread in it.” You can count the cubes yourself—6.
That’s not panzanella, that’s a side salad with croutons. This is panzanella—
an exemplar of cucina povera created to stick to the ribs of peasants whose cupboards were bare of meat but bursted with stale bread. See the difference, kids?
The rest of it, like the soup, was just plain boring. Having expected some sort of warm mélange of richly caramelized root veggies, I got instead a few random pieces of unappealingly al dente carrots, parsnips & fennel with arugula that just sat there & let the balsamic vinegar do all the talking, along with a few daubs of goat cheese & an admittedly generous handful of pinenuts. They said, “Help! Get us out of here & into another dish!”
I sort of did, by ordering the sweet-&-sour fire-roasted eggplant bruschetta likewise topped with fresh cheese (feta this time) & pinenuts, as well as golden raisins & chives—
from a server who not once but twice pronounced it brooshetta. Really? In 2009, some 20 years after its importation from Italy into mainstream American kitchens? When there are even Facebook groups for people who make fun of people who still don’t know it’s broosketta? See above re spelling, & add pronunciation; I don’t really fault the server for his mistake half so much as management for their negligence in training. I do fault the server for his apparent inability to do more than 1 thing (say, remove a single empty glass) at a time, disappearing for 10 minutes between each thing to go do 1 thing at some other table (we’d been there for 25 minutes before we even got drinks, at which point I had to practically manhandle him to stay put & take our order). A seemingly sweet kid, he was nonetheless as unseasoned as the soup & salad.
As for the bruschetta itself, I’d judged from the words “sweet & sour” that the topping would resemble caponata, a Sicilian relish that does indeed have a sweet-sour savor; it too contains eggplant, raisins & pinenuts, as well as tomatoes, capers, peppers, onions, vinegar & sometimes celery and olives—in short, despite a little bit of sugar, it remains essentially savory, vegetal. Off-balance to the point of being downright sugary, this version made for a bitter end to an all-around failure of a meal.
Meanwhile, the Director’s selection was, in the main, so superior to mine I’d have wondered if I’d just ordered wrong, except that A) I’m still not convinced there is such a thing & B) our companions weren’t remotely impressed with their dishes either, among them “rice-crispy” calamari with tomato-chili salsa & arugula—
about which there was, again, simply nothing interesting. Like so much else, the calamari, though cooked okay, was underseasoned, the sauce very fresh-tasting but otherwise bland.
By strange comparison, the Director’s tuna tartare—usually at the top of my list of dishes that put me to sleep before I’m done chewing—was a thrill,
the fat, juicy pearls of fish touched with just enough salt & chili to up their own luster all the more, served with the most delicate of pappadum.
Even more agreeably complex was his Spanish Caesar salad—
the dressing creamy yet pungent, the shredded manchego in abundance, & the whole thing made new by “gnocchi croutons” (though a more accurate name would have been “tater tots”;
&, perched atop the fresh anchovies, a shard of superb “frozen Xerez [sic] vinegar” that, of course, melted neatly into the romaine.
His buffalo sliders, however, were more like backsliders.
Cute & plump as they were—& in contrast to all the other errors on the side of underseasoning—their Mongolian barbecue sauce & (er) shiitake relish completely overpowered the patties. True, the teriyaki slaw in the middle—composed, IIRC, mainly of carrots & burdock root—was terrific, bold & splashy; it just wasn’t the point, is all.
Speaking of the point—the fact that, as I think even my artless photos show, presentation was highly polished only further proves mine: that Root Down is basically just the enfant terrible of the current local restaurant scene, spending its considerable energy cultivating undeniably unique style at the expense of substance. It’s that very energy, however, that may serve the infant well as it matures & develops some character. I’ll go back & check in on it at some point, like when it’s old enough not to need a sitter.
Our dear Petey, whom you might know well by now, accidentally won some sort of raffle to become the proud recipient of 50 free wings at the Hooter’s on S. Colorado. That Petey happens to be gay only made his victory all the sweeter; as another friend said, the only way it could have been any better is if he were also vegetarian.
Tell you what, it would’ve been better if I were gay & vegetarian. Then I’d have had no complaints.
Lest you were ever the least bit curious—lest you ever wondered whether, just maybe, the joint had something to offer other than T&A in every way, shape & form, size, style & color, you can stop it right now & forever. What passes (believe you me, right through) as food is no less a combination of fatty tissue & implant leakage than the waitress parts are.
Surely I exaggerate? A, don’t call me Shirley (hoo boy, does that ever get old?), & B, get a load of the fried pickle chips we ordered from our own assemblage of parts, D—, sweet as could be if not yet fully sentient since her reanimation on the lab table (“I don’t even know what that is,” she cheerfully proclaimed when the Director asked for a Dewar’s). More to the point,
try an eyeful of the otherwise unexplained “tangy dipping sauce” close up:
If that isn’t a secret blend of processed cheese & silicone I don’t know what is!
I know it isn’t the blue cheese & ranch dips that came with our wings—naked & battered (hey! just like the waitresses) respectively—
because those came in the very same sealed containers from Naturally Fresh (good one, FDA!) you get with your airplane food, & their labels very clearly state they’re made from dairy seasoning & silicone.
Okay, that was mean about the waitresses. Our pal Betsy Tallfold was much more sympathetic: “Felt sorry for the servers who are half-naked & carrying around plates of carnage. I expected the tank tops & running shorts, although I’m sure you couldn’t run in those shorts without some major chafing issues. I didn’t know about the tights. Must’ve been two centimeters thick. I’m sure they offer some type of warmth & protection (prophylactic?) and may separate Hooters from a typical tittie bar, but I kept thinking figure skater. Put some sequins on that shit and they could all be Kristi Yamaguchi.”
Oh, I think they’re all already yamaguchi.
I have no idea what that means.
In all fairness, despite appearances, my veritable wastebasket of an oyster roast—oh yes I did—
could have been much, much, much worse. At $22 or about a buck a pop, only about 1/4 were mealy, rubbery or otherwise foretastes of coming regret.
Sure hope the same can be said for the rest of the oysters in the place, catch my drift?
The Thai joint we ordered takeout from the other night lacks so thoroughly in character that it’s almost anti-fascinating: the only way it could ever possibly distinguish itself is by making an honest mockery of its own mediocrity, say by changing its moniker to Generic Thai Takeout Joint, which is what its former and current names, Wild Basil & Thai Green Chile respectively, translate as anyway—as, surely, will its future name, Sweet Hot Ginger Pepper Brasserie & Curry Hut or some such.
It’s a damn shame, because I could use me some fine drunken noodles from time to time, never mind the hard-to-find-in-the-heartland likes of haw moak, a curried fish (or chicken) mousse steamed in banana leaf I used to order back in Brookline at Khao Sarn:
Instead we were stuck with Thai eggplant without a hint of mint or basil or a trace of funky fish sauce but way more than its share of sugar. (Don’t let the green leaf in the bottom left corner fool you, that’s probably just pastillage. In fact, the whole thing, in all its bland sweetness, could very well have been decorative confectionery.)
The pork with garlic sauce was initially more redolent with basil (as opposed, inexplicably, to garlic)—but ultimately no less coarse & sticky.
Ditto the Singapore rice noodles, although nice fat shrimp & goodly chunks of chicken bespoke a generosity that went a short way toward compensating for the dumbed-down sensibility,
as did a complimentary if weird order of wontons that smacked of nothing if not recycled sopaipillas, with the honey drained out & cream cheese poured in.
I confess I feel a touch guilty harshing on one of my stretch of South Broadway’s few ethnic eateries insofar as it appears, between the name change & the consistent lack of traffic foot or otherwise, to be struggling; I can’t help but picture some graying mom & pop alone behind the counter, chins propped on elbows, no longer focusing on the American dream as they dreamed it as youths by the palm-fringed Andaman seaside but staring silently out the window across the street onto the shambles of the construction site where the Gates factory used to stand.
Then again, if they’d just cook like Thais instead of like Thais cooking like Americans, they might find their little nothing-to-lose risk paying off big as business picked up.
Then again again, what do I know, especially about my fellow Americans’ tastes? I drink pickle juice, which, per none other than Dr. Seuss—secret Jekyll to McCarthy’s Hyde as the mind behind the para-Technicolor, loop-the-loop descent into fascist paranoia that we happened to be taking vicariously over dinner, the cult ’50s flick The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T*—is but the Lethean liquor of commie homos bent on world destruction in the form of musical education as they prance about trilling, “Dress me up in silk & spinach!”
Oh, Dr. Terwilliker the main piano-teaching commie homo villain,
if only you were real, & we could dine à deux on haw moak with pickle juice, seduced by the strains of Chopsticks as pounded out by 500 nubile boys-next-door-turned-pitch-perfect-slaves. Now that’s my American dream.
*Available at Netflix.
Ha! Sorry you had to read that.
Surrounded by ceramic bric-a-brac & Kirchner imitations, served by a goofy-as-hell but sweet-as-pie Aryan youth straight out of Goebbels’ wet dreams, sipping from a great big goblet of Riesling while my friend MO (whom you last met at Big Mess Bar-B-Q) worked her way around a beer sampler that was more like a beer hose-it-down-her-throater,
Warsteiner Pils, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Paulaner Munich Lager, Paulaner Hefewiezen, Paulaner Dopplebock, in some order or other
I was sufficiently charmed by Cafe Berlin to hope the indifferent bread basket, lined with a napkin that was trimmed with more crust than the factory-sliced bread it contained & accompanied by ice-cold foil-wrapped butter pats, was a fluke.
While my throwback garden salad was palatable enough thanks to a zesty if oddly orange & not especially mustardy mustard vinaigrette, MO’s gurkensalat wasn’t even close, suffocating almost audibly under a deluge of sour cream no less plain for being dilled.
the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, in which nearly 2 dozen people drowned after a rum-distillery tank burst near Boston Harbor, just like those poor floppy cuke disks
Lo, though, a ray of hope shone briefly but brightly in the form of this wurstteller,
combining coins of 3 types of bratwurst—all rich & tender, especially the palest variety—with vinaigrette-slicked tomato wedges over warm, deeply caramelized sauerkraut.
Then came the cloud that was my rouladen, obscuring all in the darkness of sloppy execution.
Even creamed, the beef was dry & tough. The bacon & sauteed onions supposedly wrapped thereup were scant if that; only the presence of the dill spear—yes, the beef is stuffed with an intact pickle—was obvious, not to say vaguely obscene. The dumplings were nothing but gummy. The pickled red cabbage was just fine, as was the bewilderingly incongruous salad of papaya, green apple & grapes, but I didn’t come to a German joint to get my RDA of fruits & veggies, dammit, I came for frischfleisch.
MO fared better with jagerschnitzel—the cutlet fairly tender & breaded gently enough, the mushroom-cream sauce a bit gloppy but plenty mushroom-creamy. Fried potatoes were no better or worse than they would be at your average truck stop. The spaetzle, however, was a shame, clearly storebought. Like gnocchi, spaetzle’s just got to be homemade; its virtues—a sweet lumpy shape & a doughy bite—are such that it’s pointless otherwise.
& so, I fear, would be another evening at Cafe Berlin, where even complimentary parting shots of apple schnapps, lovely though they were, couldn’t quite dull the bitter taste of disappointment. (Though someday, when it’s finally dissolved, I may take my chances with the lunch menu, as I also fear, deeply, that I’m a sucker for currywurst.)
***UPDATE: Swimclub 32 is now CLOSED.***
Choosing Swimclub 32 over Thëorie in episode 1 of Pimp My Meal!, Slim explained that the menu seemed to have “more dishes beyond the range of my kitchen skills” than did the latter. As dining criteria go, that one’s about as solid as they come; I don’t care to frequent any eatery whose kitchen would have me as a chef either—unless it’d let me make my famous grapefruit, pistachio, water chestnut & canned salmon salad, otherwise known as broke-ass delight. Sometimes I add gherkins. Actually, the Director has an old joke book in which the author advocates saving all the pistachios that won’t open until you have a serving bowl’s worth, then sitting back to watch hilarity ensue as your guests sweat to budge the shells. I always thought Hilarity Ensues would be a great porn name. Until the Oscars the other night, I’d never heard the thing Jon Stewart said about how you’re supposed to add your first pet’s name to the first street you lived on to get your porn name. Thing is, the first street I lived on was named for a locally beloved football coach, making my porn name Starshine “Bud” Wilkinson. Which would go over just fine, I guess, in the right clubs.
hot hot hot!!!
Speaking of being hot in the right club, if you are or just want to feel like you are or just want the people you’ll be spending the evening looking at to be, & you or they intend on staying that way or at least feeling like you’re or they’re staying that way by drinking lots & eating little, Swimclub’s your place. The huge mirror hanging over the bar is itself gorgeous, providing a literal framework for its beautiful subjects.
But if, as for Slim (& myself in this post, for that matter), you describe “your place” as one that offers dishes you don’t have the talent or inclination to make yourself, you’d best beware the implied corollary to your definition: that the offerers themselves do have the ability & motivation to follow through.
Let’s just say one or the other trait didn’t characterize Swimclub’s kitchen the night we were there.
If that’s putting it more delicately than I usually have the talent or inclination to put anything, it’s out of deference to the bar staff, whose ability & motivation very nearly compensated. Though the wine list is small, its heart is in the right place, devoted to smaller producers & more obscure blends & listing plenty of bottles in the $30 range; our Verget du Sud was absolutely lovely, light & bright. & though it wasn’t on the cocktail list, our bartender/waitress—so bubbly I wish her name were Pippi, though the Director said it was Angelica when I asked later if we remembered to ask, but I think he was making that up because then he added, “Huston,” whom I’m almost positive she wasn’t—wasn’t only obliging but downright eager to make me an espresso martini, which she did with a full shot of coffee to counterbalance sundry liqueurs (IIRC, Kahlua, Irish cream & Frangelico). It was fine & dandy.
Not so this scene-of-an-accident-looking scallop ceviche.
I’m not sure it contained anything besides scallop & bell pepper. I’m not sure the scallop & bell pepper it contained contained scallop & bell pepper—those little bits just seemed like placeholders for where their flavors were supposed to go. If chiles & lime juice were supposed to be there too, they must have gotten stuck in the tomato jam, arriving only after all the other ingredients gave up on them & left.
Yes indeed, just like post-accident traffic, the cloying mess of that jam brought everything else to a standstill. The Director said it reminded him of something you’d put on a playschool afternoon snack, like maybe saltines & peanut butter—which, come to think of it, all mashed up together, would have made for a much more successful kind of ceviche.
Likewise, if it looks like a duck quesadilla & acts like a duck quesadilla, it may well be a duck quesadilla—but that still doesn’t mean it tastes like one (so maybe the below photo belongs here).
As the Director notes, duck has a fairly low “gaminess threshold,” one it was bound to pass as soon as it came into contact with those spiced mashed black beans (themselves admittedly delicious, moist yet sturdy & punchy), never mind 3 different dressings (mole, herb cream & annatto oil). Really, I’m all for paying triple for once-humble ethnic snacks tarted up beyond recognition, but in this particular case, workhorses like pork & chicken might simply have been better equipped to pull their own weight than was that languishing anatine diva.
Next up: the signature beef,
served raw for searing not on these rocks, which formed the base of the bar,
nor this one, which held the check,
but this one, heated to 650 degrees—
which begins to beg the question, why not call it Rockclub? The music’s loud & pounding enough.
Anyway, what can I say about this dish the photo itself isn’t tearfully confessing? Or, okay, maybe it’s me who’s cryingly ashamed of having paid over $20 for some dip, plus maybe 3 bites of beef—& not from the kind of cow that gets daily massages & sees a Jungian therapist in its field of 4-leaf clover, either, just your average New York strip—as well as less than 1 layer of red onion & less than 1/2 of a new potato, all of which I had to cook myself. On a rock. With sticks. To see me, you’d think I also wore dirt & spoke in a series of grunts. (Oh, wait.)
As for these mussels,
they were, sitting fat in their bath of coconut milk & Pernod, quite good. You know, just like everybody else’s mussels.
Slim, I fear this particular ride is beyond pimping. It’s no bombed-out jalopy, mind you—more like the kind of flashy European sports car whose erratic performance is irrelevant to those who can afford it; they just like to see themselves, & have others see them, sitting in it, whether or not it’s going anywhere.
As though a holiday week’s worth—make that a year’s worth, compressed into a week—of a real Iowa grandma’s meat and potatoes weren’t enough, we had ourselves some steak dinners the other night at Dave & Buster’s, where we went to catch UFC 79 on the big screen. Because what else are you supposed to eat while watching two men in a cage maul each other to a yummy pulp? A nice piece of salmon and a side of asparagus with a lemon wedge?
On a gut level, I have to admit I find a fair share of chain restaurant food tough to dislike. After all, it’s got visual appeal down to a ridiculous science; the dishes set before us looked exactly like the dish shown in the below photo from D&B’s website—right down to the perfectly fake grill marks on the sirloin and the colorful bits of mystery topping on the potatoes. As for flavor, it’s got plenty: fat + salt + flavor-enhancing additives in bright, shiny array pretty much = deliciousness. I vacuumed up every last shred of those greasy onions, infused with the bonus flavor of Fryolater oil undoubtedly ancient enough to qualify as fossil fuel.
What’s more, franchises demonstrate dining democracy in action. The Burger King slogan “Have it your way” says it all: while, at a haute destination, what the chef says goes, low-to-middlebrow eateries operate on the principle that the customer knows best (which may, after all, be literally true, given the percentage of line cooks still in the teething stage). You want your steak bloody, you got it; you want it black-and-blue, you got it, no questions asked. (Hey, that steak looks just like those guys on TV!)
It’s on an intellectual level that I object to chains. I don’t want to know better than the chef; what’s the point of going out to dinner if not to have your culinary horizons broadened beyond the boundaries of your own kitchen? If he or she is going to take my advice as to how my meal should be prepared, why not just shove over and let me cook it myself?
On my first tour of Italy, I entered a tiny trattoria in the tiny village of Atrani, on the Amalfi coast, and was promptly greeted by the enthusiastic gent who served as the sole waiter as well as chef-owner. He clapped his hands and asked what I would like for him to bring me. He could, he said, make me any kind of pasta, any kind of sauce. He named some examples: I could have A with B, or C with D, or E with F…I said, oh, I’d like A, but could I have it with F?
He looked pained. No, he said gently but firmly. They don’t go together. Then he reiterated the acceptable combos.
That was the moment Italy became my one true place-love. I was charmed by my host’s loyalty to culinary tradition & the logic behind it, as well as by the un-American, oh-so-Euro notion that the guy with the dough, literal, could and should dictate to the guy with the dough, merely monetary. I let him choose my meal from start to finish—and returned the next night to relive the experience.
On that note, compare the above steak to that served at Black Pearl (no, I’m not on their payroll; I’ve simply got the memories and I know how to use them).
It’s a mess, smothered in breadcrumbs atop a slick of olive oil & balsamic vinegar. The honchos over at D&B’s HQ would be scandalized: why, it practically looks homemade!
Having had it more than once, I can assure you that’s exactly how it tastes—like a real adult is cooking a real piece of meat, from a real cow with a real place of origin, just for you. How’s that for a slogan, BK?