Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

First look at Ace Eat Serve (UPDATED 12/12)

I was hoping to have a second look by now, but it turns out Ace Eat Serve doesn’t in fact feed or serve before 2 on Sundays, so when I arrived at noon I had to mope around longingly instead.

Which means this will be updated eventually, but here’s what, IMO, you need to know in a nutshell: the place could not be cooler or more exuberant. Spacious, urbane yet earthy amid woods & metals recycled from the garage that used to occupy it, scattered with cool retro knickknacks (love those vintage flyers from Thailand)—a lot like Steuben’s, in other words, only with all the pingpong action that lends it its name.

The pan-Asian menu, meanwhile, is deceptively simple. It’s short, & so are the descriptions; you only have a general sense of what you’ve ordered until it’s in front of you. Take the chicken-thigh bao, for example.

Owner Josh Wolkon’s partner, Matt Selby, told me that one poor guy on the line has been making all the buns himself since day 1, & you can tell; mine was as good as any I’ve had on Federal, anyway—really—& the shredded dark meat that filled it turned bright with shreds of mango; as for the sweet pickled mustard seeds on the side, they, like the sesame-seed paste I touted last week, were worth the price of admission. In short, it’s the the unexpected add-ons & seasonings that bring Ace’s output to life.

As seasoned as Selby & exec chef Brandon Biederman are themselves, though, they’re still tweaking the menu; whether the bao will remain on the menu in their current form remains to be seen, I’m told. So get ‘em while you can. What’s more, I think the lovely stew I had might already have been axed; I could’ve sworn it was called “red-chili beef,” which I’m not seeing on the online menu right now. (UPDATE: it hasn’t gone anywhere! It’s called “red-curry beef.” Yay.) Anyway, the coconutty broth, brimming with herbs & chunks of beef, Thai eggplant, tomato & more, was deeply satisfying, complexly spiced & all that jazz, accompanied by proper sticky rice. The blistered long beans with garlic in back could’ve used a touch more salt or soy or something, but they were snappy for sure.

The celery salad, meanwhile, was as crisp & light as could be, studded with cubes of pickled daikon & gently dressed in a subtle vinaigrette. After having some gailan (Chinese broccoli) in oyster sauce richly studded with chunks of salted fish from Jaya Asian Grill the other day, I may never again eat vegetables without them, but then I’d be missing out on something as refreshing & cleansing as this was. (On the other hand, should you be disposed to funk it up, that’s what the fermented black beans on the table are for.)

Damn, dessert was special. A scoop of lemongrass ice cream bobbing in housemade ginger soda—so clean, so effervescent not just in form but in flavor. Zing. And the mochi filled with strawberry ice cream—so much pure goodness in such a tiny thing! I don’t believe they’re made in house, which is no biggie—sourcing’s half the battle of a solid kitchen.

As for a solid bar program, I presume these guys have it covered, just as they have at Steuben’s—well before most in town seemed to know what bitters were. As evidence, though, I can only offer a virgin sipper for the nonce: this housemade bitter-lemon soda, bright & bubbly & nowhere near too sweet. (There’s also an array of fresh juices, including a cucumber-beet-kale blend that has my number.)

That’s the story so far; I bet it has a happy ending.

***

After Xmas, I finally got a chance to find out. I’m hearing mixed reviews out there, but I dig the place. They’re doing what they’re doing—a broad, mod interpretation of pan-Asian eats, not a strict imitation—& doing it well.

Sure, we’re all sick of brussels sprouts—until we’re not. In a special this week (pictured top right), they were tossed with shishito peppers, garlic, & sesame seeds, fried to a blistering crisp, & paired with a lime cream for dipping; hot & cold, salty & sour, crunchy & smooth. Really nice. So were those pork-chive shumai (bottom left); minus the tomato sauce, they reminded me more than anything of little lasagna blossoms, rich & sturdy (not heavy, mind you, just structured, like pasta rather than tissuey skins).

Whether the crispy tiger wings are always as pungent as the batch pictured below left were—not spicy, but smoky to the point of bitterness—I dunno. Either way, they weren’t my top pick of the litter (or brood or flock, as the case may be)—but the beef ramen special did me a surprise solid. I missed the part in college where I was supposed to develop a taste for ramen; whoever stocked it in the collective cultural pantry forgot to offer me my share. So this is a case—a rather rare case, I’d like to think—of my having no basis for comparison other than the goods at Oshima Ramen. There, the broth tends to be light & delicate—herbal, floral, lots of ginger & scallions; Ace’s version is earthier, favoring warm spices & bright veggies like carrots & chilies both fresh & dried. Gathering further savory steam from the ample ground beef, it coats the noodles in its sheen. It really grew on me.

As for the chicken-thigh buns with fried onions & pickled mango, they were every bit as delicious as last time. And while a tiny sip of my companion’s rum-&-Chartreuse-based cocktail, The Girl With Green Eyes, wasn’t for me—I’ve just grown to detest St. Germain; it’s a personal thing—look at that ice cube (or rather rectangle)! Must’ve been 8 inches tall, at least.

So have I been inordinately lucky? That would be a first. Perhaps I’ve been inordinately lunchy—both of my visits occurred in the daytime—& the reported problems are occurring when the joint gets slammed at night. Or maybe I’m just right that there are more hits than misses, & those who say otherwise are wrong. Or maybe they’re right & I’m wrong…Nah. But only one way for you to find out.

Ace Eat Serve on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Sesame-seed paste at Ace Eat Serve

I’ll regale you with the full tale later, but all the aiolis, chutneys, dips, dressings & jams that make condiments my favorite food group have just met their match in this stuff from the ping-pong & small-plates parlor that is Steuben’s already jumping new sibling.

Filling 1 of the 2 jars that sit on every table (the other holds classic fermented black-bean paste), black & white sesame seeds, dried red chilis, sesame oil, sugar, salt & a little textured soy protein for crunch are all it contains—but boy, is it more than the sum of its parts. Intense & salty-sweet, but not lacking for umami complexity either, it’s just…startlingly scrumptious. A little dab’ll do ya, if ya are normal. I could polish it off spoonful by spoonful, myself.

Dish of the Week: Ikan Bilis at Makan Malaysian Café (full review)

Two-visit verdict: while I’m rooting hard for the small, sweet staff of Makan Malaysian Café on the one hand, I’m not about to defect from Team Jaya on the other; the latter still proffers a more appealingly varied & to date better-executed bill of Southeast Asian fare.** (Before you point to the take-out containers in the photos & cry foul for my comparing dine-in oranges to at-home apples, I’ll note that I’ve eaten both in & out at Jaya. For the unsightly nature of said photos, however, you should by all means point & cry.)

What Jaya Asian Grill doesn’t have, however, is ikan bilis, a senseless mess I’ve nonetheless missed mightily since moving here (until now!). It consists of tiny whole anchovies fried with shallots in sambal—a Malaysian staple for sauces that’s simultaneously sweet, spicy, & intensely funky (thanks to salty shrimp paste)—& that’s it, which is why Makan serves it as a side dish, though I’ve plowed through heftier portions in my day.

It wears the Dish of the Week mantle well for being so exuberantly wacky, though this almost-jammy rendition didn’t quite set me to swooning the way it had at my former go-to in Boston; perhaps the latter’s use of tamarind added a lusher, more complex tartness (there are, after all, many variations on the sambal theme)?

Could be, but Makan’s sharper, smokier sambal—with a curious molasses tang to it—had the last laugh by perfectly offsetting a stirfry of velvety eggplant, firm, pristine shrimp & bright scallions (left), to which it lent heft & depth.

As for the chicken-potato curry on the right, it was plenty likeable as an entree—smooth, soothing, brightly tinged with ginger—

but not so much as a dipping sauce for the flatbread known as roti; though typically much thinner, this was simply watery, largely flavorless—& the 1st time we had it, the bread itself was no compensation, with a tough, overworked quality.

Even staler & duller was the popiah, whose wrapper was oddly crackerlike, its egg-&-sausage filling dry, its advertised jicama absent.

Good thing subsequent orders showed vast improvement; though the dipping curry (this time with lentils) was still drippy & bland, the bread itself was much flakier & more tender-chewy,

as was the potato-curry-filled crust of these crisp fried puffs—

which, however, happen to be tiny (about finger-length); a single order may not suffice as a shareable appetizer.

On that note, take-out junkies like me beware—portions aren’t generous by American standards; even containers of rice (plain or coconut-scented, though the latter’s so subtle you have to do a bite-for-bite comparison to detect it) aren’t filled to the top. So be it; only so much dough & stew in various forms you can eat in one sitting anyway.

**To be fair, the kitchen is pretty much a one-woman operation; her repertoire is bound to be limited to what she can conceivably manage with her own 2 hands. And I don’t expect a place that bills itself as a Malaysian joint to serve Indonesian & Singaporean specialties as well, any more than I expect Chinese joints to offer Thai food or sushi (despite the weird Denver norm). That said, since Jaya does cover the whole Southeast Asian map & does it well, it simply has more to offer.

Makan on Urbanspoon

Island Hopping at Jaya Asian Grill

We Denverites may be landlocked, but our mouths are free to set sail. Whisk them off to Jaya Asian Grill for a whirlwind cruise of Southeast Asia’s island nations—namely Malaysia, Indonesia, & Singapore, complete with a northward detour into Thailand & the southern tip of China—and you’ll see what I mean. Then do it again. And again.

After all, there’s a lot of ground (& sea) to cover here: stews & stirfries, curries & noodles, fish & poultry dishes. A mishmash of Chinese & Indian as well as indigenous influences, the fairly similar, seafood-heavy cuisines of Southeast Asia are distinguished by the prevalence of coconut milk & shrimp paste, fish sauce & lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, & tamarind, as well as other tropical fruits & nuts. With one bite, you can almost picture those tastebuds of yours wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, smoke rising from the hawker stalls.

Me, I discovered this strip-mall oasis on South Colorado shortly after moving here from Boston three years ago, when I found myself with a raging jones for the assam ikan bilis—tiny anchovies fried with onions, chilies, and tamarind—I used to cure the late-winter blues with back east. I didn’t find it at Jaya, but I couldn’t & can’t get enough of the stuff I did encounter courtesy of native Singaporean chef David Yea. What follows is an itinerary for your first tasting tour.

Malaysia. Revel in roti canai, featuring wedges of flatbread not unlike naan, only thinner (& denser, due to the inclusion of clarified butter, or ghee, in the dough). They’re commonly served with a side of chicken or lentil curry, though here the dip is a rich chicken broth gently jazzed up with ginger & chilies.

Singapore. Try the aromatic but not-too-spicy curry laksa, a coconut milk–based soup chock-full of spaghetti-sized rice noodles & mixed seafood—scallops, shrimp, mussels—as well as chopped hard-cooked egg. (Laksa essentially means “lots and lots,” alluding to the multitude of ingredients the dish contains—although Yea dispenses with the traditional tofu puffs.)

Indonesia. Bone-in, crispy-skinned, deep, dark and luscious, bebek panggang is Indonesia’s answer to Peking duck—and it’s a snappy one, punctuated by a garnish of chili-flecked cabbage.

Hainan. Eschew the menu’s Cantonese compromises—you can settle for those anywhere—in favor of Hainanese chicken, named for China’s southernmost island province. Its pleasures are purely combinatory: the tender chunks of poached white meat serve primarily as vehicles for two vibrant, extremely fresh dipping sauces—green ginger-scallion & orange ginger-chile—while their juices infuse a mound of fragrant coconut rice.

Of course, alternative routes abound. For instance, you could go on a tear through the islands’ greatest hits, sampling gado gado (a cooked vegetable salad with tofu, egg, & peanut sauce), beef rendang (a gravy-like curry), & nasi goreng (fried rice with bits of salted fish) along the way.

And so on. In short, just let your gullet be your intrepid travel guide.

Jaya Asian Grill on Urbanspoon

La Scala Trattoria Coming Your Way 5/16; Healthy Asian Garden Open Next Door

Glad to see South Denver’s pasta void is finally about to be filled, following Westword’s announcement of the venture 2 months ago:

Its neighbor is a take-out multi-Asian place that I’ve been meaning to check out for the past month or so—

but now that their menu’s online I’m guessing I can mostly skip it; I think they left the word “Variety” off the end of their name. It’s your basic den of egg-fu this & happy that delight. There are a couple of curiosities: under appetizers, “green vegetable dumplings” (chive, by chance?) as well as “donut (10)” (who knows?); house specials list salt-&-pepper salmon & flounder (this slightly spicy fried preparation is usually reserved for shellfish); & the phrase “gon bao” pops up frequently, which is unfamiliar to me & yields only a couple of unhelpful Google hits. I’ve already cast a line on Chowhound; will edit this if someone bites with a definition.  EDIT: Oh, duh—it’s an alternate transliteration of kung pao. Never mind.

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro: Suddenly It All Makes Sense

Not to mince words—I hate the name of Mary Nguyen’s new Pan-Asian Englewood outpost. Exactly what is Street Kitchen Asian Bistro supposed to conjure? Is it indoors, outdoors, bare-bones, upscale? How about Hawker Stall Steam Cart Pub & Trattoria? Or Floating Market Cantina y Brasserie? Never mind the fact that the acronym is SKAB.

But I guess I just gotta get past the souped-up moniker, because the place itself looks like it’s gonna be a winner. Mod & streamlined yet glowing with color (love those perforated, rectangular wooden pendant lamps), the space is super-inviting, striking just the right balance between energy & intimacy. Our server did likewise—showing her personality via banter while keeping her wits about her. In short, she read the table right. And the menu’s got sauce, in G. Love’s sense of the word—a playful mix of dim sum–style small plates, noodles & curries that pays homage to cooking traditions across the Asian continent while upping the presentation angle, as with this pretty little quartet of mixed pickles.

While not quite as all-fired inventive as the assortment I inhaled at SKAB’s Boston-area equivalent, Myers + Chang, it still packs heat & cold, sour zing in equal measure, from the cabbage-jalapeño combo on the left to the lightly curried mixture of diced carrots, cukes, what I think was shredded tofu skin, & chopped cashews on the right.

Points for presentation also go to the roasted, garlic-&-chive-speckled pork belly. So often these days pork belly is disguised in the form of precious little cubes; it’s refreshing to see it looking like the bacon it makes, striped with pure charred fat. A few bites were tough, but I liked its honesty, & the contrast between its smokiness & the cool of the excellent coleslaw it came with—crisp & perfectly dressed, lightly sweet-sour & just creamy enough.

I didn’t sample the happy-hour dumplings & buns my pals Mark—the former Denver Drinks Examiner who really should start a cocktail blog—& Amy ordered, but I was assured they were “delicate & texturally interesting enough” to compare with those of more traditional dim sum joints. The butterfly-shaped scallop dumplings sure looked like feats of dexterity.

Meanwhile, the highlight of my own meal was the Thai-style roast chicken I got to go. It’s worth noting that Nguyen’s attention to detail extends even to packaging: the box was fastened with a little sticker on which the name & description of the dish were printed—a handy way to keep track of multiple orders when the boss springs for take-out, thereby avoiding those awkward moments when you realize you’ve polished off half a colleague’s X & stuck her with your Y, to which she’s allergic. (Or whatever—office politics are not my area of expertise. The point is I assume the chef-owner is catering to lots of workaday-techie traffic.)

But what was in the box, despite losing its looks in the translation of transportation, was just great. Over a bed of more coleslaw sat half a chicken, marinated in coconut milk with lemongrass, ginger & Kaffir lime leaves & then roasted;

the result was extraordinarily moist meat & crackling, glistening skin, all gently suffused with the richly aromatic kick of the marinade. Best bird bits I’ve had in some time, word. In the end, if the name reeks of an identity crisis, at least the kitchen is crystal-clear on its mission.

Street Kitchen Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon