Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Scouting Al Lado with Denver on a Spit

La puerta of Richard Sandoval’s itty-bitty, pretty nuevas tapas bar is now open, & Denver on a Spit & I got a chance to sample our fair share of the menu. His first impressions appear below; mine can be found here.

First of all, what did you think of the vibe? Think it’ll make for a good scene?
What I think about a vibe now & what will be a good place to hang out are probably not one & the same. I have my babies in tow 9 times out of 10, so we would quickly ruin any good vibes floating through this slick but comfy space. For non-baby times like this night I loved it. The places around Commons Park have always been some of our favorites to spend time in, and I think this urban, young area is perfect for a simple, modern tapas bar. I don’t doubt that it will be hopping from day one.

Which dishes worked for you? 
The bacon-wrapped dates with almonds & Valdeon cheese. Of course they would have had to do something drastically wrong—like forget to put the bacon on it—for me to not like this combination. Simply delicious.


Also lip-smacking were the lamb albondigas in tomato sauce. The warm goat cheese melted—but not mixed—in with the sauce was absolutely perfect.

Which didn’t?
The patatas bravas were done in a way that I was not accustomed to, which is fine, but the large, deep-fried potatoes were dry and underflavored—& while the chorizo & chipotle sauce made up for that when I could get some on my fork—overall there was not enough of either to flavor those spuds.

As posted on your blog, my take was slightly different, which is partly why we do this! How do you think Al Lado compared to Ondo’s, with the caveat that we were attending a preview?
To me Ondo’s is about as true to a well-crafted Spanish tapa as one can get in Denver, while Al Lado seems to be doing more “interpretations.” I am not one to care about “authenticity” in the sense of being true to the “original” (whatever that is—though I do clearly like to emphasize words using quotations), so tI think it is hard to compare. The food that night was quite good overall but one of the weaker dishes was the patatas bravas as I mentioned above. I would also like to try the tortilla española from Al Lado before I had to make any final judgement, but I feel pretty comfortable recommending Ondo’s for a Spanish tapas experience like no other in Denver. On the other hand, Al Lado has 4 things going for it that spell restaurant success: location, location, location & Sandoval.

What about the cocktails—do anything for you?
Not really, but then again I usually avoid drinking liquor and wine at the same time, and nothing that we tried paired particularly well with the food. The wine on the other hand was great. I liked the list for being short, sweet and to-the-point.

Now there we agree completely.

Al Lado on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Huevo Escalfaldo y Chorizo at Ondo’s Spanish Tapas Bar

For the delectable details on this deceptively simple winner (& more), click here.

Ondo’s Spanish Tapas Bar: What They Said (And Then Some)

Reviews of Ondo’s, both pro & amateur, largely agree: the cooking, courtesy of Spanish-trained chef-owners Curt & Deicy Steinbecker, is the real delightful deal; the bland Cherry Creek ambiance is anything but. Well, I’ve got nothing to add to that consensus, but at least I can concur in my own inimitable style.

There’s something about the tradition of tapas that, perhaps more than most cuisines, demands commensurate atmsophere—the leisurely intimacy, I suppose, of sharing small plates over the course of a night of imbibing. Anything other than a rustic, cozy, preferably subterranean or at least windowless space in which candles flicker & a lone guitarist pines for the rugged hills of Andalucia just doesn’t cut it. Ondo’s is below street level, but otherwise it falls jarringly short: the dining room decor looks downright cheap, with flimsy tables & chairs awkwardly spaced—too far apart in the center, leaving swathes of industrial gray carpet, but too close along the wall lined with the usual landscape posters. Granted, the tight seating there makes for juicy eavesdropping—apologies to the clearly frustrated hipster guy whose ladyfriend, professing food allergies, wouldn’t eat anything, glancing at our table from time to time to whine, “I wish I’d known to get that—I don’t understand how to order from this menu!”

Darlin,’ as long as you know how to read English, it ain’t any different than ordering from any other small-plates menu. Even Spanish words like pinxtos & bocadillos are clearly defined as “tapas on toasted bread,” “sandwiches,” etc. How did we “know” to get the cazuelita (clay pot dish) de setas? Because the menu described it as “grilled oyster mushrooms with broiled with garlic & parsley.” It looked good on paper; we ordered it with our mouths. No arcane expertise, innate genius, or mental telepathy required.

And it was good, very. Plump & meaty, oyster mushrooms really do possess something of the sea-gray savor of their namesake, but they also gained a brightness from the garlicky olive oil & parsley, plus a bit of smokiness via paprika.

I’ll give dumb-bunny ladyfriend this: tuna salad on toast might seem like a mistake to anyone unfamiliar with the excellence of Spain’s canned seafood. Years ago, Saveur devoted a whole cover story to the topic; Ondo’s bonito del Norte pinxto provides a clear indication of why.

Atop a crusty baguette slice, this tuna salad was the richest, smoothest, creamiest version I’ve ever tasted; the red pepper–touched shrimp on top added a bit of sweetness it hardly needed (even less so the reduced balsamic vinegar on bottom), though their firm-fleshed texture did enhance the mouthfeel.

Of course, perhaps the most straightforward way to judge a tapas bar is by the quality of its solid-gold standards—most of which, like pan con tomate, patatas bravas, & tortilla española, we skipped. But we did try a surprisingly large order of spinach & pinenut croquettes, wonderfully flavored with what I think was red pepper aioli & a touch of liqueur—I’m guessing some sort of anisette, which wouldn’t be unheard of with spinach & pinenuts in either Italy or Spain.

Classic solomillo in blue cheese sauce was also beautifully done—the tenderloin so tender it was almost all juice, the sauce so silken its funky tang came almost as a surprise. The crisped-to-ribbons side of potato gratin was unnecessary, but lovely just the same.

The highlight of an entirely highlit meal, however, was revelatory for me: huevo escalfaldo (poached egg) with chorizo & mascarpone puree.

The first bite was blinding: it was as though I’d never experienced contrasting textures or complementary flavors before. A bit of luscious, pure egg; a bit of charred, then unctuous sausage; a bit of creamy-sweet creamy cream-cheesy cream. Gorgeous; I don’t know how else to say it.

Next time I go, which will be soon, I’ll sit at the bar with my back to the ugly room; the food will provide all the atmosphere I need.

On that note, happy new year.

Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar on Urbanspoon

The 9th Door: Lo, Warm Snacks!

I looked, & it turns out The 9th Door is an anagram for Oh, Hott Dinner! It’s not quite as accurate as it is resonant, though.

It’s not quite accurate first & foremost in a literal sense. A, grazing on tapas isn’t de jure the same as eating dinner, even if it turns out that way de facto. In Spain, of course, tapas are essentially happy hour snacks; it’s just that happy hour starts later & lasts longer than it does in the U.S., as does dinner afterward. (I remember reading somewhere maybe a decade ago that as their nation moved increasingly toward the 9-to-5 workday while their nightlifestyle held steady, Spaniards were becoming a chronically sleep-deprived people. Wouldn’t it be a trip if the whole nation started a supersuave Spanish-style fight club?) B, tapas are as frequently served cold as, if not more often than, they are hot.

It’s also not quite accurate in a figurative sense—at least not in my book, where what’s hott & sexy is what’s quiet & full of private corners for lingering in. I’ve never been here when it wasn’t cramped to the point of SRO & the house music wasn’t pounding.

As for the quality of the food, it runs anywhere from hot to lukewarm—some things are great, others just so-so. I can’t help but suspect The 9th Door’s enormous popularity is to some extent by default, a reflection of its lack of local competition in serving even close to the real thing. (Which, it should be noted, may not be the case much longer; Westword’s Jason Sheehan reported just this week on the soon-to-open tapas bar Ondo’s.)

Take the tostas truchas & the tuna-stuffed fried olives, neither of which lived up to their appetizing promise.

9thDoortrout 9thDoorolives

Without enough of the advertised horseradish, the smoked-trout spread was fairly one-note in its fishiness; the olives, for their part, clearly came from a jar in the supermarket aisle, thereby defeating their own especially evocative-of-groves-by-the-sea purpose.

Grainy polenta was a disappointment, too, all the more stark in contrast to the fatty excellence of the lamb & vibrant “mole verde,” basically pesto, it accompanied.

9thDoorlamb

But the pan-seared scallops—served as a tapa fria, believe it or not, with what I remember a sort of tomato-pancetta relish & sauteed greens—were a delightful surprise, full of nooks & crannies of varying texture & flavor to discover.

9thDoorscallops

And the fat goat-cheese-&-almond-stuffed dates were as delectable as they didn’t look.

9thDoordates

While lending them the veneer of surgical refuse, the skin of serrano ham beat even the hard-to-beat, more typical cummerbund of bacon stuffed dates wear, at once pungent & delicately crackly.

Paired with a few smart glasses of wine, above all the plenty peppery Errazuriz carménère (a long-lost grape of Bordeaux turned Chilean expat that’s quickly becoming a favorite varietal of mine), it all made for a very nice meal—or, as the anagram would have it, an Icy Meal Never. That, I’d say, is a little more accurate than the one we started with.