Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Scratching the escovitch

It’s escovitch to Jamaicans, escabèche to Mediterranean Europeans—and, no matter how mangled the pronunciation may get, it’s the buzzword most likely to succeed ceviche among American foodies. The dishes (as well as their names) are similar, actually—enough so that I have to wonder (but not so fervently that, you know, I actually get off my ass and look it up) if they share origins. According to the American Dialect Society, “the most obvious difference between escabeche and ceviche is that the fish in escabeche is sauteed before marinating,” whereas the fish in ceviche is essentially pickled, relying on no other cooking methods.

Perhaps, but tastewise, there’s a substantial difference. While citrus juice, especially lime, does the heavy lifting in ceviche, vinegar’s the kicker in escovitch. I’m also betting that traditional preparations of the former rely on milder chilies (e.g. jalapenos) than those of the latter, Jamaica after all being the home of the Scotch bonnet. Escovitch, in short, tends to have rather sharper edges than does ceviche.

Finally, at least as prepared at 8 Rivers—where I recently enjoyed a hyper-leisurely lunch with CulinaryColorado scribe Claire Walter—it may well be served on the side with fried fish, a preparation I wasn’t expecting based on the menu description. Though it’s not inauthentic, it seems to me deep-frying somewhat defeats the purpose of escovitch, since the marinade can’t really penetrate the fish-flesh, become one with it (not to get too sexy), without also making the batter soggy. Nevertheless, the marinade itself was excellent, at once sour, peppery and oniony; I poured it over everything from the spot-on black-bean-studded rice to the succotash. (Gorgeous photos courtesy of CW.)

Escovitch

Those plantains, by the by, were killer—so rich they constituted a poor man’s bananas foster.

As was the coffee, a quality roast served in a French press large enough to offer a temporary cure for narcolepsy, alongside an adorable matching glass, with what I’m pretty sure from its consistency was real cream, not half-and-half.

Coffee

There are a few pastas on the menu; a Chowhound thread on that subject led me to the discovery that, according to the website, the chef-owner grew up in my old Boston neighborhood, the North End, a longtime Italian enclave. That’s one cuisine I haven’t, in deference to taste-memory, dared tackle here yet. But considering the degree to which my expectations for Denver seafood have been surpassed, I plan to take the pasta plunge soon.

***One afterthought: I have mixed feelings about the trend toward table settings that don’t include salt and pepper shakers. Having recently championed the meritocratic notion that the chef, especially if he’s Italian, knows best (as opposed to the capitalist-democratic one that the customer’s word is law), I can’t help but feel that S&P are exceptions—just as they are in cookbooks, generally the only ingredients exempt from standardized measurements. While there are plenty of condiments a chef might reasonably cringe at requests for—discrete flavors that would significantly alter his vision of a given dish—S&P function more like magnifying glasses through which one may, in one’s more myopic moments, be able to see what he sees more clearly. On that note, I was slightly taken aback by the waitress—otherwise charmingly on the ball—asking us whether we wanted S&P halfway through our meal. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded adding a dash of salt to the sweet-spicy curry dressing on our salads; at that point, I was too embarrassed to say “yes,” as it would imply I hadn’t been fully paying attention to or appreciating my meal all along—which, for the most part, I had.

For that matter, I might object less in more gourmet, chef-driven circumstances, wherein one does oneself a disservice not to give oneself over wholly to the experience. But then I would expect even an explicit request for S&P to go politely declined, in keeping with the ethos of uncompromising mastery. By contrast, in a place as unpretentious as this, serving a cuisine as generous when it comes to seasoning as Jamaican is, the belatedly ceremonious offer seemed a bit passive-aggressively out of keeping.

Steuben’s shows me the $$$

Steuben’s is my Jerry Maguire: I love it for the neighborhood place it almost is. And I’m rooting for every inch of the little bit of room it has to improve.

It fits much of my criteria for a neighborhood place to a T—a capital T in some adorably funky font, no less, like Square Meal Hearty. With décor that puts a streamlined spin on the urban diner circa 1962—from the coffee-and-cream color scheme of the upholstery and floor tiles to the retro barware on display—it’s got the stylishly cozy vibe down pat. It’s got the stylishly cozy menu, too, a compendium of red-blooded, blue plate special–style neo-comfort food.

And more often than not, its substance is in league with its style. If it were even more often than not, Steuben’s would have me at hello every other day. As it is, it’s the waitstaff more than the kitchen crew who… completes…me.

Abra in particular (nickname Cadabra, natch) works the bar with verve and grace. Without ever obviously aiming to ingratiate herself (sticking to flashes of recognition rather than overbearing gestures of friendship), she almost always goes, in some subtle little way, above and beyond the call of duty (see: stylishly cozy service)—serving up brunchtime prosecco in a nifty cyclindrical flute for the price of a mimosa, say, or appearing with a free dessert when she finds she’s got one extra on her hands.

Flute_19

Like this strawberry bread pudding.

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No soft block of sugared egg, this really puts the bread in bread pudding—the crumb, the crust, the chew and all; in fact, it’s not so much pudding as jumbled French toast. Studded with strawberries and sided by vanilla ice cream, it was exactly what we didn’t need after a heavy meal…which is why it was exactly what we didn’t, but Abra did, know we had to have.

Said meal began with what’s listed on the menu, somewhat misleadingly, as “fried cheese.” To me, that ideally implies hunks of quality mozzarella, crusted as gently as possible, fried to a crisp, and served with a fresh, chunky herbed marinara. What arrived instead were more like crumb-coated, deep-fried grilled-cheese sandwich-sticks.

Friedcheese_8

In concept, it’s a charming twist on the original; in execution, the bread really puts the squeeze on the cheese, which now may as well be a parsley sprig for all it contributes to the whole.

Still, I managed to swallow my slight disappointment along with my share of the dish. The same went for a Caesar whose croutons were likely prepackaged; as I’ve mentioned (and as I’ll further explain in a future post), a Caesar is one of the most important tests I administer to any kitchen. Steuben’s gets maybe a C+ for its half-efforts.

On the other hand, a veritable passel of fried chicken far surpassed my expectations.

Friedchix_3

My other half let his other half polish off rather more than her share of four super-juicy pieces of poultry (IIRC, a wing, a breast and 2 legs), breaded for crunch and glisteningly, not drippingly, fried. The gravy, too, was a judicious goo, unctuous and salty and thick but not jellied.

As for washing it all down, Steuben’s is home to no oenophiles’ trove; pickings are slim. But then, anything more complex than a grape juice like the cheap house red would be wasted on tastebuds in such a down-and-dirty mood as the food here’s sure to put them in.