Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Binge Bingo: Ghost Plate & Tap, Table 6

Damn, I wish I had time to start a whole new blog, just so I could name it Binge Bingo.

Anyway, neither of these mini-reports really capture full-fledged binges (& you better believe I should know). More like Tidbit Bingo, but that doesn’t possess the same ring.

Last Saturday, the Director & I hit Ghost Plate & Tap for an early sup. The place was ghostly indeed upon entrance—shrouded in the dull glow of its still-dinerly décor & near-empty—but I’m relieved to say business was brisker by the time we left. Meanwhile, chef Christopher Cina has the chops to liven things up considerably. For instance, while the killer-flatbread competition is weirdly fierce in this town—Coohills, Amira Bakery, twelve & Encore on Colfax all come to mind as contenders—Cina’s giving it a real go with this sunny, robust thin-cruster. Roast chicken, fingerlings & tomatoes, caramelized onions, gorgonzola, & fresh rosemary all pull their weight in due proportion.

Billed as a salad, the seared Scottish salmon could as easily pass as an entree; either way, it’s done to a T: the fish buttery enough to eat with a spoon & offset by the tang of caper aioli on the one hand, herb vinaigrette on the other, which respectively grace a fluffy potato cake & a tangle of watercress.

Debates over what constitutes the perfect French dip have surely been swirling since the sandwich was invented at the turn of the 20th century, but my own criteria are as follows: 1) the roast beef should maintain a tinge of pink, however slight; it should be shaved paper-thin & piled high. 2) Horseradish, grated or creamed. Slathered. Period. Beyond that I don’t care what is or isn’t involved—Swiss cheese, onions, pickles—nor whether it’s served wet or dry. (Okay, I also care about the quality of the bread/roll, but that goes for any sandwich; it’s not the mark of a French dip per se.) YMMV, as they say, but Cina’s version met my standards.

That we had to skedaddle afterwards seemed a shame of anyeuristic proportions once I caught a glimpse of the triple-chocolate-chip cookie plate on the table opposite us (& then of the dessert menu as a whole, including jalapeño crème brulée). Better scheduling next time.

Ghost Plate & Tap on Urbanspoon

***

Speaking of chagrin, I hadn’t set foot in Table 6 in forever, & upon meeting French Press Memos’ Andra there for happy hour on Monday I’ll be damned if I know why I’m not there, like, right now. Life’s too short to not be eating báhn mì sliders & scallop-shrimp sausage coins over blini & remoulade-esque aioli.

Un premier coup d’oeil à La Merise

I couldn’t help but have my doubts about Argyll Pub’s successor in Cherry Creek; following on the heels of a smash success is a job for geniuses or fools, & most people aren’t the former. So far, mixed online reviews have given no indication of any particular brilliance on the part of the joint owners of La Merise—& the fact that, as we were told, they’re respectively from Lithuania & Latvia certainly struck me as a missed opportunity: why they didn’t open a Lithuanian-Latvian joint? That would have been awesome.

But, granting that 1 meal is insufficient to quell all doubt, it went some way toward reassuring me that this French bistro deserves a chance.

The décor hasn’t changed much, nor should it have, since Argyll already had the right vibe—maybe it’s a little twinklier, a little more Gallic in ornamentation, a little more feminine right down to the staff, entirely composed of sweet young things when the Director & I were there for Sunday brunch. The menu’s wholly traditional, which means creativity’s off the table & execution is all-important.

On that score, my chicken croquettes were the pudding the proof’s in.

The meatballs themselves were nothing but light, perfectly moist & seasoned, ground chicken, which is all they needed to be given their bath in a dilled cream sauce that was likewise comme-il-faut in texture (not watery, not gloppy), alongside gruyère-scalloped potatoes sliced ultra-thin for extra crispiness & root vegetables roasted to a T, really—so much deep, glazed flavor.

Rather clunkier in presentation was the Director’s pick, a rolled crêpe that struggled to breathe under a heap of hollandaise-drenched ham, poached eggs—1 broken on arrival—& Swiss. But so long as you took care to get a little of this & a little of that with each bite, the flavors came together nicely, classically, richly.

The bread basket isn’t as good as it should be, but the wine list is better than it has to be, & in the end I was rather charmed by the whole affair. Seems to me like the sort of place that could blossom with a little neighborhood attention.

La Merise on Urbanspoon

Navigating WaterCourse Foods

My poor sainted mother. A Jew-Bu through & through (so maybe “sainted” isn’t quite the right adjective), she has to live with the fact that her only daughter would eat pretty much anything given half a chance, excluding turtles but possibly including human (hey, you only live once—unless the Buddhists, Jew- or not, are right, in which case you’ve got some karma-dependent options).

But that means I’ll also do durian & huitlacoche, & that I’m potentially just as happy at a vegetarian haven as I am at a barbecue shack. WaterCourse Foods realizes that potential in many ways, much of the time. Sure, some (not all) of the servers are too cool for school rules like promptness or cheer; & sure, not all protein-based dishes have plant-based equals. There are rough(age) edges. But there’s also plenty of smooth sailing (get it?).

And that, shockingly enough, includes buffalo-style seitan. The menu calls them “wings,” which, come on, isn’t even close. But in & of themselves, the spears of so-called wheat meat are actually tasty. Texturally, they’re more like potato wedges, crisping well, & they do have a vaguely meaty savor that absorbs the buffalo sauce & ranch dressing—both of which are addictive in themselves, of course, so yay.

Of several visits I’ve made recently, one was for dinner to go; the Director’s nachos held up as well to be expected, so while there was no saving the lettuce, a quick trip under the broiler made them good as new. All I ask of vegetarian nachos are crisp corn chips, nice salty cheese (in this case asadero), well-seasoned & moist refried beans, & some spice. The latter was left to pico de gallo (no sign of the advertised green chile), but otherwise they were a-ok, complete with guacamole that was mostly mashed avocado (as well it should be).

Wraps are hard to mess up, but they’re also hard to make interesting. The Juan Wrap is just that, vibrant & hearty with grilled sweet potatoes, sauteed mushrooms & onions, smoked mozzarella & a liberal coating of rich cilantro-pistachio pesto. The tortilla is neither here nor there, of course, but probably the best vehicle for the substantial filling. You get your choice of two among several sides; the quinoa salad with beans & corn had a nice kick, but the sesame-seed-sprinkled, supposedly steamed kale was nearly raw. I get that the frilly-edged, dark green leaves look prettier that way, but uncooked kale is just too tough (& I tried it 3 times, so it wasn’t a fluke).

It went down a little more easily lightly dressed & mixed with steamed squash & carrots as part of the seasonal vegetable mix; compared to the quinoa, however, the amaranth was soggy. Too bad, because the flavors were great, combining chopped sugar snap peas & red pepper, golden raisins & chai-spiced pistachios (think cardamom above all).

They came with the “Reuben,” which, as with the “wings,” is a mighty fine sandwich on its own; no need for it to suffer by comparison to something it’s not. Kinda reminds me of that old Mitch Hedberg joke, “If you go to the grocery store and you stand in front of the lunchmeat section for too long, you start to get pissed off at turkeys. You see, like, turkey ham, turkey pastrami, turkey bologna… Somebody needs to tell the turkeys, ‘Man, just be yourself!'” Speaking of lunchmeat, the classic grilled Reuben features corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese & 1000 Island dressing on buttered rye; here, the coarse-chopped portobellos that stand in for the beef were happily as smoky as promised, in nice contrast to the “special sauce,” which, tangy & tomatoey, vaguely evoked pizza sauce. Just a touch of red cabbage sauerkraut added a tart note, the Swiss added the salt & the whole thing, in short, came together really well, even if it wasn’t grilled.

The only major disappointment was the Maximus Burger. I am gung-ho for a good veggie patty, which, carefully made with grains, legumes et al., can be a totally thick & juicy, variegated surprise. WaterCourse’s version features a combo of pinto beans & quinoa, which looks good on paper, & it packs a little spice from green chile. But it was also flat, dense & dry, texturally no better than its mass-produced, frozen supermarket equivalent, suggesting way too much binder for the buck. I don’t know if it’s topped with the same “special sauce” that accompanies the Reuben; this one seemed more 1000-Islandy, actually, i.e. ketchup-&-(vegan?)-mayo based, but you know, different day, different results. The kaiser roll was fine, fresh, although there was nothing particularly sweet-potato-like about it (as opposed to any other kind of potato-based bun).
The kitchen’s had onion rings down pat for a long time, though. Thick-cut, judiciously coated in a well-seasoned-&-herbed batter that yields a lovely, lacy crunch, they hardly needed the accompanying chipotle aioli, though it didn’t hurt either. (It’s a real bummer that the salad they used to grace, once one of Denver’s most interesting, is no longer available. Online campaign starts here.)

You can get cheese on that “burger,” but you can’t get “cheese” on it; since I really wanted to try the housemade vegan options, I asked if I could order one à la carte rather than as a selection of 3 (the current menu lists smoky jalapeño “cheddar,” pistachio-fennel “manouri,” &  lavender-herb “chèvre,” as well as sweet onion pâté). Actually I asked twice, & with little ado the 1st time, rather more the 2nd, my wish was granted.

Loving cheese the way I do, I am no expert on substitutes, so I can’t say whether these fared better or worse than others by comparison. I can say, as I already have, that there’s not much point in comparing them to the real deal, because they’re simply nothing of the kind. Which doesn’t mean they’re not intriguing. In appearance & mouthfeel, the “cheddar” was unnervingly reminiscent of sea urchin, but the flavor was really nice: nutty, indeed smoky & a touch spicy. (The perfect ripe fig was a swell touch too.)

The “manouri” (which I got to go) was more like ricotta, fluffy rather than creamy, but as a mild binder for chopped nuts it grew on me.

These days WaterCourse also sports a small seasonal selection, including the watermelon caprese with (real) buffalo mozzarella, basil oil, balsamic vinegar & smoked salt.

I agreed with the companion who ordered it that shaved melon, while awfully pretty & surely time-intensive, releases too much water. Can’t say I even detected the balsamic. Still, it had its refreshing aspects.

As does WaterCourse as a whole, even for omnivores; like all local institutions, it’s got quirks that become at least tolerable, at best charming, if you let them. I can’t help but have a soft spot for the place, for all its disaffected youth & culinary quotation marks.

WaterCourse on Urbanspoon

Jerusalem Restaurant vs. Ya Hala Grill: A Tale of Two Vegetarian Combos

***Yesterday’s ode to the King Combo at Mecca Grill brought the below post to mind, originally published on the website of Denver Magazine earlier this year.***

On January 31, the USDA revised its dietary guidelines to recommend that Americans up their intake of produce, whole grains, plant-based proteins, & good fats even more while further reducing their intake of meat & saturated fats. In short, duh, but it served as a reminder to yours truly that I should throw vegetarians a bone (so to speak) more often.

While the new food diagram looks a lot like that of the Western Mediterranean diet as popularized in the 1990s, Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is no less vegetarian-friendly & heart-healthy. So I decided to try the meatless combo platters offered by two of Denver’s most beloved Middle Eastern joints—Jerusalem Restaurant & Ya Hala Grill—side by side to see how they stacked up.

Jerusalem

Ya Hala

To start with the items the combos had in common:

Falafel. Jerusalem’s boasted a golden-brown crust as cracklingly thin as the surface of crème brulée—but the interior of these fried, mashed-chickpea croquettes was moist, nutty & smoky with cumin & lots of herbs. Ya Hala’s was too crunchy throughout, on the dry side. Winner: Jerusalem.

Stuffed grape leaves. Expertly rolled, Jerusalem’s were as tight as cigars, packed with aromatic jasmine rice. By contrast, Ya Hala’s rice filling was plain, interesting rather for its texture: almost pudding-like inside remarkably tender, olive oil–slicked grape leaves. Winner: Toss-up. Jerusalem’s are technically correct, but I enjoyed the unusual softness of Ya Hala’s.

Hummus. Compared to Ya Hala’s blandly one-note fluff, Jerusalem’s chickpea purée is textbook—lightly creamy, spiked with lemon juice and tahini in equilibrium. Winner: Jerusalem. (Ya Hala does, however, have a garbanzo-based winner in fatteh.)

Tabbouleh. Proportion was also the key to Jerusalem’s finely chopped, simply dressed parsley-&-bulgur salad with tomatoes & onions, whereas Ya Hala’s was especially lemony. Winner: Another toss-up. Jerusalem’s showed better balance, but Ya Hala’s had more juice, in every sense of the word.

Baba ghanoush. Only after reviewing the menu did I realize that one of the three whitish dips on Ya Hala’s combo was even supposed to be baba ghanoush; none had any eggplant flavor at all. Jerusalem’s was more like it—nice & tangy, with an airy consistency almost like whipped cream. Winner: Definitely Jerusalem.

Ounce for ounce, Jerusalem was coming out way ahead—especially considering that its combo was $4 cheaper than Ya Hala’s ($8.95 versus $12.99), yet offered two falafel & stuffed grape leaves to the latter’s one. But that was only half the battle. In fact, the remaining items on Jerusalem’s platter were less impressive, from the pale, limp french fries to the fattoush, an oily mixture of chopped green pepper, winter tomatoes, onions & herbs that was completely devoid of the key ingredient, toasted pita chips. Ya Hala, meanwhile, offered up starkly pungent garlic dip & soothing cucumber-yogurt sauce in counterbalance; the earthy mixture of lentils & rice known as moujaddara; a well-spiced wedge of spinach-feta pie (though the phyllo was slightly stale); & unfortunately tinny-tasting green beans stewed with tomatoes, as well as a few chunks of decent feta.

Final verdict: Ya Hala’s vegetarian combo was more diverse, but Jerusalem’s was better overall—indicating why the decades-old Denver University hangout is such a mainstay.

Jerusalem Restaurant: 1890 E. Evans Ave.; 303.777.8828; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$12.95.Ya Hala Grill: 2100 S. Colorado Blvd.; 303.758.9376; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$13.99.

Larkburger: One Word.

Early on a Sunday evening, Larkburger was packed—just, I suppose, like every other burger-flipping fast-food joint in the whole wide world. It’s a cultural phenomenon that never ceases to confound me, & thus to underscore the fundamental sense of outsiderliness I developed as a child in family-friendly, meat-&-potatoes Oklahoma & have yet to quite shake. My own family wasn’t particularly family-friendly or meat-&-potatoes; my mom & dad loved me lots, of course, but for them that meant teaching me early on to appreciate a wide variety of adult foods in adult environments rather than indulging immature tastes. So while I like a good burger just fine, its status as an icon among culinary icons, a thing to be craved & consumed near-daily amid plastic shapes, cartoon colors & screeching voices—that I still can’t fathom. And though Larkburger’s reclaimed wood paneling is nice & all, the otherwise typical setting—all easy-to-clean surfaces, dispensible (albeit eco-friendly) products, raucous kiddies & harried parents with understandably faraway looks in their eyes—just depresses me to no end.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I got my food to go, zipping quickly home so the Director & I could wash it down with wine & Scotch, the way any god worth believing in intended.

Here’s the other thing about burgers: they’re insufficient fodder for detailed reviews, being pretty well summed up by 2 words: “good” or “bad.” And the word on Larkburger’s signature has been out long enough to make my chime-in almost pointless. Is the patty juicy, flavorful & cooked to order? You bet, semantics notwithstanding—”medium-rare” is not technically an option, though it’s what plenty pink “medium” turns out to be a euphemism for. Whatever. Does the buttered bun taste fresh, slightly sweet & fluffy as all good white bread should? Of course. Are the veggies crisp? Naturally. How’s the house sauce? Nice—an extra-tangy aioli.

Truffle-parmesan fries are pretty much the new regular fries, having long since passed from novelty to standard. (Okay, not literally; Larkburger serves plain fries too, all of the thin, crisp-tender variety.) Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not anti-truffle oil, however ubiquitous it may be, so long as it’s judiciously applied to be aromatic but not overwhelming—and such is the case here. The parmesan, parsley & sea salt, however, are sprinkled on so heavily as to actually clump here & there—& that, in my book, is a really good thing.

The turkey burger, unfortunately, isn’t likely to change skeptics’ minds about turkey burgers. Though made in good faith with lots of herbs & spices, it remains on the dry side—unlike the lettuce I got mine wrapped in. I was curious to see how the low-carb alternative would hold up, & the answer is: it doesn’t. The aioli quickly liquefies, soaking the leaves & making a mess you can’t eat without a fork. (Well, you can, but you’ll have to do it like this.)

A far more pleasant surprise is what I’d call Larkburger’s dark horse: the chili.

As served, it’s a well-integrated, spicy-sweet stew of ground beef, black & kidney beans, & fat hominy kernels swimming in juicy tomatoes & lots of diced red onion as well as fresh cilantro. As reserved for leftovers, eaten cold the next day, it’s thicker but no less balanced.

She says, wiping stray beads of orange oil from her lips after a fine breakfast.

Larkburger on Urbanspoon

Let It Linger

Yeah, you have to, to paraphrase that annoying old Cranberries song. You have to come prepared to stay awhile & soak it all up, every last retro & surreal detail. The gold-streaked mirror lining the back bar upstairs & the Lite Brite bulbs (what a sight, makin’ things with Lite Brite!) lining the bartop. The bright swirls & paisleys of wallpaper, evoking the foyer of a mortuary whose owners made a misguided attempt to brighten things up circa 1973. The fact that you are, indeed, in a former mortuary—which owner Justin Cucci, to his credit, clearly took pains to downplay. (In his place, I think I’d have gone cuckoo with morbid, gross-out decor, forgetting all about the fact that people are trying to eat here.) The inexplicable moat of billiard balls you pass on the way to the bathrooms. The way, way hipper-than-thou servers with their porkpie hats, vintage eyeglasses & loafers, looking for all the world like long-lost members of The Untouchables. Etc. And then there’s the spectacular view of downtown from the picture windows that make Linger, for all its quirks, so light & airy & perfectly comfy. (Its spaciousness helps too; despite the Saturday night mob, it didn’t feel like a madhouse, since there was plenty of room to sprawl.)

In short, I instantly liked the place—every bit as much as I instantly didn’t like its sibling, Root Down, upon its equally ballyhooed opening (although I’ve since come around somewhat). Though I didn’t try the cocktails, I know Anika Zappe’s work well enough (ahem) to know I would like the cocktails. Instead, I drank one of the weirdest wines everCasalfarneto Rosae Lacrima di Morro d’Alba—the 1st, Xtreeeemely juicy sip of which made me cringe, while the 2nd made me wonder, & by the 3rd glass I was hooked. Pals L & Mo, meanwhile, stopped at the cringing stage. It takes guts to put a wine like this, sure to appeal only to a fringe element with a taste for pain (Mo proclaimed it “like falling down in a field of lavender and being stung by 1,000 angry bees”), on a by-the-glass list; for that reason alone, I’ll be back to see what other oenologic wonders await.

And the food? I liked that too. Did I love it? Not yet—but the promise of summer lovin’ is already there in spades. The globally influenced small plates menu is fun-filled from soup to nuts—sometimes in the same bowl, as with the cucumber gazpacho garnished with almonds, green grapes, & shaved radish.

That scoop of tomato sorbet in the center was what made the dish, adding a swirl of icy tart-sweet zing to its coolly creamy surroundings.

I’ve had the likes of corn-poblano soup with crab & avocado many a time, & this rendition was as good as any, falling somewhere between palatable & memorable.

Neither the steamed Mongolian duck buns with miso-pickled cucumbers

nor the beer-braised short rib tacos

stood out in my mind; they were fine, but the problem with moving street food indoors is that street food is, by definition, meant to be eaten on the street, current high-end trend notwithstanding. What one savors is its cheap, messy, on-the-fly qualities; it loses something in the translation to sit-down fare—& so do the more expensive ingredients meant to improve it. That’s my story, anyway, & I’m sticking to it.

By comparison, the spring-green, fresh & bright fava bean-sweet pea “hummus” absolutely benefited from such chefly touches as the row of mix-ins—grated egg, paprika, crumbled feta, & reserved lemon—on the rim of the bowl, making for a sort of impressionistic paint-by-numbers bread spread.

Same goes for the transformation of the fresh Indian cheese called paneer into “fries”; much like tofu, this stuff is generally so mild it’s as much a textural canvas for other ingredients as it is an ingredient in itself, & as a vehicle for warm-spiced spinach puree & heady rhubarb ketchup, the firm, lightly fried sticks held up nicely.

The patty on the left was listed as b’stilla, but it went down far more like a cake of chicken hash than a carefully layered, Moroccan-style phyllo-dough pie (c.f. the real deal at Palais Casablanca). A misnomer isn’t necessarily a culinary mistake, though; this was dense, moist, & bold-flavored through & through—& if you ask me, they should slide that shit into a steamed bun or onto a tortilla for a twist on street food. Meanwhile, much to my surprise, the goat cheese & watermelon salad on the right was nearly my favorite dish.

Watermelon being one of world’s only foods I’ve never cared much for, & watermelon–goat cheese salads being 10 cents for 12, I’d not have thought to order it. One of my pals did, however—& good on her, because I loved it. In part, the simple fact that the melon was perfectly ripe & the cheese especially salty yet creamy made all the difference. But so did a drizzle of pomegranate molasses & a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper (crushed dried chilies used in Turkish cooking, with a sumac-like tartness but more heat). Turns out a little extra zest was what this combination needed all along. In which case it serves as a fine rejoinder to all those chefs who talk about “taking quality ingredients & not fucking them up.” Sometimes, kids, you gotta fuck ’em up.

Which brings me to my favorite dish—the raw “samosas” with curried cashew “yogurt” & cranberry-mint jam.

Okay, they look a little—how do I put this—poopy. And my pals insisted they didn’t taste much better. But, as with the wine, I found something in them to love—namely that they tasted exactly like buckwheat cookie dough (or maybe pumpernickel). What they were actually made of, I don’t know—traditional samosa pastry just contains your basic flour mix—& though I could attempt to find out, I kind of like preserving the mystery for now. Taste ’em for yourself, & tell me what you think.

In fact, taste everything for yourself, & let me know what you think. (Especially the mussels, because I don’t even remember eating ’em, though this picture suggests that happened.)

If you don’t agree that this place has got it, that magical nameless thing that’s more than the sum of its parts, I’ll eat my hat. Or better still, one of the server’s porkpie hats. Because, mmm, pork pie.

Linger on Urbanspoon

El Olvido: A Q&A with Denver on a Spit

Every so often, Denver on a Spit & I, along with our adorable significant others, meet up to chow down & chew the fat. Since we last met at Red Tango & Silla, Mr. & Mr. Spit have been rather preoccupied by the arrival of twins, but we finally got the chance to reunite & meet the equally adorable tots over a mellow lunch at Jaliscan newcomer El Olvido. What follows is his take on the experience; for my take, click here.

Set the scene—what’d you think of the atmosphere?
I would think referring to anything going on in El Olvido that lonely Saturday afternoon an “atmosphere” would be stretching it, but if I had to describe it in a word, it would unfortunately have to be “desolate.” That being said, the lone server/host was incredibly friendly & helpful, and I was glad to see a couple kids running around as we decided to bring our boys.

That being said, we were there in the middle of a day on a Saturday at a place named after a famous mariachi song about drowning one’s sorrows in tequila & listening to mariachi. Maybe we should go back when the sun is setting & open up a bottle of tequila on the patio. Maybe they even have Mariachis. They should.

Drinking has a way of enhancing the ambiance for sure. Can you explain the difference between what you were drinking & what I was drinking?
Michelada is beer served with a concentrated, fresh-squeezed lime juice. Your Michelada roja also has things like Clamato, a clam-based tomato drink (and the only tomato drink with its own reaggeton song). Sometimes there are even oysters floating in them. [Hot damn!—Denveater] I am a beer lover who is not afraid to admit that I love my beer with ice, juice or clams. It is most refreshing while swinging on a hammock under the hot sun & listening to waves lap on the shore of a white-sand beach, but it’s also good for an early summer brunch on South Broadway, I suppose. Another bonus is that they have a couple Mexican lagers on tap—Dos Equis & Dos Equis Amber on that day.

Tell me about your huge salad. In particular, how was the dressing?

I love that they have a Caesar salad on the menu. I always find it funny that so many Italian restaurants have this salad on the menu, effectively laying claim to a Mexican invention. It was actually very good, rather eggy, & its enormity was a nice prep for my huge plate of carne en su jugo.

And what was your take on that?
Carne en su jugo? All dishes should have such great, simple & descriptive names: meat in its juice.

I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with this dish. It is a traditional dish of Jalisco (sticking with the tequila & mariachi theme), although in my native Chicago there are so many Tapatíos that it is pretty commonplace there. In Denver, El Olvido is the only place I know that serves it. Again, I don’t have a gold standard to compare it to, but I wished for something a little richer and thicker. That being said, after a sprinkle of salt I absolutely devoured my large order without a problem.

Likewise. What about your fair lady’s tacos?
Fish tacos of battered & deep-fried red snapper. It was an interesting, fusion-type plate, topped with ranch dressing of all things. They were actually quite good.

Overall, what’d you like/dislike about the place?
I liked the carne en su jugo, & I appreciate what the chef is trying to do here: focus on a few specialties & not worry about the menu-for-the-masses. There are no enchilada-burrito-chile-relleno combo platters here. I didn’t dislike anything, although the interior is a little drab. The unfortunate part is that the lack of patrons does not bode well for the staying power of El Olvido. Hopefully they will make it.

Hear, hear.

El Olvido on Urbanspoon

Hidden Potential & the Dish of the Week at Baca at the Inverness

The Jew in me has a deep & abiding suspicion of golf clubs, so it almost came as a surprise to me when my ethnic credentials weren’t checked at the door of the Inverness Hotel & Conference Center when I arrived there last month for a Rodney Strong wine seminar. But not only did I not get dragged out, I was treated to a lovely presentation in a private room off Baca, the Inverness’s sprawling, sunny, colorfully pretty restaurant & sunken lounge overlooking the fairway—in which, it seemed, even I could get comfy.

Fast-forward to May, where I may actually have gotten a little too comfy at a press dinner that was intriguing to say the least.

First & foremost, press dinners are usually highly orchestrated events with limited menus featuring chef’s signatures, paired with complementary wines. At Baca, our server just handed us the new early summer menu from exec chef Rodney Herwerth & asked for our order. I was confused. “You mean we can just order anything?” I asked. She said yes, seemingly confused at my confusion. I was tempted to order everything, just to test their commitment. I didn’t, but having had a crummy day I did encourage her to refill my wine glass at every turn, which meant I probably went through a good bottle & a half by myself, & apologies may well have been in order.

Still, I wasn’t in such a state that I failed to pay attention to the eats, starting with 2 cheeses—Petit Basque & Boschetto al Tartufo, listed as a blend of cow’s & sheep’s milk studded with white truffle, but actually containing black truffle; no matter, it was nice anyway—& an order of confit duck taquitos.

They made for a fine start indeed, flaky on the outside, filled with rich, tender meat, roasted apple & corn, & I think a little cabbage; the dipping sauce was a bit on the thick side, & neither as spicy or plummy as the description suggested; in fact, interestingly enough (& it was), it evoked nothing so much as vodka sauce.

When it comes to salads, I don’t expect wild originality in general; when I find it—as with the Dickens Salad at WaterCourse Foods & Racine’s Nutty Cheese Salad—I’m thrilled. Otherwise, simple refreshment’s a worthy enough goal, & the house salad my +1 & I split offered plenty, combining mesclun, chopped candied pecans, dried cranberries & crumbled chèvre in a notable, almost frothy, tarragon-flecked buttermilk dressing.

But there were 2 dishes that totally wowed me—enough to score a tie for Dish of the Week. The first was my entree, a vibrant play on pork & beans: a generous portion of lightly breaded, greaselessly fried pork tenderloin over a medley of sauteed favas, cannellini & green beans, topped with a sauce based on roasted black olives that I thought would be overkill but instead added a pungent depth. Rather, it was the mac & cheese on the side that was probably unnecessary—but no less welcome for that, being a suave combination of al dente orecchiette, gruyère & fontina in perfect proportion, lightly browned for a bit of crunch on top.

The second was Sarah’s Banana Split, named for pastry chef Sarah Scriver but otherwise a totally misleading moniker—all to the better. Nothing like a banana split, it was instead a whimsical, multilayered arrangement of tender brown-sugar pound cake topped with fresh banana & a candied cherry, then ringed round with honeyed roasted pineapple as well as banana pannacotta with walnut ganache, a quenelle of vanilla ice cream & a sugar tuile. Part homey, part tropical, it was impressively balanced, not a hair out of place.

Though not quite as brilliant as that one, the other desserts we tried were satisfying in their own right: in front, a squat cylinder of cheesecake with blueberry compote & lemon sorbet, behind it a sort of fluffy crêpe with more vanilla ice cream & pistachios. Having gotten a glimpse of the young, pretty Scriver, I’m predicting a bright future. You heard it here first.

All in all, I was impressed by the Inverness’s efforts to exceed the surf-&-turf expectations of a Tech Center conference hotel. Tucked away behind the The Shops at Vallagio, it’s something to keep in mind as a dark-horse alternative to the likes of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro (not that it needs one).

Baca at the Inverness on Urbanspoon

The Med & The Middle Ground

When I headed up to Boulder recently to meet a friend for lunch at The Med, I realized it had been 14 years since my last meal there. How could it not have changed? In that time I’ve moved to Boston for a decade & come back; implemented & discarded countless schemes for writerly success; fallen in & out of everlasting love at least thrice (to be clear, the Director’s the charm); traveled all over Italy & seen Chile, Egypt, Spain & the Czech Republic, among others, along the way; etc. Surely this Walnut Street fixture has undergone a few transformations of its own—but aside from the expansion into a side room off the patio, damned if I can put my finger on them.

It’s still sprawling & vibrant, all wrought-iron & majolica accents & hues of sun-warmed sand & sea. It’s still bustling with Boulderites (read: beautiful people whose taste in dress suggests what my friend called outdoors Asperger’s). And it’s still, after all these years, pretty good—no better, no worse. At least that was my impression based on a number of tapas, The Med’s stock-in-trade at least a couple of years before Spain’s culinary signature began to trend nationwide.

Clockwise from top left: champiñones al ajillo (mushrooms in garlic sauce); trio of Thai curry, black bean–cilantro, & red pepper–harissa hummuses? hummi?; lamb albóndigas (meatballs) in sherried tomato sauce; ajo (roasted garlic).

As litmus tests for tapas bars go, anything in garlic sauce is telltale (as are croquetas, pan con tomate, patatas bravas, & tortilla española. As the name indicates, The Med isn’t strictly Spanish, but the tapas themselves logically tend to be. For more on that score, check out my reviews of Ondo’s & The 9th Door). The mushrooms passed—simple, juicy, meaty, &, yes, garlicky (though most recipes call only for olive oil, there are a couple that also include butter, & I got the impression these might have a touch). So did the meatballs, the tangy brightness of the chunky sauce complementing the dark funk of the lamb—is there any meat with quite the depth of flavor lamb has? Goat, but that’s about it.

The ice-cream-like scoops of hummus looked suspiciously dry—I like mine, at least the traditional chickpea-tahini blend, to be very creamy & lemony—but only the red pepper flavor leaned that way. The smooth black bean & airy curried kinds, meanwhile, tingled with warm, earthy spice.

Modest, easily won successes all—unlike the roasted garlic dish. Clumsily executed, it consisted of a disproportionate mound of balasmic-roasted onion jam, overwhelming both the buried cloves & the crumbled blue cheese, itself not of the greatest quality. Ditto the stale toasts. Quick to fix, really—less jam; better cheese; toast bread just before serving; serve on a plate rather than in a bowl so that the 3 pungent components can be mixed & matched to the diner’s taste on the spot rather than forcibly clashed. Done & done.

Needless to say, even if The Med hasn’t changed much in 14 years—which is generally to its credit; reliability’s a comfort—the Boulder dining scene certainly has, like that scene in Dr. Seuss where a whole city builds up around the stubborn North-Going Zax & South-Going Zax. Likely in order to claim some of that locavore mojo, The Med’s chef Anthony Hessel (who looks startlingly like the love child of Aaron Eckhart & Jeff Bridges as The Dude) is now hosting a weekly 12-person Chef’s Table—& the sample multicourse menus I’ve seen appeal greatly: think zucchini ribbons with torn basil, toasted pine nuts, tomatoes, breakfast radishes, lemon & olive oil, or whole-wheat pasta with prosciutto, goat cheese, wild arugula, & a poached farm egg. Still, The Med’s bread & butter is its pan-Mediterranean mishmash, from pizza to paella to kabobs—& the sprinkle of sea salt atop that butter is its ever-boisterous happy hour. It doesn’t have to do anything but stay the course to please the easy-breezy legions—& I’m not sure it *can* do anything to lure the farm-to-fork jet set from Frasca & Meadow Lark. Nothing wrong with being the weeknight default, the place to go when you can’t agree on a place to go, the place you leave reasonably satisfied if not especially stimulated.

Mediterranean on Urbanspoon

Retrograde Red Sauce at Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano

When I wrote this post for the now-defunct Denver Magazine food blog back in January, I was sitting at a café in my old neighborhood in Boston, sipping a cappuccino & watching the world go by: black-clad grandfolks ambling toward St. Leonard’s, shopkeepers unleashing torrents of Sicilian dialect, tourists clutching bags of cannoli. They’re all part of daily life in the historic, ever-picturesque North End, as the city’s Little Italy is called. And when I get a yen for a mound of linguine alle vongole or a giant arancino oozing ragù—which is often here in Colorado—I miss it terribly.

It’s not that I can’t get red sauce in Denver; it’s the sheer concentration of Italian-American joints in the North End, and the ambiance they collectively exude, that I crave. Located on a nondescript stretch of South Broadway, Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano doesn’t boast much ambiance at all, let alone the steretopyical charm of red-checked tablecloths & rough frescoes. While the adjacent dive bar at least has garish red walls & a jukebox, the dining room is completely bare-bones. But something about the retro signage out front—not least that neon martini glass—assured me, when I first glimpsed it after moving here in 2007, that Gennaro’s was a place where I might find a taste of home (even if the vibe made me want to get it to go).

Then, it was still owned by the Gennaro family, as it had been since 1951. Now, it’s run by Tanya Tiscanni & Irene Herrera; though the menu is largely the same, except for the addition of a coffee bar, the recipes they use are their own. And they’re just what il medico ordered to cure this Beantown buff’s frequent homesickness.

The lasagna is a stand-out:

giant, pillowy squares from which mozzarella & ricotta, ground beef & sausage spill into a pool of rich, thick, herbed marinara sauce. Said sausage comes from the 85-year-old local institution that is Polidori—and it’s rightly showcased in a number of other preparations as well, including, of course, the aptly named sausage & peppers.

In this simple, Sicilian-style comfort dish, disks of Italian link sausage are sauteed with sweet sliced green bell pepper & red onion, then bathed in the aforementioned, oregano-redolent marinara.

Meanwhile, Polidori’s distinctly spicy, coarse-ground sausage features prominently atop the Tiscanni, a mozzarella-based white pizza scattered with dollops of sweet, fresh ricotta & chopped, roasted red pepper. Look closely, and you’ll also spot a sprinkling of dried oregano, minced garlic, and fennel seeds.

It all makes for what would be a model pie if the bubbly, chewy crust had just a bit more char; if you, like me, are big on the blackened bits, you’d do well to make a special request. Still, the solace I seek in red sauce—“when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn”—is easy to come by here.

Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano: 2598 S. Broadway, Denver; 303.722.1044; Lunch and dinner daily; $6–$19.

Gennaro's Cafe Italiano on Urbanspoon