Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Tap House Skins (et al.) at Highland Tap & Burger

The Rapture it wasn’t, but I was certainly in for a surprise yesterday at 6pm when I found myself with a beer can dangling from a string of beads around my neck, pedaling the 10-seat Denver Patio Ride alongside a bunch of young’uns rocking out to Jay-Z, Prince, Sublime, & the like from the iPod of our DJ-driver

as he steered us in his purple jumpsuit down Welton right through the middle of the Five Points Jazz Festival, to the general approval of a grinning, hooting, picture-taking crowd. The takeaway from this little adventure: I’m old. Too old for public shenanigans that include stops at raucous watering holes like The Ginn Mill, where the bartender laughs when you ask if there’s any chance in hell they serve wine, pours you a full mini-bottle of Barefoot Cab into a New Belgium globe glass, & leaves it at that. Fair enough. At least, being personal-sized, it was fresh. Which is more than I can say for the glass of Bonacquisti Vinny No Neck they poured me at Highland Tap & Burger, a Sangiovese-Merlot blend that, I’m sorry to say because I aim to promote the local wine industry, would not have been much better had it been in peak condition, evoking nothing so much as liquified menthol cigarettes. I wasn’t a much bigger fan of either the Garnacha or the Malbec on the HTB wine list, both simplistically jammy.

That said, this Highland newcomer deserves to be cut some slack for its lack of good grape juice; after all, as the name indicates, it specializes in beer & the grub that goes with it—most of which was decent, some of which was swell. Especially the titular skins.

Covered in crumbled bacon, white cheddar & scallions with a side of housemade ranch, they practically glowed, all bubbly & crackly & gooey, bite after hot salty bite. If you swore off skins after your last miserable experience with the soggy, broccoli-&-cheez-whizzed, dirt-pocked spuds of some heartland sports bar circa 1988, here’s your chance to try again.

The horseradish celery-root slaw was milkier & less sharp-edged than the description suggested, but then, coleslaw is almost always given short shrift in restaurant kitchens—an eternal head-scratcher, given how easy it is to make well at home. Memory serves up only one version that recently made me swoon as an accompaniment to the kick-ass roast chicken at Street Kitchen Asian Bistro.

Mama’s Little Yella Pilsner–battered onion rings had everything going for them but extra-crunchiness.

Thick-cut & served with an addictive dipping sauce tinged with vinegar & smoke, they weren’t too doughy, exactly, it’s just that they weren’t traditionally flaky & crisp—more like savory onion doughnuts than true rings.

I tried, god only knows how I tried, to convince the Director that a burger topped with foie gras would, in fact, be awesome & not “silly,” but even my allusion to classic beef Wellington didn’t convince him. Having no better luck with dreamy-sounding topping options like root-beer-braised pulled pork & 3-pepper candied bacon, I let him be, which is why he got stuck with a lamb burger that was perfectly well-made but devoid of all zip with Swiss cheese, lettuce, onion & tomato rather than the chef’s pick of better-suited condiments: goat cheese, tomato-mint relish & baby arugula.

It came with fries we didn’t expect, since we’d also asked for an à la carte order of parmesan-&-parsley-flecked duck-fat fries with truffled aioli. I thought I took a picture, but I guess I didn’t, so this is the only eye-nibble you get.

All the more reason for you to go check them out for yourself, say, nowish. How stark is the difference between hand-cut potato sticks fried in vegetable oil & those browned in duck fat? Let’s just say once you go quack you never go back. (Unless, that is, you go cluck or moo, winning twists all.)

The whole menu’s rife with chefly touches that nudge HTB toward gastropub rather than sports-bar territory despite the flatscreens lining the walls, from lentil vinaigrette for the salads to sauce gribiche spiking the fish & chips to the best thing about the aforementioned burger: excellent, garden-sweet, fresh pickle chips. The kitchen’s no match for, say, Argyll‘s yet, but it beats Freshcraft‘s.

Highland Tap & Burger on Urbanspoon

Pisco, Pino, & Pastel, ¡Ay Mio!: Sabor Latino

I don’t care what your politics are; if you’re a chowhound, the benefits of immigration are not to be sniffed at—just blissfully inhaled. From pho to falafel & curry to cannoli, diversity begets deliciousness, the broader the better. Case in point: the little piece of South America in the Highlands that is Sabor Latino.

Opened in its original location by a mom-&-pop team from Mexico and Chile, respectively, some 20 years ago, this sunny, colorful café has long brightened the corner of 35th and Tennyson under the ownership of Robert Luevano & his sister Marie Jimenez, along with her husband Dan Jimenez. The Colorado-born siblings grew up in the restaurant business; their own pop, who hailed from Guadalajara, ran North Denver’s now-defunct La Nueva Poblana for decades. Meanwhile, current chef Gabriel Tapia is Sonoran. Needless to say, the menu doesn’t lack for Mexican staples. But what sets Sabor Latino apart is an array of South Cone specialties whose likes you don’t often encounter stateside. Compared to that of Brazil and Argentina, Colombian and Peruvian cuisine isn’t widely available even in the biggest US cities—while Chilean food is almost unheard of. Hence my excitement at the sight of pastel de choclo among the platos especiales, not weeks after returning from the first of what I hope will be many trips to the land of Carménère & superb seafood (both of which are also offered here—the latter in the form of fine ceviche, the cold citrus-marinated seafood snack beloved throughout Latin America).

As Luevano describes it, pastel de choclo is “basically a pot pie layered with pino & shredded chicken, topped with a creamed corn mixture & then baked.” As I describe it, pastel de choclo is awesome. It’s the pino that distinguishes this cornbread casserole from the stuff of heartland potlucks; the mixture of ground beef, onions, raisins, and olives (and sometimes, though not in this case, chopped egg) is ubiquitous in Chile. Also used as a filling for the empanadas on the appetizer sampler, it’s rich, savory-sweet, & a bit smoky, kicked up with garlic, chili powder & other spices Luevano wouldn’t name out of respect for the proprietary recipes of Doña Maria, as he affectionately calls the baker who has been with them since day one. She also makes the tamales Colombianos, wrapped in banana leaves rather than the corn husks typically found further north. Admittely, I favor bandeja paisa, mainly because the Colombian dish of shredded beef, black beans & rice topped with a fried egg includes luscious fried plantains & arepas, flat cornmeal cakes stuffed with queso fresco à la gorditas & pupusas—pictured here on the appetizer sampler with more plantains but inadequate empañadas, simply not the height of freshness.

That said, you really can’t go too wrong here. Unless, that is, you fail to start with a round of pisco sours made the traditional way, with egg whites—talk about sabor latino.

Sabor Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

KiKi’s Comforts

***This blogpost originally appeared on Monday, 4/18, on Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful blog as part of my Gorging Global series; I will be reposting some of my favorites here.***

I’d bypassed this strip-mall storefront on South Colorado a hundred times, taking it for a mere peddler of cut-rate California rolls. But its name kept popping up: a kind word from a Chowhound here, a little bird Tweeting its praises there. When curiosity finally got the better of me, I discovered with delight that Domo, for all its deserved fame, is not the only Japanese comfort kitchen in town.

Though Tokyo-born chef-owner Michi Kikuchi does serve sushi, a sweeping glance around the tables reveals where his heart really is: in heaping rice & noodle bowls, steaming soups & stir-fries — the stuff that sticks to your ribs. In fact, to an Oklahoma girl like me and my Iowa-born-and-bred sweetheart, much of the repertoire looked startlingly familiar.

Take the hayashi. Described simply as “hashed beef, onion cooked Brown sauce,”

it’s virtually indistinguishable from shredded, barbecued brisket, smothered in a rich, tangy tomato gravy. Sure, it’s served à la carte with rice, not slopped on a bun alongside fries, & the fat is unapologetically intact rather than trimmed. But the overall effect was to transport me to the downhome rib shacks of my youth.

The same went for my love’s katsu-karē (literally, “cutlet curry”). After all, breaded, fried pork tenderloin is an Iowa tradition; this dish is precisely that, only it’s covered in a thick, mild, cumin-&-turmeric-dominated curry sauce, introduced to Japan by the British following their colonization of India.

And so it goes: from classic sukiyaki (a type of hot pot) & teriyaki (meat or fish grilled and coated in a sweet soy sauce) to ramen & dumplings (both pan-fried gyoza & steamed shumai), KiKi’s menu is one big comfort zone. But if you’re determined to step out of it, try the sanma shioyaki.

It’s a simple enough dish: a pair of saury, also known as mackerel pike, grilled and&served whole with nothing but a scoop of fresh grated daikon & a slice of lemon. (Note that in Japan, sudachi, a type of native citrus, is the more common garnish.) But it’s not for the squeamish insofar as digging in with chopsticks invariably means coming up with some guts & bones along with the pungent, oily, succulent flesh & blackened, crackling skin.

Such soulful cooking is only enhanced by the atmosphere. Though tiny — with maybe 10 or 12 tables and booths flanked by a barely-there sushi bar — the dining room is warm & quaint, all blond wood & brightly lacquered bric-a-brac.

Factor in surprisingly quick service, & you’ve got a solid pick for a casual date, intimate but not so romantic that you’ll regret having tangled with fish innards.

Kikis Japanese Casual Dining on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: The Jaxx at Jack-n-Grill

Getting a bunless burger at Jack-n-Grill makes about as much sense as that old joke about the girl who leaves the cherry off the hot fudge sundae because she’s on a diet. Nevertheless, it was the least I could do to forestall an anyeurism as I eyeballed the burial piles of chow on tables around me & my pal Rebecca (author of From Argentina with Love) at the Littleton branch—surprisingly festive & warm given the soulless strip-mall location—especially considering that those were the “normal” portions. The fact that, according to the server in the photo, fully 15 fellow diners had ordered the 7-pound burrito tackled by Adam Richman on Man Vs. Food back in 2009 BEFORE 1 PM was more than even my relatively insatiable appetite could bear. Who wakes up in the morning & thinks, I want to pack on 24,500 calories’ worth of extra fat by bedtime?!

So anyway, I asked for The Jaxx sans bun, & it was still hilarious. Somewhere under the chopped green chile, bacon slices, American cheese, ketchup & mustard; over the guacamole, sour cream, lettuce, tomato & red onion; & alongside a mess of onion rings was a 10 oz. patty of ground chuck.

Was it awesome? Not from a legitimately critical standpoint—the burger kinda gristly & medium-well; the “guacamole” just unseasoned, roughly mashed avocado; the thought of 7 condiments at once (not counting the veggie garnishes) as unappealing as it was appealing. But somehow the combination was addictive in a trashy way, each questionable element compensating for another to equal an answer, the answer being hell yes! As for the onion rings, how often do they really suck? Generally speaking I like my breading looser, lighter, & fresher à la Rodney’s, but here it slid off the sweet & slippery onion flesh in grease-spurting crunches I couldn’t say no to.

That said, the red chile on Rebecca’s bean “sopaipilla” (the pen’s for size comparison) was flat-out excellent—pure-tasting, full of that smoky, slightly bitter savor of roasted pepper skin. As far as I’m concerned, New Mexico having always been my second home, no sopaipilla should be so stretched so thin that it’s bursting at the seams—it should be a pocket unto itself—but once again the dish as a whole came together as it should have, a mosaic of textures & funky flavors.

Jack-n-Grill’s an institution for a reason. A reason that’s grotesque in the literary sense—”combining ugliness & ornament, the bizarre & the ridiculous, the excessive & the unreal”—but a reason nonetheless.

Jack-n-Grill on Urbanspoon

Vesta Dipping Grill’s Still Got Sauce

There are so many moving parts on the Vesta Dipping Grill menu, & they’ve been moving in so many ways, shapes & forms for so long (14 years & counting), that the fact the majority of them still do it in sync—not all & not always, but many & often—is kinda remarkable. That’s to the credit of chef Matt Selby, ever the playful pup, & his partner Josh Wolkon, a Boston boy who moved to Boulder in 1995 (so did I) and opened Vesta in 1997 (the year I moved to Boston, only to return a decade later). But Northeast-Southwest-corridor connections aside, I genuinely like the place, for the logical reason that it’s one of Denver’s most reliable go-tos (same goes for its sibling Steuben’s, come to think of it), with a mod, moody vibe & a fun, solidly executed, mix-&-match repertoire that, like my life, hinges on an array of globally inspired condiments. If you’ve still never been, or if it’s been a while, give it a whirl.

Here’s what said whirl might look like—at least if, à la moi, you’re all about small plates. The user-friendly entree portion of the menu is worth a look-see too: each dish, almost invariably a grilled meat + starch + veg (nothing wrong with that), is listed with 3 suggested sauces/dips, of which there are currently a whopping 36. But then again, they’re really the mainstay of any meal here, so I’d just as soon sample as many as possible, & the best way to do that is via appetizers.

Whatever you order, you’ll get a little something to start with—always appreciated as a sign of forethought welcome. The last time we were here, we were served amuse shooters of bacon-potato soup; this time, it was just the usual head of roasted garlic with country bread, but that crushed bulb of blistered, spreadable, sinus-tingling cloves was more than enough.

If it weren’t for the fact that the Director & I were dining with an old friend we hadn’t seen in years—the guy who introduced us back at The Foxhead in Iowa City in 1994, actually, in front of whom I didn’t want to seem like the grubber I’ve totally become—I’d have ordered both the sauce sampler with pita & the salsa sampler with chips. As it was, I went with the former, for which we chose pistachio-mint sauce, wasabi cream, bacon aioli, & smoked habañero salsa; the 5th, by my request, was chef’s choice, which turned out to be Korean garlic BBQ.

Of these, the aioli was the standout for its eggy richness, punctuated by smoky-salty cubes of slab bacon, & the pistachio-mint remains a favorite, though it seemed a little less carefully balanced than it did when I included it in a dip round-up in the current issue of 5280—there was something slightly but oddly sweet about it. The wasabi cream, meanwhile, was way too sweet—a problem I also recently encountered at Rackhouse Pub. A survey of recipes online doesn’t at all explain why this should be the case, so I’m bamboozled. The Korean BBQ sauce was nice though—light & fruity on the one hand, funky with sesame on the other—as was the simple, fresh, flame-bright salsa.

Ever the highlight, lamb ribs are extra-meaty little suckers, given Middle Eastern zing with a pistachio-mint crust cooled by a drizzle of subtly perfumed, softly evocative rose-blossom yogurt.

Shrimp fried in soy butter were harder to resist than I thought they’d be; in a tangy, crunchy batter that didn’t, however, overwhelm their own flavor, they barely needed dipping in the jalapeño ponzu & sambal they came with.

Conversely, roasted vegetable–potato samosas missed the mark, being kinda mealy & bland on their own, but the heady sauces that accompanied them—a red curry redolent of ginger, garlic & cayenne & a saffron-tinged, velvety roasted-corn cream enriched with butter—were satisfying enough to repurpose for the extra pita.

Finally, though the cheese selection wasn’t especially novel, it was hard to fault: Humboldt Fog, Mouco camembert, aged gouda, gorgonzola, fresh crumbled chèvre. And though the accoutrements didn’t exactly match the menu description—by “pickled vegetables,” I expect more than cornichons, & by “cherry mustard,” I expect cherry mustard, which didn’t show—the black pepper–truffle honey pulled its musky, floral weight.

After all that, there’s so much else that appeals—smoked venison sausage with pickled onions, scallion tater tots, pommes frites with cherry butter—that I wonder if I’ll ever get around to main courses. But I don’t wonder hard. For me, the joys of Vesta inhere in the little things.

Vesta Dipping Grill on Urbanspoon

24-Hour Dispatch from Vail Part 1: The Wildflower at The Lodge

The vast majority of Colorado is wasted on me. I don’t ski or snowboard or snowshoe or make snow angels or snow cones or do anything in snow except trudge through it miserably as little as possible. I’d hike if it didn’t entail going up so much. I have a bike, which I ride to the liquor store & back.

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But the opportunity to take a 1-day press trip to Vail wasn’t one I was about to pass up, given that in summer it promised to be a “market-to-table experience” rather than a “mountain-to-examining-table experience.”

And it was. Winding all the way through Vail Village, the Vail Farmer’s Market & Art Show is purportedly the largest in the state, its 100-plus vendors showcasing everything from fresh-dug onions & loaves of organic ciabatta to woven Ghanian baskets & portraits of ski bums to tamales & empanadas.

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In fact, prepared food booths outnumber produce stalls by a noticeable margin: giant barbecued turkey legs, Greek pastries, crêpes, samples from area restaurants. But the mechanics of eating are hard enough for me to master without adding bipedalism into the equation, so I opted for a sit-down lunch; as we had big dinner plans, my host suggested her favorite for light salads & sandwiches al fresco, The Wildflower at the Lodge.
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Best-laid plans, best-laid plans. Turned out they were only serving a small brunch menu, which we glanced at closely enough to notice a couple of salads before taking a seat on the mellow patio amid flitting hummingbirds & live piano music.

Not, however, closely enough to notice they were part of a prix-fixe. A 4-course prix-fixe.  A 4-course prix-fixe that started with

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strawberries in fresh Devonshire cream plus

WFpastries WFmeloncoupe

a 3-tiered stand of croissants, muffins, scones, intense lemon curd & light, bright rhubarb purée, followed by a melon coupe with slivers of prosciutto & a splash of port poured tableside—the only false note in it all, struck by the slightly stale croissant, being resolved sweetly by the dense-crumbed, buttery berry scone.

And then came my salad, a veritable Dale Chihuly seaform of refreshment.

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Three red curry–grilled jumbo shrimp & a fireworks of both fried sweet potato & yam twists topped a half-shell of watermelon filled with its own chunks, along with fat mixed berries, sliced shallots & radishes, & mixed greens in a lime dressing: a zesty, tropically tinged, shining example of the basic truth that in the simplest dishes lies the clearest indication of a kitchen’s commitment to quality. (First the roast chicken, where inferior ingredients & technical mistakes have nowhere to hide; then the galantine.)

Thus did I suspect that the egg salad, which my host ordered sans hoagie roll to wind up with a truckload of the stuff plus a simple side salad, was just a fluke. Made with crème fraîche, it was indeed super-creamy, but the menu description also included black truffles—not truffle oil but actual slices—which, of course, would be the whole point of ordering it, but which I neither saw nor tasted.

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The oversight was easy enough to forgive seeing as how a) it wasn’t my dish, b) the level of service was such that if we’d asked, I don’t doubt they’d have showered us with fungus petals in apology, & c) the desserts marked a sure return to form. As the solid version of an Irish Car Bomb, Guinness-spiked chocolate cake with Bailey’s ice cream is nothing new, but based on the meal so far my expectations centered on careful treatment, not wild originality, and that it revealed aplenty, from the moist, loose-grained, dark-flavored cake to the trimmings: shard of toffee, browniesque crumble, smear of caramel.

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Meanwhile, the orange-grapefruit soup stunned in its cool clarity, highlighted by a scoop of honey-lemon sorbet.
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All that plus a bottomless glass of sparkling wine—prosecco IIRC—came to $40 before tip, which would be more than fair anywhere, never mind in a resort town.

It was the right foot on which to start off an afternoon expedition, as you’ll see in Part 2.

What Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria & Footage of a Chain-Smoking, Fat Sumatran Toddler Have in Common

I assumed I’d be appalled by them both. But it turns out they’re pretty adorable!

Ardi Rizal’s that 55-lb. 2-year old with the cutest 2-pack-a-day smoking habit ever.

Lala’s is that Capitol Hill joint you just know from a glance—what with the patio opening onto the airy, sponge-painted dining room in 75 shades of copper (oops, terracotta) & lined with cheeky retro scenes from cocktail soirées—is gonna be jammed with rank Polo-wearing-since-1981 Bluetooth users & the gaggles of gals who love them, Sex & the City reruns, & calling themselves “gals,” in some order. And babies, of course—not the hard-partying kind but the plain old bawling kind in pathway-clogging strollers.

And you’re right; it often is. But here’s what you can’t tell from a glance: that your (okay, my) knee-jerk snottiness will dissolve with the next glance at the Italianate menu & the wine list, both of which are extremely easy to like, as are the invariably pretty young things working that jammed floor, being mostly very sweet & on the ball (thumbs up, Kaycee).

Reliance on quality cheeses & meats is a hallmark. I’ve already thumbed up the Insalata Susina for its inspired use of miticana de oveja; another example is the housemade burrata. I’d briefly stopped in here once before to try it with pal L, who ordered it sans condiment; having now had it with the grape tomato–balsamic jam as well, I see her point—

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it’s way too heavy & sweet for the ball of fresh mozzarella stuffed with ricotta &, apparently, mascarpone instead of the usual plain cream—which is no less mild for being rich, contradictory as that sounds. (I still prefer Osteria Marco’s silkier version, but Lala’s comes in 2nd.)

Mascarpone also crops up in a dip for warm flatbread; you scoop it up with arugula pesto—saucy with lots of olive oil, the way I like it, rather than chunky—

Lalapesto
Lalaflatbread

& then you just luxuriate in all those fat grams like a bubble bath for your mouth. I’ve already got my eye on the roasted garlic & ricotta w/ parsley for next time, though the choice of spreads also includes lighter options like tomatoes with basil & cannellini “hummus.”

So does the array of pizzas; the Pizza Betabel, for instance, is a downright healthy choice, what with its very light schmear of pesto & cheese—I’d actually say too light; the pesto barely registered—& generous scattering of roasted red & gold beets, arugula & a crumbly-fresh & milky goat cheese atop an extra-thin, crunchy, edge-charred crust. Had those base ingredients been upped just a bit for balance, it might’ve been my favorite.

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That said, there wasn’t a bad pie in the bunch I tried over the course of 2 visits. Is it the best in town? No; though lifelong artisan mastery is a hard thing to pinpoint (aside from generally being supplemented by ovens that are older than you are), you know it when you taste it. But is it solid pizzamaking, at once serious in craft & splashy in variety? I sure think so.

Consider Nonna’s Pizza, where housemade Italian sausage finds its soulmates in fresh, chunky tomato sauce & roasted fennel (a common flavoring for salumi, after all)—while vibrantly sweet peppadew peppers add a neat New World twist.

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Even better, however, was the Pizza Diavolo with slices of luscious full-cured chorizo, onions & chunks of roasted poblano over fontina. It’s supposed to have a red base; ours didn’t, but the mistake turned out to be a fortuitous one; rather than balance it as on Nonna’s Pizza, tomato sauce, IMO, would just have gotten in the way of such a lusty, robust combo of toppings.

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Fontina (mixed with parm) & mighty fine prosciutto are also what distinguish the inexplicably named Alcachofa—which does also boast plenty of marinated artichoke hearts, but the word for “artichoke” in Italian is carciofo; alcachofa’s the Spanish word.

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Whatever. The menu also seems to confuse the singular pizza with the plural pizze, but for a change I can’t get worked up about that—the referents themselves are too appealing to bother, especially paired with fun, lesser known wines by the glass like comeback-making Lambrusco & Puglian Tormaresca “Neprica.”

Now how about an Ardi Rizal pizza with smoked lardo?

Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

New York Deli News Lays It On Thick (not to schmear Zaidy’s…)

Is this place for real?

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Short answer: yes & no. Sure, it’s long on schtick. But there’s schtick & then there’s schtick. The one involves a cynical attempt at branding (see here under Schtick), the other a nostalgia so wholehearted, the re-creation mit such fargenign of the way things may have been & should still be, that everybody around you happily suspends all disbelief as to whether that’s how they ever were or actually are.

So perhaps NYDN only hires creaky wisecracking broads as waitstaff to sharpen the image of a decrepit kosher deli on the Lower East Side rather than a Reagan-era diner in the Denver ‘burbs—just as Hooters only hires coeds with D-cups to create a world in which buxom young things pay attention to you. The difference—not to knock (heh, but not heh) Hooters waitresses, real people whose decision to flaunt real (if not necessarily natural) cleavage & flirt their hearts out for hours on end in order to earn very real money isn’t for me or anyone who hasn’t walked in their hot pants to judge—is that the wrinkles on said broads are really real, & so is the world-weariness that comes with them. Unlike most young ladies, old ladies have got nothing to prove.

And the same can be said of the clientele, dominated by klatches of retirees whose penchant for pantsuits & bouffants clearly hasn’t wavered since 1973. As picturesque as they are, they’re not props, not paid advertisements; they didn’t put blue wigs & polyester getups over their fauxhawks & skinny jeans that morning just to lull me into self-satisfaction that I’d come to the right place, to a real Jewish deli.

And the same can also be said of every menu item from the canned tuna & sardines—brazenly labeled as such—to the 6-layer chocolate cake in the Platonic ideal of a revolving display case;

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whether it’s homemade (I doubt it) or any good at all after sitting in there, slices unwrapped, all day (I doubt it), it’s not just for show. It’s just enough for show.

And the same, therefore, goes for the specific menu items I & my mom—who as a 68-year-old JewBu living in the Bible Belt knows from nothing to prove—tried over the course of 2 visits.

Like the mix & match salad with giant ice cream scoops of chopped liver & egg salad

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atop, I swear, half a head of torn iceberg, palm-length discs of cuke & carrot, tomatoes, radishes—& hilariously, more egg, accompanied by
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part of a loaf of rye “trucked in from New York” with butter pats & a soup cup’s worth of blue cheese dressing. How was it? Does it matter?

Well, to the extent that it does—mixed. Not surprisingly, neither scoop exactly emanated just-made freshness, & the egg salad, like any egg salad lacking trimmings (paprika, curry, chopped pickles, capers, what have you), was bland. But the liver was subtly spiced, nice & smooth. That’s the gist of the grub here: some of it’s pretty awful, some of it’s awesome—but ultimately it’s all awesome because it is what it is so unapologetically.

The combination fish platter comes with smoked sable (better known these days in its fresh form as black cod), lox & whitefish; scoops of potato salad, sour cream & cream cheese; a shower of capers & red onion rings; & 2 bagels—even if only 1 person (mom, who can’t get sable in Oklahoma) orders it. Atop another half-head of torn iceberg. Plus the plate of rye bread & butter.

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The exterior of the sable looked like pink dye, not like the traditional dusting of paprika you see here. Still, it was unmistakably sable, lusciously mild & edged by that slight sour tang it shares with white anchovies. The lox came from a package; the potato salad was plain. Sure enough, it was what it was—& fun to plow through for all that.

The chicken noodle soup with a matzoh ball was a joke, literally—that old one Woody Allen recalls in Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, & one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; & such small portions.'” Except here the terrible portion is lovably huge.
NYDNmatzohsoup

In all fairness, I’ve really never had a matzoh ball, & I’ve eased down my share, that tasted like anything other than nothing. Surely there’s more to them than mush? Is salt & pepper too much to ask, or is a matzoh ball another one of those things that’s supposed to serve as an eternal symbol of eating handfuls of sand in the desert for 40 years? As for the soup, I’ll be damned if it wasn’t from a can; that paradoxically simultaneous bland & oversalted broth laden with mushy noodles & veggies is pretty telltale.

But then a pastrami sandwich comes along that, in its own plainness, hits the spot.

NYDNpastrami
The meat’s moist, characteristically peppery & funky, & sliced thin, of course, but not so thin it’s virtually shredded (I mean, this is ridiculous).  It comes with a side of coleslaw, simple & sweet, but no condiments; brown mustard’s on the table, welcome if not necessary.

Speaking of the unnecessary,

NYDNstuffedcabbage2

our waitress assured us we were overdoing it with the stuffed cabbage until we assured her we’d be taking some stuff home. She cheerfully pronounced us “scary” anyway.

The thing’s a sea monster rising from the watery depths of a thin, underseasoned tomato sauce, requiring all available utensils & every ounce of determination you’ve got to make a dent in it. Once you saw through the tough outer leaves to reach the ground-beef-and-rice filling, though, it’s all right, at its best all chopped up & eaten with a spoon like soup, when everything can compensate for everything else.

NYDNstuffedcabbage3

On its heels came the BBQ chicken salad I ordered for a change of pace. The waitress wasn’t sure I wanted blue cheese dressing on the side, but I was, until I saw what she was meant.

NYDNsalad

This isn’t really barbecued chicken, of course; it’s roasted chicken drenched in barbecue sauce & tossed with tomatoes, cukes, corn, black beans & tortilla strips (atop—surprise!—a half-head of iceberg). Dressing just added insult to injury. But again, what’s the point of going to a deli if not to get on the receiving end of indigestion & insults?

On that note—I hope it’s clear that the load of insults I’ve just leveled at the food here are all in good fun, not unlike the food itself. You’ve just gotta love this place, even if you don’t, because—to return to the question I started with—it’s for real, even if it isn’t.
New York Deli News on Urbanspoon

***
As for Zaidy’s: in a nutshell, ditto.

I’ve said so before, but a back-to-back comparison served as confirmation that NYDN’s Cherry Creek counterpart is likewise a mixed bag of good food & bad, kosher & treyf, New York–style brashness & Southwestern sweetness.

Case in point: the Israeli salad,

ZaidysIsraelisalad
which I’d never have ordered if our waitress wasn’t pushing me toward a choice in her heavy Russian accent, charming to a point, annoying past it. (“What’s it between? Just tell me what it’s between,” she kept saying, then shaking her head at my every suggestion up until this total fluke.)

Actually, the bowlful of chopped tomatoes, cukes, radishes & onion with balsamic vinaigrette was rather refreshing, but the hummus was a bummer, grainy & bland.

Unexpectedly, it came with a giant, garlic-sprinkled, crunchy baked pita chip, mooting the point of the latke I got on the side; but then, the potato pancake wasn’t what I expected either, being much thinner than most (including those I’ve had here before) & accompanied by a fresh strawberry salsa as well as sour cream, a neat touch.

Zaidyslatkeandpita
It was cheaper for mom to order whitefish & smoked sable à la carte rather than a combo platter, so that’s what she did. And here’s where there’s no comparison. While the whitefish was roughly equivalent to NYDN’s—both good—Zaidy’s sable was the real deal.

Zaidysfishplatters

Still, the deli duel isn’t over in my mind. Maybe I’ll do a matzoh brei marathon as a tiebreaker when I’ve finally finished digesting, in a month or so.

Mighty Decent Grub at Rackhouse Pub

Talk about signs a place is gonna be good:

RP2
If the portrait at the entrance to Rackhouse Pub on site at the Stranahan’s distillery doesn’t indicate the fun to be had amid the whiskey barrels & sheet metal
RP

lining the dining room in a nod to so-called steampunk style, I don’t know what does. Unless it’s the flatscreens tuned into the Celtics game, thank you very much. Or the rotation on the iPod: Beastie Boys & Girl Talk, thank you even more.

Or the menu, a compendium of pub grub done right—with quality ingredients & just enough creative flair to keep it interesting yet real. If there’s 1 thing the gastropub movement has done for the better—besides bring back deviled eggs—it’s up the ante on the neighborhood grill; had Rackhouse opened 10 years ago, it might have been your average corners-cutting, Sysco-sourcing sports bar (minus, of course, the artisanal spirits), but on the much savvier current scene, even a modestly ambitious kitchen had better know its pesto from its panko—& Rackhouse’s seems to be working it, for all the Duderinian (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) vibe the front of the house emits.

The steamed mussels listed as “Blacks,” for instance, are a promising start.

RPmussels
Though the bowl—piled with plump shellfish & thick, juicy coins of chorizo—didn’t contain enough broth, let’s look at it as a sixth full rather than 5 sixths empty; what there was was heady. Made with Great Divide’s Hades Ale, a Belgian-style strong pale ale, it boasted a refreshingly bitter midpalate laced with a downright bracing amount of red pepper; I had to ask for a spoon (which, word to service, should have been offered to begin with) to slurp it up to my satisfaction. After all, the accompanying flatbread, thin as it was, wasn’t going to suffice as a sopping tool—which, really, was to its credit; hot, crisp & bubbly, not dry & crackery, & sprinkled evenly with parmesan & herbs, it boded well for the pizza—which, in turn, actually surpassed my moderately positive expectations.
RPpizza

The white Rustica’s topped with chunks of locally made sausage, mushrooms (mostly portobello & button, I think), & whole cloves of roast garlic, along with decent mozz; it’s a hearty mess atop that crunchy thin crust, perhaps a little too charred at the edges for some, but I’m all for the burnt bits.

No burnt bits on the slab of ribs—not surprisingly, since they’re oven-roasted rather than slow-smoked,

RPribs
but hey, Rackhouse doesn’t pretend to be a hardcore BBQ pit, & as roasted ribs go they were fine, especially where the hoisin sauce was glazed rather than glopped on. The whole shebang I’d call sloppy but generous: the molasses baked beans were too sweet (nothing a little salt pork couldn’t cure), while the coleslaw was disappointingly bland (nothing more cider vinegar, S&P & some caraway couldn’t cure); the corn muffin, however, was a treat above all for being a freebie, unlisted in the dish description.

Anyway, if the worst Rackhouse can do is halfway decent, then it’s doing all right indeed. Three-quarters decent is the Cajun dip,
RPCajundip

which would’ve been all-the-way decent if the garlic bread hadn’t been dry. My rule of thumb is, if it’s going to be crunchy throughout, it shouldn’t be too thick; if it’s going to be thick-cut, it should be soft in the middle. In short, there’s a distinction to be maintained here between toasted bread & flat-out toast. But the dip itself was something else; the portion struck me as a bit small until I tasted it, all tangy cream & gruyère with chunks of shrimp, crawfish, tomato & mushroom. A little went far, quick.

In hopes of mitigating at least some of the caloric damage the Director & I were doing over the course of some killer Celtics action, a couple of salads called to me.

One of them was lying.

RP3cupsalad
The literally named 3-Cup Salad is about 1/3-part lettuce, sprouts & roasted tomato to 1 part egg, feta & black olive to 2 parts good, strong Genoa salami & herb toast in punchy tomato vinaigrette. (That may not add up, but neither does the salad.) It’s a bit petty to complain about error on the side of generosity, & I’m not; it’s a nice take on a chef’s salad, but a few more leaves &/or a slice less salami would solve the math problem & take the guilt out of what was basically a guilty pleasure.

As for the Caesar, Caesars are Caesars, except when they’re extraordinary;
RPcaesar

this one’s just fine, with a couple of anchovies, nice croutons, & a slightly too mild (but still housemade & basically Caesary) dressing. The crab cake, however, is terrific: almost no filler, barely any seasoning, even, it’s all sweet pan-browned crab—for a measly $2 extra, no less.

I’m sorely tempted to postpone publishing this until I can get back to try a burger or other sandwich, comprising as they do half the menu; certainly the upgraded trimmings read winningly, from challah to “whiskey onions,” cracked eggs & cambozola. But better to do an update then & get word out now, because the place is relatively new, with an affable & committed 1st-time owner who’s still finding his way through this bitch of a business. I don’t have too many useful suggestions for him beyond 1) opening a patio (he’s working on it) & 2) improving the wine selection: right now there are only 4 or 5 house wines, & while a) the heavy emphasis on craft beer & spirits is obviously concept-appropriate & b) the price is right for the not-bad grape juice they do have—good-sized pours are $5—I can’t think of a reason not to invest in a couple of easy-drinking but non-generic bottles, say a viñho verde & a carménère or even a dry rosé, whether as additions or replacements. Rackhouse may not be a wine bar, but it’s not a dive either, & throwing us winos a bone only ensures the beer & whiskey contingent will have an easier time dragging us there on a regular basis.

Not that I need dragging yet: until I get sick of the cabernet, I see myself stopping in quite a bit, not least for the free Wifi. Heck, maybe it’s time for that grilled cheese on parmesan-crusted white right now.

***Nota bene: They’re pretty good about Tweeting daily specials @RackhousePub; we were told the chef’s getting softshell crabs in this week, a rarity around here, so keep your eyes peeled.

The Rackhouse Pub on Urbanspoon

Luxe Redux: Chopsticks China Bistro

Since I last gave it up for Chopsticks, the joint’s gone all (well, relatively) swanky on me, relocating to lacquered & sleek new digs in suburbia. So far as memory of its predecessor serves, the menu’s been dumbed down a little for the golden key party set, but only a little, & execution remains solid if slightly less exciting.

For instance, the Sichuan-style red chili oil wontons with pork & shrimp are without a doubt among the best in town, along with those of Lao Wang Noodle House;

Chopstickswontons
beautifully gift-wrapped, almost impossibly delicate, they nonetheless held their own in the oil—fiery but not merely fiery, with softer sour notes that had me sipping it from the spoon long after the wontons were gone.

I wasn’t quite as enamored with the “egg crabmeat juicy pork dumplings”;

Chopsticksdumplings

perfectly adequate as they were, & as unfair as my verdict is since they weren’t identified as soup dumplings per se, they suffered a bit from comparison with Lao Wang’s extraordinary perfumed xiao long bao. (Unless, of course, they were supposed to be soup dumplings, in which case they suffered a lot from comparison, containing no broth whatsoever.)

Taiwanese rice noodles fried with pork, egg, peppers, onions & scallions amounted to pure, shovel-it-in comfort food—just greasy & texturally varied but flavorwise simple enough for cheerfully mindless grubbing.

Chopsticksricenoodles

“Fish”—white & light, halibut or cod or something—braised in hot bean sauce with a daikon rose was well cooked, firm & flaky, though not as distinctive as I’d remembered it;

Chopsticksfish

by contrast, lamb, onions, peppers & scallions with strong & tangy sah cha sauce—a variant of satay according to this Chowhound thread—was a memorable new one on me; it can be ordered with beef as well, but our sassy young waiter (I’ve sadly forgotten his name, though I asked for it, but you’ll know him, & like him, by the goofy jokes he cracks) was adamant about lamb.

Chopstickslambsahcha
I wonder whether China Jade does traditional Sichuan kung pao (here starring tofu) with peppercorns; Chopsticks doesn’t, but at least it doesn’t go full-on gloppy either, keeping the heat.

Chopstickskungpaotofu

I couldn’t help but notice that smaller, less lively parties got oranges with the check while my boisterous group was treated to orange layer cake (from a local bakery)—really good, fresh, moist & bright-flavored.

Chopsticksorangecake

Word to the wise, then: banter with the waitstaff pays in spades.

Whether the haul down to Greenwood Village is worth it in the 1st place is harder to say. For all the high gloss on the new space, the cooking seemed to have lost a touch of its former luster, sacrificing an ounce of oomph for a dash of caution. A return might be in order to see if the same is true of staunchly un-American dishes like simmered beef tendon or jellyfish salad; in short, Chopsticks is still good, but the verdict is out as to whether it’s still special.

Chopsticks on Urbanspoon