Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

When in Rome: Lesson Learned at China Jade

Make that “when in a Sichuan restaurant in Aurora.” China Jade draws regular raves—including, just days ago, Westword’s Best Chinese Restaurant award—for the uncompromising quality of its downhome regional cookery. Thus—as is the case at any place specializing in dishes unfamiliar to the average American—the golden rule is to forego what you know (your lo mein this & egg drop that) & do as the Romans (of whatever ethnicity) around you are doing.

It’s one I myself usually follow. But as I noted in my recent review of Star Kitchen, I was on a dumpling-seeking mission of late that continued through my visit to this bare-bones strip mall joint. And while dumplings have their place at the Sichuan table just as they do in most Chinese cuisines, I wouldn’t call them China Jade’s forte.

For instance, though the wontons are served Sichuan style with red chili oil,

CJwontons

they were surprisingly bland, their wrappers flavorless, especially compared to those at Lao Wang Noodle House & Chopsticks (more on which in a future post). Ditto the clumsily thick, soup-free knockoff of xiao long bao.

CJdumplings

Likewise, it’s Beijing that’s best known for duck, & though crispy duck is listed as a house specialty at China Jade, I found the breading too heavy & greasy & the sauce too syrupy.

CJduck

By contrast, the traditional vegetable (not, note, necessarily vegetarian) dishes we ordered were killer in every sense of the word. Take the green beans dry-fried with chilies & finely minced pork,

CJgreenbeans
beautifully blistered & blistering in turn, & just a touch nutty from peanut or sesame oil (if not both). Or the highlight of our meal, eggplant in hot garlic sauce.

CJeggplant

Combining violet, velvety chunks of oil-slicked eggplant with chopped pork, onion & cilantro in 1 of the region’s definitive sauces—typically a blend of soy, garlic, ginger, chilies, sugar, cornstarch & sesame oil—it is, IMO, the epitome, along with pad Thai, naeng myun, báhn mì & etc., of the Asian predilection for incorporating all the taste elements into 1 dish: spicy, sour, salty, sweet, umami.

Ma po tofu, which translates considerably less appetizingly as “pockmarked old lady’s tofu,” is another Sichuan classic at which the kitchen excels.

CJmapotofu

Wikipedia’s description is striking: “True Mapo doufu is powerfully spicy, with both conventional ‘heat’ spiciness & the characteristic ‘mala’ (numbing spiciness) flavor of Sichuan cuisine. The feel of the particular dish is often described by cooks using 7 specific Chinese adjectives: 麻 (numbing), 辣 (spicy hot), 烫 (hot temperature), 鲜 (fresh), 嫩 (tender & soft), 香 (aromatic), & 酥 (flaky).” Which is a cool way of saying “Holy crap! My mouth is burning but I can’t stop eating this much awesome!”

Still, as I watched those around us devouring pork shoulder in casserole & other family-style lookers, I got the distinct, depressing sense that there is indeed such a thing as ordering wrong & that, despite our better instincts, my companions & I had allowed ourselves, at least to some extent, to do just that. Next time—& there will be a next time—I’ll follow the Roman rule to the letter.

China Jade on Urbanspoon

Ernie’s Bar & Pizza: A Definite Maybe

I’m told this place used to resemble a faux-Grecian banquet facility. In that case, the owners pulled off a hell of a remodel, not least for its simultaneously shiny & well-worn feel; Ernie’s redux is a genuinely warm & woody bar & grill, glinting with stained glass panels & awash in the merry din of what seems at any given time to be half the neighborhood—the other half of which is likely to be a few miles away at its equally easygoing (albeit slicker) sibling, LoHi SteakBar. The spirited vibe alone, upped by booze—including dozens of beers bottled & on tap as well as a short but fairly smart selection of wines—suggests Ernie’s has got it made. If I lived nearby, it’d be on heavy happy hour rotation. Whether I’d always stick around for dinner is harder to say.

What I can say is that on paper, exec chef Sean Kelly’s menu is super-appealing; besides pizza is a sizeable array of what Ernie’s calls antipasti but I think of more as cicchetti, the Venetian word for, essentially, tapas, or spuntini, i.e. snacks—especially since it also lists larger-portioned appetizers, which is technically how antipasti translates. On the plate & on the palate, some of them fulfill their promise; others have yet to.

In the latter category: oversalted giardiniera & bland marinated mushrooms, neither any better than their jarred supermarket counterparts.

EBPantipasti

In the former category, the sweet & sour pickled poppers that are balsamic-marinated cipollini.

EBPbalsamiconions

In the latter category: smoked whitefish salad, also too salty as served—

EBPwhitefishsalad
although the leftovers were great: since chilling tends to inhibit flavor (& time allows for integration), what had been sharply fishy was now mellower, richer, more smoothly melded.

In the former category, the stromboli stuffed with mozz, sausage & “meatball”—which it ceases to be when it’s crumbled, reverting to spiced ground beef etc., but whatever.

EBPstromboli

Though the advertised garlic-parm-basil dipping sauce was nowhere to be seen, the light tomato sauce struck me as the more fitting of the 2 condiments in any case, its acidic zing balancing out the meatiness (in every sense) of the slices, whose chopped & mixed rather than layered contents had an intriguing compactness. Instead of “stromboli,” think “pizza terrine.”

In the latter category: fried pizza dough.

EBPdough
Part of the problem inheres in the menu description—”strips of pizza dough, lightly fried.” First of all, what comes out aren’t breadstick-shaped objects but essentially mini-sopaipillas—which is fine except insofar as it’s misleading. What’s less fine is that, be they strips or pockets, they’re a little too lightly fried, on the doughier rather than the bubbling golden side of the spectrum. And, be it marinara or honey, both shapes really call for some sort of moistening dip or drizzle; you can pile/spoon the prosciutto & taleggio on top of the puffs, but it’s hardly intuitive or coherent. Finally, the taleggio is…odd. Curdlike, with a very fresh, tangy, slightly carbonated quality, it’s interesting but not the cream-bomb the name signifies.

All that said, this app’s not only on the right track but in clear sight of its destination. It’s a lot of fun, & with some tweaking it could be a solid signature.

In the former category—in fact the winner therein: chicken wings & drumettes coated in the garlic-parmesan-basil sauce that was missing from the stromboli. This was a much better place for it anyway.

EBPwings

Served with sides of blue cheese & ranch dressing, these were the surprise hit: extra-juicy, crackling in spots, & lavishly zesty.

As for Ernie’s pizza—so far, so good.

EBPmargherita
The thickness of the crust at the edges belied its almost impossible thinness elsewhere; impressed as I was with the defiance of physics, I had to wonder whether it would fall apart under toppings any heavier than the classic margherita blend of mozz, basil & sauce—the latter being, it should be noted, all right with the world, fresh, light & red-peppery.

No question that Ernie’s is already a fine neighborhood joint. But the question does remain as to whether it’ll be one of those neighborhood joints that doubles as a downright dining destination, à la Deluxe, Black Pearl, Fuel, The Squeaky Bean (more on which soon) & maybe even LoHi SteakBar. I’m wishing it well.

Ernie's Bar and Pizza on Urbanspoon

More Adventures in Mixed-Breed Maki: Fontana Sushi

Of all my cruddy culinary habits, & I’ve got a lot of ’em, ordering sushi in is surely one of the worst. It flies in the face of the whole extraordinary tradition: of engagement with the itamae, of spontaneity—choosing items per his (occasionally her) suggestions of the moment—of revelation in their pristine state,** fresh from his cutting board to your mouth, even of the importance of tableware to the experience of the meal (which of course gets lost with takeout containers) . And since you can bet the best sushi bars—the ones whose masters would just as soon commit harikari with their own naifus as ever hear the words “California roll” again—don’t deign to deliver, you can also bet that the ones that do amount to your friendly neighborhood joints, whose bread is buttered by customers who consider cream cheese a key ingredient in their deep-fried candied bacon-chipotle maki.

And yet. Precisely because these friendly neighborhood joints aim to please the friendly neighborhood Americans who frequent them in anticipation of the Japanese version of friendly neighborhood American food, they’ve come to specialize in just that. Since Japanese cuisine inheres in purity & elegant simplicity like no other, & because it was introduced to us much later than many other cuisines with less emphasis on precision—Italian & Mexican, say—the acceptance among serious eaters of the Japanese-American hybrid is coming slower than it has the Americanization of those other cuisines. But so long as we acknowledge & appreciate the difference between a sushiya that’s dedicated to promoting & preserving its centuries-old craft in strict terms & a Japanese-American goof—just as we acknowledge & appreciate the difference between a trattoria vera & a red-sauce parlor—we can enjoy what each has to offer. I ain’t about to pick a Lovesexy Psychedelic Groove Roll over needlefish sashimi at Sushi Sasa—& the reverse is true when it comes to a place like Fontana Sushi.

So it is that, giving in to my cravings for comfort food, & wanting to try something other than Go Fish (which I generally dig) & Hapa (which I generally don’t), I called Fontana up a couple of times recently to see what was what. And while I wasn’t wildly impressed overall, I was, at moments, intrigued & pleased, enough to be nice & categorize it under Eateries That Give Me Hope (next time I & it might not be so lucky).

The ebi asparagus roll—not a roll at all but skewered, teriyaki-glazed shrimp & asparagus cuts—wasn’t one of those intriguing moments. Nothing wrong with it, really—in fact the sauce had a consistency evocative of homemade, which it damn well should be in a world devoid of cynicism, but mine isn’t—but nothing to disabuse me of the opinion that teriyaki sauce just isn’t one of Japan’s more thrilling contributions to world cuisine, even used properly for grilled items. It’s basically Japanese ketchup.

Fontanashrimp

Far more interesting, however, was the Dancing Roll.

Fontanadancingroll2 Fontanadancingroll3

With shrimp tempura (the quality of which was admittedly hard to judge in such circumstances) on the inside & red clam over shredded kani mixed with some sort of sweet (not spicy, despite the menu description) soy-based sauce—maybe even that same teriyaki—on top, it was a bit like eating a kaleidoscope, a swirl of balancing flavors & textures. (Let’s pretend we don’t see that dark spot in the middle of the piece of shrimp or the sunlit spot indicative of loose rolling.)

Ditto the fried oyster roll topped with red snapper, tobiko, jalapeno & tiny dabs of “special sauce,” making for a neat mix of sweet-delicate and salty-pungent.

Fontanaoysterroll3 Fontanaoysterroll4

But I have to admit to having serious questions as to whether the oysters came smoked from a tin. After all, since Fontana doesn’t serve raw oysters in any form (note that raw oysters aren’t often used for sushi, since, if Wikipedia is to be believed, they’re thought to clash with sushi rice—although, hmm, Sonoda’s offers them), it’s hard to imagine that the owners—whose emphasis on thrift is evident in the fact that they serve $1 sushi all day, everyday—would invest in such an expensive product only to deep-fry it for the occasional customer who requests either of the 2 dishes incorporating it. So curious was I that I threw the other one, kaki fry, in with my next order.

Fontanaoysters

All I can tell you—& I also admit I may be a victim of my own conviction here, as well as of my New England–based knowledge of what fresh fried oysters should taste like—is that they sure resembled smoked oysters, with the same strange chew, basically chicken-fried rather than in tempura. Surprising how hard it was to say for sure. Regardless, still hot & crisp when they arrived with a side of sweet chili dipping sauce, they were really some fun.

With shrimp, egg & avocado, the East roll (below right) did not benefit from the balance of flavors the others had, proving very bland. Why the scallop (top left) was napped with wasabi cream was beyond me, since no mention of sauce is made on the menu; why I received red clam (bottom left) when I’d ordered white tuna was also beyond me—not that I’d have minded if one piece hadn’t been awfully tough (my teeth slid satisfyingly clean through the other).

Fontanasushi

The pickled daikon in the Sunshine Roll overpowered the mild salmon within, though not the tuna on top, & I’m a fan of oshinko as a vibrant (& traditional) maki ingredient in any case.

Fontanasunshine
It remains to be seen whether the next round will further raise or dash or my silly hopes for good bad sushi. For a fascinating primer on the bogglingly arcane subject of sushi tradition, check out this Chowhound thread.

**Keeping in mind, of course, that pristineness is relative in the landlocked US of A.

Fontana Sushi on Urbanspoon

The Kooky View from The Corner Office

As I’ve already suggested, The Corner Office has finally begun to endear itself to me, if for no other reason than that it was there when we needed it during this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival (with which you may know I am heavily involved; see also here). Though its conflation of sass with sophistication is flawed—especially in comparison with the savvy shown, at least in theory, by similarly oriented newer comers (your TAGs, your Colt  & Grays)—such that the menu’s geoeclectic reach often exceeds the kitchen’s grasp & the cocktail list skews more coed than grown-up, I couldn’t help but get a kick out of its cheerfully quasi-louche glitz over the course of several visits in a single weekend.

After all, they’ve concocted a quaff (St. Germain–based, but we’ll let that slide) called the Director, modeled here by

Cothedirector
Denver’s premier alcoholic (as Karla winningly & not unduly dubbed herself recently here).

Besides, if the crew in whites can’t pull everything off, they nail a morsel here & there. The hummus, of all things, for instance.

COhummus

In my experience, it isn’t often that a non-Mediterranean/Middle Eastern place gets hummus right—for whatever reason, since it really isn’t that hard to add sufficient olive oil, lemon juice, tahini & garlic to what’s otherwise just chickpea puree. Somehow The Corner Office not only does so but pairs it with wedges of warm, fluffy, slightly crispy & chewy pita itself just tinged with the flavor of olive oil.

For another instance, admits this doubting Denveater a year & a 1/2 after the fact, the chicken & waffles. Look at that all-over golden-brown crunch.

COchickenandwaffles
If what was underneath it had been tepid or dry or congealed or underseasoned or otherwise poorly prepared, the golden-brown crunch would have been a red herring—but it wasn’t. It was the mark of a classic batter—or rather 2, one applied lightly enough to give the bird its due, the other making for a fluffy “pancake with syrup traps,” as the late great Mitch Hedberg called it. I still like my chicken & waffles to be served with both syrup & gravy (this came with only the former)—&, okay, in a context where the dish is an understood tradition about which I can always learn more rather than a cheeky appropriated novelty. But better appropriated than misappropriated.

Ditto w/r/t the lemony edamame.

COedamame

I don’t know if the peel is zested or the juice is simply sprinkled—the former’s my iffy recollection—but either way, it’s an intuitive little twist.

And damned if the fried calamari & rock shrimp doesn’t suck either;

COcalamarishrimp

here too, the batter was just right, clumsy neither in seasoning nor touch. Not to belabor the point, but the difference between batter, breading & downright dough gets lost on far too many fry guys.

Though I didn’t try a friend’s bacon cheddar cheeseburger with sauteed onions, it sure looks like one humdinger of a mouthful,

COburger
even if the bun itself appears little more than the kind of weak foam that would just dissipate under rather than form a nifty sop for

COburgerjuice
all those gorgeous juices.

As faux-Caesars go,

COCaesar
the Corner Office’s is fine—meaning little more than that the dressing’s got some garlicky punch—although the chicken seemed a little too close to precooked Tyson breast strips for comfort.

The only real turkeys were 1), fittingly enough, the Tom Turkey sandwich—utterly bland, with cheap-tasting deli slices—

COturkeysandwich

& 2) the crab pad thai; incoherent as a whole, the egg was dry, the clump of noodles too sweet.

COpadthai
All in all, though, as a convenient choice for downtown carousing over easy grub & giggle juice, The Corner Office sure can put the fun in functional like nobody’s business.

Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar on Urbanspoon

The Long & Winding Review That Leads from Interstate Kitchen & Bar

What, if anything, is the difference between concept & vision?

Does it matter, so long as it’s realized?

And if it isn’t realized—does the answer then matter?

To tailor the conundrum to fit oh-so-prog-retro Interstate Kitchen & Bar, modeled on the roadside diners of the postwar & Space Age eras: when a menu is primarily the reflection of a tongue-in-cheek image, with what sort of integrity can it be executed?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; having sampled a fair portion of the modest-sized repertoire in two visits, I remain unsure as to the motives/expectations/hopes behind the venture. No doubt the owners have been quoted about their intentions somewhere (here, in fact), but I want to be able to discern the truth from a meal (or two, even). And I haven’t been able to yet—not least because my lunch & dinner experiences were night & day.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t had loads of fun trying to figure out where the downhome cookin’ with an apostrophe-n stops & the disingenuous urban myth thereof starts.

Consider the spoonbread.

Interstatespoonbread

The above was served at dinner, when the place was sparkling with party people. With that bruléed crust beneath a pool of butter, it looked completely different than the version I’d had at lunch the day before when the dining room was virtually empty—pale & sporting an unmelted dollop of butter on top. The mouthfeel & flavor were more developed as well, custardy & even a little spicy with a touch of cayenne rather than amorphously gummy & underseasoned.

Likewise, ponder the fried shrimp ravioli—or “raviolis,” as the menu puts it, exemplifying my uncertainty about the place. Is that just ignorance of the Italian plural or a deliberate nod to the byroads & backways of Americanization?

Interstateravioli
In any case, though both boasted a nice sopaipilla-like puff, the dinnertime version contained noticeably more shrimp filling & a much richer, butter-mounted marinara. Butter is no behind-the-scenes ingredient at Interstate but an in-your-face player, so much so that it also raises questions about the message any given meal is meant to convey. Does butter, in its prominence, serve as yet another prop on this set designed to whisk us to a Route 66 hashhouse? If so, should it? Are there restaurants in which the food can & should be made to be in service of the mood, the substance in service of the style, rather than the other way around? Does the fact that such questions came up for me at every turn return us to the issue of marketable concept versus organic vision?

Moving on. It wasn’t appropriate for me to snap shots at the lunch I attended, so you’ll have to take my word for it that

—the fried chicken livers, appealingly presented in a paper cone, were too heavily breaded. Is the goal to make them palatable to hipsters who want to say they eat offal? Is that a worthwhile goal? Why not just admit this might not be the time or place for trend-dangling, & fry up the usual suspects instead? As for garnish, the ketchup-thick housemade hot sauce was good, but the pickle was so skimpy as to be pointless: just two disks, see-through-thin.
—the tomato soup was flat-out odd, the namesake ingredient blunted rather than enhanced by either wine or wine vinegar; the grilled cheese was plain & boring. I’d be curious to know what type of cheese it was, & whether we were dealing with some attempt to keep it real by making it fake: that is, to hearken back to the days of better living through chemistry by using nonartisanal, processed cheddar or even American—not Velveeta, to be sure, but not much more flavorful than that. If not, perhaps they need to rethink it a bit, maybe use a cheese blend.

—the mild pastrami on rye was a go, given a neat twist with coleslaw qua filling. But it came with a side of awkwardness: potato chips whose salt-&-vinegar topping appeared in the form of an almost sweet pink powder, for no good reason I could discern. At 1st glance, I thought it was powdered sugar, simply because it didn’t occur to me that anyone would try to make sea salt & malt vinegar more interesting than they already are. Labs exist to ensure failed experiments don’t escape from them.
—the nonstandard (and thus rightly quotation-marked) “Cobb” was the real deal inspiration-wise: tossed rather than composed, it was a jumble of clumps of crispy, fatty bacon; chunks of roasted chicken thigh; globs of excellent, pungent blue cheese (why here & not on the sandwich?); & IIRC Boston lettuce smeared in a fine hot bacon dressing.

Though the meal as a whole was obviously a mixed bag, I was intrigued enough by it to want to stick my hand back in & see what came up the next night. In addition to the aforementioned, the deviled eggs

Interstateeggs
were, except for the drop of sturgeon roe on top, carefully classic. Given the glut of sloppy token attempts out there, kudos to Interstate for treating the recipe with respect.

Of the entrees, our pal Keith’s burger was the simple favorite:

Interstateburger

dripping patty with a slightly pink center, nice fresh bun. (It came with some rough, unbalanced horseradish & Dijon sauces—they needed either smoothing out or forgetting about in favor of plain horseradish & mustard.)

My buffalo meatloaf with grits was also mostly terrific—seemingly low on starchy filler & hence especially robust, as were the just-right grits—except for the sticky gravy, which recalled the tomato soup in its sweet-&-sour weirdness.

Interstatemeatloaf

The Director complained his fried chicken was on the dry side; I didn’t notice, finding it instead a bit greasy under another gravy that lacked finesse—but contradictorily that the side of green beans with crispy pork belly was too lipoid to quit.

Interstatechicken

The onion bread pudding on Karla’s vegetarian plate, meanwhile, was definitely too dry—a shame, because it looks like it could be a winner, eh? (I didn’t try the lookalike scalloped potatoes on the left or the celery-root puree peeking beneath the leaves.)

Interstateveggieplate

Finally, having named Interstate’s Candy Apple the Dish of the Week the other day, I must confess I actually preferred the charming, well-built chocolate icebox cake,

Interstateiceboxcake
made with brownies rather than the typical wafers as well as chocolate pudding & real whipped cream.

Don’t doubt we downed a number of rounds over the course of our meal, & the number wasn’t 1, 2, or 3.

InterstateEtiquette Interstatejulep
Here’s “Denver’s premier alcoholic,” in her own words, with a Standard Etiquette—whiskey, grapefruit & honey—& a mint julep.

Why the mint julep is served in a coffee mug is unclear. Is it supposed to be the roadside equivalent of the traditional pewter cup? By contrast, the logoed cozy, modeled by yet another Starz Denver Film Festival babe who happened to be whooping it up at a nearby table, makes total adorable sense.

Interstatecozy
All told, for the nonce, “Interstate” seems the perfect word for the place, as it back-and-forths between its world of commercially Platonic ideals & the real, messy world of the restaurant business. Whether it can ultimately manage to transport us between them more smoothly remains to be seen. But I’m more than willing to give it a few more whirls.

Interstate Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Tubers & Boob Tubes Galore at Oak Tavern

I don’t care how glaring the flatscreens, how blaring the dance tracks, how backwards the baseball caps, how bleached the blonde, how Two-Buck the Chuck—if a place serves stuffed spuds & treats my mom nice, I’m in. Which brings me to, of all unlikely places, Oak Tavern—where the GM turned down the loudspeakers for a 67-year-old lady without blinking & our PYT of a server was as exceedingly polite and full of thoughtful suggestions as her hot pants were extremely hot.

I’m not saying I’m recommending the place, I’m just saying.

I’m saying, damn, I love me some stuffed taters, & by extension whoever’s willing to serve me one like it’s 1989, just before the fad faded pretty much everywhere but Wendy’s. Sure, I can pop a potato into mine own oven, but what are the chances I’m going to grill a little steak with onions, peppers & mushrooms, then whip up a Madeira-fortified gravy swirled into sour cream to top it off with, as per the Cattleman (as I believe the current menu calls it, though this older version calls it the Ranch Hand & doesn’t mention cheddar, which I’m sure it also had)? I’ll tell ya: somewhere between nil & zip.

OTcattlemanspotato
The Rockefeller’s a build-your-own dealio, offering roughly 30 toppings; who’s gonna stock up on everything from olives, artichoke hearts & arugula to fresh herbs, the makings for pesto & 5 types of cheese just lest the yen for a home-baked tuber strike, like Mom’s happy hour special with swiss, broccoli, avocado, mushrooms & sour cream?

OTbuildyourownpotato
And the Director’s breakfast potato with 2 eggs over easy, bacon, roasted peppers, cheddar & Tabasco was the stuff of redeye, redneck inspiration. (Actually, speaking of redeye, some gravy over thick-sliced country ham would be the (gut)bomb too.)

OTbreakfastpotato
There are spuds topped with gumbo & layered with salmon, drizzled with truffle oil & spilling with chili—& that’s not all; the kitchen also makes its own chips, both plain & barbecue-flavored.

OTchips
OTbbqchips

Uneven seasoning meant some were way too salty, but it’s hard to find full-throated fault with hot, fresh, greasy, crunchy potato chips, especially when they’re loaded as with the happy hour half-portion below

OTnachos2

& accompanied by sides of

sour cream & decent chili. OTchili

It’s just such unexpected little touches that I most appreciate at any level of dining, from pub grub to haute cuisine. Who’d have imagined the hash-slingers at a sports bar would stuff crimini with the meat of 3 other types of mushrooms, 3 cheeses & 3 herbs, broil them just so, & ring them round with apparently homemade pesto? (It just goes to show the importance of balanced presentation, since the seemingly subtle distinctions between these & the ones I had at The Lobby a while back indeed made all the difference: smaller plate, browner caps, less sauce).

OTmushrooms2

The same pesto, twinned with a rich, tangy sundried tomato pesto, gave the otherwise plain beef & veggie skewers a reason to live as well.

OTkabobs
Not to belabor the point. Oak Tavern is ultimately just a meat market for alpha jocks & the bimbos who bang them. Still, the element of surprise is always worth noting, & the fact that someone back there on the line obviously puts an ounce of pride & effort into his work is definitely a nice surprise in the midst of the cheesehall.

Oak Tavern on Urbanspoon

Worthy of the Name: Salt Bistro

A copy of Mark Kurlansky’s namesake socioculinary history sits on the hostess stand; a small dish of variegated salts sits on each table. And the emphasis on seasoning is loud & clear in the cooking at Boulder’s Salt Bistro, for better or worse—mostly, I suppose, better.

To disclaim where disclaimers are due: I’ve only been here once so far; I came with friends during what looked like an unusually busy lunch hour; & so between the fine rep of chef-owner Bradford Heap (also of Colterra in Niwot) & the dreaminess of the menu on paper, I hereby give Salt the full benefit of the doubt.

Besides, the doubt that does exist is as much due to the front as the back of the house; for being slammed, our server sure didn’t seem much bothered, & the 2-course meal took nearly 2 hours. Thus a side of roasted cauliflower with capers & breadcrumbs, for instance,

Saltcauli
was doubly disappointing for being not only overly salty—above & beyond the capers—but also lukewarm & a little limp, suggesting it sat for awhile before delivery. Since of all the dishes we ordered—salads, soup & a burger too—it was presumably the most time intensive, therefore the last thing that should have been sitting around, one has to presume in turn there was some disconnect between our server & the kitchen.

Meanwhile, upon mentioning I found it too salty, Shena claimed her fries were too, & Jane recalled that the same was true of the chicken potpie she’d had on another occasion. Me, I thought the fries were fine, so you can take the hearsay with a grain of you know what—but take it nonetheless; the consensus that someone’s got a heavy hand with the shaker’s pretty clear.

Ditto with the dressing vessel.

Saltsalad
As one who errs on the side of overdressing as well, I sympathize, but toward the bottom it was soggy to a degree I imagine many would have found unacceptable.

That aside, it was a damned yummy salad. With chunks of roasted butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, caramelized onions, crumbled goat cheese, & slivers of some fantastic sauteed mushrooms—I’m not sure what they were, but I’m sure they weren’t button, portobello, shiitake, or oyster; hen of the woods, maybe? something exotic & meat-juicy, anyway—atop lively mixed greens, it rocked the salty-earthy-sweet spectrum, not least for that balsamic vinaigrette, which I usually avoid but which was the right choice here.

I didn’t sample Jane’s soup & salad special du jour, but she expressed unqualified pleasure with both. The former blended apple & fennel slices with baby spinach, frisée & candied walnuts; the latter was Tuscan white bean with ham hock.

Saltsalad2 Saltwhitebeanhamhocksoup

The Tom’s Tavern Grassfed Burger takes its name, of course, from the longtime Pearl Street diner Salt has replaced; the respect Heap means to show the erstwhile institution & its place in Boulder culture is admirable, right down to the fact that the old logo remains on the eastern façade—but as Jane said after Shena ordered the sandwich, “this homage will be 10 times better than Tom’s ever dreamed of.”

She was at that point more confident than I, who was peeved on Shena’s behalf that her request for a medium-rare patty was met with a recommendation that it be medium instead, since “a lot of customers who order it medium-rare end up sending it back because they think it’s too pink.” To attribute a lack of savvy or foresight to dissatisfied customers rather than just admitting the kitchen prefers to follow FDA standards seemed disingenuous if not a little insulting.

Saltburger
But the burger looked terrific—inside & out. Topped with bacon, Grafton cheddar & pickled onions inside a gorgeous fluffy shiny bun, the Lasater Ranch beef patty, Shena showed us, was indeed sufficiently pink in the middle. And the aforementioned fries with housemade ketchup gave great golden yield.

It took over half an hour for the server to clear our plates, present dessert menus, & bring the apple crostada we chose—but the sweet was worth the sour wait, as I noted in Dish of the Week a few days ago.

On a mixture of hard evidence & faith, then, I’ll say likewise that Salt is probably worth its namesake.

Salt on Urbanspoon

When Journeyman Cooks Kick Master Artisans’ Asses: Go Fish

Its name does Go Fish a disservice, implying you have go to some lengths to discover what in fact this Baker District Japanese joint offers freely: reliably satisfying maki & nigiri (as well as some solid apps) delivered with deeply genuine hospitality.

Are you wowed à la Wayne Conwell? Probably not. Are the Kizaki Brothers sweating? I’m guessing negative. But do you feel more welcome here than at galleryesque Sushi Sasa, calmer here than at eternally slammed Sushi Den? Are you more comfortable overall? I call hell yes…

based, that is, on my 1 or 2 experiences in the dining room. The remainder of the many Go Fish meals I’ve had (& blogged about) have been consumed in mine own dump, couriered by The Director. It is he who, over the course of his takeout stop-ins, has charmed & been charmed by the folks behind the sushi bar to the extent that they greet him like a long-lost pal, ply him with sake while he waits & send him out the door with freebies galore.

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Recently the gift was a lettuce-wrapped, special sauce–drizzled roll stuffed with avocado, mango, tempura crunch & I’m not honestly sure what all else—

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the Director didn’t ask, & I didn’t care. I just appreciated the kind gesture. Such rarities are as exquisite as the choicest morsel of toro.

***

Postscript: Lest this need spelling out: don’t go to Go Fish thinking you’ll automatically get free stuff. Go for a nice, relaxing meal; enjoy; tip accordingly; repeat. That’s all.

Colt & Gray sets the swank stage for a Craft Cocktail Powwow with Colonel Hector Bravado & Mark Antonation, Pt. 2. With bonus whiff of Benton Essence!

Continued from Part the Oneth.

Round 2 included an order of blue cheese–dusted gougères—or what Mark called, when The Colonel requested a definition, “The trick in James Bond where they stick their fingers in your eyes & push.” Heh, good one. Granted, they didn’t fit any definition I know either, looking & tasting more like fried cheese nuggets than the mini savory profiteroles they usually are. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Down they went.

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So far, then, every single thing I’d tried had been a surprise in one way or another—& all, in the adventure-oriented scheme of things, pleasant ones.

The Seis was no exception.

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Since in the US, most of the flavor has been hybred right out of it, the thought of watermelon rarely grabs me (except in Italy, & even there my appreciation is a function of context—because it’s called cocomero, & it’s often kept by the slice along with fresh coconut in a sort of fountain bath at the carts of street vendors, & in short it’s all kinds of whimsical & picturesque).  But watermelon juice with rum, falernum & Benton essence—not that I knew what the latter was—piqued my interest. I’m glad it did, because it was delicious—lightly flowery, a touch spicy, with some sort of spiced sugar rim.

Having since found out what Benton essence is, I’m all the more impressed. Per head barman Kevin Burke, who satisfied my curiosity via e-mail:

Mmm Benton essence. Benton’s is a heritage pork producer. They cure prosciutto as well as bacon. Their bacon is incredibly rich and smoky. I have the kitchen render the bacon and use a fat-wash infusion as well as atmospheric compression to infuse a blackstrap rum. The aromatic compounds in the bacon fat are alcohol soluble, so the smoke and sweetness is left behind when I let the rum/bacon emulsion sit and break like a salad dressing. I then freeze it to solidify the fat and filter it through a coffee filter. I’m left with what is essentially smoke-infused rum that is a little bit salty and a little bit sweet, just like bacon.

Well ding-dong dang & hot damn. No wonder the watermelon tasted so good.

The Director’d joined us by then, & though he just stuck with his usual single malt, the sight of handmade ice cubes was a thrill.

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Meanwhile, Denver Six Shooter’s own Max Vitesse had also swung by; as the conversation was turning to our favorite local watering holes—which Mark had defined for us as “the perfect combination of atmosphere and drink”—Max gave a nod to TAG. “Downstairs on Monday nights, when Mike’s at the bar, he just lays everything out & then says, ‘What do you want? What kinds of things do you like?’ And makes you something on the spot.” I can’t confirm his claim firsthand, but I plan to.

As for our experts’ list-toppers:

Antonation: Delite. They’re not killing it, but the bartenders know what they’re doing, & they make a perfect mojito. Plus there’s that whole open garage door thing.

Lola. I don’t know if they have a reputation for cocktails, but they have a great tequila list. I order the Sotol margarita with Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, usually reposado or añejo. Sotol is pretty similar to tequila or mezcal, & the Hacienda añejo has a really nice smoky flavor that goes well with the lime. Plus, Lola uses sea salt to rim the glass, so you also get a nice oceany taste.

I order mine straight up in a martini glass. The first time I ordered one, the bartender was quizzing me about my flavor preferences & suggested the sotol instead of tequila. Now I order one every time I go there. If I’m ordering from a waiter instead of the bartender, I usually have to describe it in a lot of detail to get the right drink. Makes me want one right now just thinking about it.

Full disclosure: I’d never heard of sotol before this conversation; I thought Mark said a “so-tall margarita.” Which makes me want one right now just thinking about it
. Or at least I think I’ve never heard of it—sounds like the kind of thing I’d be trying long past the point at which I might remember trying it.

Meanwhile, Mark was also trying to remember whether Lola still has a build-your-own-bloody-mary bar, prompting The Colonel to retort, “I never understood the ‘build your own’ concept. ‘Here, fuck up your own drink!'”

The Pioneer on University, because they were really good to me when I was unemployed.

And I’ll go with the Falling Rock Tap House. It offers the beer variety I need & it’s the first place that I ever had Old Potrero Single Malt Rye.

The Colonel: My number 1 doesn’t have a name. It’s the bar next to Cosmo’s Pizza on the Hill in Boulder. My favorite bartender is Glenn; he has a signature drink called the Broadway.***

I’m also gonna have to say Dazzle. The drinks are heinously overpriced, but I’ve more or less lived at Dazzle, legless, 2 or 3 times a week. And, this is so embarrassing, but the Village Tavern at the Flatirons Crossing. The bartender was the first one that signed up on Denver Six Shooter to give me a shoutout. And they have the best happy hour.

Red Square for a good carafe of dill-infused vodka & a big carafe of Black Cherry Effen vodka. Oh, and the fuckin’ Thin Man! They do their own infused vodkas.

Moving on to Round 3, we stuck with wine & beer. At some point Mark also snagged some fried oysters; handsome though they were on their bed of rock salt, they were also few & far between, so I let him & them be. His thumbs up: “Briny!”

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Delving deeper into the topic, I found it mighty interesting that, in response to the question, “What’s the best drink you’ve ever had here in town?” both gents recalled classic juice glasses as served to them at high-end joints that weren’t on their list of go-tos. Goes to show, I guess, how key pure comfort is when it comes to naming favorites.

The Colonel: The best Manhattan I ever had was at Oceanaire. It was a fuckin’ kitty wading pool, perfectly chilled—I love it when there’s a layer of ice flecks on the top—and mixed so that the good bite of the bourbon remained in the foreground. I had two. It was also that the cocktail waitress on duty had this courtesan grace about her: quick-witted and warm and in total command of her environment, attentive without being servile. I wish I could remember her name.

Antonation: I was at Venice & I saw a Rusty Nail on the bar menu, which you never see. Because of the Drambuie, I think it’s a difficult drink to hit the right balance with. But before it even hit my lips, I caught the aroma & I was like, this was what my dad used to drink at cocktail parties!

Now that we’d covered the past & present, I had to ask: what would you most like to see in Denver bars? How should the scene evolve from here on out?

Antonation: Actually, it’s what I don’t want to see. I don’t think I want to see everyone doing [what Colt and Gray is doing], because I don’t think everyone would do it well. For instance, I love The Meadowlark, it’s just an awesome place, but they’ve got one of those cocktail lists that I avoid.

Agreed. Pay heed, PS Lounge.

The Colonel: I’d like to see more people doing coke right off the bar. It’s 2009. Whey should you have to go hunch over in the bathroom like a fucking animal? Also, I think I should be paying for drinks less often.

Oh, Colonel. Agreed, agreed.

OK, seriously? About ten years ago, I suggested a steak martini as a lark: cold vodka with a piece of rare–medium-rare steak wrapped around the inside of the glass, maybe a piece of pickled carrot floating in it. You polish off the hooch as the meat bleeds into it, then eat the vodka-soaked piece of steak. Everyone thought I was nuts back then, but with bacon-infused vodka available now, it doesn’t seem so nuts.

And with that, we headed off into the night, visions of ribeye dancing in our heads—as well as of, at least in my case, the lobster bangers & mash I’d spied on Colt and Gray’s menu. ‘Til next time—which had better be in no time.

*** I zonked out for a second at this point, but the Colonel filled me in on the Broadway later by quoting fellow Denver Six Shooter Abbott Westwind: “Into my glass go the bitters, Makers Mark, Amaretto & Grand Marnier, with a squeezed lemon hugging the rim.” I’m sure there’s a joke here about bitters-laced rim-huggers, but I don’t know what it is, do you?

By Jeeves, I think India Oven’s Got It

Given the good 1st impression By Jeeves made on us a few weeks ago even as Hapa Sushi was making a rather poor one, & considering how much we like our couch, the Director & I recently delved into delivery discovery again by ordering via the online/phone service from India Oven. It’s a place I’d often wondered about, tucked into its little corner at the south end of the University Hills Plaza, but I could just never overcome my intense fear of nearby Tuesday Morning to make it through the front door.

Well, color me pink with pleasure. Not only was the By Jeeves ordering process once again easy as pie—or at least doodhi halvah (teehee)!—but the order itself was delish enough to repeat the whole transaction a few days later, to only slightly diminished delight.

For one thing, if skimping on takeout/delivery is (at least in my perhaps cynicism-skewed experience) a bit more likely than not, the folks at India Oven buck the norm by adding a few nicely spiced pieces of pappadum to every order along with 3-count-’em-3 dipping sauces: mint chutney, tamarind chutney & raita that, in a new-to-me twist, comes laced with julienned carrots. With our 2nd meal, they even threw in 2 containers of rice: 1 plain basmati, the other saffron, both properly fluffy & aromatic.

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For another thing, the salmon saag is a thing of beauty.

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A, there’s no skimping on the firm, moist, almost sweet-fleshed fish. B, there’s no telling exactly what’s in the saag that makes its flavor so complexly rich—but I’d swear it’s a touch more than its share of ghee.

Though he ordered it hot, the Director’s daal tarka wasn’t simply chilefied—it was earthy & gingery too. Or, in his words, “fuckin’ scrumptious.” (That’s garlic naan on the side;

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me, I really dig the kabuli naan,

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evenly but not overly studded with dates & nuts to prove lightly sweet, not dessert-pizzalike.)

I forgot to snap the kadai paneer, but it looked a lot like this blogger’s, whose handsome photo I’ve swiped. Full of tomatoes, onions & green peppers—the latter bordering on al dente—it was lighter & fresher-tasting than most curries, & gently scented with cinnamon. I suspect, in short, that it was a very fine example of the dish, if slightly less to my personal taste than its deeper, richer counterparts.

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Lamb vindaloo, for example, usually is to my taste, provided it doesn’t obliterate my ability to taste anything beyond the first bite—but the Director’s was oversalted & the meat tough, making for the only real disappointment of the bunch.

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Still, overall, India Oven is already 2nd only to India’s Pearl (on which you’ll find much here) in my official book. Guess I’d better get over my nervousness around Mammy Dolls & Family Legacy Bibles & whatnot & check the place out in person.

India Oven on Urbanspoon