Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The Salad Series: Steuben’s Cobb

Like Billy’s Inn, Snooze et al., Steuben’s has developed a stylized version of the kind of retro-populist repertoire that, at its best, no born-&-bred American can resist. At its worst, of course, it yields massive amounts of culinary kryptonite sleeper cells should be so lucky to hoard. The day it incorporates this

Spam

or this,

DNCcupcakes

for instance, is the day the terrorists win.

Nonetheless our weird friends smuggled both onto the patio in celebration of Petey’s birthday, apparently on the grounds that it’s not a party until you go to Crazy Tasty Town on the back of a frosted ass. (Granted, put that way, their subversiveness sounds something like a high form of patriotism.)

Meanwhile, however, it’s not a meal at Steuben’s until you take your first bite of something you could as easily have ordered at a Yankee deli, Dixie roadhouse or streetcar diner along Route 66 back in the day.

Steuben’s, as I’ve said before, is generally greater than the sum of its parts. From the awesome smattering of vintage barware to the cheeky mix of chrome & vinyl & checkerboard tile, from the juice glasses for serving wine farmhouse-style to the old tins for serving fries, oh, Cannery Row-style,

Steubensfries

everything’s designed to help you kick back, not make you sit up & take notice—everything bids you forget yourself, not commit to memory every last morsel. (Granted, some of us kick back more than others:

Natasha)

So it’s only a bonus when a soupçon of excellence does emerge from the haze of relaxation. Ergo extra points for these exemplary deviled eggs:

Steubenseggs

All too often insipid—mushy rather than creamy, picalilli-sticky rather than paprika-spiked, etc.—the filling here is spot-on savory inside those perfectly hard-cooked albumin vessels.

Steubenscobb

My Cobb salad was 1 ingredient shy of classic, lacking blue cheese, but since I’d ordered a side of blue-cheese dressing to supplement the vinaigrette it came with, all was well. Certainly it was an improvement over the half-assed Caesar I’d had last time I posted on Steuben’s. Meanwhile, the Director’s fried chicken was every bit as good as previously—perhaps even better, the gravy just a touch thinner & creamier, the biscuit a bit fresher. Speaking of fresh,

Steubensbiscuit

look how it climbed up right in the chicken’s lap! See, even the bakery products have a sassy good time at Steuben’s.

The Salad Series: Billy’s Inn’s steak Caesar (& other goodies)

If this were the open mouth it sorta looks like, I’d totally be making out with it.

Billysbacon

But it’s a close-up of the excellent, thick-cut, very obviously applewood-smoked bacon on the Swiss & guacamole burger the Director had last night at Billy’s Inn—my 2nd impression of which only confirmed the 1st, namely that it’s the right, low-key yet funky joint at the right, low-income yet determinedly fun time I’m having these days (it’s a quest, a quest for fun, per Clark Griswold). 1st of all, there’s something about the stucco & the wood beams & tiles that, if I squint, transports me here,

Photo_US_NM_518_9588_1042

where my view is of not the gray intersection of Lowell & 44th but this,

Hh_ranch_600x450

just outside of, say, Abiquiu or Damned Souls’ Gulch or some such ghostly sounding stretch of wilderness.

2nd, the menu, though simple, is really smart. The focus is narrow & sharp on stuff you eat with your hands: downhome snacks & sandwiches that emanate a soupçon of nostalgia—deviled eggs & onion rings, peel & eat shrimp &, oh joy of teenaged-in-the-80s joys! loaded potato skins, so all that’s missing are Swedish meatballs, by now long overdue for a comeback—as well as their Tex-Mex equivalents.

More important, it’s executed with care; much is clearly made from scratch. Given that Billy’s is a bar-&-grill through & through—with its photo-documented history of swinging seniors, including probably your grandparents in their crewcuts & beehives & Shuron frames, A-line shifts & square-toed pumps & cardigans & loafers, all smoking up a storm, now being repeated via awesome tablesful of Golden Girls downing pints, even alongside two-tops of cool kids flaunting their undoubtedly hard-earned agave expertise over craft tequila flights—it’s admirable that the owners are polishing the 2nd part of the phrase (“&-grill,” that is) as brightly as the 1st.

Hence the bacon on that tall burger, itself all loose & juicy pink heft, plus real cheese, perky bun & crisp trimmings—including that side of crunchy fresh coleslaw, which I actually preferred to the slightly undercooked & undersalted fries for its uncharacteristically light & sparkly rather than heavily creamy-sweet dressing.

Billysburger

& hence my steak-&-avocado Caesar.

Billyssalad

At long last, I’ve begun behaving—& for me, the road to weight loss has always been paved with salad.

Salad gets it from all sides—both the carnivorous dinosaurs who still, against all evidence to the contrary, deem it rabbit food & the nutralarmists who drone on & on about the calories lurking in fried toppings & cream dressings. While the latter have a point, it’s precisely salad’s substance & versatility that makes it such a satisfying choice for those with even an ounce of dietary sense. In fact, the more I collect salad cookbooks (as I’ve been doing for years), the more appreciative I am of the broad applicability, the inclusiveness of the term—such that, in my bowl anyway, anything goes, so long as the following criteria are met:

* A salad should consist of at least a few ingredients—say, a minimum of 3—of which at least 1 should be a vegetable or legume. (A bowl of penne is not a salad; a bowl of penne with tuna & beans certainly can be.)
* These ingredients should be dressed in some fashion. (Lettuce is lettuce. Lettuce sprinkled with olive oil & vinegar is a salad.)
* Though they may be composed instead of tossed, these ingredients should arguably be chopped in some fashion. (Despite recipes to the contrary, whole grilled quail atop lentils is whole grilled quail atop lentils. Cut it up & add some roast peppers or something, however, & you may well have a salad.)

As for this one, it was just what I craved. Although the dressing was not, I suspect, a true Caesar—lacking, as far as I could detect, that telltale anchovy funk—it was certainly housemade, with a great Dijon kick & parmesan tang, & what’s more, there was enough of it to moisten everything just so: the whole leaves from the hearts of the romaine as well as the good garlicky croutons, the cubes of avocado & charred steak.

I think I’ll take my post-diet victory lap around Billy’s, margarita in hand.

Dear Bistro One: my bad.

Hey, remember how I razzed you a ways back for all those misspellings & malaprops on your website, insinuating links between linguistic & culinary carelessness? Well, smart as my mouth was then, it’s all the smarter now, the day after a meal that taught it a thing or 2 about the brains & brawn your kitchen crew actually possesses. So, you know, sorry about that, & thanks for all the grub.

Which in this case sorta means anything but, as our waiter, the kind of guy who clearly spends an inordinate amount of time making his own sunshine, indicated by reeling off all the nongrubby things chefs Olav Peterson (formerly of 1515, which I’ve never been to) & Travis Lorton (formerly, according to Westword, of Chicago’s Blackbird, which I have been to & deeply dig) are making in house: bread, bacon, charcuterie, pasta, pickles, ice cream; &, not so much in house as on it, they’re growing rooftop herbs & veggies.

Under the circumstances, then, how could we say no to the evening’s special, a charcuterie plate complete with duck pate, pork terrine, bacon brittle, 1 sunny-side-up egg, just-picked cress, pickled baby carrots, warm grilled bread & red-wine syrup?

B1charcuterie

We couldn’t, that’s how, & were all the gladder for that once we got a load of the layer of pure bacon fat atop the pate & the dollop of candied mustard seeds gracing the terrine. Though, due to the excess of salt exhibited by both meat products, it didn’t earn more than a B for execution, the phrase “A for effort” was made for dishes of its ilk. & the brittle was a kick in the teeth.

This, by the by, followed a basket of the delicious bread du jour, caramelized onion & parmesan—whose satisfyingly tight crumb bordered on that of pound cake—along with a dish of the infused oil du jour, roasted garlic, which our eager little beaver poured & peppered for us.

B1oil

It preceded escargots in potato cups that had, we were told, been confited, i.e. I assume basically kept for a spell, in butter.

B1escargot

Snails have always struck me as the shapeshifters, or rather flavorshifters, of the molluscian world; these tasted of nothing so much as portobellos. The tarragon aioli was as heavily herb-perfumed as a pothead in a cloud of patchouli, only much more nicely so.

A crazy thing happened after that: I ordered chicken. You know, who besides Cherry Creek sleekazoids & the GI-dysfunctional ever orders chicken? But it sounded swell, all gussied up like my plate was the prom in mustard & balsamic & champagne cream atop a ham-&-swiss risotto cake. Better yet, it was, being crunchy & luscious in all the right places—just salty & tangy & rich enough. I have hereby rendered its goodness photographically, by applying some sort of artistic filter—”diffuse glow,” I believe, fittingly enough.

B1chicken

Lacking an equally compelling aura, unfortunately, was the dull, muddied vegetable pot pie, which contained mainly potatoes & mushrooms, devoid of any brighter bits—a few carrot coins, broccoli florets or peas would have added some oomph. It’s not like it’s the dead of winter on the Eurasian steppe where we nomads are foraging for the last remaining roots. (Then again, chicken & bacon would help too. Come on now, there’s nothing about the noun phrase “pot pie,” in all its stout-hearted charm, to warrant its yoking to such a meager adjective as “vegetarian,” is there?) The sharply mustardy dressing on the frisee was lovely, however.

B1potpie

The pie wasn’t the only letdown; I was also roundly bummed about the dessert special, a lemon–olive oil cake accompanied by candied kalamata olives. But that was a matter not of its inferiority but of its failure to get in my belly altogether; the Director was too full to split it & I was too full not to. With memories of a brilliant chilled soup of candied kalamatas I used to slurp up back in Boston burning in my brain, I settled for an admittedly dandy scoop of cream-cheese ice cream, refreshingly reminiscent of ice milk in texture & tinged with tartness.

B1icecream

Additional kudos for a shrewd wine list that includes the quirky likes of what happen to be some of my own fave quaffs—e.g., Emilio Bulfon’s Piculit Neri and Zamba Malbec—& excludes anything over $40. (Equally streamlined is the space, minimalist but comfy in cream & chocolate tones.)

A single shining kudo, too, goes to whoever finally spell-checked the menu. Details, details.

If David Letterman had gone to Pete’s Central One instead of hosting the Oscars that year,

“Uma, Oprah; Oprah, Uma” would have been “Yummo! Opa! Opa! Yummo!”

There. That little intro constitutes the only way I could think of to get away with using interjections I loathe—at least as uttered by slackmouthed Food Network lackeys and every metroschmo who ever walks into a Greek eatery, respectively—but which are nonetheless objectively appropriate to describe a place I officially adore. Pete’s Central One is one of the sunniest spots in town—decorwise, attitudewise & above all cuisinewise. Just look how bright & breezy:

Petes
Many customers are literally so into Pete’s that they start to spontaneously merge with the surroundings.

Score 1 for me, who suspected the Director would get a kick out of the place despite his insistence that he didn’t like Greek food because he doesn’t like olives, which seemed to me akin to deciding you don’t like rock&roll because you don’t like air guitar: just because it’s an integral part of the whole doesn’t mean it’s an automatically tangible one. Should you choose to ignore olives & air guitar in context, you can.*

I scored points 2 through 1 zillion just by ordering for us both & letting the offhandedly open-hearted staff, F&BOH, do the rest. When I asked the waitress for a single glass of retsina (of which more in a separate post) to pop the Director’s pine-wine-virginal cherry, she fetched a half-glass as a free sample instead.

Then she brought us the likes of these:

Petesdips
dip sampler, clockwise from top: taramosalata, skordalia, tyrokafteri

Petesoctopus
octopus: looks like I’m off the wagon until someone founds a Denver chapter of Cephalopodophiles Anonymous. We admit we are putty in their tentacles.

As a taramoslutta I was looking most mouthwateringly forward to the blend of bread-thickened blend of salmon roe, lemon juice & olive oil that, at its best, has the rare ability to render “salty” & “juicy” somehow synonymous. It turned out to be the sole disappointment of the evening; skimping on the defining ingredient, it lacked the mojo—the roejo—to pack its characteristic punch. I was roebegone. But then I tasted the tyrokafteri, which translates as “burning cheese” (what’s saganaki, then, chopped liver?), & was pleased as the punch I’d been denied by the taramosalata: the whipped-feta spread was alive & kicking thanks to, of all peppers, jalapeno, per our waitress. When in Colorado, I guess.

The skordalia, I fretted, looked a little dry & grainy, but didn’t taste that way: it tasted like everyone’s favorite leftover, cold mashed potatoes—less garlicky perhaps and more lemony than the standard version for a refreshing change.

Knowing this Pete fellow oversees quite the restaurant empire (his picture’s even on the hot-sauce bottle on the table, sort of the equivalent of ancient imperial coin), I’m still willing to bet he hasn’t got the monetary might to fly in daily shipments of fresh octopus. I’ve got no beef with frozen product provided it’s treated with care, however; here, it is, marinated to tenderness in the classic Greek vinaigrette—wine vinegar & olive oil that would strike me as too light in most contexts but always seems just right for a cuisine from a land that sparkles as cleanly as Greece seems to, at least in the usual views of the white-&-blue Aegean, plus lots of oregano.

After a while, though, I wasn’t sure if I was using the pita as a scoop for the stuff I’d ordered or the stuff I’d ordered as an excuse to put the pita to work as a scoop: thick yet light & fluffy, it was more like a warm, well-made pancake than the quasi-crackers supermarkets sell.

Nor was I sure what other, sturdier sort of scoop I could possibly employ to get the rest of the stuff I ordered down; full as I already was, I was thinking maybe gavage tube.

Especially as the entrees began to arrive—1st the avgolemono, a bit starchy but otherwise good, yolky & lemony & chock-full of chicken & rice:

Petessoup

then the garden salad with feta-&-pepper-speckled vinaigrette, as crisp & ripe as could be:

Petessalad

&, finally, my pastisio & the Director’s moussaka, accompanied by wedges of Texas toast—

Petespastisio

Petesmoussaka

both exemplary as showcases for luscious eggplant, al dente pasta, ground beef & tangy tomato sauce; these were genuine casseroles, not piles of béchamelized mush. (Too bad about those prepackaged mixed veggies, the only cut corner in an otherwise lovingly rounded meal.)

We were making ready to waddle out the door when the manager, I think, came over with shots of ouzo on the house—just the Lethean thing to make us forget we’d just force-fed ourselves like masochistic geese. Which means we’ll be back, quacking for more. But at least we won’t get fleeced (or rather plucked): all this plus a bottle of wine came to a measly $70.

*Unless you watch the ¡awesome! Air Guitar Nation, wherein the music really does start to seem secondary to the sweet & freaky mania it begets.

Pete's Central One on Urbanspoon

Second Home, no mortgage!

Wow, I wish somebody’d told me my second home was so much swankier than my first one before I moved in. I didn’t know I had the funds to install a wall-to-wall wine rack, or employ a stonemason, or arrange low-slung couches & leather armchairs in my lounge in such offhand fashion. I didn’t know I had such fine taste.

Better yet, my good taste turns out not to be automatically synonymous with expensive taste. After 4 dishes & 4 drinks, the Director & I owed 40 bucks apiece. If I’d have known it would be so reasonable, I’d have eaten way more & wished I had two working mouths like that wacky Indian baby.

The menu falls into a category I love to pretend to hate but also to secretly love: upscale comfort food. Take this trout dip:

Shtroutdip_2

Served with herbed flatbread wedges & rye toasties, it was solid, chunky, more like a spread than a dip proper: think brick-type cream cheese suffused with the smoke of the flaked trout & tinged with the iron of torn spinach. Huh, brick, iron, smoke—sounds like we were eating a detail from an industrial landscape. In that case it tasted better than it sounds.

Or take our side of green-bean casserole. All too often, chefs’ ostensibly playful takes on white-trash cooking are just plain condescending, being no better but 10 times as expensive as the originals—you know, the whole “let’s serve tiny boudin noir with green-tomato chutney & call them ‘cocktail weiners with ketchup!'” or “let’s make our own English-rose-&-African-violet-infused jellybeans & then put them in little boxes which we’ll smear with sugar ‘thumbprints’ so it seems like they’ve been fished back out of the movie-theater garbage can by alley bums!” thing is so played out. But this, richly fresh with green beans & that funkiest of spoonable perfumes, cream of mushroom soup, is downright soulful.

Shgreenbeancasserole_2

Sprinkled with fried shallot rings, it does its part to right a wrong that contemporary kitchens have been perpetuating for all too long. My hat’s off, & it’s not even a Prada trucker cap.

Indulge…well, you don’t have go that far

For one thing, this fairly new, assez véritable-blu French bistro on 38th is totally reasonable; what with appetizers averaging $9.75 and entrees $18 (exactly—I used a calculator), no splurging’s necessary. For another, the cooking doesn’t quite warrant it; it’s solid, not bud-blowingly sumptuous. I wouldn’t say we indulged ourselves, I’d say we moderately enjoyed ourselves. Granted, Moderately Enjoy French Bistro doesn’t really have the same je ne sais quoi.

Then again, & for another, you don’t have to indulge yourself—they indulge you. The service here is so gregariously disarming as to cause inner turmoil by compelling you to even consider using the phrase “Old World charm.” Ick, now I have to go spit.

OK, I’m back. The same can be said for the ambiance, all subway-tile-style brickwork and sweetly amateur oil paintings and intricate stained-glass panes and brown satin bunting and the vague sense that it might once have been a shag-carpeted den wherein some English professor & his former-student wife’s faculty parties got a little out of hand.

You get the gist:

Indulge

(That’s me at the edge. I know, it’s probably not how you imagined me at all. But I was born scribbled out and, at the time, there was nothing the doctors could do. Now, of course, medical science can work miracles with Photoshop.)

The shot was snapped by the indeterminately Euro bartender, Sabi (“like wasabi, but not so green”—whatever that means; we giggled anyway, smitten), who may or may not also have been the maître’d &/or owner. It was he who kept our wine glasses filled & brought us our hot, crusty rolls—hooray!—with cold pats of butter—aww. (They sure don’t make ’em like that Schoolhouse Rock anymore, eh?) He delivered our pommes pailles–toupeed steak tartare, nicely accompanied by nifty little mounds of minced cornichon, caper & red onion as well as sea salt but ultimately disappointing, the beef sort of crumbly & also mumbly, as in bland—its flavor didn’t speak for itself:

Steaktartare_2

Much better were the plats classiques. While the Director’s frites could have been crispier—as seems to have been the case all too often lately, the exceptions being those at Limón & Black Pearl—the steak au poivre vert itself was spot-on,

Steakfritesaupoivre_2

pretty in pink within &, without, smothered in a gently musty green-peppercorn sauce that, like the deeply, darkly Burgundied marinade of the coq au vin,

Coqauvin_2

was so textbook it was in fact the Guide Culinaire, all dusty & warped in a box in an attic in a stone-built farmhouse in the Val de Loire. I don’t know that that elbow macaroni was so traditionnel, but it sure was cute with chunks of bacon & mushrooms & pearl onions so golden I thought they were chickpeas at first.

The likewise orthodox sweets—chocolate cake, apple tart & do I even need to say crème brûlée?—weren’t our thing, so we headed on home to “watch a movie,” which is our little secret code for “conk out slack-mouthed on the couch before the opening credits stop rolling.” Hooray!

As we gathered ourselves together, we overheard Sabi joke with the regulars seated next to us at the tiny marble-topped bar, “Where are you going to go that they’ll treat you better?” They didn’t really seem to have an answer to that.

Indulge French Bistro on Urbanspoon

Village Cork, see, not Village Cook

Nope, not a lot of cooking going on at this little wine bar on South Pearl. This pretty much covers it:

Vcblackboard1 Vcblackboard2

Your bartender is also your “chef” and his “kitchen” consists of a toaster oven behind the bar. Which is fine by us; we don’t come for these

Vcmushrooms

or this

Vcbrie

so much as the wine-country-cottagesque aura created by this

Vccandle

plus these

Vcplate1 Vcplate2

& these

Vcdrinkingglass

plus above all this,

Vcposters

our favorite of a recent evening being the 2004 Glen Carlou, a South African blend of Cab, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot & Cab Franc. The Director called it “dusty,” & I pictured him picturing the zebra-streaked veldt at dusk.

We expressed our pleasure to the bartender, who responded by topping off our glasses with the bottle’s remainder—a gesture that more than compensated for the perennial annoyance that is getting an uneven number of edibles, in this case 5 pesto-&-parmesan stuffed mushrooms, for an even number of eaters, in this case 2. Dividing a mushroom cap in half is a silly, silly thing for fully grown & half-pickled adults to have to do.

I’m cute! Cute cute cute cute cute!: The Dish Bistro

***SAD TO SAY: THE DISH CLOSES AS OF 5/4/08. Read & weep.***

An old boyfriend of mine used to say that at all the worst moments. I just Googled it to see if he’d been quoting someone, & found myself watching the entire length of Mary Kate & Ashley’s “I Am the Cute One” on YouTube (I’ll spare you a link). Then I Googled something else he used to say, “Do you love Stevie Wonder? Yes I do, yes I do,” a move that likewise (despite “not matching any documents”—can anyone name that hiphop tune? Be much obliged) led in more unexpected directions than a Choose Your Own Adventure paperback (including toward countless fansites & forums for & parodies of CYOA itself, my favorite perhaps being this one, a link I’d be compromising my core values to spare you).
So, yeah, things are going smoothly here in the den of unemployment.

Anyway, if The Dish Bistro could talk it would say the same, with a similarly sassy little side-to-side tilt of the head. Of course, the people inside can talk, & what they have to say confirms as much. First the reservationist called me “sweetie.” Then, far from giving us the attitude The Director & I arguably deserved when we walked in the first night of Restaurant Week only to express our consternation that it was Restaurant Week—I’d forgotten all about it, RW being IMO a whole rigmarole of dumbed-down repertoires & harried service that defeats its own promotional purpose—the hostess cheerfully went to great lengths to make sure we were quickly seated at the bar where the regular menu was available. Then there was our bartender/waitress; an inordinate amount of time having passed between our appetizers & our entrees, she thanked us for our patience before uttering 1 of the 2 most stirringly mellifluous phrases in the English language, “This round’s on me”—the other being her opening line: “For tonight’s wine special, the Malbec is half off.” Which pretty much guaranteed that in no time we were half off too—our stools! Ba-dum-bum.

The menu likewise has charm written all over it, literally: each bears the signatures of owner Leigh Jones & chef Carl Klein beneath an inked inscription, “Enjoy!” It also credits by name, in not-so-small print, “The Crew Who Makes It Happen”—a gracious gesture if ever there was one, the sort that underscores for me just why, all else being equal, I’ll take the Dishes & Deluxes & Kitchens & Black Pearls over the Kevin Taylors & Spagos of the world any day. People work here, not just names & toques & suits.

Ironically enough, the only thing that didn’t strike me as totally adorable was the dishware, which kept reminding me I need to get my teeth cleaned.

Dishdish

As for the food on the dishware—I could pretty much write “appealingly simple” or “refreshingly straightforward,” followed by “enough said,” & be done with it; it’s that kind of good solid everyday stuff. But seeing as how happy hour’s a ways off—clock, you’re killing me here—I guess I’ve got some time to elaborate.

These here are the fries with truffled aioli & pecorino. While I usually like my fries like I like my male strippers, flashing a bit more crispy golden skin, surprising subtlety was what this dish had to show, no one earthy element overpowering another.

Trufflefries

They may look a little disheveled (heh! no pun intended, but what the hell), but these roasted mushrooms, with their cipolline and more pecorino and fried shreds of polenta and schmear of, presumably, red wine–mushroom glaze, really came together, dark & meaty-sweet.

Dishmushrooms

Mom, close your eyes: this here’s my lusty ham-&-cheese sandwich (she’s a JewBu so totally rolling over in the grave she doesn’t even have yet & may never, depending on which way she decides to, you know, go).

Hamsandwich

The imported ham was rosemary-cured, the Swiss aged, the mayo housemade. Only the bread lacked something…oh, flavor, that’s it. If it was indeed sourdough as indicated on the menu, it was self-hating sourdough determined to pass as white. A little rye or pumpernickel flava’d have gone a long way in my utopian vision of a diverse sliced-bread society. But at least it had a nice crumb.

The Director’s lamb pretty much speaks for itself. No, not Baa, I was cute—cute cute cute cute cute. More like I’m tender, warm & serene. Isn’t that a Stevie Wonder lyric? Guess I’ll go Google it for the next few hours.

Dishlamb

Den again…

As I was saying: you can’t have fusion without reaction. Heated reaction. Just as cold fusion is an as yet unproven scientific phenomenon, so too cool, calculated, always-already tasteful fusion is, I suspect, a culinary impossibility. Which is why, as I’ve idly theorized before, of all the Asian cuisines, Japanese may be the least promising candidate for fusion: the purest, cleanest, most fundamentally isolated of elements, it may simply defy combination.
Then again, that would also make it the ultimate challenge for a chef invested in a style of cookery that I’ve just claimed inheres in foolhardy challenge. So again, I urge Izakaya Den’s obviously talented team to turn that kitchen of theirs into a bubbling, boiling lab leaking hazardous waste all over. It can do better than, say, the cloying hoisin duck crostini, no capital-C creation but essentially chi-chi shit on a shingle*:
Duckcrostini
And in fact, it does do better. I have yet to try the Szechuan-blackened Arctic char atop a gingered waffle with grapefruit-basil buerre blanc and tamari whipped cream, but even if it were to prove a failure flavorwise—as did, ultimately, the nonetheless interesting smoked salmon roulade with sake crème and mango-jalapeno jam I’ve mentioned before—both stand a triumph of just the sort of creative audacity I applaud & crave.
*Addendum: and Chineseified at that—Chinese cuisines lending themselves, in my view if not in this case, far more readily to fusion.

Izakaya is okaya

Juxtaposing the urbane and the rustic, the sleek and the cozy, high-ceilinged expansiveness and nook-lined intimacy, Izakaya Den is, as I’ve already opined, just a smart & sexy place to be. Which is, I suppose, why I keep on being there. That said, if it were human and I were it, I suspect I’d be developing a huge, sizzling sibling rivalry-based inferiority complex right about now. Sure, I might be cuter & friendlier, perhaps equally popular, but let’s face it—deep down I’d be suffering from comparisons to that sparklingly talented elder of mine (Sushi Den, that is).

Aware that virtually unqualified praise is being heaped upon Izakaya’s kitchen right & left, I wonder what I’m missing that might elicit such enthusiasm. After all, I know what I’m getting—and granted, the getting’s good; for all its leanings toward East-West fusion, the menu maintains admirable equilibrium. It’s rare in fusion cuisine that no ingredient seems out of place; this kitchen here ensures that’s always the case.

But therein may well lie the rub. For better or worse, fusion inheres in constant experimentation, in the moment thereof; once a successful combination of disparate elements is established, the fusing’s over, and stasis begins. At that point, what you’re really dealing with is happy compromise: consider fusion cookery’s musical counterpart, jazz fusion—that blend of jazz & pop so seamless, so harmonious, its every tune’s a lullaby. I.e., it’s a snooze. Now, I would hardly call Izakaya’s repetoire dull, but I do think it’s hedging its bets. Not dull, but safe. Talent equals leeway; I’ll grant the chefs here plenty of it, I’ll gladly endure a blown fuse or two, in exchange for the opportunity to receive some edible electric shocks.

In the meantime, my favorite dishes are the ones I could as easily order across the street:

the shumai, sturdy yet silken little things whose melty meaty savor gets a contrasting boost from hot mustard-soy sauce and a sweetish citrus dip;

Shumai

the sashimi with wasabi—consisting, as Westword’s Jason Sheehan (of whom I have quickly become a rather slobbery fan) noted in his review, of fish so pure of tuna flavor & texture—far more delicate than we’re used to imagining in our familiarity with its pungency in canned & grilled form—you wonder if you’re eating its very heart, daubed with not prepared wasabi but the real grated root;

Wasabi_2

and the miso eggplant I mentioned in the above-linked post.

To be continued later, as the dinner gong’s a-ringing, and I’m off to, you guessed it, Sushi Den…