Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Crosstown Culinary Crazy Quilt: sweet recent eats (& 1 clunker) from all over the map

So much busy. It’s high time I take stock of all I’ve shoved down my gullet in recent weeks.

Come NBA playoffs season, there are few places I’d rather be than Rackhouse Pub (for a full review click here), which has the screen coverage of a sports bar but the thoughtfully designed & prepared menu—not to mention the smartly curated booze program—of a gastropub. The Ocean Deep—strewn with lobster, shrimp, artichoke hearts, tomatoes & chunks of cream cheese atop a fontina & pesto base—goes all creamy & delicate amid intermittent bursts of garlic & salt, & the crust stirs reveries of ye olde New England bar pizza (yes, that’s a thing).

Plus, they now bring Goldfish gratis to start you off. Pure class, of a sort.

An attempt to behave during brunch at Lou’s Food Bar (full review here) with the help of a Caesar & lovely French onion soup—when you’ve got a hankering, it’s as good as any—

was derailed by the compulsion of a companion to order plate after plate of housecured pork belly for the table. Damn, it’s luscious.

Likewise, I was forced, forced I tell you, to supplement my Mediterranean salad at Elway’s Cherry Creek flagship—a delight with chickpeas, fried capers, warm pita wedges, & that most underappreciated of 1980s food fads, sundried tomatoes (as well as plenty of yogurt vinaigrette; many a rabbit eater bemoans overdressed salads, but I shudder at dry greens)—

with the huge, slide-right-down beer-battered onion rings that the Director got to round out his adorable, bacon-&-chile-flecked chicken-corn chowder.

A drink at Boulder’s Radda Trattoria led to 2 drinks accompanied by a fine fritto misto with rock shrimp, squid, zucchini & onion with thick, tangy lemon aioli.

And Oceanaire, the only national chain I can muster any enthusiasm for, did a bangup job of smoked trout with balsamic vinaigrette, watercress pesto, & fresh potato chips; snappy parmesan-crusted asparagus in blue cheese-tomato butter;

& Front Range frites supposedly smothered in pork green chile, but actually smothered in major chunks of green chile-marinated pork, along with avocado & queso fresco. (The Director’s filet mignon sliders with horseradish sauce & fried shallots went too fast for me to nab a bite.)

Now that I can order from Viet’s Restaurant via GrubHub, I’m a happy homebound camper. Canh ga don thit—pork-stuffed chicken wings—are an A1 example of mon nhau (Vietnamese drinking food—RIP Red Claw),

& classic goi dac biet is nicely done as well—if, that is, you can handle the jellyfish, 1 of the few ingredients in this big blue world I’m still feeling my way around.

But a word of dark warning about BeauJo’s, in case you haven’t heeded any others. With our Platte Park half-duplex on the market (interested? hit me up), the Director & I have been sporadically hanging out in a hotel on S. Colorado, to which this self-styled institution delivers. We gave them 2 chances—1st with the Cajun (pepperoni, Andouille sausage, cheddar, jalapeño, red onion, provolone),

2nd with your more typical meat-&-veg combo.

I’ve had several fine pies of late—Bonnano Bros. & Udi’s Pizza Café Bar come to mind—& neither of these ranked in the top, oh, 30—though they both cost over that number. That’s right: they charge more than $30 for nondescript toppings on that “famous Colorado-style crust.” I guess you get the stale, overbaked whitebread you pay for. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, still shame on you, because we were just trying to go back & figure out how you fooled us the first time. What the hell?

 

Noshes for the New Year: Camarones agua chile at Torres Mexican Restaurant

I’ll add my digits to Mark Antonation‘s 2-thumbs-up in Cafe Society this week for the camarones agua chile we shared during a recent meal with Denver on a Spit & c. at Torres Mexican Restaurant. Though akin to ceviche, it was different in a few key aspects: the shrimp—not chopped but rather butterflied whole—were, like the sliced cucumber & onion, still basically raw in their marinade of not merely citrus but a red-pepper flake-dusted purée of lime juice & serranos. The electric effect was one of savory melted sorbet—a fascinating discovery I won’t soon forget. (And did I mention healthful? A worthy inclusion in the diet-friendly New Year’s series for sure.)

I’d never heard of vuelve a la vida either until I ordered it; essentially cóctel de mariscos stuffed with scallops, shrimp, squid, oysters, & avocado, it was notable for being much less ketchupy-sweet, more tomato-brothy, than the standard—& thus more refreshing.

Both the tostadas generously topped with diced shrimp, octopus, whitefish, tomatoes, chiles & onions

& the caldo de pescado con camaron (which came with rice & warm tortillas) were simple, honest, generous & fine;

of the chicken mole

& the enchiladas suizas, I took only a small bite of the creamy (but not drippy), well-spiced beans, but I’d take Mark’s word for it that neither dish was worth returning for.

The margaritas on the other hand, might be, at least when quantity takes a front seat to craft—& sometimes it sure does,

especially on a cold winter’s night among friends in a cozy joint filled with regulars who set a festive mood.

Granted, that was broken by my accidental dash-&-dine, as said friends fended off a rather menacing floor manager while waiting for me to answer their increasingly worried calls. It’s all fun & games until someone stiffs the house.

Torres Mexican Food inc. on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week/Noshes for the New Year: Tonno at Pastavino

I’ll do a full post about this stylish Italian café, run by a native of Trieste on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, in the very near future, but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in thinking the place underappreciated (see Douglas Brown’s recent props in the Denver Post).

This lunch entrée, simply listed as “Tonno” (tuna), was not only the best thing I ate last week but a fine choice for those still committed to world’s #1 New Year’s resolution (see other recent picks here), at least if they’re taking the low-carb approach. Twofer!

Nicely seasoned & grilled on the outside, rare yet warm on the inside, the gorgeous hunks of albacore perched atop a generous mound of spinach, asparagus, leeks & mushrooms sauteed in a tangy, garlicky lemon-caper sauce; my own resolution—to not eat everything on my plate—melted away in the face of the pure, simple pleasure.

Stay tuned for more on Pastavino’s very real appeal.

Noshes for the New Year: Tomato-fennel bisque (& more) at Arugula Bar e Ristorante

Still with me, weight watchers? Let me tell you what a pleasure it was to leave Boulder’s Arugula last night feeling chipper rather than sluggish—feeling, for once, quite unlike Louis CK (you know, “The meal is not over when I’m full! The meal is over when I hate myself.”)

For starters, I actually heeded the advice of all those experts who recommend soup for its volumizing benefits. That is, it takes up stomach space you might otherwise devote to something more fattening—assuming, of course, that it’s not cream-based or something; bisque, for one, should be off-limits, defined by The Oxford Companion to Food as “a rich soup of creamy consistency, especially of crayfish or lobster.”

Being vegan, however, this tomato-&-fennel-based number fills that bill not a whit; it’s not really a bisque at all except in the very broadest terms—i.e., it’s pureed. Sticklers for etymological accuracy may thus grumble. Calorie counters will not. Because it’s very good! Small amounts of balsamic vinegar, olive oil & grated grana padano (for the non-vegans) give it some depth, smoothing out the sprightly vegetal edges.

Arugula also deserves credit for offering half-portions of pasta. Granted, what’s pictured below are full portions, namely of hand-rolled garganelli 2 ways: with Italian sausage, goat cheese, tomatoes & caramelized onions (top) & with roasted squash, apples, fontina, honey, rosemary & more sausage (bottom). And granted, neither is diet-friendly per se. But the al dente pasta’s just lovely—perhaps tossed in the sauté pan briefly for a touch of toast—& the earthy, tangy flavors fully melded, & the range of textures such that your mouth’s interest is held bite for bite, so you can slow down & savor. And if you can do that, you might even do what I did—only eat half. (Then again, if you can do that, you might as well go with the half-order & save yourself a few clams. Hindsight!)

When I’m not in dieting mode, though, I could come back to the below dish again & again.

Last I had it, it was called squid scampi, & boy, did it pack a punch (& undoubtedly a pound)—buttery indeed, but garlicky & acid-edged too, with lots of chopped herbs. The current menu lists it as “big squid” & mentions cherry tomatoes as well. Either way, it’s a nifty twist on a classic.

By the by, if it’s your wallet that has lost weight post-holiday, chef-owner Alec Schuler cuts some weekly deals: 3-course prix fixe menus ($26) on Mondays & Wine Wednesdays, when the entire selection by the bottle is 40% off. And a smart bottle list it is: neither boringly small nor bogglingly big, adamantly narrow or indiscriminately wide, it’s focused on charming picks from some of my own favorite regional Italian producers like Paolo Bea, Foradori & Alois Lageder.

All in all, a suavely low-key, serenity-inducing performance by Arugula.

Arugula Bar & Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: L’Atelier’s Salade Niçoise

Straight up, L’Atelier in Boulder isn’t really my tasse de thé. Though I know what I’m about to say is positively gauche for a food writer to admit, French cookery in the Escoffier vein tends to kind of bore me. However rich & beautiful, it’s so cooked—it lacks rawness & soul. (Unlike the generally more rustic cuisine of the regions surrounding the nation’s capital, & with the exception of stuff like steak tartare, whose origins are murky but probably not Gallic anyway.) And though I’m sure Radek R. Cerny is every bit the culinary artiste the restaurant’s tagline or subtitle or whatever you’d call it claims him to be, & further recognize that his repertoire isn’t devoid of contemporary flair, it hews closely enough to the classic model, especially at lunch (pâté, coq au vin, steak au poivre), that I just can’t get into it—not least considering the rather dainty, linen-&-porcelain environs, in which a klutz like me feels on constant guard.

All that said, L’Atelier’s Niçoise salad does the trick. Granted, Nice is not Paris; it’s in Provence, where the food is Mediterranean in character. For that matter, this is not even a classic Niçoise, which contains neither seared tuna (it’s either canned or absent in favor of anchovies) nor potatoes (but rather bell peppers); I believe there are some quibbles over artichoke hearts versus green beans as well, though they’re minor. What this is, except for the choice of arugula over Bibb lettuce, is the version Julia Child popularized—& besides being pretty & precisely prepared & dressed in a fresh, simple vinaigrette, it’s perfect for the diet-minded individual insofar as the ingredients aren’t bite-sized. Instead of mindless shoveling, you have to cut them up, & spear a little bit of everything onto each forkful, & consciously experience how well they work together.

Slowing down & savoring, they say, is the key to better eating habits; my own mantra, however poorly practiced, has long been: “Appreciate, don’t anticipate.” I’ll keep this New Year’s mini-series going for the nonce in hopes of finally abiding by it, while offering a glimpse at local restaurant dishes that don’t break the scale for my fellow resolution makers.

Noshes for the New Year: Lola’s Tuna Poke

So 99 out of every 100 of us who have now embarked upon the dreaded post-holiday diet know perfectly well, deep down, that we’ll last a few miserable, white-knuckled weeks tops before succumbing to whichever of our myriad weaknesses is closest at hand.

I’m writing this while vacationing in Akumal, Mexico, where I owe the fact that I haven’t gained 5 pounds a day to 1 thing & 1 thing only: ceviche. Actually, long before it was well known in the States, I’ve loved ceviche (& its international variants—tartares, crudos, tataki, etc.) for its guilt-free pleasures: so much flavor, so little fat.

Poke, as I noted in my recent post on Corner House, is the Hawaiian equivalent of the South American original; so far as I know it’s made only with ahi tuna. Lola’s lusciously fruity, piquant take includes finely chopped papaya, pineapple, avocado, serranos, a touch of sweet chili sauce & cilantro alongside a chili pepper-dipped lime wedge & taro chips for scooping (or ignoring if you’re still in detox mode).

If a tad more sustenance is required, the farm greens salad rocks too, containing just enough goodies to keep you from sweating the fact that you’re not ordering fried oysters over sweet potato-chorizo hash or housemade pork rinds: pickled golden beets, warm green beans, roasted chiles, herbed goat cheese, radishes, toasted pumpkin seeds, fried tortilla strips & a fried egg—although I skipped the latter in exchange for grilled shrimp (steak or chicken are options as well)—in charred tomato-bacon vinaigrette. It maintains that perfect balance between healthfulness & satisfaction, such that you might not even be tempted to steal a bite of your companion’s chile relleno stuffed with black beans, roasted squash, mushrooms & smoked goat cheese in deep, dark chile rojo (pictured back) or to overdo it on the side of huitlacoche rice (which tastes more like tomato rice—I’d ask them to go heavy on the huitlacoche next time).

Awesome Names for Iffy Stuff: Ants on a Tree & Creaky Chicken

I wish I could say they lived up to their monikers. Much as I adore East Asia Garden when it comes to most Northeastern Chinese eats, a delivered order of Ants on a Tree was bland in the extreme, assuming blandness can be extreme. Of all the possible flavoring ingredients listed in the aforelinked Wikipedia entry, this dish contained, as near as I could tell, naught but neutral oil to moisten the ground pork that supposedly clings to the bean-thread noodles like ants on bark, hence the name (can’t say I see the resemblance). Ah well—plenty else on the menu to keep me happy.

As for the Creaky Chicken I ordered from Sunny Gardens, that moniker proves even more of a mystery; a request for info on Chowhound yielded zero responses, & Google only a few unrevealing links—the 1st of which leads to an 8-year-old review of a now-closed restaurant in New Jersey, called, of all things, Sunny Garden. Huh.

 

Anyway, it was indistinguishable from your average orange chicken—bummer.

However, the Director fared much better, despite appearances to the contrary, with a half-Peking duck.

 

Even for $12 bucks, we were a little taken aback that most of the meat was pre-rolled into into mu-shu wrappers, & suspected the worst of their contents. But wrong we were: they were stuffed silly with rich, moist shredded duck, along with bright slivered scallions & cucumber—no sauce added or required. If you thought of them as wraps, & we did, then you could give 3 cheers for hitting the sloppy cheap-eats jackpot. Whether that was just a lucky fluke remains to be seen.

Koreatown Capers: Cafe Sky, Dah Won Rice Cake, Paris Baguette

As hair-pullingly stressful at times as the 3 months I spent last fall working on the upcoming Food Lover’s Guide to Denver/Boulder got, the jaunts I took to the de facto Koreatown (& everything-else-town) that is Aurora never ceased to rejuvenate me—never failed to be bright spots, to remind me why I became a food writer in the 1st place. Without pooh-poohing the job’s posher perks—& I’ve done my fair share of swanning around glamorous soirées where foie gras & caviar are mine for the digging in—the academic in me has always been far more excited by opportunities to explore & research & discover & learn on the down low. And much as I love those places where everybody knows my name & feeds me silly, the anthrophobe in me (see: the academic in me) really loves the ones where nobody does—& still feeds me silly.

This afternoon, the Director & I met our champion-eater pal Joe N. for lunch at a place that, it turned out, was closed for lunch, so wound up instead at nearby Cafe Sky, a borderline fast-food Korean joint but with table service & booze. (Oh, what a kick the adorable middle-aged gent who appears to run the place got out of my ordering a bottle of soju. “You’ve never had?” he asked incredulously, implying that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. “I’ve had,” I assured him. He laughed.)

We started with my beloved ddeokbokki, glutinous-rice sticks stirfried in a spicy-sweet gochujang-based sauce. I can’t entirely explain my fondness for these sticky, chewy, starchy cylinders, except to say that they’re the barely-savory answer to Sunkist Fruit Gems, or maybe edible Play-Doh. Here, the ratio of cabbage to rice cake was a bit too high for my taste, but the apparently somewhat common addition of a hard-boiled egg, which we chopped up & mixed in, proved fascinating.

I got lots more rice cake, sliced this time, in a bowl of dukmandu guk, a light, savory, brothy soup also chock-full of bits of scrambled egg, scallions, mushrooms, & seaweed, plus a little sliced beef & maybe 4 or 5 pork dumplings. I wouldn’t bet an enormous amount of dough on the possibility that the latter were homemade—they seemed too uniform in construction for that—but either way, they were tender & tasty enough, & the contents of the bowl went down easy as a whole.

The Director’s bibimbap

& Joe’s jap chae (glass noodles)

were fine; not memorable, but certainly worth their rock-bottom prices.

Cafe Sky on Urbanspoon

***

As long as we were in the neighborhood, I had to hit up 2 adjacent strip-mall holes in the wall I came to adore last fall—Dah Won Rice Cake & Paris Baguette, likewise owned by the sweetest folks—not to wax reverse racist, but are Koreans just nicer & better adjusted than the rest of us?

The former, as the name indicates, is entirely devoted to glutinous-rice products of all types, colors & flavors. I’m a fan especially of the mochi-like morsels covered in green-bean powder for their subtle salty-sweet chew &, now, of this,

which is reminiscent of angel-food cake in texture, albeit stickier—& much less sweet than you might expect, layered with mango & coated in red-bean powder. In fact it’s not what I’d call sweet at all—just airily refreshing.

The latter, despite the name, is not a traditional French boulangerie; I’ve never even caught sight of the eponymous loaves on the tiny retail floor. Instead the mom & pop bakers turn out various cookies, cake by the slice &, especially, stuffed buns both savory & sweet. The vegetable bun (top), for instance, contains chopped cooked egg, onion, cabbage & peppers; the version at bottom is filled with a dense, marzipan-like sweet-potato paste.

Encased in fried sweet rolls not unlike doughnuts, they’re, in a word, killer.

Dah Won Rice Cake on Urbanspoon

Paris Baguette on Urbanspoon

Denveater’s BONUS Top 8 Dishes of 2011: The Miscellany

This one’s for the eggs, the duck, the lamb, the random flora & fauna not covered by the other categories. Kudos to The Red Claw & Trillium for scoring three-peats in my Top, er, 33 Dishes of 2011.

Oak-smoked duck with berry jus, new potatoes & chard & lamb osso buco at Elway’s Downtown 

 

Chin chin at Hessini Roots International Café

TAG | Raw Bar’s kangaroo tartare

The Red Claw’s goat curry 

Vesta Dipping Grill’s pistachio-mint-crusted lamb ribs with rose-blossom yogurt

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar’s inaugural parsnip-walnut soup with duck cracklings & cranberry coulis

Huevo escalfaldo with chorizo & mascarpone at Ondo’s Spanish Tapas Bar

Denveater’s Top 5 Dishes of 2011: The Sweet-Treat Edition

EDGE Restaurant & Bar’s cheesecake & panna cotta in a jar with graham-cracker crust & blood-orange gelée 

Trillium’s carrot cake with maple ice cream & carrot caramel

El Chalate’s banana bread

Buchi Cafe Cubano’s guava pastel

Sarah’s Banana Split at Baca at the Inverness (really!)