Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Ballad of the Bar Bite April 2010: LoHi SteakBar, Churchill Bar, McCormick’s

Before departing for Chile for 8 glorious days (just scroll down for a peek), I did a whole heap of crosstown grubbing that warrants a word or 2 before I leave Denver yet again for a week in Boston; after all, this is Denveater, not Elsewhereater.

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Given the superfine 1st impression it had made,  I was long overdue for a return to LoHi SteakBar, & with my old chum Matt Rohrer, an acclaimed poet in town for the AWP, claiming ravenousness—life imitating art à la his “Homage to a Waitress”—the Director & I decided we’d better take him for some meat.

Mushrooms count, at least in the form of the umamirama that was a heap of sliced portobellos broiled in garlic-herb butter,
LoHimushrooms

technically a side but a great makeshift appetizer, as gobblable as fries.

That said, LoHi’s fries are shaping up to be some of the best in town: hot, crispy, sprinkled with sea salt & herbs, long & thin yet sturdy enough to soak up without turning to mush some of the juices on my plate of steak frites—

LoHisteakfrites
& by juices, I also mean the drippings of the blue cheese butter as it melted into my unusually square-trimmed, perfectly cooked (IMO, on the rarer side of medium-rare) steak.
LoHiburger

So good were those fries that Matt & the Director, after polishing off their own piles—respectively accompanying the giant onion, blue cheese & bacon–covered Blue Smoke burger  & the open-face steak sandwich I loved up last time (see abovelinked post)—both dug in to mine.

Even at 3pm on a weekday, LoHi wasn’t empty; it was clear the place has, over the course of a year, become a favorite stop on the afternoon crawl of the city’s better-heeled lushes with its comfy modern set-up, sidewalk patio & mellow vibe—although the latter may primarily have been emanating from our server, who, sporting a tie-dyed tee, shades (that’s right, sunglasses) & a goofball buddy-buddy attitude, had to have been spending his breaks in the medical marijuana store across the street. Awkward.

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A quesadilla’s a quesadilla—unless it’s from the Brown Palace, in which case it’s filled with prime rib at twice the price.

Churchillquesadilla

Not that you could really tell, even by looking;
Churchillquesadilla2

with green chiles & onions, sour cream, salsa & way too salty guacamole—which I think was actually avocado dip, difference being the addition of more sour cream—plus a nicely browned tortilla, it could’ve been any other cut of sliced steak & I probably wouldn’t have noticed, or cared if I had. Mostly I just ordered it to soak up my $15 glasses of wine at Churchill Bar. Lesson learned—I’ll stick with the complimentary nut mix & olives next time.

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My dead horse, my scapegoat, my straw man: having long since given McCormick’s at least 1 1/2 thumbs down, it’s a bit unfair to keep beating on it ad nauseum—why not just stop going there? The problem is that it’s the dining wing of the Cruise Room, where I’m not about to stop going for drinks—& when I drink, I eat. That’s just the way it is.

So it was that I picked at a lackluster, muddy bowl of penne with salmon, tomatoes & pesto cream that tasted old.

McCsalmonpenne
To be fair, the Director thought highly of his fish & chips; the former did appear fresh & crunchy, as did the colorful coleslaw. But those fries looked awfully pale & limp, especially compared to LoHi’s above.
McCfishandchips

Worse—though this is a mark against the Cruise Room, not McCormick’s—when we ordered a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell, the waitress wrote down the order & walked away. We had to call her back to find out what we were getting; apparently, though the fishhouse offers a good dozen varieties or so at any given time, the selection would be shucker’s choice, not ours. Upon its arrival, she again walked away without identifying which type was which. We shrugged & made do; it was a busy Saturday night, after all, & the oysters wouldn’t taste any different for having names attached. Still, another lesson learned—go to Oceanaire 1st to satisfy hunger, then come to the Cruise Room for a nightcap, & everyone’s happy, from harried waitress to irritated me.

Trend Hindsighting Part 1: Laudisio’s fried zucchini, Reiver’s pasta salad

Last week I lamented food fads gone by; now, inspired by the leads of a few commenters, I’m on a roving stakeout to gather evidence of their continued, however diminished, existence—whether as remnants on menus that haven’t been updated in 20 years or as up-to-the-minute revivals.

The fried zucchini at Boulder’s surprisingly airy, urbane Laudisio falls squarely, & suavely, in the latter camp.

Laudisiozucchini
Compared to the thickly breaded spears of old, barely recognizable as squash after a dunking in ranch, these mandoline-thin-sliced rounds are probably just quickly fried in olive oil; they didn’t even seem to be dusted with cornmeal or anything. With tangy lemon aioli freshened by a squirt of juice,  they were light, crisp, springy—fried zucchini for real, not zucchini fries. (Wish I could say the same for the lamb sausage with cheese polenta—

Laudisiolambsausage

the former tasted as much like filler as lamb—oatmeal or rice or something—& the polenta was lumpy, a bit gritty.)

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At 30-plus years old, Reiver’s Bar & Grill on Old S. Gaylord is your classic wood- & neon-lined, beer- & sports-themed neighborhood hang, with a throwback-riddled menu to match: though items like the proscuitto [sic] & turkey club on focaccia with roasted garlic-lemon-thyme aioli & the pistachio pesto bruschetta are obviously latecomers, I’d bet a bundle the fried mozzarella sticks &, yes, potato skins have been around since day 2, at least. But it was the Orlando—a bizarre combo of Caesar salad, penne, Cajun-spiced chicken, corn, black beans, tomatoes & red onion—that piqued my interest most.

Reiverspastasalad
Cheesy in every sense, salty, crunchy, starchy (pasta & croutons? Hi there!)—it was pretty awful, & it was pretty great. At the very least it was a true pasta salad, emphasis on both terms; to reiterate my theory in the original post, the main reason pasta salads had fallen out of favor by the 1990s was likely that they’d degraded into mucky mounds of mac & mayo.

Off topic, but by way of a review, Reivers is the full-scale model of another theory I’ve espoused: that there’s a special place on the dining scene for the thoroughly mediocre. Reivers is well-worn & comfy, friendly & lively, serving glorified junk food that cuts corners every which way—& that you find yourself occasionally craving nonetheless, the kind that keeps your mouth company without distracting your face from the game on the flatscreen TV.

That said, skip the chips. Supposedly housemade, they were stale & flavorless; the guacamole barely registered either, though the thin, brick-red, chipotle-tinged salsa partly compensated.

Reiverschips

Pan-seared tilapia tacos were likewise a bland disaster.

Reiversfishtacos
Excepting the homey spiced black beans, the plate was a mess, what with unwarmed, storebought flour tortillas, mutant shredded cheese—see that Cheeto-looking freak in the center taco? We’re still not sure what that was—& no hint of the promised chipotle aioli.

Two out of three ain’t great, & I suspect that’s the standard ratio of successes to failures at Reiver’s. Yet I also suspect I’ll be back to confirm my suspicions over saltine-encrusted chicken-fried steak, mac-&-cheese wedges, & Mexican egg rolls with green chile & teriyaki sauce (oy vey olé).

Reivers on Urbanspoon

“Defining Denver’s Culinary Momentum”: Thoughts on Tucker Shaw’s Recent Conversation Piece

**Note: This is long & pictureless. But damn, it’s meaningful!**

In case you missed it, a couple weeks back Denver Post critic Tucker Shaw wrote a characteristically thoughtful, less characteristically provocative special report titled “These 10 Restaurants Define Denver’s Culinary Momentum.” Generally, it’s hard to argue with Shaw’s concise, measured opinions; in this case, though, he opened much up to debate—knowingly, no doubt. What he penned, in short, is a literal conversation piece, not least because it’s based on the premise of importance, specifically as opposed to greatness:

Many of the city’s most talented chefs & restaurateurs aren’t represented here. Many of the city’s most cherished restaurants also aren’t named….These are Denver’s most important restaurants right now, in February 2010. Some are new, bringing fresh perspectives; some are stalwarts whose initial ambitions are finally being fully realized. Each reflects, & enriches, this moment in Denver’s culinary & cultural life. Each deserves a visit. Today.” [my italics]

The distinction is, to be sure, a crucial one. Consider, for example, the venerable steakhouse. It hardly matters which one; Denver’s lousy with great steakhouses by the standards of the genre, featuring dry-aged, bone-in ribeyes & sirloins done to a precise turn, crystalline shellfish, & a wide array of trophy reds in sumptuous settings of wood & leather & white linens & gold-framed oil paintings. But how many of them have surprised you enough to change the way you think about dining as an experience? On the contrary, their goal is generally to confirm your expectations for conspicuous luxury. And how many,  to quote Shaw, “offer a real, tangible, human connection to our neighborhood, our community, our city?” Even putting aside the fact that most (Elway’s being a notable exception) are links in national chains, the genre almost invariably emphasizes timeless, European-derived glamour. Nothing about them is new or unique, in general or to Denver in particular. (To qualify that statement, LoHi SteakBar has introduced a highly likeable variation on the genre, with its faux-retro bistro-meets-roadhouse repertoire.)

But distinguishing importance from greatness isn’t all there is to it. One must also define importance per se, & on that score I think there’s another distinction to be made: that of timely innovation versus pervasive influence. Where Shaw essentially conflates them—”some are bringing fresh perspectives; some are stalwarts”—into a single category, it seems to me that separating them could be integral to an understanding of importance. (I dare say the fact that Shaw’s Top 10 is followed by two more lists, one titled “Trendsetters” & the other “Lasting Hits,” supports my theory; more on this to come.)

Take, for a 2nd example, “ethnic” (read: non–Western European/US) eateries. With the exception of Super Star, none crack the Top 10. (Okay, there’s nominally Mexican Chipotle—more on that to come as well.) Fair enough if one’s definition of importance inheres primarily in inventiveness. But where does chefly inventiveness come from? Talent, in part—but also influence, often, & especially in a globalized era, obtained via experiences with the cookery of the Other. From that perspective, holes in the wall like El Taco de Mexico & Lao Wang Noodle House (where I recently spied the chef of Shazz) are surely just as important, however indirectly, as the contemporary eateries that integrate aspects of the former’s culinary traditions to create something new. It’s worth noting, then—to return to the parenthetical note in the previous paragraph—that 2 of 5 of Shaw’s “Lasting Hits” are New Saigon & Domo, the latter opening long “before handmade noodles & hotpots became de rigueur.” Precisely.

To put it another way, then, if greatness involves upholding beautifully the traditions of a given genre—excelling according to a received notion of what excellence is—importance depends on shaping & reshaping those received notions & traditions in a given context, in this case present-day Denver. So, in our particular context, importance may also be defined as greatness + difference, whereby what is standard in 1 culture serves as inspiration in another.

No matter how you define anything, though, a Top 10 list is ultimately subjective. For every entry on Shaw’s that I agreed with, there was another I didn’t, & the same has gone for everyone with whom I’ve discussed it. For instance, before crediting Root Down with “solving the omnivore’s dilemma,” I’d give the nod to Potager for doing it first & to this day doing it better, even as I’d acknowledge that the former has the “youthful urban” edge on the latter, a legitimate criterion for importance that I just don’t happen to share. Or, to come back to Chipotle: I’d contend that it belongs in a business-oriented Top 10, not a culinarily inclined one. In my world, the carnitas can’t compare to those of a mom-and-pop taqueria, however “unassailably good,” simply because my own arguable definition of good doesn’t allow for the taint of corporate commodification. (And even my theoretical business-themed Top 10 would have to be far-reaching rather than local in scope; granting that owner Steve Ells strives for ecologically sound business practices, he can’t by rights be doing a better job of it than a restaurateur who isn’t expansion-minded, whose carbon footprint is limited to a few 1000 square feet.)

And so on. After all, that’s the whole point, right? To make you think, long & hard, about What Matters & Why. For me, Shaw has done exactly that.

Which brings me to my own totally subjective Top 10, in no particular order, marked by asterisks where it overlaps with Shaw’s total of 20 picks (I’m following his lead in leaving Boulder out of the reckoning for the nonce). It could change tomorrow, for reasons then that I’d like to think would be as fair & logical as the below, to my mind, are now. But today, I can only hope I’ve inspired you to reflect on the role Denver’s restaurants in play in your life half so deeply as Shaw has inspired me.

El Taco de Mexico qua taqueria extraordinaire, sin compromise.

Beatrice & Woodsley for its whimsical yet crystal-clear vision, at once historically inflected & forward-looking.

Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs for revolutionizing the concept of the hot dog cart.

Panzano because Elise Wiggins never quits. Gluten-free here, nose-to-tail there—who knows what she’s planning to make the culinary world a better place over there?

Bones*/Osteria Marco in light of Frank Bonanno’s consistently firm grasp on what Denver Needs Next.

The Den Trio (Sushi/Izakaya/Deli) for restless ambition matched by vigorous, hands-on integrity.

Domo*, transporting us as it does to a faraway land, a long-ago time, a magically serene realm. Complete with Wanko Sushi.

Table 6* = guts + gusto – swagger.

Rioja* given Jennifer Jasinki’s paradoxical knack for simultaneous subtlety & straightforwardness; she makes the foreign immediately familiar, the obscure suddenly obvious, with the panache of few others.

Sweet Action for an ever-changing list of flavors revealing boundless creativity: biscuits & jam, hibiscus, baklava, lemon–poppy seed…

& even now I’m 2nd-guessing myself. (For instance, dare I post this list without ever having been to China Jade? Or, she says sheepishly, Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza? Or any number of beloved BBQ shacks?)

So who knows, maybe I’ll post tomorrow’s list too.

Ballad of the Bar Bite: Izakaya Den, Black Pearl, Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria

Before we return to the final installation of my Penthouse Forum on New York dining (“I never thought it would happen to me, but…”), here’s a long overdue look at some local morsels that made the medicine go down in weeks past.

IDsushi Supposed Kobe roll & veggie brown rice maki, Izakaya Den

Knowing as we all do that the Kizaki brothers behind Dens Sushi, Izakaya & Deli have known their shit since the dawn of time, I still find it hard to believe that by Kobe they mean Kobe & not Wagyu. If this roll were the real deal, wouldn’t it have to be like 25 bucks for them to break even on the exorbitant cost of product, rather than $13 or $14? Well, in any case, it’s a damn good roll, as is the veggie roll with brown rice that’s not dried out, as it so often is.

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Across the street, Black Pearl‘s got yet another new head chef, so I’ll have to amble on over for a full meal anon to see how she’s holding up. A few bites to tide me over til then were mixed. Sweet potato “tempura” with a sweet Sriracha drizzle looked better than it tasted; great in spots, the tuber was slightly undercooked in other spots, & the breading too thick overall to really qualify as tempura. By contrast,

BPtempura

the liqueur-spiked milk & oh-so-soft sugar cookies tasted better than they looked alongside that cancerous yet delicious growth of burnt sugar.

BPcookies
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Exiting the totally empty Rack & Rye only to enter the totally full Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria 5 minutes later made for a real lesson in (for lack of a less hateful word) concepting. With its East-meets-West-meets-Deep South-meets-big city menu & its disconcertingly stark decor, people (me included) just can’t fathom what to make of the former yet, whereas the latter’s whole story unfolds at a glance—nice, comfy neighborhood place serving nice, comfy neighborhood food, The End.

Sorely tempted as I was by some of the flatbreads, we were really only there for a nightcap, so Pal L & just I split the burrata, which she requested sans grape tomato–balsamic jam. Though I’d like to swallow the whole enchilada at some point, I appreciated the opportunity to take the “fresh mozzarella wrapped around home-churned ricotta & mascarpone” (to quote the menu’s beautiful description) on its own merits to begin with.

Lalaburrata

Firmer than most versions, it was also a touch saltier than most. Wonder if it could therefore top a pizza without melting into oblivion. Might have to play with my food on my next visit to find out.

Denveater’s Top 10 Tastes of 2009

Coming right off the top of my head/tip of my tongue (same thing), this list is honest rather than ideal. An ideal list would be better rounded, with no restaurant or type of dish appearing more than once. But I never purported to be better rounded (except in the torso) than I am straight up. And straight up, I’m telling you Elise Wiggins is constantly raising the bar she herself sets at Panzano, the pair of dishes shown here being Exhibits A & B. Straight up, Italophile that I am, I’ll admit that, a year ago, I’d have bet you the big bucks I wouldn’t encounter even 1 near-perfect plate of gnocchi in Denver in 2009, much less 2—but Fuel & Potager proved me wrong enough to account for it here. Straight up, I wish I didn’t have to be so painfully obvious as to give it up for Bones’s mass-worshipped marrow—but I do. Hell, I’d give my virginity up for Bones’s marrow.

Moreover, I can’t promise all of the below are available now (in fact, I can promise some are not) or that they’ll ever be available again—or, for that matter, that even if they are, they’ll be as good as they were when I had them. (We’re looking askance at you in the wake of scandal, Heaven Star.) What I can promise is that there’s plenty more where they came from that’s just as good if not better (with the possible but not guaranteed exception of Heaven Star; I’ve not returned since the change in management). If you missed them this year, what say you give these joints a look-see in 2010? They deserve it, as do you.

Links are to the posts in which these dishes originally appeared.

Goat curry, India’s Pearl

IPgoatcurry

Duck liver mousse with savory zeppole, Panzano

Panzanoduckmousse

Gnocchi with mixed mushrooms, Fuel

Fuelgnocchi

Gnocchi with capers, fried breadcrumbs, broccoli, olives & parmesan, Potager

Potagergnocchi

Roasted bone marrow, Bones

Bmarrow

Black pepper fettuccine d’estate with green beans, microgreens, toasted almonds & dried blueberries in lemon-basil sauce, Panzano

Panzanopasta

Pineapple upside-down cake with rum-ginger sauce & coconut sorbet, Rioja

Riojabreadpudding

Salad of blood oranges, green olives, pistachios, fennel & red onion, Olivéa

Oliveabloodorangesalad

Crispy BBQ pork, Heaven Star

HSBBQpork

Persian lime olive oil, EVOO Marketplace

EVOOMarketplacelimeoil

Bar Bite Beatdown: TAG, Sputnik, Braun’s Bar & Grill

What with all the yuletide schmoozing, snacks have just been smacking me around, cramming themselves down my throat until I hit the floor weeping with my eyes crossed. You know all those nutritional experts that tell you one way to maintain your weight during the holidays is by actually socializing in social situations—nursing drinks or alternating them with sparkling water, curbing hunger beforehand with an apple, etc., the better to focus on your friends & colleagues? Clearly they don’t have the right friends & colleagues. Mine, god bless them every one, are hellbent peer-pressurers & enablers. Bad influence is what friends are for.

Take Mo, to whose adorably looped, dogged generosity I owe one of the only $19 glasses of wine I’ll ever knock back, this Scholium Project Gardens of Babylon Petit Sirah 2006.

TAGwine

By all accounts this is a huge red, yet to my tastes the biggest thing about it was the size of the glass; I just didn’t find the profile particularly distinctive, which makes me wonder if it’d have been better just to get the bottle & give the whole thing time to open.

I had pretty much the same reaction to 2 of the 3 starters we shared: that there wasn’t much pop for the price; for all the painstaking attention to detail, a central piece of the big picture seemed to be missing.

For instance, wonderfully unctuous as the $15 porchetta di testa was, it wasn’t much else. Perhaps it’s meant to be utterly mild, sprinkled with the bit of sea salt you see on the right—but doesn’t the art of the charcutier inhere partly in expert seasoning? Instead of achieving balance with the superb cube of mouth-filling queso azul de Valdéon & slices of winter-spiced, wine-poached pear, its flavor just disappeared by comparison.

TAGporkhead

And as for the surf-n-turf roll, TAGroll

while the $14 tag (I know the place gets its name from the chef’s monogram, but the deeper you reach into your pockets the more you begin to wonder) would make sense if the lobster & Kobe beef (Kobe-style American Wagyu, I assume, although, strangely, the menu references both Kobe & Wagyu in the descriptions of various dishes, raising the question of whether they’re using the terms interchangeably or actually sourcing Kobe from Japan as well as domestically) really registered, but they didn’t, especially; I believe there was a little mayo mixed in, & of course the maki is served with ginger & wasabi & soy sauce, & ultimately you’d have to do an on-the-spot side-by-side comparison of a roll with cheaper ingredients, I think, to really detect a difference, which means may just be a matter of conspicuous consumption rather than worthwhile indulgence.

The French onion dumplings, however, were all they’ve been cracked up to be, a neat twist on the crouton served in the soupe classique,

TAGdumplings
luscious with veal aspic as well as the almost translucent onions & gruyère.

Love the loft-esque vibe of the place, bathrooms down the rabbit hole notwithstanding, & I arrived in Denver in 2007 just in time to get a load of all Troy Guard was capable of at the erstwhile Nine75, so I’m not deterred at all by the thought of dropping some $$$ on a full meal here. But I think I’ll switch to cocktails—the list is great gobs of fun, dotted with the still-a-bit-insiderly likes of Punt e Mes & Lillet Rouge as well as such inventive stuff as housemade coconut soda & orchid-guava liqueur—&, say, meatloaf on my next visit.

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Speaking of humbler fare—the fact that I’m not spit-flyingly gaga over Sputnik’s repertoire doesn’t mean I don’t gladly gobble down the goods given the chance every now & drunken then.

I’m far from the 1st glutton in town to get a charge out of the Benny Mac in particular, & I’ll hardly be the last. You’ll know us by our chest-thumping belches. Which may be as much from the booze that surely led us to order the sandwich as the sandwich itself.

Sputnikmacsandwich

For no apparent reason other than because he (I think my word choice isn’t sexist in this case) could, I guess someone back there in the kitchen decided one late night to throw some chicken nuggets with their barbecue sauce together with some leftover mac-n-cheese & bacon, then hide the whole mess in a hoagie roll, because if he ate it out of a bowl, everyone could see what depths he’d sunk to. Basically they shouldn’t be allowed to even sell this before midnight. Anyone who would eat this for lunch has got bigger problems than eructation. That, I suppose, is a compliment.

Damned if I don’t dig their tortilla chips too, heavy but fresh-tasting.

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As is not the case with TAG, 3 dishes (plus a couple of bloodies) at Braun’s Bar & Grill are plenty for a girl to get the goofy picture. I mean, look at this.

Braunssalad
Why it’s called a Cattleman’s Salad when it should obviously be called an Indian Chief’s Salad is beyond me. As is the salad itself. Combining mixed greens with peas, shredded cheddar, candied walnuts, & hacked-up cuke with storebought croutons in a blue cheese-balsamic dressing, it’s totally ill-conceived. Then again, so am I. I had to appreciate the effort at inventiveness.

Karla Sutra’s grilled cheese tasted as it looks, like you could’ve rustled up the Kraft singles, white bread & Ore-Ida fries from your own damn fridge.

Braunsgrilledcheese

I didn’t try the Constant Watcher’s pork sopaipilla, with braised pork, jack & green chile,

Braunssopaipilla
but he shrugged when I asked him how it was, & a look at the seemingly starch-thickened green chile & dried-out beans told me anything else I needed to know. Had I wanted to inquire further, though, I’d have had to wave down our waitress a few tables over, where she was finishing her own lunch. There’s a reason you don’t see this much: because it’s awkward. Interrupting her meal for the sake of our own would have felt wrong. So we didn’t. But I won’t interrupt her with a return trip either.

Brauns Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Dinner & a Movie? Make That 11-Day Feast & a Film Festival: Starz Denver FF 32, 11/12–11/22

If you read my blog with any regularity, you’re probably aware that the Director works for the Denver Film Society & the Starz Denver Film Festival (hence the nickname) and that I, too, am involved in festival preparations. Right about now is when the staff looks looks like this, minus the rays of sunshine.

Insane-asylum-brentwood

Early yesterday, the schedule went live on the website. So, with yet another googly-eyed late-nighter ahead of me, I’m slipping out of my straitjacket for just a moment to give you a whiff of some of the tastier fare the crackerjack team of programmers are whipping up for you.

TRUFFLES & Bistro Vendôme
00_truffles_atlantic2008_lWherein your favorite fancy fungus & mine becomes the stuff of sci-fi conspiracy. In French. So where no-brainier to head before or after the show than to Jen Jasinski’s café français for quiche aux truffes noires, grilled scallops with asparagus–white truffle salad & then some?

MY CITY, PIZZA & The Walnut Room
Mycitypizzadetail_231507

Part of a shorts package called Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Iran, this is about the growing popularity of pizza among the young whippersnappers of Tehran—& the consternation that’s causing their tradition-minded elders. Since The Walnut Room a) has a way with the easygoing, American-style pies & b) happens to be 1 of the sites of the SDFF 32 Music Lounge, keeping the cool kids coming with that darn-tootin’ rock-n-roll, it’s gotta be your go-to.

TROLL 2 & WaterCourse Foods, City O’ City or The Merc
Troll2-748074Why pair what Something Awful called “a movie that by all physical laws of the universe should simply not exist” with any of Denver’s quintessential funky-green hangouts? All will become clear when you read the synopsis. Sort of.


HARMONY AND ME & d bar
Harmonyndnf

I was annoyed by this oh-so-postironic antiromantic comedy the second it began, with its deadpan epigraph from Madonna’s “Borderline.” But by the 3rd or 4th second, I’d done a 180 and fallen for it completely. It’s genuinely funny & bittersweet. And since it turns on a scene involving chocolate, a trip to d bar for a chocolate dessert—the darker the better—is only fitting.

MID-AUGUST LUNCH & Panzano
MidAugust_Lunch__

Mid-November happy hour’s close enough. Grab a glass of prosecco & some of Elise Wiggins’s super antipasti to see you through the dinnertime screening of Maria & Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award winner (which has also been scooping up statuettes right & left in Italy).

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO & Domo
Domowine

Just as this lovely documentary captures the symbiosis between culture & nature, humans & animals, so Domo’s remarkable setting locates the pastoral within the urban—&, what with decorations like jars of viper wine (above) & hung dried squid, it likewise casts the Japanese penchant for the creepy-crawlies of land & sea in such a cool light.

ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION & LoHi SteakBar
ZMD_Poster

Gear up for an extravaganza of tongue-in-cheek flesh-eating with a house-ground burger or meatball sliders with red gravy (a phrase that rings deliciously wicked in the context of a zombie menace, no)?

I’ll be offering up more suggestions as the festival begins.

A Brewing Battle of Bar-&-Grills: The Lobby vs. Jonesy’s Eat Bar

Without jumping into the whole terminological moshpit that keeps raging locally around the word gastropub, I’ll just say that I skew conservative, even sentimental, in linguistic if (I hope) no other terms. So by my standard, if you’re anywhere outside of the UK, you’ve got to work pretty hard to earn identification as a pub. Not because pubs are any better than bars, or cantinas, or cocktail lounges, or honky tonks, or any other type of watering hole, mind you – but because I don’t want to give up the sense of place the word still conjures without a fight. Indeed, the same goes for the whole lot; it ain’t no honky tonk, for instance, if it opened its doors 2 years ago in postironic Brooklyn.

So anyway, I’ll avoid gastropub altogether in favor of the more vanilla, hence less objectionable, bar & grill. The intended emphasis, on food as well as drink, is the same. Meanwhile, I’m also growing increasingly fond of a synonym thereof—the fledgling neologism eat bar (per Google, there are at least a few here & there). Unlike gastropub (to American ears, anyway), it’s light-hearted & laid-back—as is Denver’s own example, Jonesy’s.

I kind of knew that already, but solid confirmation—or rather liquid confirmation, what with me sliding under the table as per usual in the company of Comrades L & Mo—a few nights ago was nice.

Now, granted, a nominal emphasis on food as well as drink is not the same thing as a virtual guarantee of remarkable cooking. Grill alone (we’ll deal with the variant grille later) suggests a limited range (no pun intended)—suggests error on the side of grub. Sometimes that suggestion is misleading, and the kitchen is actually top-notch; sometimes it isn’t.

In Jonesy’s case, I’d say it isn’t. This is not a really great place to dine. What it is is a really fun place to graze & hang out. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

JEBlambburger JDBbeefsliders

The backlash against sliders is, I think, as pointless as the lasting craze for them. They’re little hamburgers; their advantages are 1) they’re hamburgers & 2) they’re little, so you can save room for other things too. That’s it & that’s that; all over but the shouting. Anyway, L & Mo preferred the lamb with bacon & blue cheese, but I think I actually liked the pan-seared blade steak with horseradish sauce better. I am, admittedly, a bit of a whoresradish. Will swallow it in any form.

What the shouters should focus on is buns, regardless of burger size. It’s integral to the concept of a burger, which is otherwise just a patty. Sounds obvious, yet what are the odds of getting a storebought flap of cotton at all but the most serious, devoted burger joints? 9 to 1? Shit’s the staff of life whose possibilities are endless, after all. In fact I’ve just a started a Chowhound thread on the very topic.

Jonesy’s big bowl of fries, meanwhile, is just a big ugly junkpile. If loving them is wrong, & it surely is, then I don’t wanna be right. Already being a fan of the buffalo fries (see above-linked post), I was glad Mo chose the flavors I’d yet to try, truffled with aioli & mac-n-cheese, hold the mac, with bacon.

JEBfriesduo

The former turns the essence of a delicacy into something cheap & dirty, & I’m down. The latter turns the essence of something cheap & dirty into a faux-delicacy, & I’m down with that too. So what’s next? Word to Jonesy’s: rotating fry specials! Let’s see some red-eye gravy, some white gravy, cheese curds, Asian-inspired hot oil drizzle & of course curry & chili (as in beef-n-bean; we’ll leave the green chile to every other local joint). Hell, let’s see whatever you’ve got—why not a sauce based on clam chowder or one of the veloutés?

We also split an order of potato, onion & cilantro samosas, rather clunky doughwise, but the filling was good—highly herby, reminding me oddly enough of some falafel.

JDBsamosas
And the chutneys, of all things (which also come with the spiced cauliflower, a nonpictured platter of florets fried so lightly they were really just browned, interesting if not definitely successful), were excellently tongue-tingling, & so the joke would be on me if they’re not housemade.

JEBcauliflower
Thanks Mo!

It was around this point that I just zoomed downhill &, I’m told, started eating pasta carbonara with my fingers.

JEBcarbonara
I think maybe I thought it was more fries—which, come to think of it, is another great idea: carbonara fries.

Jonesy's EatBar on Urbanspoon

***

On the one hand, like most everyone else, I was delighted to hear the wonderful old Buenos Aires Grill space was finally being put to use. On the other hand, like most everyone else, I was so sorry to see BAG go that I was bound to regard anything that replaced it with a bit of a stinkeye. The fact that what replaced it is yet another American bar & grille (the added -e having come, for no clear logical reason, to stand in the estimation of some for extra swank) only deepened my natural skepticism.

Now that I’ve been, taking into account that 1) it’s still in shakedown & 2) I’m operating on a 1st impression, I can only wish the The Lobby well. From the bartender to our server to the manager who made the rounds, the whole floor staff aimed constantly & earnestly to please, instilling in me enough goodwill that I’ll assume the same is true of the kitchen, & that its crew will prove it down the line.

Otherwise, I might be strongly inclined to question the tagline in the logo, which alludes to inspiration I just don’t see yet. At least not on the dinner menu, which, with a few notable exceptions, is a straightforward compendium of clichés from the past 30 years: Artichoke dip. Wedge salads. Sweet potato fries. Fried calamari.  Fettuccine in cream sauce. Blackened chicken. Crème brûlée. It’s not that none of these things can be good; it’s just that aren’t likely to get me through the door again when there are so many more interesting repertoires to sample—including The Lobby’s own brunch selection. Bacon risotto with eggs? Berry risotto with mascarpone? Housemade biscuits with grilled salmon & “ranch mornay”? Blue cheese–jalapeño frittata? Now that’s way more like it.

And the signature stuffed burgers—one of the aforenoted exceptions—are too.

Lobbyburger2
This patty contained cream cheese & jalapeños, like a popper had popped from within.

Lobbyburger

It was all as naughty as it looks: a little pink & angry, then a lot juicy & creamy. The accompanying hush puppies simply needed salt; the cornbread was a little underseasoned, so a little bland. But they had the right dense, moist bite.

The mushrooms stuffed with two cheeses, garlic & herbs needed far more work—first & foremost in terms of presentation, obviously.

Lobbymushrooms
Skimpy as it looks, it was in reality even skimpier, since the menu listed 2 dipping sauces—a roasted garlic aioli we never received as well as the ancho aioli, which was good but too robust for the stuffing; a little crumbled bacon or sausage might go a long way there.

The ahi tuna nachos aren’t quite ready for prime time either.

Lobbynachos

First of all, having seen ahi nachos around for the past year or so, I must admit it’s a trend I don’t really understand. I suppose it’s basically a ceviche downgrade—but rarely to such an extent. Something like this is what I think of when I think of tuna nachos; the above just seemed like chips surrounding some tuna chunks. Both elements were all right—the former crispy but not greasy & crisscrossed with avocado cream & aioli; the latter lightly seared & mixed with pico de gallo—but they didn’t cohere into any kind of whole.

Still, if 1 out of 3 ain’t great, I’ll call it 2 simply in recognition of the staff’s hospitality. And I’ll return on those grounds, too, with real hope for the best.

The Lobby American Grille on Urbanspoon

Ballad of the Bar Bite: Walnut Room, Sputnik, Beso de Arte

What kind of rock was I under to have not known about the Walnut Room until recently? I can only hope it was an enormous diamond, set atop the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Anyway, this here is a bar’s bar—the kind of bar other bars belly up to on their nights off. It’s in the middle of nowhere (Walnut & 31st), it’s dark, it’s low-key, it doesn’t ask much of you as a patron so long as you don’t ask too much of it as a public house.

Until—surprise!—it suddenly busts out best-of bells & whistles in the form of a really surprisingly decent pizza.

WalnutRoompizza2

Guess what the Walnut Special has on it: walnuts! It pains me to confess that of all the things I ever have or would set atop a pizza—unagi, fried green tomatoes, chopped dates, my drink (hey, edible coaster!)—I guess I never thought much about adding nuts beyond pignoli. Now I can’t stop thinking about it: cashews, pistachios, Marcona almonds, oh my!

That’s not all it has, of course—there’s also pesto, tomatoes, green olives, red onions, garlic &, above all a laudable, crunchy, thin but sturdy crust.

WalnutRoompizza1

Same for the sausage pizza Beth & Todd (of Living the Mile-High Life & Broomfield Restaurant Reviews, respectively) got: a just all-around solid construction. I may be a blustery Italophile, I don’t actually think every dish of Italian origin has to adhere to the letter of an “authentic” recipe; I do, however, think it should abide by the spirit of cucina italiana, which inheres in a straightforward but whole-hearted approach to the best ingredients one can afford (as opposed to the cheapest one can find). This self-styled American pizzeria seems to do just that, or at least fakes it so real it’s beyond fake.

The Walnut Room on Urbanspoon

***

In high school, a dear poet friend & I considered ourselves very clever when we tried to come up with the opposite of rhymes. We would ask, for example, “What word least rhymes with conglomerate?” The answer was usually “poi.”

Sputnik least rhymes with Walnut Room. It’s in the middle of everything, it’s cool in the key of high C—& B Cn—& it asks a lot of its patrons, namely that they put up with all its other patrons in their blinding young artiness. It can, in short, be a bit much. But then, sometimes a bit much is just right.

Meanwhile, the food runs the gamut, when it’s bad, between underthought & overrwrought &, when it’s good, between fun & funner (like everybody’s favorite sweet potato fries, with their array of funky sauces from banana ketchup to chimichurri). A big group of friends & I recently covered the whole spectrum.

How arepas with pork, queso blanco, avocado & a side of guava jam could lack oomph is beyond me, but somehow they did. Nondescription is a hard thing to pinpoint because, you know, it’s nondescript, but it usually involves a missed seasoning opportunity. The whole thing just sort of mushed together.

Sputnikarepas

I thought the chilaquiles were a little on the soupy side, but the Director was happy.

Sputnikchilaquiles

And fava bean hummus was all wrong—oversalted & like cold oatmeal in texture.

Sputnikfavahummus

On the other hand, the scrambled egg, chorizo & cheese sandwich on a torta roll was full of piss & vinegar (so to speak);

Sputnikeggsandwich

the happily moist falafel sandwich was lavish with herbs & tahini;

Sputnikfalafelsandwich

& you can’t go wrong with green chile–smothered fries, ever (or at least not until the bottom of the bowl when they get all soggy).

Besides, adjacency to the hi-dive alone, where I’ve seen 2 of the best shows I’ve seen in Denver to date (Dengue Fever & Starlight Mints), guarantees Sputnik all the goodwill it gets from me.

Sputnikgreenchilefries

Sputnik on Urbanspoon

***

Beso de Arte in Morrison calls itself an upscale Latin bistro. I would call bullshit, but there’s no point anymore. The word “bistro,” which used to signify an inexpensive, casual neighborhood restaurant serving simple French standards, has come to mean pretty much any place that serves food—I’m sure there’s a hot dog cart somewhere called Bistro Aux Saucisses Aller! or something—& there’s no turning back from linguistic mission creep, I don’t think. It’s just…whatever happened to the word “restaurant”?

Or “café,” which has comfortably stretched its definition to accommodate various establishments. That’s what I’ll call Beso de Arte, an open-air, contemporary Latin-American café. I’ll also call it rather entrancing, all clapboard & rock amid twinkling lights & a waterfall out on the patio marking the entrance to what looks like a pretty special private dining space.

BesodeArte2

Whether I’d call it good remains to be seen. Based on 2 appetizers, which I heartily admit isn’t enough to cast a verdict on, I’d call it serviceable.

Points for the generous portion of guacamole; it mostly, however, just tasted like fresh avocado mashed with salt—not bad, but not the force of nature unleashed when sufficient lime juice, chile, & IMO garlic & cilantro (though I realize they’re debatable) are mashed with avocado & salt.

BesodeArteguacamole

I actually preferred the house salsa that came with the homemade chips, its flavor as intensely bright as its color.

BesodeArtechips

White bean hummus served with warm, soft flatbread & a somewhat incongruous but not unwelcome side of sauteed zucchini & red onions was respectable, well balanced to be true to its name (that is, it seemed to be hummus with cannellini added, not just glorified white bean dip).

BesodeArtebeandip

But I’m not going to drive to Morrison for respectable hummus. The question is whether I’ll return someday to try the red or green pork chile al molcajete. Ask me next summer, when Film on the Rocks kicks off.

The Saucy Salad Series: WaterCourse Foods, The Crushery, Highland’s Gardens Cafe

When one is aiming to lose a few, one often turns to light, fresh, healthy salads. When one is not so much aiming as ambling casually around the admission that one might need to lose a few, one opts for big, fat, funky, junky salads.

These are those.

***

WatercourseDickens

Named the Dickens—as in, I assume, “what the”—WaterCourse’s answer to oft-disparaged rabbit food is

039_DONNIE_DARKO

evil sci-fi bunny food

(assuming Frank were a vegan, which granted doesn’t seem likely). It starts off innocuously enough with a blend of romaine & green leaf sprinkled with cannellini & cubed butternut squash & accompanied by a side of maple-dijon dressing. But then it makes you do bad things with deep-fried spears of seitan (seitan! seitan!) & huge onion rings. It really is an intriguing mix of contrasts, crisp-fresh with blatantly greasy, salty with earthy-sweet.

***

The Crushery’s schtick centers on Crusherycroutons

croutons,

which are chewy, not crunchy, housemade from tricked-out panini-pressed bagels; the above, for instance, are pesto-provolone. As for the salad they come on,

Crushery#13

the #13 combines a super-scoop of tuna salad—nice & simple with celery & not too damn much mayo—with spinach, red onion, sliced cukes & black olives, plus a chive-ranch dressing that’s pleasantly milky rather than dippy, if a bit too salty.

The same dresses the #14, composed of roasted red peppers & eggplant, artichoke hearts, provolone, more black olives & sufficiently pungent garlic-truffle croutons.

Crushery#14

There are 5 other signature salads, but you can also concoct your own with everything from chorizo to sauerkraut, corned beef to cream cheese, pickles to cherry peppers; dress it with the housemade likes of Ancho 1000 Island or wasabi dressing; & “crush it,” to use the shop lingo, with, say, horseradish-cheddar or caramelized onion–gorgonzola or bacon-brie croutons. No matter which you go with, though, it’ll guaranteed be big enough that you could glue all the pieces together to make a double-decker sandwich.

***

In & of itself, the Highland Garden Cafe’s lunchtime salad of grilled beef tenderloin on mixed greens with avocado, fresh mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, cukes & blue cheese dressing would be relatively healthy from a low-carb perspective if it were satisfying.

HGCsteaksalad

But since it really isn’t, being rather bland, you wind up snarfing half your pal’s exquisite pan-seared tilapia with smoked bay scallops, new potatoes & squash in lemon-caper-butter sauce, at once rich & piquant, too. At that point you might as well top it all off with caramel bread pudding.

HGChalibut

In all fairness, the description of said salad on the current menu differs from that of the one I ordered a few weeks ago, listing horseradish–sour cream dressing plus an actual chunk of stilton in lieu of blue cheese dressing. Maybe the chef has since decided it lacked luster too. Anyway, my bad in part for opting (grudgingly, in grim carb-counting mode) for the least interesting-sounding salad of the bunch; compare for instance to jicama, pink grapefruit & avocado salad with cumin-honey dressing, chicken, papaya & avocado on greens with papaya-lime-honey-buttermilk dressing, or roasted rainbow trout on warm spinach with ricotta salata, dates, pinenuts, roasted red peppers, croutons & balsamic vinaigrette (a dressing I mostly doze off in but which is probably appropriate here, so long as the vinegar’s quality).

Besides, that absolutely charmante, sun-dappled garden patio setting could make the grayest-skinned schlub feel lithe & elegant. It’s like a vibe diet.