Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Is the 3rd time the charm at The Avenue Grill?

Because the 1st 2 visits didn’t go swimmingly—which bums me out, since I know this place is something of an Uptown institution for its cozy Continental look; happy hour enlivened by obvious longtime regulars; & truly well-meaning floor staff. Obviously someone is—many someones are—doing something right. And by GOLLY I want to support such an establishment. In fact, that’s my kind of watering hole—on my own time, I tend to seek out the comfy old school over the new.

So let’s address the problems I encountered as quickly & snark-freely as possible.

One: Barcat oysters on the half shell (no photo—I assume you know what they look like). None were detached from the bottom, so you couldn’t just knock them back—you had to wrestle the flesh loose with the little forks 1st. For a former New Englander, that’s a pretty grating oversight.

Two: the skins of the chicken-&-spinach potstickers were too thick & chewy, the soy-ginger dipping sauce too sweet, & the bright-pink pickled ginger clearly some generic, artificially colored store brand.

Three: the base for both the mussel appetizer

& the cioppino

was startlingly thick & sweet, more like cocktail sauce than tomato-based broth. And the “herbed crostini” would be better listed as cheesy bread—not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, just with the menu description. Plus there was fresh shellfish aplenty,

& though (four) the presentation of the Director’s prime-rib special left a lot to be desired in my view—it sure didn’t resemble the website photo or anything out of experience, & I’d have guessed it was overcooked—he said it was fine.

Anyway, it all adds up to the simple but significant matter of paying more attention to technique, even—or especially—if it’s one you’ve executed 1000 times (based on a little research, I gather the menu rarely changes). There’s a difference between doing something by second nature—knowing it in your bones—& doing it on distant autopilot.

So I’m relieved to say that there were still some hits among the misses. The slow-roasted buffalo, for instance: though again the sauce was a bit too heavy & sweet for my tastes, it was redeemed by the chili heat it packed, & somehow it didn’t obliterate the fork-tender meat; also, the dilled potato-carrot salad made for cool contrast.

Similarly, the so-called Chinatown pork chop was positively drenched—but here, the combination of hoisin & hot mustard showed balance as well as zip, enhancing meat that I admit I expected to find dry but instead found just right: moist with the slightest tinge of pink at the center atop well-textured wasabi mashed potatoes. And the veggie eggroll (unlike that unnecessary garnish of more pickled ginger) was a fun touch, the filling nicely seasoned (though the wrapping was again too doughy).

As for the Caesar, you might call it careless—overdressed & topped with preserved anchovies that weren’t even separated upon removal from the jar or tin. But I rarely go 10 days without trying one or another variation on this classic salad, & sometimes I’m in the mood for those that constitute a good old junky mess, so long as its components are basically sound.

Yes, I’ll give Avenue Grill that 3rd shot—maybe for brunch or lunch. Meanwhile, if any of you habitués hold the secret to successful dining here, I’m all ears.

Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon

Imperial Chinese Restaurant: Define “imperial”?

To get all my usual disclaimers out of the way: a delivery order is not the same thing as a restaurant meal. You’re missing the ambiance & the service, which of course factor into a typical review—& by a majority of accounts to which I’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt, Imperial Chinese is lovely & smoothly run. You’re also risking the possibility that the increased time & space between the kitchen & your mouth will be detrimental to food quality—although if the restaurant in question is willing to deliver in the first place, it stands implicitly behind the results, which may not look quite as comely or be as piping hot as they would in house, but you’ll get the idea (especially if you avoid fried calamari or, um, soufflé or something that’s really best served immediately).

Taking all that into consideration, & recognizing that this place is something of a South Broadway institution, I nevertheless wouldn’t call anything we ordered on 2 occasions last weekend “imperial”—as in “royal,” “extravagant,” “magnificent,” etc. It was all pretty disappointingly commonplace, in fact.

I guess the best of the bunch were the Imperial noodles (pictured above right)—described on the website menu as containing chicken & shiitakes, but the round egg noodles were tossed instead with pork, scallions & peppers. Odd, but okay by me, though observers of various dietary strictures might object more strenuously. Simple but flavorful, nice & toothy, though I liked them even better when I splashed them with a little of the duck & mushroom soup (unpictured) that, by itself, was a bummer—starchy in texture, indifferently seasoned, highly suggestive of a packaged soup base—but that added a little moisture in lieu of sauce. Above left, the Director’s yue shang lamb—a variant spelling, I assume, of the more common yu hsiang, a term that usually indicates the presence of a fairly spicy, garlicky, salty-sweet sauce—wasn’t notably pungent, but at least the lamb & shiitake pieces were tender, the broccoli bright & crisp.

The “dim sum sampler” sure looked pretty by any measure, but proved a mixed bag. Pork shumai (right) were just fine, no better or worse than 100 other examples—unlike the gluey, drab har gow (shrimp dumplings, bottom). As for the green ones (left), the vegetarian filling was a pleasant surprise—cabbage, scallions, sweet winter squash, & what seemed to be couscous?! any ideas?—but the skins were doughy & chewy, not delicate & silky.

Which brings us to “Johnny’s seafood gumbo,” a supposed house specialty. Though brimming with perfectly firm-tender mussels, whitefish, scallops, shrimp & squid, the soup itself tasted exactly like equal parts gazpacho & sweet-and-sour dipping sauce—gloppy, cloying & just weird.

So I dunno. Imperial won’t be on my regular delivery rotation, that’s for sure. I may head there sometime to see if dining in yields a vastly different experience, but I won’t hold my breath in the meantime.

Imperial Chinese on Urbanspoon

Ambria After the Fall

The post-opening buzz surrounding Ambria was still echoing across town when news of its star chef’s ouster broke. With everybody feeling bad for everybody, I headed there accompanied by pals Mo & A in hopes of a Cinderella story starring the ex-Oceanaire sous chef who’s picking up where Jeremy Kittelson left off; after all, I’m rather a fan of the franchise seafooder, & a born rooter for underdogs.

Long fairy tale short: given the big glass slippers the new guy’s got to fill, it’s simply too early to tell how well (or if) they’re going to fit. Of several dishes on the new, decidedly simpler menu, a few showed real promise; others fell flat.

Then again, maybe the kitchen’s well aware of its shortcomings; for instance, the online description of the calamari a la plancha already differs from the version we tried a week ago, which was topped with a warm, herbed lentil salad & now appears to be served with preserved lemon, arugula & polenta. Then again again, the lentil salad wasn’t the problem—the squid was; though properly tender, it was completely bland, under- if not unseasoned.

By contrast, short-rib ravioli (which have also mysteriously disappeared from the website menu) were beautifully presented & wonderfully delicate—light, with a slight bite—but salty as hell, & that’s coming from someone who drinks pickle juice. The theme so far: texture’s important, but flavor’s key.

I’m nearly over meatballs, but not to the point where if they’re sitting in front of me I won’t budge. Nothing wrong with these parmesan-sprinkled minis over polenta, assuming you’re easy about polenta; there’s them that insist it should be creamy & smooth, them who like it a bit fluffier (as this was), & them who prefer stiffer, almost cornbready stuff. As with mashed potatoes, I like it all so long as it’s not grainy.

Damn, I don’t see the ceviche (pictured below left) on the menu anymore either! Fair enough, as it was neither here nor there—fresh & bright, but hardly a standout from the pack of marinated seafood plates currently roaming the city. The sherry-glazed duck breast over turnip sauerkraut & pear mostarda (below center) is still listed, though, & with good reason—rich & tangy in all the right places. As for the fried brussels sprouts (below right), impatient as I’m growing with their ubiquity (to point to another theme arising from Ambria’s somewhat-safe-playing repertoire), these were quite good: plenty crispy & punchy with a balsamic drizzle & a hit of parmesan.

I’m sorry to end on a sour note: the bread pudding flat-out blew, as dry as it was muddled in flavor. So I won’t; an excellent bourbon-based cocktail (whose name I sadly can’t recall) saved the day. That the bar would deliver the highlight of the whole meal came as a surprise twist to this little chapter in our saga.

It also suggests a moral thereto: do be so kind as to consider this less a review than a candid snapshot of a crew in flux, who for all I can fairly conclude from the above may well be killing it a month from now.

Ambria on Urbanspoon

El No No

Surely I’m not the first to refer to El Noa Noa as such. And if the kitchen’s as inept as it was during my one recent meal there, I won’t be the last.

But maybe it isn’t. Maybe the fact that the place has been packed with hordes for years isn’t merely proof of the spell the lovely patio casts, shady & cool with greenery & a burbling stone fountain. Maybe the food usually rocks, & my experience was a total fluke.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. And I’m not throwing good money after bad anytime soon to find out.

Too bad, because the house salsa—fresh enough to compensate for the stale chips, chunky with tomatoes, peppers, & herbs, vibrant & smoky by turns—would have constituted reason enough to return (& the sole recipient of the extra star in this barely-2-star review) had the rest been merely adequate. Had the margarita not been a watery ruin. Had the carne adovada not been toast.

Had the ceviche not contained shrimp with a musty odor. Had the beans not been paste (& that’s coming from someone who likes her refritos creamy with lard).

Had the steak nuggets on the Tacos D.F. (the name being an attempt at street cred) not been so shockingly tough & gristly that 1 bite would have been 1 too many, except that 2 were necessary to confirm that the first was really that bad.

A no-no indeed.

El Noa Noa on Urbanspoon

Freshcraft: If You Say So

To paraphrase Linda Richman, Freshcraft is, at least thus far, neither fresh nor craft. Discuss.

If that’s a little harsh, it’s only because I want to love: the owners are from Iowa, which is where I met the Director, a Des Moines native himself. So I had sentimental hopes they’d be sprinkling a little of that Hawkeye magic all around in the form of hearty home cooking. But based on my first visit, I agree with Westword’s Laura Shunk that at this early date it’s still half-hearted home cooking, not nearly up to par with the excellent craft beer list (which is several pages long). Considering the repertoire is mainly comprised of simple snacks & sandwiches, it shouldn’t be that hard to execute.

Take the appetizer sampler—your choice of 2, accompanied by “spudpuppies.”

We opted for the pretzel bites & the cheese dippers said, somewhat confusingly, to be both “dredged in a strong ale batter & crusted in herbed crumbs.” If virtually herbless & ale-flavorless, the latter were just fine—containing a mixture of cream cheese, provolone, parmesan & monterey jack. The former, however, were stale, & the fried spheres of mashed potato nice & fluffy but bland—nothing salt & pepper couldn’t fix, but that much should’ve been obvious to whomever sent it out. As for the dips: the 4-cheese blend for the pretzels contained the same mixture as the dippers, so it could hardly fail. The smoked-onion ketchup just tasted like ketchup, but the cashew pesto was interesting; it made me realize how carefully balanced classic pesto is between the pinenuts, basil, parmesan, garlic & olive oil. Strong, sweet cashews tilted that balance in their favor, so it was a bit heavy—but pleasing nonetheless.

I wish I could say the same of the cheese-crusted Iowa pork tenderloin.

Looks ridiculously good, right? Afraid not. It was the toughest, grayest piece of meat I’ve been served in some time; each bite took several plate-scraping seconds to saw off. The fries were good, but good fries are easy to come by. (By the way, the menu has 2 sandwich sections: one titled Small-Plate Session Sandwiches & another titled Medium Plates, defined as “lunch-inspired sandwich-style plates”—a phrase so meaningless it’s bound to catch on.)

Ditto the B.A.R.—a Reuben with sauerkraut cooked in bacon fat & “caramelized apple Russian dressing.” Looks great, but the corned beef required more chewing than the pal o’ mine who ordered it had the energy to muster. That’s a problem.

The beef on the French dip wasn’t tough—just lackluster. I didn’t try the French onion soup—(“a trio of slowly caramelized onions & garlic”—??)—which looks as tasty as everything else, but looks are clearly not everything here.

Still, because they’re Iowans, because they’re new on the scene, because the superb beer list suggests they have a genuine vision of “freshcraft,” I’d like to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Besides, a few dishes partaken during a single visit is not even close to sufficient for a final verdict. So I’ll give this place another try, starting with the soup. But my initial experience hasn’t got me lost in lascivious daydreams about a return; for now, I’ll reserve those for the greasy taste of home at Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn.

Freshcraft on Urbanspoon

Red Tango: A He-Said, She-Said Review with Denver on a Spit

Red Tango gets a lotta love from a lotta people, & Denver on a Spit & I are people, so we figured the odds were solid that we’d love it too.

Good thing we didn’t actually bet on it, as you’ll see. For what my 1st impression’s worth: with the possible exception of the arepas, the pan-Latin American food here doesn’t measure up to that the relatively nearby Sabor Latino. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have fun—up to & including the hungover recapping we conducted afterward via mutual Q&As.

For my perspective on the meal, check out Denver on a Spit’s blog; for his, read on.

Denveater: So tell me about this newfound holiday tradition of yours.

Denver on a Spit: The Arvada lights show. It is something else. There is nothing more American to do for the holidays than drive a long distance only to never get out of the car, pop open cans of alcohol (in this case it did happen to be champagne) and watch thousands of kilowatts of non-renewable energy be burned in perfect rhythm to the world’s worst Christmas music. I’m glad you and the Director appreciated it for all its holiday excess. I think it set the tone nicely for the rest of the night.

[Indeed. Don't miss the nutso video on the abovelinked post!]

D: Thinking back to our post about good signs & bad signs, seems to me the signs at Red Tango were mixed: affable staff—good; ham-pineapple special—bad. What aspects of the place made you go hmmm?

DOAS: I too was surprised (not in the suprise-it’s-your-birthday good way) to see the ham and pineapple “Hawaiian” special in this purported South American restaurant. On the other hand I was happy to hear the Chilean accents of the men at the bar when I got lost looking for the bathroom. Overall I got a good, friendly vibe from Red Tango.

D: Your favorite dish was the beef empanada. Why?

DOAS: That empanada was perfect. It was baked and the filling was like a rich beef stew. It reminded me of an empanada shop that my wife and I went to in Buenos Aires that featured baked-style empanadas from the Northern part of the country (and a little of the Bolivian Saltaeñas that they used to serve in that place on 6th Ave that is now sadly Lime XS). I am so sorry that I pretty much ate the whole thing and you both didn’t get to try it. Must have been all that holiday champagne that left me so uninhibited. Also great were the cheese arepas and for that matter the ceviche. All those first small plates were terrific.

D: Ha, that’s right, you did! That’s OK, we polished off its cheese-filled companion. After that, what happened with your entree? It didn’t go swimmingly at first.

DOAS: Yes, I made a switch at the last minute because the server made the pork adobado sound so good. It was three big chunks of pork that by themselves had very little taste and were a little dry, although they were pink going on red on the inside. Then I realized the bacon that wrapped them had fallen off. Once I figured out the bacon thing it was passable but underwhelming, and I didn’t finish it, which is a rarity. Then there was the salad: it was hot probably from the plate and it was all vinegar and salt. Raw but warm spinach in a bath of vinegar is never a good thing.

D: Still, we both felt there were some nice touches throughout the meal…

DOAS: I agree with the Director that the waiter’s attempts at Spanish were amusing at best, but he was very friendly and somehow we got a wine upgrade on our Carménère and then were charged less than the original price for two of the new bottles. That was very nice. Also the Chef’s split pea soup was excellent, as was the garlic-laden unique chimichurri-type sauce that was served with the bread.

D: After the meal you ordered flan. First of all, what did you think of it? Second, we were already stuffed! My philosophy is that I only order dessert if the meal is exceptional & I don’t want it to end, or if it’s totally unsatisfying & I don’t want to end on a sour note. Yours?

DOAS: I usually order dessert. Also I didn’t want the conversation to end. I don’t have too many philosophies, but I guess if I did the one that would apply to this situation would be that if I am sitting at a table in a restaurant for more than thirty minutes without eating, I feel strange, no matter how full I am. I think we were there for a good hour after our meal ended, so ordering flan was just a good way to keep the night going. If my warm salad hadn’t been taken away, I probably would have started picking at it again just because it was there.

D: So how was the flan? Who makes the best flan in town?

DOAS: The one at Red Tango was good. It was very eggy, thick and not too sweet. I absolutely love the flan—or as they call it in Venezuela, quesillo—at Empanada Express Grill in Golden.

D: Overall, how would you describe the atmosphere and character of the restaurant? What do you think they did best and what do they need to work on the most?

DOAS: I liked Red Tango, in spite of my entree. It’s hard to say what happened with our entrees, the creamy blackened chicken and bean ravioli was not executed well (though I love the idea of bean ravioli) and the Director’s arepa came up short with sauce on the mechada (which was basically the entire dish). Maybe we were there on an off night, but with the relatively short menu you think they would have the execution wired on each dish no matter what the hour.

On the other hand it was unpretentious with extremely friendly service. There is a comfortable family feel to it without being corny. It is also wildly popular, as evidenced by the full parking lot and the packed house when we arrived, so they must be doing something right for a lot of people.

D: Hear, hear…

Red Tango on Urbanspoon

This Is The Last Time I Write This Review: John Holly’s Asian Bistro

A long time ago, an old friend of mine whom my thoughts are always with & who remains my favorite living poet, Chelsey Minnis, wrote a poem that began with the line “This is the last time I write about the moon.”

That will probably be the most interesting thing I say in this blogpost, & the recommendation that you read her work will be the most satisfying recommendation I make.

Because how many times can I get delivery from some pan-Asian joint I know is going to be so-so to begin with, find it to be so-so indeed, & write a so-so review about it? We’ll see, I guess. For now, I’m saying no more times. Oh good, it’s 5 o’clock.

***

Now I have a glass of wine, & I’m going to try to pull this off in the sudden haze of melancholy. There don’t appear to be many pro reviews of John Holly’s Asian Bistro; the fact that Warren Byrne supposedly liked it 8 years ago means next to nothing to me. Then again, the fact that there aren’t many pro reviews means next to nothing to me; we all have our moments when we just need someone to feed us hassle-free in our own homes, & the majority of eateries that provide such door-to-door service are the ones whose so-so-ness is a given. So if no one else is going to bother, I might as well; while quality matters less than convenience in said moments, it’s still nice to know which dishes might taste a little better than which others.

This is the filling for the lettuce-wrapped chicken. The lettuce isn’t pictured, since I assume you know what lettuce looks like. I’d have taken a picture if it had been wilted or rusted or otherwise deficient, but it wasn’t.

JHchickenlettucewraps
It’s listed as hot & spicy on the menu; it’s neither hot nor spicy (not that I’m sure what the difference is). But it isn’t bland either, or worse, too sweet; it’s a standard brown sauce marked by a touch of sweet chili smothering ground chicken, peas, red peppers & onion.

Speaking of things I’m not sure about…well, I could go on forever, but I was definitely curious as to how much lobster could possibly be included in a $3 lobster spring roll. I’m still not sure. Somewhere between “not very much” & “a tad more than not very much. Or not.” Could be a krabsticky version of lobster, or a mixture of real lobster & krab. In any case it isn’t pure lobster meat.

JHlobsterroll JHlobsterroll2

Which isn’t, again, to say it’s bad; given a warm, crispy-crunchy shell shiny with just enough grease & brain-clearing hot mustard as foils for the mildly sweet whatever, how could it be?

Its clear superior, however, is the steamed roll with beef.

JHbeefroll
To be clear, while the roll as a whole is steamed, the strips of beef inside are nice & fried with chunks of egg, cabbage, whole green beans & onion. I could make a meal of a few of these. Granted, I could make that same meal at home, but so what? The point is it’s nice not to have to.

Holly’s Lamb, according to the menu, is “sliced top round lamb…stirfried with low-sodium oyster sauce & a pinch of black pepper & cumin seed.” I like salt. Lots of salt. When I was little I’d pour a mound onto my palm & lick it off. I drink pickle juice. Etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this dish,

JHlamb

which isn’t salt-free, rest assured; the sauce is richly savory, & the chunks of meat, red onion, red pepper & snowpeas generous.

As for the sushi, even keeping in mind that I was not in the hands of a master itamae here but chefs of the pile-&-stuff-&-pile-some-more school of American maki, I still thought the rolls I ordered were too much. Granted, I ordered ‘em; but that’s the kind of sucker for umeboshi (pickled plum) & shiso leaf I am: the roll on the left is the Kimberly, filled with salmon, avocado & asparagus, topped with seared albacore, & supposedly the ume was in there somewhere too. The roll on the top right is the Osaka, filled with spicy tuna & avocado & topped with mackerel, egg, & shiso. (On the lower right is Japanese squash.)

JHsushi
I definitely didn’t see, nor did I taste, all of the listed ingredients, & the fact that I don’t know whether that’s because the combos were just too busy or some things were actually left off is the whole problem. As it was the rolls were coming apart a bit at the seams.

JHsushi2
In sum: Not great, not bad, okay for weeknight delivery, like 100 other places I’ve covered.

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

That’s So Cute of You, Pearl Street Grill!

The news on Cafe Society that Pearl Street Grill had gone & had its hair done couldn’t have come at a better time for the Director & me; we’d grown a little sick of the old style (the restaurant equivalent of the Rachel), so we were all over the makeover, coinciding as it did with Celtics’ night out.

Sure enough, the new menu’s all dolled up with adorable little illustrations of veggies & heart-healthy nuts & your daily RDA of wholesome dairy products & all those things you didn’t know constituted food groups at Pearl Street, whose nutritional pyramid heretofore resembled a platter of nachos: chips on bottom, guac & sour cream on top.
PSGmenu

And though the substantive changes aren’t sweeping, they’re certainly noticeable. Take the new array of sides like carrots spiced with ginger, cinnamon & dill (huh) & steamed artichoke with orange-tarragon dip.

PSGartichoke
The jumbo thistle was perfectly tender from the outermost leaves inward; it almost didn’t need saucing, a good thing, since the dip was pretty bad, with the thin, artificial sweetness of those oil-free Pritikin salad dressings of old, when guys with mustaches & gals with Farrah dos (speaking of time-capsule hairstyles) switched to decaf & went jogging in short shorts.

But for a glorified sports bar, the antipasta [sic] platter could’ve been much worse.
PSGantipasti

No, it wasn’t premium fresh mozzarella or prosciutto, but it was decent & generous, with olives & garlicky marinated tomatoes, & a refreshing change from the usual greasy fried suspects.

Granted, enough oil was accumulated somewhere to smear my lens. But isn’t it fitting to view a quesadilla through a haze of fat?

PSGquesadilla

Yet even this old standby has been updated for the new millennium (or at least late in the old one) with a vegetarian filling (black beans, peppers, tomatoes & blended cheese), plus “salsa fresca,” “lime crema” (not, note, “sour cream”) & “avocado relish” (not, note, “guac”). Terminology, as we learned here, can make all the difference between junk food & health food. Really, the changes are neither here nor there as far as either nutrition or flavor goes; the quesadilla’s good, it’s fine, it’s nothing you couldn’t make at home just as well. But then, that’s true of most items at a place like Pearl Street; as I noted in the abovelinked post about Hanson’s, you don’t come here to be wowed by the cooking, you come to be lulled by the boozy neighborhood vibe. The eats just help you soak it up.

Same goes for the Southwest steak salad.

PSGsteaksalad

With avocado, tomato, corn–black bean salad, queso fresco & mixed greens, it’s only a slight variation on the pre-revamp version, with 1 exception: the really good, smoky, tangy, creamy roasted red pepper vinaigrette on the side. If it wasn’t housemade, I sure couldn’t tell.

Ultimately, it’s the same old Pearl Street, just buffed a bit. Why should it be otherwise?

Pearl Street Grill on Urbanspoon

Wild Bangkok? Try Kinky Bangkok

As in still racked by operational kinks. Try Chaotic Bangkok, as in service that, though clearly well-meaning, is all over the place. Conversely, try Totally Tame Bangkok—because so far the kitchen isn’t taking any of the chances suggested by outward appearance, not to mention by the website’s claim to “authentic” “sophistication” from an international culinary team.

It’s a bummer, because I really want to like this place; here’s hoping the food will soon reflect the Northern Thai accents throughout both the vibrantly pretty space (note the traditional seating)
WB1

& the menu, which lists regional specialties that happen to be among my all-time favorite Thai dishes, including miang khamChiang Mai dip (apparently a variant on nam prik ong, containing chicken rather than the standard pork) & the fish custard known as haw moak (here called “Exotic Ocean”).

Unfortunately, listing them & actually offering them are 2 different things; if strike 1 was the 5-minute wait with 8 other people at the cramped entrance—not because there were no tables available but because the host was flitting about helplessly with a permanent strained smile on his face—then strike 2 was ordering the miang kham & nam prik ong only to hear they were out of both. At noon. Huh.

Putting aside our sweet but scattered server’s failure to bring plates & utensils until after a) our 1st course & b) we asked for them, I was beginning to see strike 3 coming: the food was made to suit American tastes, proving entirely mild &/or overly sweet rather than exhibiting the cross-palate balance for which Southeast Asian cookery is so renowned.

Granted, the appetizers we finally did get—money bags (toong tong) & curry puffs—were almost quite good.

WBapps
In deep-fried rice-flour wrappers, the chicken, crab, corn & peanut stuffing of the former, served with sweet chili dipping sauce, wasn’t as distinctive as it sounded, but as a whole the little poppers were pleasant enough. The curry puffs, meanwhile, might have been a whole different matter if they’d been fresh; having obviously been sitting under heat lamps for a spell, the shells were leaden & stale-tasting, their contents indeterminate: supposedly vegetarian, it sure seemed to include ground pork to me. The fact that I couldn’t really tell was a bit unsettling. But the curried spicing was nice & the dipping sauce of, we believed, apple, red onion, cucumber, honey & vinegar intriguing. In short they coulda been contenders if somebody’d looked out for ‘em just a little bit.
WBapps2

The pattaya grouper, however, wasn’t even close,

WBfish
steamed in a cloyingly fruity-sweet ”special sauce” & set atop a clump of pasty soba noodles with 2 slightly woody asparagus spears. At least the house rice, a mix of brown & wild, was all right.

My lunch date, Beth Partin, fared much better with her massaman curry (on the right),
WBmassaman

the peanut & coconut milk gravy strong & rich, filled with potatoes, onions, carrots & chunks of beef; too bad the latter, according to her, was on the tough side (I only tasted the sauce).

It came with rice &, for a small supplemental fee, a bowl of the best dish we tried—a wild pumpkin soup (on the left) that, surprisingly, wasn’t sweet at all but curried & slightly tart.

Overall, though, the misses were more glaring than the hits were satisfying—something the folks at Wild Bangkok will have to remedy quick, not least because the prices they’re asking are substantially higher than most joints of its genre command—think 14 bucks for pad Thai. Until then, think too about going somewhere else, at least at the height of the lunch rush.

Wild Bangkok on Urbanspoon

Breaking Bread, Bread & Then Some More Bread at The Wine Loft

Like Oceanaire, The Wine Loft is one of those rare chains that keeps its corporate identity happily under wraps. Actually, it kinda keeps everything under wraps—in buns, in puff pastry, in ravioli. But I’ll come back to the food. The point is that, walking into the darkly burnished space with its long mirrored bar, its discrete, low-slung, leather-swathed lounging pods & cylindrical pendant lamps, you feel like it genuinely belongs in Lodo—circa 1999, perhaps, but right there nonetheless; certainly its personality doesn’t feel any more manufactured than that of, say, the Oak Tavern.

There is one way in which it stands out from the downtown pack, however: it’s usually (& unusually) quiet—partly due to its size, which allows everyone to scatter to their own private corners, & partly due to the simple & much-appreciated fact that they keep the music to a level that encourages civilized conversation. Or raunchy conversation, for that matter, or a series of grunts. It’s not what you say, it’s how loud you have to say it that I get all worked up about.

So I’ve found myself here quite a bit lately for this or that tête-à-tête over a glass of carménère—a.k.a. malbec 2.0—& a might-as-well-since-I’m-here-type nibble. Which is pretty much what the menu consists of: a handful of small plates whose common characteristic, as is the case at many Denver wine bars—the Village Cork & Tastes come to mind—is their ready-made quality. One imagines a small kitchen with a small staff whose main jobs are to thaw dough & cut cheese. Which is fine; it means the food’s never likely to be much more than fine too, but I guess it’s all about the wine, eh? Why it can’t be about both is unclear to me, but then, so is much in life that probably shouldn’t be.

And some of it really is just fine. Like the wild mushroom bruschetta with manchego. Meaty, earthy, cheesy, crusty, what’s not to enjoy?

WLbruschetta

And the rich, drippy combo of sliced filet, blue cheese & onion jam that filled the pistolettes, to use the menu’s term loosely (a Cajun tradition, pistolette rolls are really supposed to be hollowed out & stuffed, like Hot Pockets).

WLpistolettes
The brie en croute—which came with bread, lest we needed yet more starch with our starch—was pretty clunky; from inside the fairly thick pastry, the cheese didn’t positively ooze out so much as kinda slump. The fact is that it just wasn’t a great brie—your basic factory-processed single crème, not your farmstead labor of love. Still, it was edible, with its drizzles of honey & reduced balsamic & sprinkle of spiced pecans.

WLbrieencroute

The only total blunder was this dish of shrimp & blue cheese pastry with sweet chili sauce—&, supposedly, toasted walnuts, though I don’t recall any.

WLshrimppastry

But then it didn’t give me much of anything to recall beyond a sort of salty mush inside puff pastry with all the finesse of plastic.

The same could be said of our server, by the way, who had an unsettling habit of taking a seat on one of the ottoman at our table while we ordered—legs spread, elbows on knees, hands clasped & brow furrowed, like a coach about to talk us through a critical play. The schtick was like his version of flair or something, & equally unconvincing.

He certainly didn’t convince us to order further—we’d had about as many things enscased in dough as we could stuff down for one evening.  I’ll be back—hopefully, though not likely, to a somewhat more varied repertoire.

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