Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Rack & Rye: No Wrack & Awry, But Not Yet Rock & Roll

The folks at Rack & Rye Gastropub probably know perfectly well what they’re doing, but I can’t say I do. This place has me bamboozled.

First, there’s the name. Obviously it’s a pun on the rock & rye—a reemerging blast from our Progressive Era past consisting of candy-sweetened rye whiskey. But why? What’s the point of the pun? When I first heard the name, I thought maybe it was going to be a cool pool hall, but no. Wine rack? But it’s not a wine bar per se either (unless they’re going to use that perforated back wall for storage at some point—an interesting but unlikely thought). No clue.

Which brings me to the second puzzlement, the space itself. As I’ve said before, I’ve got no beef with the term “gastropub” so long as the word is accurately applied. But “pub” implies a modicum of rustic comfort, which the rather elegant Rack & Rye in no way exudes (see aforelinked photos). In fact, the design elements most meant to encourage conviviality strike me as the least comfortable. Take the long communal table: narrow & lined with elegant chairs, it’s more conducive to a formal dinner party than to strangers spontaneously kicking back & mingling. There’s nothing casual about the straight-backed banquette either—especially in the context of the color scheme: sleek black & cream. The fact that, on the night I was there with pal L, it was completely empty but for one other table the entire time only added to the underlying feeling of unease.

RRSpamfries

Third, of course, is the menu. On paper, it’s a whole lot of fun—so fun it’s almost silly. I agree with 5280’s assessment that at this point the chef is just throwing trends against the wall & seeing what sticks. Which is okay, so long as enough does in fact stick to form a coherent whole. And that’s what remains to be seen. Though I liked most of what I tried, I didn’t trust it—the little things that didn’t work added up to suggest it could go either way, jelling into a repertoire with real flair or skewing completely off-kilter. Here’s hoping for the former.

Consider the Spam fries. The fact that they were clearly conceived as a shameless ploy to establish instant notoriety/hipster cred doesn’t make them any less worth a try. After all, they’re just deep-fried strips of chopped, pressed, salt-&-sugar-cured pork, i.e., triggers to fire every neuron in the brain’s reward center one by one. It hardly mattered that the chili oil was apparently omitted from the chili oil aioli, leaving glorified mayo. (As there was no hint of garlic either, we’re using the word “aioli” loosely here, presumably.) Well, it mattered a little. Capsaicin would have provided a tingling bit of balance.

The only thing wrong with the maple-bacon peanuts, meanwhile, was my glary snap thereof. But, like my camera, they did flash bright that night.

RRpeanuts
Heavily coated in maple syrup, tossed with chopped smoked bacon & roasted, they were basically hot Cracker Jacks gone wild.

So far, so enjoyably trashy. Ditto the cheddar cornbread sticks with jalapeno jelly dipping sauce.

RRcornbread

If the order looks skimpy, it’s to their credit that even before our server set it down he assured us 2 more sticks were on their way. And if it’s kinda ugly, well, that’s better than being too pretty to eat. Lighter in flavor as well as texture than I expected, they were just corny & cheesy enough to play well with the dipping sauce—which tasted like nothing so much as sweetened green chile, odd but not unpleasant.

I’m still conflicted about the sliders we tried—pork belly with mustard soy glaze

RRporkslider
RRducksliders
& 5-spice roast duck with sliced pear & swiss (on the far L & R).

In both cases, the filling was much better than it had a right to be. I guess the word “glaze” didn’t register when I read the description of the former, because I was expecting something spicier & saltier; instead, the sweetness of the condiment, likely brown sugar, put the meat in a mellow mood. Spoiled as I am by dishes like Rioja’s in which fresh pork belly is given the deluxe treatment, I’m still ambivalent about the use of it here as opposed to some other fatty cut—did it get its due or was it compromised for the sake of its current status? I wish now I’d pulled a chunk out to taste it all by its lonesome to know for sure.

As for the latter, before tasting it I was confident the pairing of duck & swiss was a bad idea, that they had nothing in common & they’d both just sit there awkwardly & sullenly. And they might have, but for the pear that, complementing them both, brought them tenderly together; fruitiness proved the missing link. Too bad about the no-account French rolls.

Too bad, too, that a similar risk in the form of a special—char siu tacos—didn’t pay off.

RRtaco

For all its blessings, cheese does not in fact make everything taste better. Even the haphazard, never-the-twain-shall-meet presentation went to show that provolone—never mind deli-grade provolone—can’t do anything for Asian-style barbecued pork other than throw it into disarray. I couldn’t even tell you if the meat was truly char-siu-esque (a little hoisin, a little soy & rice wine, etc. etc.); it pretty much just disappeared between the cheese & the room-temperature flour tortilla.

So how does all that bode for the Korean reuben sliders with grilled rib eye, swiss & kimchi slaw, the short rib rendang, the PB&J sliders & all their future ilk? I’m willing to find out. After all, one of my favorite chefs ever, David Nevins now of Osetra Sono in Connecticut, long ago convinced me that with the right touch, anything was possible—even caramel-fried lobster with warm cheddar, chiles & green onions. Rack & Rye could convince me someday too.

But it’ll never get me to call it a pub.

Rack & Rye on Urbanspoon

Critic-Proof Pickins at Mickey’s Top Sirloin

To love the streets of Denver is to love America. Not the United States, but bygone America—the gleaming desert sprawl of the Space Age, all neon cheer & chrome cool, all verve & leeway. Along Federal, Sheridan, Broadway & Colfax, the boomerangs & curlicues of yesteryear’s roadside architecture still point to the faded promises of life in limbo, its attractions, its distractions: the old reptile museums & Big Chief trading posts, the truck stop coffee shops & whitewashed, blacked-out bars. In fact, the past decade’s yield of retro-flavored bar-&-grills—from Steuben’s to Interstate & Billy’s Inn to Ernie’s Bar & Pizza—owe it all to their likes: Bastien’s & Bonnie Brae Tavern, the Columbine Steak House & the Satire, & of course the long-lost original Billy’s Inn & Ernie’s Lounge & Restaurant. Now here comes next-gen Gennaro’s. Et cetera, et cetera, into the distance. And then there’s Mickey’s Top Sirloin.

According to the website, this 50-year-old joint at Broadway & 70th was razed & rebuilt a few years back—but rest assured you can’t tell by looking, plain as it is from the sports-oriented bar to the straitlaced dining room lined with old family photos. You can’t tell from the motherly service or the red-white-&-blue-striped crowd that change was ever afoot. And you sure wouldn’t know from the food. The huge menu’s divided into sections ranging from Mama’s Italian Kitchen to Jose’s Mexican Entrees to, sure, Steaks from the Broiler, & it reads like a timeline of postwar twentieth-century food fads: shrimp scampi,** fettuccine Alfredo, shish kabob, crab salad in tomato shells, fajitas & holy spumoni for dessert.

It is, in a word, critic-proof.

What can I say about this sausage garlic bread that you can’t already see for yourself,*** only to shrug & order it anyway—stale crumb, prepackaged mozz & all? And you’d be right to so do. After all, it’s got cocktail toothpicks.

MTSgarlicbread
Or the Director’s prime rib special.

MTSprimerib

From the gobsmack of margarine (? see comments) on the giant spud to the growth of fat on the side of stain-colored beef, it was 1 ugly bugger. But you know what? The meat was cooked to spec, pink enough & juicy enough. The potato was a potato. No complaints.

Or Beth’s shish kabob with rice pilaf & Todd’s sirloin, both with sides of spaghetti.

MTSkabob MTSsteak

Crummy photo quality aside, you can gauge what they were up against—bouncy mushrooms, grill marks. They didn’t seem to relish or resent their lot much either way; well, would you?

Meanwhile, I figured a girl like me had nothing to lose at a place like Mickey’s, so I might as well go for the gusto with the homemade shells Florentine, “jumbo shells cooked al dente filled with a blend of fresh leaf spinach & 3 cheeses, then topped with Mickey’s homemade sauce”—which came with my choice of sausage or the meatball I obviously got.

MTSshells
But 1st I had to ask: was the pasta itself truly made in-house, per the description? After all, conchiglione (jumbo shells) are one shape you rarely see fresh. But our waitress swore up & down.

MTSshells2

I can’t second that motion. All I can say for sure is that they were properly cooked & nicely filled with ricotta & spinach that really tasted light, mild & fresh, for all the thick, heavy marinara on top. Who could ask for anything more?

Besides, that is, a side salad of iceberg with 2 cuke disks, 2 slices of pepperoni & a package of saltines.

MTSsalad

Now that’s keeping it real.
**The oft-made protestation that shrimp scampi is redundant isn’t quite accurate. Lost in search of my hotel once in Venice, I went into shop after shop asking for L’Antica Locanda al Gambero—but kept calling it L’Antica Locanda ai Scampi. When one local finally figured out what I meant, oh, how he laughed—kindly, but loudly. Learned my lesson in crustaceans then & there.

***Apologies for the blurrier photos—forgot my flash wasn’t on.

Mickey's Top Sirloin on Urbanspoon

Greeks Gone Wild Gone Reasonable

I was obviously pretty sure back in May, before it debuted, that Greeks Gone Wild would mean nothing to me beyond an opportunity to make merciless fun of a terrible name. The implicit cross between Dionysiac cultic orgies & coed porn seemed a totally stupid one for a nondescript gyros-&-wings joint on DU’s campus corner to bear.

Since its opening, that post has received a surprising number of hits, suggesting that a lot of locals actually do want to know what the place has to offer. Either that or they’re looking for hot girl-on-girl-on-rotisserie action. In any case, I figured it was my responsibility to at least interrupt my stream of mockery with a good-faith wade through the menu.

I still say the name bites; I still say this is not the kind of place that will ever appear on my radar unless I’m right on its doorstep & struck for the 1st time in 20 years by a craving for fast food (hence the categorization under Eateries I Just Can’t Get Worked Up About). But I will say that, as hyphenated-American take-out grubberies go, it doesn’t suck, at least not flat out. Really.

While I wouldn’t recommend eating in if you’re over 25—it’s bright, it’s plastic, it’s blaring & filled with people under 25—I would actually recommend the wings.

GGWwings

No boneless or breaded bastards, they were truly fried right, crackly on the outside & extra-juicy within, & coated but not buried in a medium, well-balanced buffalo sauce—not too peppery, not too vinegary, not too buttery. (There are also mild, hot, Greek & 1 or 2 other options.)

I’m also surprising myself  by recommending the dip platter with pita.

GGWdips

The bread was unexpectedly fresh-grilled, & perhaps even brushed with a little butter? And the tzatziki had great texture—thick & creamy—though a little more garlic would’ve made it even better. You can skip the rest; come to think of it, I suppose you can skip the whole thing & simply order sides of pita & tzatziki. I was impressed just to see htipiti—a lesser-known roasted red pepper–feta spread—& pleased it had a peppery kick, but it also had a salty kick, too hard. Meanwhile nothing about the thin hummus impressed, the flavor being all chickpea, not a whit of tahini, garlic, lemon, or even olive oil.

As for the souvlaki & gyro plates—

GGWgyros GGWsouvlaki

They were fine. Not great, the meat perhaps a little underseasoned, but moist. Fine. The Greek dressing a little underpowering, but the salad fine. Adequate. Fine. The best part was still this,

GGWpita

but, you know, overall, fine! Can’t complain. Let’s not go wild ourselves & word it any more effusively than that.

Greeks Gone Wild on Urbanspoon

How much more crap can I take (out)? Spicy Thai vs. my vote for the best of the meh: Thai Basil

I think I’ve now tried every Thai takeout joint within a few miles of my southeast Denver hovel: Thai Basil. Spicy Basil. Spicy Thai. Thai Green Chile. Swing Thai. Jason’s Thai Bistro. Thai This. Thai That. Sucky Noodle. Pad Crud. For the most part they’re as interchangable as their names.

I’ve acknowledged that a) takeout is itself a crapshoot (so to speak) & b) there are a few local joints I’ve yet to hit that do get the love from writers I trust, e.g. Lori Midson, above all US Thai, Thai House, & Chada Thai. (You might also trawl Chowhound for recs like this from lotuseedpaste, who knows her stuff too.) But those are clearly the exceptions to a citywide rule. If I overstate the case, by all means, give me hell & tell me what I’m missing. Otherwise heed my warning & order in from the above, with the possible exception of Thai Basil, only if you’re really lonely & your sole human contact for the eve will be the 2 min. you spend chatting with the delivery guy at the door—who’s sure, to offer another apparent truism about Denver Thai, to be exceedingly gracious & kind. One could do worse in one’s relationships.

In all fairness, then, to the lovely gentleman who recently brought us dinner from Spicy Thai, I’ll admit up front that we only tried 4 dishes. But the fact that each was as ho-hum as the last means I won’t be trying any more, at least not any time soon.

The shumai were doughy & dull;

SpicyThaishumai

the lamb curry bland,

SpicyThailambcurry

the drunken noodles utterly without finesse, too soupy & spiced way down.

SpicyThaidrunkennoodle

Without a picture to remind me I’d have forgotten about the soggy but otherwise characterless seaweed salad entirely. The line between a good seaweed salad & a bad one is thin but distinct; I asked for examples on Chowhound & got some smart replies.

STseaweed

It all made a subsequent order from the aforementioned Thai Basil, mostly merely adequate, seem downright dazzling by comparison.

Above all, the crispy duck was even richer & tenderer than the 1st time we had it, & the portion for the price, $12.50, popped the eyes.

TBduck2

It came with surprisingly good peanut sauce, less thick & more vinegary than the majority. That may primarily be why I also liked mild red “curry chicken in peanut sauce.” Sounded confusing, tasted mellow & creamy, indeed simply combining the two sauces in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever come across before, though a search suggests it’s common.

TBchickencurry

Should’ve known better than to order Szechuan eggplant rather than Thai eggplant from a Thai place; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spicy or sesame-tinged in the least. I’d also have preferred the ratio of eggplant to other veggies be higher, given that that’s what I ordered. Still, it was colorful & tangy & well textured.

TBeggplant

Seared scallops in an almost brothy sweet chili sauce didn’t engage my tongue much, but the sheer number of critters for the price, the same as that of the duck, was once again impressive.

TBscallops
Bottom line: if you’re stuck at home in southeast Denver & a craving for Thai strikes, get over it. If you just can’t get over it, then call Thai Basil & keep your expectations modest.

Unless, that is, you’re one of the 28.8 folks who’ve given Spicy Thai two thumbs up on Urbanspoon, in which case go right ahead & order up a storm.

Spicy Thai on Urbanspoon

Halfway House of Kabob (via By Jeeves)

Having acknowledged ad nauseum that a meal ordered in is a culinary experience once removed—you can’t possibly get the same feel for the kitchen as you do when you’re within feet of it—the fact of the matter is most of us rely on delivery from time to time, & a comparison of your options under those circumstances is no less valuable than a comparison of your options for dining out.

Granted, it would be more valuable if the deliveries from any given place were themselves consistent. Since House of Kabob’s just aren’t, what can I say except good luck? Sometimes it’ll be a score, sometimes a wash.

Of all the Middle Eastern restaurants on By Jeeves’ list, I was partial toward HOK insofar as the menu, though laden with familiar staples, doesn’t dumb its specials down—think lamb’s tongue soup & fesenjan (walnut-&-pomegranate flavored chicken stew). That said, the basics are always a good place to start, since the quality of the foundation obviously determines the extent to which it can be built upon with any confidence or style.

Here’s where this House’s foundation proves shoddy.

HOKshawarma
chicken shawarma pita w/ fries

Iceberg has its place in a shawarma, but it’s not supposed to have it to itself. Not that the wan shreds of chicken that were hiding in the corners were worth outing; meanwhile, what was glaring were the ungrilled pita & limp fries.

HOKfattoush

By comparison, the pita croutons in the fattoush were nice and crispy, the veggies bright & crisp. Still, they, like the sandwich, were underdressed beyond a squirt of lemon juice—virtually olive oil–less as near as I could tell.

Adding insult to that drab injury was the fact that I’d ordered a side of creamy garlic sauce for the very sake of having a little extra dressing to play with—& for $2.95, this is what I got:

HOKsauce

So that’s what, a buck a tablespoon? And that’s what, thawed paste? It wasn’t bad, admittedly—you can’t argue with raw garlic & salt—but you can argue with the description “creamy sauce.”

Fool mudammas, too, lacked oomph.

HOKfool

Beans are beautiful things when properly seasoned; when not, they’re just nubs of starch. Three words: garlic, lemon, garlic. In that order.

All that said, here’s where the House’s foundation proves solid.

HOKeggplant

Persian eggplant is described as containing tomatoes, which it obviously did, garlic, which it did—& eggs, which I guess it did, as some sort of binder? There are enough similar recipes online to indicate that’s probably the case. At any rate, it was the roasted eggplant itself that mattered, maintaining just enough of its bitterness to give it an edge, a smoky bite.

The same went for its better-known counterpart, the unusually airy baba ghanoush that came on both the Sultan combo

HOKmeatcombo

& the veggie combo,

HOKvegcombo

which not only looked something like a Delaunay

Delaunay-robert-rhythm-joie-de-vivre-2410112

but tasted as vibrant, too. Moistness was the key asset of virtually every item on both, from the way creamy hummus (I prefer mine more lemony, but sufficient tahini compensated), and the fluffy rice to the peppery falafel & the charred but juicy, if sparse, chunks of lamb, beef & chicken. Only the grape leaves left something to be desired—namely flavor, apparently squeezed out by the too-thick & -tight wrapping. But a little sprinkle of paprika to infuse the surface oil was a neat touch.

If I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed thus far—don’t even ask if the pita’s housemade—nor can I say I’m washing my hands of HOK. There’s still feta-filled sambousek, lahmacun-like arayes, & beef-&-cracked-wheat kibbeh left to gobble down before I give up—or, she says optimistically, move on up to that lamb’s tongue soup.

House of Kabob on Urbanspoon

Hapa Sushi via Delivery by Jeeves: not worth the non-trouble

Let’s leave aside the disclaimer that no washoku connoisseur has any
business ordering sushi in—that content is & should be
inseparable from context in this case, the food from the
experience of engaging with & eating according to the
expertise of your itamae. A,
I’m no connoisseur, & B, to get all poetic on you, one could
equally argue that there are no ideas (i.e. mental processing, i.e. experiencing) but
in things
: if, as I suggested in the above-linked Chowhound
thread, delivery sushi is akin to poetry in translation—i.e.,
something other than the real thing—it’s still a thing you can
gauge on its own merits. So, for instance, if nigiri brought in
from Sushi
Den
is inferior to nigiri consumed at Sushi Den, it’s
nonetheless inarguably superior to nigiri ordered in from, oh,
say, Hapa
Sushi Grill & Sake Bar
, the batch of which I had recently
was so insipid as to make the thought of an in-house taste
test—though eventually necessary & only fair—altogether too
dispiriting for the nonce.

In Japanese, happa, 2
Ps, means “leaf,”
including the ganja, or maybe “explosion.” A Google search
yielded conflicting translations, though it did help confirm that
hapa, 1 P, doesn’t mean anything in
Japanese. It’s actually a Hawaiian word, which per Hapa’s website
describes “a harmonious blend of Asian and American cultures” but
per Urban Dictionary is derogatory slang for a half-breed. Guess which
source I trust more.

Actually, the menu explicitly pledges allegiance to a Hawaiian
influence or 2, which is kind of cool, but what clinched an order
from me 1 night when I didn’t feel like cooking & the
Director didn’t feel like getting off the couch was the listing
for umeshiso maki. So far as I’ve searched, no one else in Denver
serves the rolls filled with pickled plum paste & shiso leaf
that I thought were a given in US sushi bars. (If any of you are
aware of other local purveyors, please send word!)

Though I’d looked into using By Jeeves before, this was my first
experience with the delivery service, & I was quite pleased
with the process. The “phone waiter” was very nice &
efficient (if not exactly a whiz in Japanese pronunication—for
one of many instances, hotate nigiri, or ho-TAH-tay nih-GIH-ree, became
HO-tayt ni-ZHEE-ree.
Kinda cute, actually). The delivery dude arrived only a few min.
past the hour allotted, & the service fees were already added
in. In short, the whole affair was fairly hassle-free.

Not so the yaki onigiri.

Hapayakionigiri

Being unfamiliar with these “grilled balls of rice served with
teriyaki sauce,” I was intrigued, imagining a sort of naked Asian
version of Sicilian arancini; what I got was a clump of plain rice,
somehow sticky & dried-out at the same time, except for the
quarter-inch bottom layer that was saturated with cloying goo
(the inclusion of which was altogether an Americanization
according to my fellow Chowhounds, who also assured me the
interior should be almost melting).

The sauteed edamame was fine if a bit messy beneath its
smattering of “Hapa’s seasonings”—a not-so-proprietary blend of
garlic & sesame.

Hapaedamame

And some of my sushi was just fine too. I was indeed delighted to
be reunited with my sour-salty

Hapaumeshiso Hapaoshinko
umeshiso maki, & I’m always down with punchy oshinko (pickled
daikon) rolls.

HapaM&MrollI’ll
sheepishly cop as well to getting a kick out of the Mork &
Mindy roll with white tuna (presumably albacore?), salmon, chives
& a bit of mandarin orange—not surprisingly a nice combo,
given the easy affinity between fish & citrus, though what it
has to do with the goofy old sitcom is beyond me (any ideas?).

But the nigiri was flat-out flavorless.

Hapatuna Hapasalmon Hapahotate Hapamackerel

From the yellowtail & the salmon to the grilled scallop (i.e.
the aforementioned hotate, which the Director chose over raw on a
lark) & even the mackerel (not an easy fish to defang), what
should have been the sparkling centerpieces seemed like
storebought afterthoughts. Granted, my bad for not just assuming
that Hapa would have it all ass-backwards once I saw the way the
menu was categorized—whereby the “beginner” rolls are very
simple, just raw fish & veggies, while the “advanced” rolls
are mostly abominations of baked cream cheese, fried smoked
salmon & garlic-basil butter, bearing names as tacky as their
ingredients. To willingly request the Climax or the Booty Call is
to just ask for it in every sense of the phrase. I’m not
objecting to the inclusion of such concoctions on the menu, mind
you; again, I’m no purist. What gives me hives is the
oh-so-American & no-so-Japanese equation of novelty with
sophistication. The difference, it seems, is in knowing the difference. That
culinary experimentation is, at least in my book, a good thing
does not automatically mean the results thereof are too.

Hapa, you got me up on my soapbox, where I tend to be
particularly awkward (hey, does this platform make me look fat?).
For that reason alone, I damn thee.


Hapa Sushi (Cherry Creek) on Urbanspoon

My Own Private Fern Bar: Pearl Street Grill

Of all the things my generation just missed—the heyday of CBGB, abiding faith in the executive branch, sex before AIDS—I grow perhaps mistiest over the fern bar fad. By the time we came of age in the late 1980s, what had been for about 15 years the type of establishment for newly minted, nubile adults to mingle in—invariably & deliciously while downing daiquiris to the wry yet mellowtones of Rupert Holmes & Randy Newman, or, later, Midori Sours against a medley of, say, A Flock of Seagulls & Heaven 17 —was already ceding ground to New American bistros & warehouse raves.

The definition of a fern bar is a bit shifty (Wikipedia notwithstanding), but mine own mind’s eye scans a split-level expanse of wood panels, stained glass, brass railings, pendant lamps &, yes, a token plant or 2; here, the likes of white zin & tuna melts never left the building—no comebacks, ironic or otherwise, required.

Zoom outward with your own mind’s eye, & you’ll see that this about covers it.

PSGsign

That there’s a detail from the Pearl Street Grill, which opened in 1983, &, I’m betting, has hardly changed since. Why should it? It’s rolling in every ingredient comprising success’s recipe: well-foot-trafficked location; comfy, laidback atmo & service to match; sun-dappled back patio; a repertoire of the kinds of eats that lull us Americans into the sense of well-being only goofy self-indulgence fosters (if I may speak for the entire nation. I may? Shit then, hooray for universal health care, GLBT rights & gun control!).

Goofy self-indulgence being both the Director’s & my middle name (coincidentally enough, eh), we still come here far more often than any particular aspect of the experience justifies. Unless you count the fact that they give us no guff about setting up our Scrabble board & playing in their midst. Hence the game going on behind this Cobb,

PSGCobb

which hardly distinguishes itself in the lineup of Cobbs I’ve had locally; ditto the Caesar, the Greek, & the steak salad. All are just fine, of course. But where the point is supergoofy self-indulgence, the logical choices are things like the 2-cheese-&-green-chile-stuffed Mexican egg rolls, the asiago-artichoke dip with garlic beer bread, the shepherd’s pie—

PSGshepherdspie

a veritable F9f6b571-c578-4515-ba16-3de0a68a6f05 of mashed potatoes & melted cheddar,

with mammoth chunks of tender lamb & carrot sucked into the rich muck of gravy below—

[UPDATE! On my rec, Comrade L gave it a whirl. Boy, was my face red when it came out within 2 min., no exaggeration, of her order, only to offer up chalky potatoes, half-cooked carrots, & gravy that was literally rather than metaphorically muck. The reason for the stark difference is anyone’s guess, & I still generally trust PSG to glorify junk food properly, but consider yourself duly warned re some inconsistency]—

& the oddly off-menu, housemade sweet potato chips.

PSGchips4

I can’t imagine that the happy hour pretzels are housemade,

PSGpretzel

mainly because pretzel making’s a tad labor intensive—but so much the better if they are, because they’re just right, hot & soft yet super-chewy; for that matter, if they’re from a box, the kitchen does a noteworthy job of disguising the fact.

PSGdipThe honey-mustard dipping sauce, meanwhile, is made in-house, & it’s quite good—light & vibrant, not the bilious bottled goo.

Other surprisingly well-made dishes include the mussels in an excellently peppery, garlicky, white wine–based broth, served with grilled bread & plenty of lemon wedges

PSGmussels

& the occasional special that is beer cheese soup, smooth yet robust.

PSGbeercheesesoup

The Director’ll also vouch for the buffalo burger, I for the nachos ¡con gusto! with ground beef & green chile, & both of us for the fact that, if Pearl Street Grill’s one of its namesake’s less brilliant lights, it remains one of its more solid fixtures.

Pearl Street Grill on Urbanspoon

Sucking Eggs at Red Rocks Grill

A large, liberal American in the Whitmanian sense, with a bloodlust to contradict my bleeding heart, I can never help but marvel how a good collection of wall-mounted hunting trophies really ties a room together into some sort of cheerfully morbid petting zoo. And since the Director, the Constant Watcher & I happened to be hashing out our plans for MORRISSEYTOWN—an amusement park (or, as we like to think of it, dejection park) based entirely around the lyrical death throes of everybody’s fave frontman of phantasmironica—just as we entered the Red Rocks Grill in Morrison (coincidence? think not), we were pretty sure we’d come to the right place. Its furry decor

RRG2 RRG1

at once inspired a brainstorm for our own Life Is a Pigsty dead-petting zoo & made for an ideal setting in which to sketch out the details of the Meat Is Murder concession stand. (Not to mention a fitting pitstop before catching Jaws up at Film on the Rocks.)

But we were wrong. Foodwise, it was not the right place. That much became clear with a glance at the menu, one of those faux-newspaper inserts listing such “Red Rocks Originals” as a BLT & a Monte Cristo (what dictionary did they get their definition of “original” from?), a Santa Fe pasta with chicken, green chili & cheddar startlingly served with a flour tortilla, & a teriyaki chicken dinner dolefully described as “two 6 oz. breast [sic] drenched in teriyaki sauce”—maybe one of the exceptions to the guarantee that “most of our food is homemade”?

Certainly I’ll eat crow (could probably just pull one down off the wall) if the dinosaur eggs weren’t the finest becrumbed, cream-cheese-product-injected jalapeno-like objects ever to roll off an assembly line out & out of a box.

Poppers

As for the “special jalapeno jelly” it comes with—I’m thinking raspberry from a jar with a drop of hot sauce in it?

The rest was neither here nor there. There was nothing particularly wrong with the Director’s combo plate #4, for instance—a steak-&-bean burrito with green chile plus two shredded beef tacos. When I asked him how it was, he shrugged. The bite or two I took revealed a fairly mild green chile & not much else of note.

Comboplatter

My taco salad with chicken was likewise just fine, with more lettuce under there than you’d think. If the salsa was made in-house, though, it did an amazing impression of Pace.

Salad

I think you must have to be pretty darn sharp to catch the sorts of nuances that would distinguish the Constant Watcher’s Mexican burger from, say, a beef burrito, unless it’s just the fries on the side. My own powers of observation weren’t up to the task. I’m open to enlightenment on this one.

Mexburger

Either way I don’t plan on coming back here to taste the difference for myself. One too many Mexican burgers and the next thing you know you’re starring in Morrisseytown’s Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others burlesque revue.

Red Rocks Grill on Urbanspoon

A Quick Bite of Toast

Toast’s full name, Toast Fine Food & Coffee, says it all. This popular Littleton breakfast & lunch spot is indeed fine. I could just about end this post here.

Only since so many others apparently buy the presumed use of “fine” to mean “splendid”—”damn fine”—rather than “adequate,” I have to wonder what I’m missing. Two possibilities come immediately to mind:

1) All the other AM options in Littleton (or the lack thereof), in the dull light of which Toast might indeed come across as fantastic.
2) All the signature items (putting aside for the moment my distrust of the concept of ordering wrong).

As Rebecca from From Argentina with Love and I sat with our faces up to our eyeballs in motorcycle-helmet-sized mugs of (good, actually) coffee, we could see out just well enough to survey the almost studiously plain dining room of naught but Formica & folk art—mostly in search of our somewhat scattered if sincere server, but catching frequent glimpses of lofty stacks of pancakes & French toast that, in their thick drippiness, looked, indeed, damn fine. And while some flavors can probably rot your soul in seconds flat—e.g., the Oreo-crusted cakes with hot fudge, marshmallow Fluff & (not “or” but “&”—oof) whipped cream—others seem truly inspired. Sweet-toothless as I am, carrot cake flapjacks with cream cheese sauce & pecans sound dreamy rather than cloying even to me. And as for the savory Santa Fe French toast stuffed with egg, chorizo, green chiles & mixed cheeses & topped with avocado sauce & smoked chile sour cream—the day my last drop of sexual attraction dries up is the day I order me up a big ol’ plate of that flabtastic nonsense. Hell, two.

As it was, though, I got the hefty-enough omelet with cheddar, havarti & gruyère, topped with pork green chile & accompanied by fried potatoes & rye toast.

Toastomelette

And it was, yes, fine. I wonder in hindsight if combining 3 cow’s milk cheeses that, on the spectrum of mild to pungent, all land somewhere in the middle is a missed opportunity—maybe a blend of fresh goat & smoked jack, say, would prove more distinctive. For its part, the green chile didn’t ricochet around my mouth like the best, zingiest ones do, but I liked how thoroughly threaded through with stringy bits of pork it was.

Meanwhile, if I ordered wrong—or at least less right than the pancake pickers—Rebecca ordered wronger. A bit of her crab cake Benedict yielded more filler than crab under flat-out awful, gummy hollandaise with a weirdly sour, not lemony but acrid, aftertaste.

Toastcrabbenedict

Of course, there are other answers to the question of what I’m missing. Like “the truth” or “my marbles.” I appreciated what I saw on other tables, & the menu descriptions thereof, enough to think my assessment could be off & to ensure that I’ll return. Plus, it’s a challenge—if neither Toast nor Marmalade can ultimately cut the mustard, the field will be wide open for someone to launch Syrup or Schmear or some such & sweep the cafe competition. Eh?

Toast on Urbanspoon

McCormick’s: “Not one of the city’s best restaurants.”— Not The New York Times Travel Section

Lukewarm-ick’s. Has a nice—by which I mean “mean”—ring, no? But “nice” by which I mean “mean” doesn’t mean “entirely true.” The truth is McCormick’s runs the gamut from all-out eww to eh to full-on aah! & back again. So I resisted the temptation to title this post thuswise (if not to use the word “thuswise.” Such a logobimbo). After all, McCormick’s own site gave me all the opportunity for snark I ever seek by quoting some glowing review that appeared in the New York Times Travel Section…when? When was McCormick’s ever “one of the city’s best restaurants”? Thirty years ago when Lodo was a war zone? The best restaurant in a war zone is a non-bombed-out restaurant. “Best” in that wise just means “open.”

Mind you, I don’t actually know how long McCormick’s has been in Denver (feel free to fill me in). I only know that as early as the mid-1970s, McCormick merged with Schmick out in Portland, OR, to forge the links in today’s coast-to-coast chain known by both names; hence the assumption that the one-name outlets must be older. I also know, as a former Bostonian, how much flak said chain aptly took for moving in on Legal Sea Foods’ turf when it opened back east. Sure, Legal’s a franchise too, but you gotta hand it to any fishhouse that opens a branch within spitting distance of an aquarium. That takes whale balls.**)

So I’ve long held a grudge against McCormick, with or without Schmick.

Nevertheless, since I had no choice but to hit it recently for reasons that shall be made clear over at Denver Six Shooter come June 16, I figured I might as well give it its fair full-body shake—starting, natch, with the raw bar.

Which brings us to lukewarmth.

Here’s how the so-so seesaws: on the upside, a daily roster of 9 or 10 ain’t bad. It ain’t as good as Oceanaire’s, but it ain’t bad. Even better is that Gigamotos were among them.

McCoysters2

New to me when I ordered them (perhaps because they’re West Coasters, from Belfair, WA), these little guys promptly shot all the way up in my esteem to the level of Wellfleets & Tatmagouches. Not only do they sound like robot parts, & not only are their shells (like those of most oysters, granted) way sci-fi,

McCshell

but their flavor is among the most purely sealike any creature ever captured. And I don’t mean briny & I do mean sealike—blue-green & clean.

The quick, simple downside: they weren’t fully shucked; the adductor muscle was still attached to the shell. Hey, line guy, if I have to do half the work myself, I want my cut. Pony up.

Though they weren’t especially strong, & though I wasn’t holding my breath that the mix was housemade, a couple of spicy bloodies nonetheless took the edge off of my annoyance.

McCbloody

So did the especially attentive, blond-ponytailed slip of a server who brought them, a pro beyond her years. Wish I’d gotten her name. (UPDATE: Just saw it on the receipt—Jamie.) Above all, she accommodated us in the transition between breakfast & lunch service, as the Director ordered the former & I the latter.

His Southwest skillet was the high point, a not-too-greasy spillage of chorizo & cheddar, spuds & jack, & peppers & onions alongside pico de gallo, a thoughtful wedge of lime, & griddled tortillas—all topped with the over-easy…oval? ovate? ovoid? oviparous?…eggy ideal.

McCskillet

Sausages on the side were fat & happy, juicy with joy. McCsausages

But the oyster stew, after the first blush, was sad & blue.

McCoysterstew

Looks delish, eh? Especially when you dip in your spoon to dredge up a humdinger of a Hama Hama.

McCoysterstew2

But it wasn’t delish by a long shot. The chef’s intentions were clearly good insofar as the broth was very simple—just milk (I doubt there was more than a drop, if that, of cream), butter, parsley &, presumably, oyster liquor. The chef’s execution was noticeably bad insofar as the broth was very simple—Hama Hamas are mild, their liquor virtually undetectable in the context of other ingredients without sufficient S&P to bring it out. I was pretty much slurping up diluted milk until I seasoned it myself.

Oh, & also until the bile started seeping in.

McCoysterstew3

In my nearly 40 years I’ve downed 100s upon 100s of oysters—& never, ever, had I seen the likes of this. I didn’t even know oysters had livers.

Googling “oyster liver” later, I found this in a passage from a shucking primer at Oysters.us:

“Extra care must be taken not to damage the tender meat. The oyster’s liver is located just ahead of the hinge (located right at the opposite end of the little pointer). It is particularly vulnerable and will end up looking like a big greenish-brown spot if its mantle layer is damaged by the knife….Although such damage has no effect at all on the taste of the oyster meat, it just looks bad. I’ve heard novices ask ‘Eeeew. Is that oyster poop?’ when they see that spot. If you are serving lots of oysters with damaged livers to connoisseurs, they may not comment on it, but will certainly notice.”

I noticed. Not 1 but 2 of the 3 oysters in my bowl were thuswise mangled.

In the end, then, Denveater’s gotta give McCormick’s, at least when it comes to their supposed specialty, the thumbs down…& hence The Gray Lady the smackdown.

Which actually, for a writer filled herself with bitter, bitter bile, feels pretty sweet.

**Search here for the word “testes” and prepare to stagger.

McCormick's Fish House & Bar on Urbanspoon