What’s with the full-force gushing, the spit-mottled glottal-stop-&-go over Big Hoss? The pulled pork was so dry I thought I might have accidentally asked for pulled taffy. That’s what I got, the pork-taffy platter.
Good thing my friend MO was there to drown out all the ballyhoo, spewing spot-on censure: “It’s not smoky, it’s not succulent, there aren’t any flecks of spice, there’s not that much sauce,” she said, wondering exactly what the pitmaster’s sense of the difference between barbecuing meat and just, you know, cooking it all the way through was.
The “grilled Western veggies” mixed into the diced “campfire potatoes” were pretty much just onions & mushrooms; funny, because there’s another side dish called “onions & mushrooms,” which are caramelized & sauteed, respectively. Actually, fine & dandy—it’s all hash to me—but a little truth in advertising would have gone a longer way.
Ditto the “unlimited soup & salad bar.” What they mean, of course, is “all-you-can-eat soup & salad bar.” Those are 2 different things. Your bowl may be bottomless, but if all you’ve got to fill it with is some lettuce &, in MO’s words, 14 kinds of ranch dressing, your stomach’s bound to hit its limit pretty quick. (OK, to be truthful myself, there were maybe 4 or 5 vegetables.)
I know, I know, you don’t go to a smokehouse for salad. But considering my jerky & MO’s middling andouille, I’m not so inclined to go for ‘cue either. They do make some mean baked beans, though, & some good greasy doodles. They should call it the Mean Bean & Greasy Doodle House. Then I’d go there lots.
What’s with the full-force gushing, the spit-mottled glottal-stop-&-go over Big Hoss? The pulled pork was so dry I thought I might have accidentally asked for pulled taffy. That’s what I got, the pork-taffy platter.
is that I was there with Jane & Shena, which meant I could pretend I was having lunch in the jungle. I swung a vine from Denver to the restaurant in Boulder in a loincloth & sneakers, yodeling “Ajiajiajiajiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”
On an Aji-calibrated scale from solid to middling rather than awesome to cruddy, the second-best thing was something I didn’t order: the chocolate flan, which we agreed seemed less like a custard than a mousse, both denser & more airy—it wasn’t at that in-between stage most custards occupy between the liquid & the solid state, the awkward young adult or maybe the Crispin Glover of desserts, sort of bouncing around from hard-to-identify flavor & texture to hard-to-identify flavor & texture. This, instead, was a swatch of dark-chocolate suede you could confidently purchase a whole bolt of to drape your tummy in & make it look so elegant.
The third- and fourth-best things I didn’t order either—in fact I didn’t even taste them, but I could tell just by looking: Jane’s ground-beef-stuffed & pomegranate-seed-sprinkled poblano with walnut sauce
& Shena’s torta piled with braised rib meat, cabbage, & fried potato strings, accompanied by sweet-potato fries:
Wait, somewhere better than the second-best thing was the thing about how Shena went to a poetry reading by a guy with Tourette’s. Suppose he were a master of, say, alliteration? How would you know?
I have to go think about that. To be continued…
The fifth-best thing, also known as the second-worst thing, was my posole: it seemed to me a bit thin, a bit soupy, for something that in my experience should be a chunky stew, hominy-heavy & liquid-light—never mind something that supposedly contained not only pork loin but also chorizo & smoked bacon, of which the latter alone really made its presence known:
The last-best thing was the calamari, which just couldn’t get it together. What did it want to be, fried or sauteed? A bar snack or a salad?
As with the seaweed salad I suffered at Aji’s sibling Leaf, the general effect was one of not only militant invasion by but mission creep on the part of the overpowering forces of mizuna. Even the pancetta took it lying down:
If that pancetta wasn’t raw & uncut, & I don’t at all mean like fine porn but exactly like sad cold pork product, instead of sliced up & pan-fried with the squid, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. & seeing how I was hanging out with the queens of the wild kingdom, how do you know I’m not?
I totally thought this place was gonna make me sick at first, showing as it does all the signs of hipness as defined by your average aging ad man in tasseled loafers with a constant shaving rash & a fetish for bare feet squishing raw hamburger. Which doesn’t mean he’d be wrong, by the way. One of the bartenders looked like he’d traveled through time to get to Tamayo from his synth gig with Animotion
and the other looked like she’d just popped in from the set of Rock of Love—all to her credit, actually, as I must say I’m a fan! That Bret Michaels is just a hoot with his 3-word vocabulary,* his multiple blepharoplasties & delusions of, oh, well, grandeur’s probably not the right word for it.
The bar was lined with guys just in from Olympia ordering margaritas “not too sweet—like me” and then repeating “not too sweet” in case Brandiii or Cloverleaf or whatever her name was didn’t get it & the wall behind it lined with a vivid inlaid mural which is mostly a little faux-primitive (but has nice touches like this).
But what emerged from the kitchen didn’t make me sick, and some of it made me all better. Let’s look back at the Harley Davidson Shifting Gears Moment, as they called the KO that led to Brian Stann’s upset in the WEC light-heavyweight title fight we were watching just now, making my brain do a 360 inside my cranium.
It wasn’t the guacamole & chips,
both of which were good & fresh but hardly superior to any of the other versions I’ve had lately, nor the ensalada mixta, though as a retort to the cliché that is the bistro salad with panko-crusted goat cheese, sundried cranberries, candied pecans & raspberry vinaigrette—Google it, I swear you’ll find a jillion—it was pretty snappy, graced as it was with a disk of masa-wrapped, beer-spiked Chimay cheese, plump cherries braised with ancho chiles & a vinaigrette that gained in aromatic complexity from serrano chiles and hoja santa, a sassafras-like Mexican herb that may or may not cause cancer, like everything else I ingest, touch, look at, smell, hear & am. Granted, it still contained candied pecans.
No, what cured me of the cancer I may or may not already have a recurrence of was this
for its medieval sexiness, whole chunks of flesh just slipping off, and for the richness of brussel sprouts cooked with prosciutto. & this mélange of grilled zucchini, eggplant, carrots, mushrooms & supposedly tomatoes, although I don’t remember them, set over a mound of ultra-fluffy mashed potatoes daubed with cream & green onion, in a citrus-adobo broth that may actually have both produced & contained copious drops of my own sweat &, best of all, under a melting dollop of butter just kissed, not even, air-kissed with truffle & habañero.
These dishes were on the winter menu; Blondie May told us the spring menu was about to debut. Next time I’ve got a tumor I guess we’ll have to check in & check it out.
*Nonetheless sufficient for BrainyQuote.com to list him as an eminently quotable authority figure.
Wow, Leaf certainly is leafy green & squeaky clean & wall to wall with lean mean meat-fighting machines. I don’t know what you’d have to do to leave here saying “oof,” but the chance that it involves eating anything off the menu is way fatter than the one that it entails getting knocked out on your duff for talking shit about soy products.
They called this white bean & spinach soup—what a crock. It was spinach & white bean soup.
Still, though more leaf than bean, it was plenty chunky as well as quite cheeky, unexpectedly peppery. Ditto this artichoke “guacamole,” not as creamy as the avoriginal yet with a good strong tang, atop a meaty white bean cake; too bad the red curry–coconut cream was so thin, just making the patty’s bottom soggy as though it were part of an Irish nursery rhyme, rather than adding punch 2 to the punch 1 the rest of the ethnoclectic recipe it was in fact part of delivered.
Speaking of thin, that & pale is what I turned by having this Asian seaweed salad.
Honeymooning with my mother, my father lost his brand-new wedding ring at White Sands. We had picture placemats from there, like this;
to settle me down at mealtimes, he’d tell me to find his ring in the photo. It’ll be no less a challenge for you to locate the jicama, wakame, bok choy, bamboo shoots, palm hearts & water chestnuts supposedly mixed up in the above mound of mizuna sprinkled with carrots’ toenail clippings. The French toast stix–looking things on top are marinated grilled tofu triangles, which actually might as well have been French toast stix for all I could judge by the taste—good in an indefinite, unmemorable way.
Come to think of it, though, I did leave saying “oof”—namely after getting an eyeful of the menu at conjoined-twin Aji, where the same talent that, though obvious, just languishes over post-nouvelle portions of pavement-crack growth at Leaf must put all its energy toward funky, hunky-sounding ends like lobster arepas, rib & cabbage tortas & stuffed poblanos with walnut sauce.
I’m all for vegetarian dishes—provided there’s actual food on them. Until Leaf beefs it up a little, I’ll be next door.
Opening shot: Vaughn & Favreau, slickly clad, slouching in slo-mo towards this entrance…
to make a beeline for the honeys arrayed around this corner of the bar…
where shimmering reflections from the waterwall on one side of them…
and flickering shadows from the glassed-in, recessed fireplace on the other…
would only beautify their beautiful beauty as the credits rolled.
Wait, did you say Hollywood or Englewood? In that case, opening shot: Choo-shod cougars growling & prowling past the entrance toward Dinner for Five-era Vaughn & Favreau lookalikes, lounging away on that violet banquette in louche anticipation of their mamas’ sugar.
And in that case, all the credit, if that’s the right word for it, goes to chef-owner Charlie Huang.
To be sure, Jing is utterly luxe & sexy & undoubtedly-many-other-adjectives-with-“x”-in-them enough to star in its own movie, never mind serve as a backdrop for Swingers II: Suburban Edition. (While my companions & I didn’t see any action ourselves, it being noon on Sunday, Westword’s Jason Sheehan alluded thataway in his recent review—& the Jocelyn Wildenstein wannabe [can you imagine?] we did see, knocking back bright blue cocktails over a lunch of dumplings with her cub, was evidence enough. More than enough.) Check out the dining room:
I don’t know how else to say it, it’s like the interior-design equivalent of a girl popping out of a cake.
Upside-down. In a world made only of gold.
And those bathrooms, with their inlaid fleurs-de-lys of black marble…ooh. Now that’s detail-orientation. (Others will ooh, & aah too, at the bathroom stall doors that occlude when you lock them; me, I’ve enountered their likes 1 too many times to be impressed. If they turned into funhouse mirrors when you locked them, then I would be impressed.)
But Charlie Huang also gets all the blame. The food is dumbed down & marked up, as Claire Walter notes in her own blog post on the meal & as the other Chowhounds who joined us will probably concur in this thread.
Mind you, I quite liked some dishes. The whole steamed striped bass, scented with soy & ginger & speckled with scallions, was as tender as rare beef; the crispy version—I must’ve gotten the good bits, as others disagreed—made for a mother lode of funk-nuggets.
The “ma’s po tofu”—what’s with the possessive? did the Huang matriarch get born on the bayou?—was another fave of mine, sort of the savory answer to Peeps.
Not that it was so savory. There wasn’t a single sauce that wasn’t a tad too sweet. Add a tab too steep, & no wonder we were all a little sour.
It’s a truism of contemporary cuisine—one I have pointed & will point out again & again, until it’s not—that appetizers trump entrees. The smaller the plate, the bigger & brighter the flavors; the bolder their combinations; the artsier their presentation. Why is that? Why are so few American chefs, even real innovators, willing to deviate from the meat-and-3 standard of the main course? How is it that they still defer to Chef Stouffer, the king of culinary compartmentalization?
The most obvious, depressing answer is that—for all the stats about salsa outselling ketchup & the news that some gastropundit or other voted “locavore” the most overused word of the year & the fact that your cubicle mate finally knows what panini are (even if he/she thinks he/she knows what a panini is)—the average American diner is still boring & conservative enough to insist on steak & potatoes & peas night after night after night.
Of course, said answer could be worded more diplomatically, with more dignity. Far truer, more judicious connoisseurs than I might argue that the palate, in all its symmetry, simply prefers order to chaos. It’s like our tongues are the floor plans for the grand theaters of our mouths, with some tastebuds in the loges & some in the peanut gallery & so on, all awaiting the Aristotelian drama that is dinner. Their interest needs immediately to be piqued, but it can’t just go on being piqued or they’ll pass out from all the excitement & confusion; it needs then to peak, to attain catharsis & reach harmonious conclusion. Intriguing appetizer, meaty entree, sweet dessert.
But see, I think of my mouth as a punk club and my tongue’s the mosh pit. My tastebuds want to crowd-surf & lose their shoes & have Rolling Rock bottles broken over their heads, then stumble home near-deaf & blind, not really sure what happened but exhaustedly ecstatic it did.
Which brings me back to Ocean, where I was immediately struck by the fact that, for once, the main courses appealed to me more than the starters. While the latter were mostly sushi-bar knockoffs & half-baked attempts to glorify bar snacks, the former seemed somehow harder to categorize (derogatorily or otherwise): at least on paper, they appeared more free-form, more about genuine chefly curiosity & less about hipclepticism, more playful yet less wink-wink.
Not to pat myself on the belly, but sure enough, our second course went to great lengths to compensate for our first. In fact, the blackened trout with “spicy cream corn” & invisible seared spinach (okay, it’s under the filet) almost succeeded.
I mean, obviously, a few more whole kernels would have been nice to maintain the distinction between this & this; my mouth’s not that punk. But looks aside, this dish was gorgeously more than the sum of its parts—the firm yet flaky forkfuls, the creamy spoonfuls, the buttery bittery shreds all presenting themselves in unison, more like an accidental casserole or trompe l’oeil stew than anything.
Where mine united, the elements of the Director’s dish, sesame-crusted ahi with wasabi butter, snap peas & straw mushrooms, overlapped beautifully—the rich with the bright, the crunchy with the smooth. All elements, that is, except one: the tuna itself, which, just like the yellowfin we’d started with, was utterly flavorless. To use my favorite contradiction in terms, it appeared to be missing. It was like a nutri-optical illusion; we could see it, we could even swallow it, but somehow our palates passed right through it. Or it was like it had post-aquatic shellshock or piscine Alzheimer’s. There just wasn’t any tuna left in that tuna. I could go on & on.
But I won’t. Suffice it to say 1 1/2 out of 5 (counting the bread basket) ain’t good. Happily, or at least less unhappily, Ocean upped its score with a bracing espresso martini…
& a slice of peanut butter cheesecake so light it was strangely refreshing, as though it were really sorbet only the member of a species with hypertrophied sensory mechanisms could detect. Like how bees see ultraviolet.
Going into semantic spasms, Ocean promises to “enchant the guest experience through the delight of interactive-style dining.” I didn’t get a chance to ask my experience if it felt enchanted, since it bolted just as the enormous check was arriving, mumbling a half-hearted “thanks” (followed sotto voce by “suckah”), and I haven’t heard from it since. Hmm, perhaps the mastermind behind the menu’s mission statement meant “enhance”? But to determine whether my experience had been enhanced, I’d have to know what “interactive-style dining” was, beyond just being able to, say, select among the items on the menu (you know, like when you get to click icons on your desktop! X-treme!)—and since the interactive style of our waitress was such that “interpassive” might put a finer point on it, I never did find out whether I was missing some stellar opportunity to kibitz on the line or join a round-table discussion on the soup du jour or something.
Well, you can bet your bippy—what- & wheresoever that may be—a little input from the Director & me couldn’t have hurt matters. For instance, we might have suggested using real yellowfin & jalapeno slices in the yellowfin & jalapeno dish, rather than part of some toy display from Gimme Gimme Pillow Toast .
We know those little Japanese eraser sets are adorable & all, but we were taught in grade-school not to stick either end of the pencil in our mouths for a reason: rubber & lead are very bland.
Unless, that is, they’re serving as substitutes for what was supposed to be squid fried with hot red pepper slivers. Then rubber & lead are super-spicy.
In all fairness, the idea here was dandy, crossing your basic calamari fritti with a refreshing salad of watercress & mandarin sections in a wicked orange-chile dressing. But for this kind of ham-handed deep-frying, we could’ve gone back to Dave & Buster’s & at least caught some hot man-on-man octagonal action while chomping on our breaded whatsits.
Oh, there’s so much more to say here, & said it shall be a few hours’ hence.
Hours since, I admit my attitude has not improved one whit. After all, among all my tests of a restaurant’s honor—to which I have alluded before and upon which I intend to elaborate fully in due time—Ocean failed the only 2 I administered it, 1 being fried calamari, the other being the bread basket we requested in hopes of salvaging something from the aforementioned yellowfin disaster—namely the oil-&-vinegar slick beneath it. That’s right, like some sort of Exxonian epicures, we tried to save the oil from being tainted by the fish.
Valiant motive, flawed measure. I know better than to ask for a bread basket; it’s like asking a slight acquaintance to wave to you on the street. The solicited gesture is bound to be stale & cold. Sure enough, turning & twisting each day-plus-old, vaguely country French slice would have done wonders for my carpal tunnel syndrome if I’d had it; then again, I’d have had to swallow my hard-won hunks plain, lest the glass shards that passed for butter pats slit those convalescing wrists. Of course, since the calamari was served sans utensils, re-injury resulting from repetitive hand-to-mouth motion would have been inevitable anyway. Said the Director: “Um, we don’t have any silverware?” Said our waitress: “Huh.” Replace the phrase “we don’t have any silverware” with “I don’t have any pants on,” and her tone would have been totally appropriate.
Now that I’ve spewed enough venom to paralyze a whole publicity firm, I’ll leave you with the promise of praises yet to be sung for Ocean. They’re few & faint, but they are worth vocalizing.
Much ink has been spilled about the mouthful that is the name Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace and its evocation, to those of us once mesmerized in typical freshman fashion by “Kubla Khan,” of the pleasure-dome in which an opium-addled Coleridge fathomed himself feeding on honeydew and drinking the milk of paradise.
Well, I don’t know if it’s all that much ink, really. I only know that I started drafting this post by dropping lots of subject-verb inversions, “lo!” thises and “lo!” thats and then discovered that Sheehan’s Westword review likewise contained an allusion to Coleridge. Or maybe it was a allusion to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Either way, damn you, Sheehan! You’re too smart for my own good.
Of course, the name also evokes that old Smucker’s slogan: with a name like that, Centro’d better refresh. On paper, it definitely does. Grilled tuna with white anchovy chimichurri & braised purple potatoes? Gimme. Black bean soup with chile-charred shrimp & fried bananas? Baby. Fried oyster, chorizo, shrimp, sweet potato & green chile burritos? Come to friggin’ freakin’ mama! (Chef Ian Clark, your name wasn’t David Nevins in a past life, was it? Back in Boston, the former Neptune Oyster chef kicked my mouth’s ass with the wild likes of grilled rainbow trout topped with creamed & fried oysters & a port-pecan reduction; a salad of shredded salt cod & crispy lamb atop parsnip puree; smoked-salmon mousse dotted with roe, kiwano melon cubes & horseradish croutons; & more, more, more…)
So far, though, I wonder if (speaking of) Centro’s menu isn’t just a tad too smart for the kitchen’s own good. On the expectation-fulfillment scale, the lunch I had there recently was próximo pero no cigarro.
Granted, the one item I suspect might disappoint others pleased me deep down inside. “Avocado salsa” is not called guacamole for a reason; it contains big chunks of a/k/a alligator pear, a little onion, tomato & cilantro, very little if any jalapeno, & nada mas. Was the waiter supposed to mash it tableside (says the menu: “mashed to order”)? He didn’t; I didn’t mind. A good, perfectly ripe avocado’s a precious thing; to me, getting a full-frontal load of its creamy, fruity-fresh purity’s a treat in itself.
But a similar approach to a very different sort of mélange was harder to justify. A family-style side of “chorizo & spicy shrimp hash” could have been called “fried potatoes” for a reason; it contained hunks of spuds & casi nada mas—the advertised pieces of sausage & shellfish, as well as of onion & pepper, were few & far between. Topped with fried eggs, it was certainly hearty & nicely spiced (though hardly spicy); but its flavors failed to meld as they would have in a more proper mixture—diced rather than chunked ingredients in better proportion, including those wonderful fried peppers whose purpose was somewhat defeated by their relegation to the role of garnish. If this was an attempt at hash’s deconstruction, it succeeded rather in its destruction—de-hashed hash is just stuff on a plate.
In all fairness, I do think the chef’s intention was reimagination, obviously far more laudable than would be mere stinginess with the top-billed but less cost-efficient ingredients. My dining companion’s curried butternut squash-and-lobster soup was evidence to that effect, flaunting as it did a fair amount of the good bug.
I’m less sure of his intentions regarding the enfrioladas.
They could as easily have called it “wedding cake” for a reason: sounded good, looked gorgeous, tasted…fine. The salmon itself was a lovely, perfectly cooked piece of fish, but unless as a chile-chomper I’ve suddenly tipped the Scoville Scale—which is hardly likely (remember, I’ve been in Boston for the past decade! A lightweight forsooth!)—it hadn’t come anywhere near the habanero that purportedly graced its blackened crust. The refried black beans that coated the corn tortillas beneath as smoothly as ganache lacked salt to an almost shocking degree. So did the tortillas. Rather than a snippet of the salmon’s soulful theme song, each bite was like white noise. Ditto the plantain chips; while soft fried plantains would have meshed with the rest (including the fried egg atop the salmon, a nice squishy touch) beautifully, in their hard whole form they contributed little. (For that matter, a sprinkling of crushed chips might have tied the whole thing together—sweet-salty confetti on the fish & frijole parade).
And yet, and yet…the menu holds such appeal & promise—and has so many champions, from Sheehan to the Boulder Weekly’s gentleman & scholar Clay Fong to the dear old friend I met for lunch there, with whom I had a totally delightful and only slightly tipsy time, enhanced by earnest service—that I still trust I’ll be back.
My oft-stated fondness for Black Pearl was bound to spread in advance to Encore, Steve Whited & Sean Huggard’s sophomore venture, adjoining the Tattered Cover on Colfax. After the fact of a first visit, however, it has ebbed a bit. To be sure, the usual opening wrinkles have yet to be ironed out; but once they are, will the raw material prove as striking as it is smooth? I have my doubts.
Encore’s aesthetic is extremely low-key, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Effortlessness isn’t, of course, effortless; its better part, unlike that of indifference on the one hand or struggle on the other, is simple good faith. Here the too-cool decor streamlines itself right out of sight, hence out of mind; amid clean lines, neutral hues and a conspicuous absence of bold accents or salient details, you may as well be sitting in a blank with Neo and Morpheus on either side.
Even the pianist in the corner was more like an unsharpened pencil sketch of an entertainer than a fully fleshed-out musician; just guess what was in his repertoire. Go ahead, guess. The right answer’s good for a drink on me.
And then there’s the menu, which could make for a double-take: between its generic polish and the minimalist surroundings, maybe Encore is actually a museum cafe? Except, you know, without the museum attached. Seriously, that would explain the smartly coiffed couples nibbling on Waldorf salads and carrot cake after a round of Kir Royales. It would explain the rejection of dishes as juicy in every sense as, say, BP’s parsley-crusted tuna with lentil-slathered sausage…
…in favor of fig-and-prosciutto-topped flatbreads—enough to cause disturbingly clear visions of Todd English circa 1992 to dance in my head (hey, Huggard, you’re not the only ex-Masshole in town)—and wood-grilled steaaahhhwww….zzzzz….oh, sorry, steaks and fish.
OK, OK, I’m exaggerating slightly to make a point: knowing the dynamism of which the duo is capable, I’m at a loss to explain Encore’s stereotypically, staunchly simple menu. Like effortlessness (no comment on freedom), simplicity isn’t simple; its better part is deceptive—neither simplistic nor exactly complicated but elegant and/or refreshing. And there are a few items here that embody the difference, above all the Telluride jalapeno poppers with apple-smoked bacon: these red chilies, stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon and set atop a puddlet of fig jam, pack a sweet heat that hits you slowly but surely.
“Sweet onion soup, toast, blistered Swiss” is just what it sounds like—dumbed down soupe à l’oignon au gratin. On the one hand, I admired the pure, clear flavor of onion the broth administered spoonful for spoonful; on the other hand, purity’s double-edge is one-dimensionality. I missed the usual smack of beef stock, whose saltiness has a way of reinforcing that of the cheese and the crouton; in its apparent (or at least effective) absence, neither added much beyond protective coating (to paraphrase Debbie Reynolds, excusing the freezer burn inside a carton of orange sherbet, in Albert Brooks’ Mother).
The falafel burger was downright blah, little better than its frozen counterparts. I remember seeing dollops of hummus and yogurt sauce atop it, but not tasting them; worse, I remember tasting the sesame bun, but not tasting it. I expect better from the folks who deliver one of the city’s classiest bread baskets (again, at BP).
Mind you, those fries, fresh & crisp & drizzled with a Chinese-style hot mustard sauce, were super. A little more sauce would go a long way; next time—and there will be a next time, out of loyalty if nothing else—I’ll ask for extra.