Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Newsflash: Reviews at Boulder Weekly, A Taste of Iceland, Harvest Week

So, looks like I’ll be doing some restaurant reviews here & there for Boulder Weekly; you can check out my debut here, wherein I give Pupusas Sabor Hispano a thorough going over. This is just a sampling of the results:

Behold the wacky pacaya, & behind it a fireball disguised as a dip 

Empanadas, dissected, including chicharrón & fiddlehead fern with cheese

Angela’s Plate, featuring a green-bean relleno

While you’re waiting, no doubt breathlessly, for my next installment, a couple of major events down here in Denver next week can tide you over:

A Taste of Iceland at Coohills & 3 Kings. You’ll find details about this series of Nordic isle-inspired prix-fixe dinners, cocktail classes & concerts here; for a full menu, go here. The dessert alone sounds reservation-worthy.

Harvest Week. Yeah, it’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers! As usual, among Eat Denver’s lineup of blowout bashes will surely be some for the record books.

 

 

CapRock Farm Bar Set to Roll

At the center of The Source—which continues to shape up in ways that suggest the reality will match the ambitious vision for this urban marketplace (see also my report on the opening of Cantina Comida)—is an island bar, flanked by a handful of cafe tables, called CapRock Farm Bar.

(Can you spot the rock-star chef in this snap? Here’s a hint. Here’s another)

Behind the venture is Lance Hanson, owner of organic/biodynamic Hotchkiss winery Jack Rabbit Hill as well as Peak Spirits Farm Distillery, whose list of nips & nibbles (click to enlarge)

is as neat & clean as his grappas, of which I’ve long been a huge fan—though it’s his celebrated gin, whose key botanicals make for a nifty display on 1 corner of the bar,

that stars in the majority of the libations.

Like a good neighbor, Mondo Market is there

to provide the edibles—

& sell me a bottle of the locally, organically made Elevation Ketchup in the process, which I first fell for at Punch Bowl Social—as is Babette’s Artisan Breads.

The grand opening’s Tuesday; to whet your thirst, here’s the text of an article I wrote about Hanson’s grappa a couple of years ago for the now-defunct Denver Magazine.

***
Grappa. Even the word is hard to swallow; it sounds like something that’s going to grab hold of your gullet and wring it out with gusto. Admittedly, that’s a fairly accurate description of the role grappa has played in the Italian diet for centuries. Distilled from the pomace of skins, stems, and seeds left behind in a wine press, this grape-based spirit has historically amounted to firewater — good for digestion but rough on the palate. Since the 1970s, however, its reputation has improved markedly, thanks to the efforts of Italian producers who began incorporating single varietals and small-batch techniques to yield sipping grappas every bit as fine as France’s great marcs, or clear brandies (which is essentially what they are).

Here in the States, where the European tradition of after-dinner digestifs is finally catching on, grappa is slowly but surely earning its place among the liqueurs, cognacs, and dessert wines with which we’re already familiar. It’s even being produced domestically nowadays; in fact, Peak Spirits, the acclaimed Colorado distiller behind CapRock, makes five — one of which, distilled from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (two of the three varietals used in Champagne), has become my nightcap of choice.

“Grappa was a slam dunk for us,” says Lance Hanson, who, with his wife, Anna, owns Peak Spirits and Jack Rabbit Hill Winery in Hotchkiss. “Here we were making wine; we had the material. And I have a soft spot for grappa, because it’s a fun challenge — what you get is totally different” than the wine of which it’s a byproduct. Like his Chardonnay and Riesling grappas, Hanson’s Pinot blend is made in a pot still using only estate-grown grapes. “While we wanted to preserve some of the cherry and dark-berry aromas that are in the wine, we were hoping for a woodsy spiciness” from the distillation process, he says. The result “is very true to the character of the fruit.” Remarkable smoothness is its hallmark, along with a hint of herbs and flowers on the nose; you can drink it neat in copitas (sherry glasses), or add a splash to espresso to yield what Italians call caffè corretto—“coffee the correct way.”

Mea Culpa: Panzano’s Tribute to Brian Polcyn

First of all, it’s been years since I’ve read Michael Ruhlman’s classics on chef training, The Making of a Chef & The Soul of a Chef, so I had no memory that the larger-than-life character

leading the charcuterie-making presentation that preceded the wine dinner held in his honor last Sunday at Panzano was also depicted so colorfully in those pages. If I had, I might’ve minded my Ps & Qs better at the media table where I sat next to Brian Polcyn & his wife—because second of all, at meal’s end he walked over to me, squeezed my shoulder, & proclaimed me the heaviest drinker at the table. That’s a label I’d generally wear proudly, but when you’re being singled out for sloppiness by no lesser a sharp-eyed perfectionist than the author (with Ruhlman himself) of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, & Curing & Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curingit’s a little unnerving.

I blame it on Panzano’s ever-suave GM, Josh Mayo, as I assume it was he who created the wine pairings for the multi-course meal—most notably a wonderfully balanced 2011 Rocca dei Leoni Falanghina Villa Matilde & the oh-so-juicy sparkling red, Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui Pineto, that came with dessert.

As for the food, well, what do you expect? The range of plates below should serve as a reminder to visit & revisit not only Panzano (which I do semiregularly anyway) but also YaYa’s Euro Bistro, Beast + Bottle & Fuel Café. Though I didn’t feel comfortable disrupting the festive flow of the lobby reception to snap pics of Aaron Whitcomb’s passed apps, the tuna speck with black-garlic aioli; sausage-stuffed, barbecued quail legs; & lamb’s headcheese convinced me I need to make a point of getting out to his Greenwood Village kitchen. Who’s with me?

And I’m embarrassed to admit that, though I always got a kick out of Paul Reilly’s now-defunct Encore on Colfax & I now live around the corner from his new hot spot, I’ve yet to get there. The rustic spiced jagerwurst over beet-green pierogi with apple-beet vinaigrette acted as a sharp rebuke to that oversight.

Cotechino sausage atop lentils & grilled radicchio with pickled mustard seeds & rye-beer jam illustrated the understated flair that is Bob Blair’s calling card.

And robust playfulness has long been Elise Wiggins’ hallmark: accompanying her roast duck roulade with hazelnuts & butternut squash was an unassuming little sphere that surprised with bursts of foie gras & orange-cranberry filling.

Ditto the cranberry-&-pistachio-studded chocolate adorably shaped to resemble salami.

Nearly a week after the event, I’m left with the ironic sense that, for a food writer, I don’t get out enough lately, being too busy food writing! Such a great time to be part of the Denver dining scene, yet so little time to do it the way it deserves to be done…

 

Dish of the Week: Melon-Crab Gazpacho at Fruition

If you too are beginning to grieve over Goldengrove unleaving, you may as well do it by crying into a bowl of soup that glows with the very essence of summer. That would be Fruition’s cold consommé of Rocky Ford cantaloupe, honeydew & watermelon, studded with disks of both melon-wrapped crab “cannelloni” & panna cotta made with yogurt from chef-owner Alex Seidel’s own creamery, & scented with finger lime—every spoonful an achingly delicate evocation of the season going by.

Of course, painterly impressions have always been this kitchen’s forte, such that even the homiest of ingredients, the heartiest of dishes get recast in a softly elegant light. After sharing it with the Director as an appetizer, I seriously considered ordering this beef tartare again for my main course,

so I could prolong the sensation of its silkiness against those melting cubes of crusted bone marrow, dollops of intensely tangy trumpet-mushroom conserva, & homegrown potato chips. Oh, if only Fruition had a bar, & at that bar were bowls not of snack mix but marrow squares with mushroom spread. I’d be chief lounge lizard.

Instead I got the pan-seared diver scallops over handmade orecchiette with clams, summer squash (plus blossoms) & chanterelles, garnished tableside with generous shavings of cured foie gras that deliquesced on contact to gently suffuse the whole. (You can go right on ahead & roll your eyes & mentally replace the word “deliquesced” with “dissolved” if you need to prove to yourself how linguistically democratic you are. But you’d be losing the nuance that defines Fruition’s style in the process, if you ask me. So there.)

As for the Director’s fried chicken, forget greasy-fingered gnawing—this was a whole other animal, with a high tender meat-to-crisp skin ratio via cylinders perched atop spoonbread, tomato confit & black lentils bathed in a barbecue sauce whose its lightness was anything but homestyle.

It had been a long time since I’d been to Fruition, & this visit marked the first time I’ve ever been seated in the narrow gallery adjacent to the kitchen rather than the main dining room. I’ll know to ask for a table there from here on out—it’s both cozier & closer to the action. Then I’ll just sit back & soak it all up over a glass of, say, Schiava, aka Vernatsch, a light, easygoing indigenous red from Alto Adige that pairs with just about anything—although the entire selection of wines by the glass here is built both to pique enophiles & to reflect the seasonal cuisine. Seidel once told me he wished people thought of his restaurant primarily as an everyday gathering place rather than a special-occasion destination. In a city less casual than Denver, they might. But here, the level of execution in both the front & back of the house stands out as special indeed—however packaged in warmth, & even though the diners around us appeared perfectly comfortable in tee-shirts & sport sandals.

Look, I’m generally a downright slob, & even I believe that we as a society will come to regret losing all traces of formality, forgetting the difference between an occurrence & an Occasion. No shame in maintaining at least shades of the distinction for as long as possible. On the contrary, kudos.

Fruition on Urbanspoon

Comida Cantina at The Source: Ready to Rock Your Whole Face Off

You’ve long worshipped at the wheels of Tina, Rayme Rossello’s big pink taco truck; perhaps you’ve hit up the Longmont brick & mortar upon occasion, only to wish it was just a smidge closer to the downtown action. Amigos—insert wild guitar lick here—THAT DAY HAS COME. Denver’s own Comida Cantina—the first outlet to arrive at The Source, that ultra-cool one-stop shop of boutique purveyors you’ve been hearing about, which over the next month will see the launch of Peak Spirits’ CapRock Farm Bar and a liquor shop, The Proper Pour; cult brewer Crooked StaveAcorn, the new restaurant from the geniuses behind Oak at Fourteenth; a cheese retailer called Mondo Market; Babette’s Artisan Breads, whose killer loaves you’ve encountered at Cured; & much more, including a butcher counter, florist & produce vendor—opens TODAY.

A few weeks hence, the chefs will begin to throw some specials into the mix, but otherwise the menu & the bar program are exactly the same as those of the flagship. So you can count on the same attention to detail that has always distinguished every morsel & drop Rossello’s crew turns out—corporate hacks have shredded the integrity of the word artisanal, but remember when it meant something?—be it the use of Tender Belly bacon in the griddled tacos that also contain jalapeños & a cheese blend of cotija, smoked gouda & asadero;

the sourcing of fresh bolillo rolls from the aformentioned Babette’s for the tortas—in this case citrus-&-chile-marinated fish, served alongside veggie escabeche;

the fact that the refritos on the nachos—presented almost more like a casserole—are cooked in housemade chicken broth & a touch of lard;

or the perfection that is the flan, which shows not an ounce of the gelatinousness of lesser versions, just creamy caramel richness:

It all adds up to the truth about Mexican cookery, whose essence is complex & even subtle—not despite but precisely because spice is so key to its balancing act. Comida brings the color & the freshness as well as the fire every step of the way—as with the watermelon-jalapeño margarita that will kick you where it counts (behind it are the hot fried tortillas—not chips, whole rounds—with guacamole).

As with the housemade crema studded with more jalapeños & cucumber, along with all the other salsas offered here, including an eye-popping carrot habañero & sprightly pineapple pico de gallo.

And these tostadas stuffed with roasted chicken & poblanos.

And the savory, tequila-based, tomatillo-&-guava-laced Cabana.

Even these chocolate-chip cookies, alongside Mexican wedding cookies, are spiked with rum.

Gorditas, quesadillas, sides that show Rossello’s Southern roots—jalapeño grits. smoked gouda-sweet potato mash—& virgin beverages like housemade horchata & aguas frescas round out the menu, while the cocktail program is supplemented by beers, wines & sipping tequilas & mezcals.

This place is gonna earn every kudo it elicits.

Comida Cantina on Urbanspoon

A Peek at Izakaya Den’s New Rooftop Lounge

As the long-celebrated owners of Sushi Den & the now-adjacent Izakaya Den, the Kizaki family doesn’t touch anything they don’t turn into gold—& the just-opened lounge above the Izakaya’s dining room is no exception. It’s simply gorgeous, from the stairwell

on up to the soaring space with its retractable roof; expanses of wood, stone & marble; & tranquil mood.

I got a chance to speak briefly with the new chef de cuisine, Daniel Bradley, whose résumé lists no lesser landmarks than Berkeley’s Chez Panisse & Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. He’s got big plans for the menu, with visions of an ever-changing repertoire that includes more vegan & raw dishes dancing in his head. Here’s a look at the current, non-sushi side of the selection:

But you can expect an update within a matter of weeks, one that hopefully includes a few items on the lavish spread the kitchen laid out for the opening, like this pinenut gazpacho with carbonated plum purée

or these veggie rice cakes over spicy corn puree with avocado sauce.

Slow clap all around.

IMPORTANT UPDATE! re Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table Release Party, 8/25

Word to the crew who plans to attend the reception a week from Sun., 5pm at Trillium: as noted, reservations MUST be made in advance by calling the restaurant at 303-379-9759. So please do—I’d love to see your bright & shiny faces!

Scintillating Stuff: Ferrari Wine Dinner at Barolo Grill

True crime confession: before last Thurs., I’d only been to Barolo Grill for a bite at the bar. But I’d long hankered to go full splurge—& now that I’ve had the opportunity on someone else’s dime, I’m gung-ho to repeat the process on my own major chunk of change. Though what follows is a photo essay, not a review (which I’ll save for said return trip), that should tell you what I thought of the luxe northern-Italian longtimer.

The occasion: a visit from Marcello Lunelli of Ferrari, which makes traditional-method sparkling wines from the Trento DOC. As fellow guest Claire Walter of Culinary Colorado has pointed out, most Americans don’t realize Italy has a tradition of bubbly outside of Prosecco & Asti, but indeed it does, mostly in northern regions where the climate is best suited to its production—including that of sparkling reds like Lambrusco & Brachetto d’Acqui. Unlike all those examples, which contain indigenous grapes, Trento wines follow the Champagne model: only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier & to a lesser extent Pinot Blanc are allowed. (For more on the appellation, you can purchase a copy of the article we at Sommelier Journal ran back in Feb. here.)

What many casual wine drinkers also don’t realize is that bubbly is not just a celebratory aperitif—on the contrary, it’s got major pride of place on the table, as my piece on summer sparklers for Imbibe explains. I mean, you might not want to serve an extra-brut blanc de blancs with BBQ brisket, but there’s a style for virtually every dish you can think of. And if you’re used to classic profiles marked by brioche, lemon, pear, apple, chalk & so on, you might be surprised to discover they can possess notes that run from smoke & herbs to truffles, Parmesan rind, brine & salted caramel: I detected all that & more (in various permutations) both in Ferrari’s 2006 Perlé bottlings, the Rosé & the Blanc de Noirs, & in its tremendous Riserve del Fondatori Giulio, especially the 1994 & 1993. Those were just 4 of the 10 wines we sampled throughout our 7-course dinner, preceded by an amuse bouche of house-smoked salmon with crème fraîche & caviar

& continuing apace with a truffled egg custard so silken & intensely pure it was like I was eating an egg for the first time. I don’t think I’ll be able to put another anywhere near my mouth for some time.

Equally gorgeous was the foie gras terrine with peaches so ripe they were practically papayas, as well as dots of pistachio cream.

And quenelles of baccalà—salt cod pureed with olive oil—accompanied by tempura artichoke, pea puree & black-garlic aioli.

An eloquently minimalist salad of raw crimini, chanterelle & royal trumpet mushrooms.

Plin, a ravioli-like pasta from Piedmont, stuffed with rabbit sausage over cardamom-spiced carrot puree.

The main event: chef Darrel Truett’s take on cassoulet starring cabbage, white beans, seared halibut cheek, grilled prawn & a disk of wonderfully delicate seafood sausage—primarily scallop, it seemed, surrounded by a pretty vegetable confetti.

And finally, the most limpid vanilla-bean panna cotta with local honey & microbasil.

All around, a superb experience. Now I’m on a quest to determine if it’s this good on average.

Barolo Grill on Urbanspoon

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

Entering the Pie Hole—& Moving On Up(Town)!

Oh Lordy it’s a fact. I moved to Denver from Boston to be with the Director almost exactly 6 years ago; from day 1, we planned to abandon his abode in Platt Park & find ourselves a centrally located love nest. As of yesterday, we finally got our piece of the pie, a stone’s (or pie’s, for that matter) throw from Steuben’s & Ace.

That means a whole new neighborhood to explore inch by inch—or, as is sometimes the case with me in deadline mode, delivery option by delivery option. But first, a word about one of the by-now legion pizzerias lining Broadway south of Speer: Pie Hole.

You bet the name says it all: if the language of pizza is sing-song southern Italian as articulated—at least in the immediate vicinity—by Pizzeria Locale, this is in-your-face American slang. And since, as I’ve noted before, I’m not a Neapolitan purist—loaded baked dough is pretty universal—I dig the sound of both.

Though the menu is strict in 1 sense—you got your à la carte slices & your café-tabletop-sized 19-inchers, & nothing in between—it otherwise plays fast & loose with the genre. Besides marinara, bases range from hummus to Alfredo sauce to, er, “vegan roux”; besides the classics, toppings include pulled pork, cilantro, scallions & mango. The latter appears on a wacky little (well, huge) number called the Munchy Mango, which also features peanut sauce & brown sugar-roasted jalapeños as well as mozzarella.

The Director, miffed at the description, was having none of it—until he grudgingly had some of it. A couple slices in, he caved: “This is actually pretty good.” And it was. Look, nuts, fruit & cheese are a classic combination. Here, the gently sweet, creamy sauce; salty cheese; & slightly underripe, hence tart & meaty, cubes of mango made for vibrant interplay, intensified by the heat of the chiles. Equally important, the crust was decent: relatively thin, crunchy & brown-bubbled along the edges.

That sleeper hit earned me enough goodwill to go for the Hot Wing Pie: housemade hot sauce, pepper jack cheese, chicken & more jalapeños, adding up to an almost Tex-Mex savor. Think flat nachos.

In fact, the only pie that didn’t do much for me was the most traditional (by American standards): the Combo with pepperoni, sausage, black olives, onions, peppers & mushrooms.

On any given day, that’s a sodium bomb, but this was intensely, unexpectedly, inexplicably salty—maybe the marinara was overseasoned?

Still, 2 out of 3 are fine odds for a tiny, nondescript counter joint hemmed in on all sides by bigger, better-known names in pizza. I’ll be back for a hummus slice yet.

Pie Hole on Urbanspoon