Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Roast Beef-Chimichurri Sandwich at Park & Main, Breckenridge

After a terrifying, ice-slicked drive up I-70 to attend the 4th Annual Breckenridge Craft Spirits Festival (of which more later), I arrived in town thinking nothing & no one could soothe me except the 1st distiller to ply me with copious amounts of hard liquor. But I was wrong, thanks to Park & Main, a lively little crayon box of a place dispensing equally colorful modern American eats, where I met a colleague for lunch & got a grip.

This in particular did the trick.

Complete with curlicues of golden-browned, unapologetically fatty bits that clung to creamy blobs of melted fontina, the mound of warm, shaved prime rib came slathered in a chimichurri so rich in garlic I could’ve gotten back in my car & cleared the roads with my breath alone. To its herb-&-vinegar kick, pickled onions added juice & crunch, & the grilled baguette was perfectly textured inside & out.

Nearly its equal was this veggie concoction, also en baguette drizzled with chili mayo: roasted sweet potato, braised kale & caramelized onions brought the soft, earthy bittersweetness, while pickled cukes & carrots brought the contrasting crispness & brightness. Piled so high, it was a bit of a mess, but that’s no complaint—on the contrary.

In fact, I’ve got nothing but compliments for the entire meal. Loved how baby arugula added a peppery bite to roasted-beet sliders generously smeared with tangy herbed goat cheese, laid on the eggy-sweet pillows of sweet-potato buns. But gigande-bean bruschetta, topped with slivers of good parmesan & lightly touched with some sort of fruity vinaigrette, proved an even bigger, heartier mouthful.

Breck has something special in this place, unassuming & casual as it may be—but I guess the locals know that, as it’s been there for a decade. Hopefully I’ll get over my utter dread of driving back sometime in the next 10 years. (UPDATE: My misunderstanding—it’s only been open for a year. For all that, it sure feels like a hometown fixture!)

Park & Main on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Moules Marinières at Brasserie Ten Ten

Something for everyone. Coming from your average middlebrow chain, that’s a suspicious boast whose translation generally amounts to a whole lot of nothing for anyone except those who privilege quantity & convenience over quality. Every last item (they’re not really dishes) on that giant menu, from the hoisin-chicken lettuce wraps & Cajun jambalaya pasta to the potato twisters & taco pizza, was green-lighted in a boardroom after market research showed how it would activate the salivary glands in 2.5 of every 4 Americans & then prefabbed offsite—where it bears little resemblance to the legit creation by which an actual chef somewhere had launched an accidental trend.

But there are indie establishments—run by such actual chefs—that inherently appeal to a wide range of diners. They too are mainly mid-priced neighborhood gathering spots, built on solid tradition rather than the shifting sands of culinary pop culture—such that the unadventurous eater is bound to find something familiar even as the rabid chowhound accepts their “authenticity.” Here in the States, they’re likely to be European/American; even now, when large swaths of the population have grown comfortable with Latin & Asian cuisines, there’s still a subset who won’t go near a taqueria or a pho joint—unless, perhaps, it’s Americanized to the point that then the subset who insists on the real deal won’t go near it. But your classic roadhouses & delis, your picture-perfect trattorias & bistros: those almost all of us can agree on, because they speak an honest language we’ve long since incorporated into our own. (In a few decades, the same may therefore be true of those taquerias & pho joints.)

I’ve quibbled elsewhere about the differences between a brasserie & a bistro (here’s a good cheat sheet); despite the name, Brasserie Ten Ten walks a line between the 2. But that’s irrelevant here; what’s important is that it remains true to the spirit of casual French dining, & in so doing, it welcomes your uncle from Cleveland who insists on meat & potatoes (steak frites!) & your connoisseur pal who knows it’s not bouillabaisse unless it includes rouille. Any creative license taken is in keeping with its setting in worldly yet locavore-minded 21st-century Boulder, just as it would be in France. Meanwhile, the warm, bustling space has a timeless aura; the service is crisp & clean; & the bar puts an equal focus on beer (as a brasserie would), wine (as a bistro would), & spirits (there’s your nod to to the cocktail-crazed time & place).

With the memory of a vibrant pesto-chicken & prosciutto salad I had there nearly 2 years ago (it’s no longer on the menu) still lingering,

I’ve been back twice recently—& the impression that Ten Ten has, after a decade, earned its place on Boulder’s short list remains. That’s not to say everything’s perfect—but everything feels right nonetheless. Check out the charming presentation of the brunchtime Bordeaux Scramble—eggs scrambled with local goat cheese, shiitakes, fines herbes & a beet reduction, then topped with a small arugula salad & a scallion biscuit. The latter didn’t seem to have popped straight out of the oven, being a little too cool & crumbly, & the casserole itself needed a touch more salt, but it was the right idea.

Or consider the kitchen’s sly take on huevos rancheros, also a brunch item, with white-bean purée instead of frijoles refritos & avocado pistou instead of guacamole, plus gruyère &, get this, “porc green chilé”!

A raw bar’s essential to the brasserie theme, & Ten Ten does oysters right, with one of the nicest mignonettes I’ve ever tried, the vinegar mellowed a touch by a slew of herbs.

Though it looked a little slapdash—& my vote would be for thinner crostini, for a better fish-to-bread ratio—a plate of marinated white anchovies proved a fair deal for $2.

But the moules marinières (pictured is a full portion; a half-portion’s also available at happy hour) blew my mind.

Traditionally, the simple broth of this Normandy classic is based on white wine, butter, shallots & parsley, but cream, garlic, other types of onion & thyme aren’t unheard of; all appear here, though crème fraîche replaces whipping cream. The addictive result combined an herbal, floral complexity with unexpected lightness of weight, & the accompanying grilled bread was comme il faut—crusty, chewy & built to sop.

Now, there’s a whole dinner menu I’ve yet to explore—but given Ten Ten’s staying power, I know I’ve got time.

Brasserie Ten Ten on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Chipotle- & Bourbon-Butter Grilled Oysters at Angelo’s Taverna

I’d never set foot in the previous, long-standing incarnation of Angelo’s Taverna—what’s another neighborhood pie parlor, eh? But “Denver’s only pizza & oyster bar” is a whole other matter—one worthy of scrapping my planned search for a place to watch the PPV Mayweather-Canelo fight last Sat., Mantonat convinced me.

He was right—& not just because the bout turned out to be a bust (no boxer will go down in history with more skills yet fewer guts & even less heart than will Floyd Money Mayweather). In fact, the real knockout that night went down on the plate on the left:

Them’s some honking oysters chargrilled in a mixture of chipotle- & Breckenridge bourbon–infused butter, adobo sauce & brown sugar; the result’s a wild ride of brine, tangy sweetness, smoke & spice whose complexity caught me by surprise.

No surprise on the right: just straight-up hot, crusty-gooey garlic bread covered in cheese. None below either: the stromboli’s pure goodness. With my choice of 2 of about 30 pizza toppings to supplement the filling of mozzarella, ricotta & classic marinara (which also comes on the side), I went with grilled eggplant & sundried tomatoes. Comfort food warrants far more discussion when it’s done badly: stale chips, soggy burgers, waiter there’s a fly in my pho, etc. When the construction is solid, when the ingredients are balanced, when you’re lulled into enjoyment rather than egged toward analysis, etc., as was the case here, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. (Note also the toasty glow coming from Soul Food Scholar‘s pizza with sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions, mushrooms & olives.)

The rest of the menu’s a mishmash of red-sauce staples & more-contemporary Italian-inspired fare: there’s fried calamari & chicken parm, but there’s also a salad of arugula & toasted gnocchi in truffled herb dressing & Southwestern-style ravioli made with blue corn, red chiles & pepperjack. Same goes for the bar: there’s Bud & Pinot Grigio, but the cocktails skew craftward & the limoncello’s made in house (check out the jars in the display case near the entrance).

Granted, as Mantonat observed later, “Realistically, it’s not an easy menu to make a full meal from if you don’t want pizza or pasta.” Though Angelo’s does offer gluten-free crust, Mrs. M—who leans that way—& he opted instead for an appetizer of beef carpaccio with mustard aioli, plus sides of grilled shrimp & roasted mushrooms. Said the author of Westword blog A Federal Case—who you’d think would be getting his fill of Asian food these days—”the carpaccio was a little bland, but the mushrooms & shrimp were simple yet tasty. We actually stopped on the way home for a little sushi!”

Still, he scored the coup of the evening by noticing the quintet of oyster shooters on the beverage list. Being at that point 2 glasses of vino down, I declined to join him in a round, but the Chach—pepper vodka, cucumber, mint, lime juice—& the Webber with pale ale, housemade cocktail sauce, Cholula & a lime wedge continue to call my name.

In the end, I can’t say I know the ins & the outs of the place yet, but the statement it’s aiming to make is clearly thoughtful, & the questions that remain are minor. (For instance, what’s with the homage to the Red Hot Chili Peppers hidden in the names of the combo pizzas? And did we really accidentally convince our poor sweet waitress that Sudoku is a type of oyster?) What I can definitely say is that I’ll be back soon. From the rustic comfort of the dining room & the soulfulness of the eats to a could-be-much-worse Cal-Ital wine list & the fact that, on a busy weekend night, no one hassled us about lingering for nearly 3 hours, there’s no reason not to be.

Angelos Taverna on Urbanspoon

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!