Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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

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

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

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

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

Three: the base for both the mussel appetizer

& the cioppino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon

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

Save the Date: Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table Release Party, 8/25

It’s almost here: this collection of NEARLY 80 recipes from LITERALLY DOZENS of your favorite area restaurants & bars, edited & annotated by moi & illustrated with dreamy photos by Christopher Cina, comes out next month.

To celebrate its release, dish publicity has organized a book-signing party at Trillium, where featured chef & host Ryan Leinonen will serve up signature cocktails & hors d’oeuvres; the price of entry includes, of course, your very own shiny new copy of Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table.

Herewith the deets; I’d be honored to see you there!

Where: 2134 Larimer Street

When: Sunday, August 25, 5pm

Cost: $40 plus tax/tip

RSVP: 303-379-9759

Dish of the Week: Cake Batter Ice Cream with Crispy Pork Belly & Churros (& more!) at Harman’s eat & drink

I was sorry to see Phat Thai go, but I respected Mark Fischer’s insistence to Westword that closure was preferable to a P.F. Chang’s-style makeover. With the notable exception of Ondo’s, Cherry Creek just doesn’t do food that hasn’t been scrubbed clean of most of its original influences.

The food at its successor, Harman’s eat & drink, is therefore understandably clean. Though the menu does have its offhand foreign accents—Mediterranean, Latin, Asian—they’re added in service of a broadly accessible culinary lexicon.

With a few quirky exceptions, that is. Though the combinations of chocolate & bacon, salt & caramel have gone mainstream, most permutations of savory & sweet continue to strike most Americans as strange. Not so the denizens of any region that was ever touched, directly or indirectly, by Moorish culture, including the Sicilians—think melanzane al cioccolato& for that matter the Brits with their mincemeat pie; compare to meat dishes that incorporate fruit & baking spices, like Moroccan tagines & bastilla. But Harman’s dessert of cake-batter ice cream drizzled in rum caramel; topped with cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled, deep-fried pork rinds; & bathed in a compote of blueberries & chunks of golden-skinned pork belly—whew—is its own kind of triumph: cool & soft, warm & crunchy, the pork fat melting into the ice cream (or vice versa) amid bursts of fresh fruit. Way stimulating.

Pork rinds are also to be found among the appetizers, sprinkled in truffle oil & grana padano. Pal @Mantonat, who said he has “truffle blindness,” couldn’t really detect its funk; A & I certainly could, & indeed the suggestion of musk on pigskin was strong enough that a little went a long way for me, though it was balanced by impressive weightlessness & near-greaselessness.

Also greaseless, with vibrantly herbaceous, moist interiors, were the pea falafel balls with a dip that walked the line between the tzatziki it’s advertised as & aioli, only subtly tangy in its richness.

As for entrées, for all its emphasis on familiarity, the kitchen sure threw me with an Italian dish I’d never heard of: cianfotta. Upon looking it up, I—who does, after all, pride herself on knowing quite a lot about Italy’s regional cuisines—was embarrassed to discover it’s not terribly obscure; heck, Eater Denver’s Andra Zeppelin offered her own recipe for it a couple years ago. In any case, the Campagnan vegetable mélange is often, reasonably enough, compared to Provençal ratatouille; Harman’s version follows the model in that, rather than melded to a stew, the vegetables are cooked (perhaps, à la Jacques Pépin, individually) to stand out each in its turn: eggplant, crisp green beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms so meaty I thought they were shreds of chicken at first, & so on. Suspended in a marvelously light parmesan brodo, they’re barely seasoned beyond the generous dollop of pesto on top—which does all the work of salt & pepper once it’s stirred in.

I think I was even fonder of the roasted-vegetable crostini, however. Two thin, oblong slices of grilled bread were smeared with housemade ricotta & topped with a more finely chopped, balsamic-drizzled mixture of seasonal veggies that, if not doused in wine, sure tasted like it. There were cubes of eggplant & onion & peppers, of course, & wedges of something that had 3 of us—2 of us food writers—absolutely flummoxed. It was tenderly rooty, slightly tart—some sort of squash we couldn’t place? I literally put a piece in the hand of our server Chip & asked if he wouldn’t mind finding out. (I mean, I asked him first, I didn’t just suddenly smash food in his palm.) He came back with the supposed answer: radish. I’m still not convinced. Anyway, it was all tucked beneath a mound of vinaigrette-dressed greens to highly refreshing effect.

There were 3 dishes I didn’t try over the course of my 1st 2 meals here, but not because they didn’t appeal. Mantonat’s porchetta over stone-ground grits with fennel salad & fennel agrodolce (literally “sweet-sour”) looked plenty elegant (though to his mind, a bit more seasoning would’ve brought out the flavor of the meat better).

Even sans potato bun, the burger, smothered in white cheddar & caramelized onions, beckoned. I did swipe a sweet-potato fry, & yep, it was as good as sweet-potato fries generally are.

And for a small salad, my mom got a fair heap of kale Caesar.

So there you have it: Harman’s is aiming to please, not challenge, & thus far it’s working. (You still want Thai, head to Aurora.)

Harman's Eat & Drink on Urbanspoon

Seoul BBQ & Sushi: Thanks, I needed that!

Not a cold slap in the face per the old aftershave ads so much as a genial nudge toward a better outlook, followed by a feast of comforts.

La madre was visiting from Oklahoma, where Korean food is hard to come by, so we wanted to whisk her off to Aurora for a fix; I needed one, too, as life has been one rough stretch of pavement lately. But whisking became dragging as the traffic averaged 6 inches per hour; 40 min. went by before we were in the parking lot of our destination—which, as it turned out, was closed. We’d attempted to hit Beast + Bottle the night before only to find it darkened on a Monday, & wound up with a mad-disappointing alternative (more on that anon); with our bellies growling, our patience thinning, & our guards already up, we made a quickie call to try Seoul BBQ & Sushi—of which I’d long heard praise, but which had always seemed so dauntingly packed.

Sure enough, there was a 10-15 min. for a table—with grill or without, I was told. I put in my name & then realized I hadn’t specified which we preferred, so I returned to ask the hostess for a grilltop; somehow, in a minute flat, the wait had ballooned to 30-40 min. The Director had been looking forward to a meatfest, so I grumbled a bit before acquiesing to whatever came first. Not a moment later, however, she grabbed some menus & led us to a table—with a grill. (Her English was iffy & my Korean is nil, so I chalked it up to miscommunication.) Finally…

Well, almost. Upon noticing that the barbecue platters were for 2 or more people, I’d about had it. Moms doesn’t eat red meat, & I wasn’t in the mood for it, so I found myself growing totally petulant. But lo! The owner must have noticed my sourpuss, because suddenly he was at our side, crowing in wonderful broken English that theirs was the best barbecue in town, & since we were 1st timers, he’d tell the waitress to allow a single order. Relief, gratitude & sheepishness washed over me, followed by a quick buzz thanks to a hefty pour of wine, which I’d describe as “cheap, but in my tummy, where it belongs.” Thus the banquet ensued.

First, the pan chan (or banchan if you prefer): 14 dishes total, which is rather a lot in my experience. Many of them were ubiquitous, including kimchi of various sorts, sliced omelet, steamed broccoli in chili sauce, bean sprouts whole & in starch-jelly cubes, & macaroni salad (yes, that’s oddly typical, perhaps by way of Hawaii); others were less common, like cold marinated eggplant, tiny stir-fried dried shrimp & shredded octopus, disks of fried whitefish & zucchini. Nothing mind-blowing, just all so welcome. Like a basket of warm bread or a bowl of mixed nuts or even the stale cheese puffs they bring you with your aperitivo at any old streetside café in Italy, such freebies are always such a soul-soothing treat, a symbol of the idea that hospitality is more than a transaction, & you are more than a mouth connected to a wallet (or vice versa, for that matter).

As for that fought-for meat:

the Director stuck with the sweet-soy-marinated cow classics, namely thin-sliced bulgogi & galbi, or short ribs. Admittedly, the thing about DIY prep is that you’re not necessarily sure whether any problems stem from the quality of the raw material, the way it was cut, or the way you cooked it. In this case, the bulgogi was mouthwatering, but the ribs were a bit tough.

And let’s say that my naeng myun with chopped raw fish was, oh, homestyle. I’ve had many spare, elegant versions of this ultra-vinegary, beef-broth-based, chilled noodle (usually buckwheat or sweet potato) soup—containing, for instance, sliced Asian pear, dollops of roe, julienned raw veggies, fresh herbs & so on (as well as, often, paper-thin slices of beef). This ginormous bowl was just a hornet’s nest of threads, tons of sweet (& I mean sweet) chili sauce, chunks of ice, fishbones, & I don’t know what all. Carefully done it was not; so far, I thought, Silla was winning 2-0 as far as precision goes. Still, the noodles were, shockingly, the right texture, & the flavors were charmingly neon; I slurped plenty.

Besides, mom’s huge, salted & broiled mackerel filet was simple, flaky, golden, & fine,

& really, everything was simple & fine. Our K-pop-pretty server was cheerfully there when we needed her, & brought cups of sikhye with the bill. Our hunger & crankiness was long gone. The sounds of other satisfied guests swirled around us in the bright-lit dining room. And the ride home would be a calm breeze. Some days you can’t ask for more.

Seoul BBQ on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Foie Gras-Plantain Mofongo Shumai on Zengo’s Test Kitchen Menu

Wowee. When I was invited in to Zengo recently to check out the specials on its rotating Test Kitchen menu—whereby the crew behind globetrotting restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s Asian Fusion showcase focuses on 2 specific culinary centers, currently Hong Kong & Puerto Rico—I was happy to do so; after all, chef Clint Wangsnes has proven a rather-undersung talent since he’s been on board. But I didn’t know just how happy I’d be once these shumai passed my lips.

At 1st nibble, I was almost disappointed; silken as the pouches were, & as much as I always love the earthy zing of the Chinese black vinegar they were perched in, I could only discern ground pork. But upon the 2nd, they positively blossomed with the velvety-smooth yet distinct savor of foie & green plantain—a combination that might’ve have been jarring in less-deft hands.

A sizeable portion of pork ribs whose tangy-sweet marinade blended ingredients of adobo & sweet-&-sour sauces was satisfying as well—the tender, plentiful meat coming clean off the bone alongside fluffy, more-please potato croquettes stuffed with bacon & jack cheese; chayote slaw reminiscent of green-papaya salad added cool contrast.

Of the 2 Test Kitchen entrées, I preferred the plump, moist Hong Kong roast chicken with “Shaoxing tomatoes”—blistered little pops of juicy fruit that I’m guessing were marinated in the namesake rice wine—over Moros y Cristianos, i.e. black beans & white rice (the un-PC translation is “Moors & Christians”); the overall effect was as vibrant as it looked on the plate, with its pool of jus & herbed oil & its heap of Chinese broccoli.

Mind you, the gorgeous whole crispy fried fish was no slouch, but it was a lot for the palate to tackle, served in a funky black-bean vinaigrette over a puree of malanga that evoked Hawaii’s infamous poi—meaning that it’s probably an acquired taste. If you’re down with eye sockets & starch, then by all means.

Besides, the effervescent, floral lychee Bellini will help lighten the sensory load.

You’ve really got to respect Zengo’s efforts to evolve & stay relevant on the very fast-moving dining scene that it helped to rev here in Denver—especially considering its high sizzle-to-fizzle rate.

House Culture: Shine Restaurant & Gathering Wool

Oops, sorry, “Gathering Space.” Still, the misnomer kinda fits: some of the servers are just as hippy-dippy as you’d expect at a Boulder neo-health-food joint like this one. I hope their utter inability to do more than half a thing at a time isn’t a reflection on the effects of the gluten-free, vegetarian- & vegan-friendly cuisine Shine serves, awash in “house-cultured” this & probiotic that, sprouted this & raw that. They must be skimping on protein intake (though the menu isn’t meatless)—but they could just be high.

Or perhaps they should ease up on the fairy bubbles. While there’s a full bar (where the staff is noticeably more alert, by the way), the emphasis here is on herb-, flower-, & gem-infused elixirs. At one point in my poetry-writing life I was obsessed with the fabled properties of gemstones; ruby, for instance, is said to prevent bleeding & heart failure, while carnelian offers protection from the evil eye. (That of antsy dining guests perhaps excepted.) None of the drinks listed here contains garnet, but see below for more on that…In any case, it stands to “reason” that so-called permission sips might alter your consciousness for better or worse.

Granted, the Firewater my pal Beth tried (pictured below right) didn’t visibly ignite her passions; she seemed pretty normal. But the sip I took was exhilaratingly spicy, with ginger & chile, plus a touch of hibiscus tartness.

On a later visit, I sampled the Reset Button, which bore too much resemblance to milky root beer for my tastes, nor have I managed to access the vaguest hint of ancient wisdom via my intake of quartz. Oh well.

Beth also got the trout-salad melt with smoked gouda, pickled red onions, & sweet potato fries; said salad was a hit—flaky, zippy, bright with diced carrots and celery. I know because a healthy scoop of it also graced what I refuse to call, & don’t know why the chef bothers to call, a Caesar salad; since it’s vegan, the dressing contains no egg or anchovy-based Worcestershire sauce, which are pretty much the key characteristics of a traditional Caesar—along with parmesan & croutons, which this version also doesn’t contain. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, from the thick, creamy, garlicky dressing it does sport to its plentiful sprinkling of fried capers & dried-tomato “chips” (which, again, defy the basic definition) to the dense, almost scone-textured, chia seed-studded gluten-free “focaccia” (pictured below the salad) that’s supposed to accompany it—it was omitted from my order, so I had to wait (& wait, & wait) until our server could get around to bringing it to see whether it helped tie the room together. (It eventually did.)

To be fair, he may have thought I didn’t want it, since I’d also requested a gluten-free house roll (pictured alongside the salad) with yam butter on the side. That too, was dense, with a sort of biscuit-like crumb, & the spread airy yet intense.

Another qualified hit has been the happy-hour snack of beer-battered veggies with blue-cheese dip; though I didn’t find any of the housemade pickles the dish (pictured below right) also supposedly contained, the combo of green beans, zucchini disks & sliced mushrooms was nicely done—hot, juice-dribbly, the reasonably crisp breading not unlike savory funnel cake. I didn’t try the slider, but the vegan cauliflower mashers were fluffy & creamy for lacking dairy, & nicely spiced with just a hint of nutmeg.

And the jackfruit tacos proved fascinating. With the first few bites, I was convinced they’d actually given me chicken; I’d heretofore only tasted ripe dried jackfruit, so I wasn’t aware that when fresh & green it’s strongly reminiscent of eggplant—nor that it shreds like meat, so once liberally coated in taco seasoning, it easily gets a pass atop blue-corn tortillas heaped with greens, tomatoes, scallions & radishes alongside salsa & sour cream. If you like your frijoles soupy, Shine’s refried black beans won’t fly, but I like them in all forms; these had an appealing pan-bottom crunch. And the quinoa was downright impressive, I have to say, for its lime-brightened, grain-by-grain toastiness.

This place gets fairly (in both senses of the word) mixed reviews, but overall I got kind of a kick out of it—which is saying something, since I imagine I represent the opposite of its core audience.

Anyway, here’s a free poem.

Garnet
Used as a bullet, it inflicts a more deadly wound.

Crouched in roof shadow, filling the cylinder.
My pistol is crystal so you can see. Sometimes I pour
wine down the barrel, put the gun in my mouth
and go glug, glug. Pull the trigger,
pull the plug. The bang stuns everyone
who shatters into applause at the gala affair,
it raises the roof.
My dress is gauze, wound dressed in silk,
the night fog curdles like milk
mixed with blood down the alleyway,
a wisp of a sip goes
down my throat. I’m spitting vapor
like a pit viper in a mesh gown,
taking aim. Game. I was born game.

There’s deadly and then there’s
even more deadly, blood spreading
like bad dawn, lead-dull.
Dud if you do, dud if you don’t:
law one of tourniquetiquette.
I spray raw light, shoot up the night.

 

Shine Restaurant & Gathering Space on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Jax Glendale’s Pickled Fried Green Tomatoes (& oh so much more!)

Breaking the mold of the downtown & Boulder branches, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar’s 4th location at the edge of Cherry Creek in Glendale (there’s also one in Fort Collins) is sleeker, bigger & brighter than its predecessors.

It also differs in that it’s open for lunch, which is when I was there for a media preview this week. If, like me, you’re a longtime fan of exec chef Sheila Lucero & her crew (Duane Walker oversees the kitchen here), the sheer verve of the seasonal seafood will come as no surprise, but the item I’m dreaming about today comes from the land rather than the sea: the pickled & fried green tomatoes accompanying this Southern-inflected dish of grilled shrimp over a vibrant succotash-like mixture of corn, favas, greens, & smoked ham plus a dash of classic rémoulade.

Provided the batter is crisp & well seasoned, fried green tomatoes are always a treat—but these go to 11 thanks to the hit of acid (& another of creamy sweetness should you swipe the disks through the sauce).

My fellow guests & I were also loudly smitten with the ultra-buttery brioche croutons on the Caesaresque grilled-romaine salad,

but the whole thing was deliciously funky, from the frico-like grana padano crackers to the egg-&-anchovy-based mound of gribiche.

Grana padano also infuses the broth in which lobster ravioli are immersed & topped with arugula pesto; if you’ve never sipped cheese essence before, I highly recommend it. It is choice, as Ferris Bueller would say.

Another favorite, this one a surprise: the flourless chocolate cake with orange chantilly (‘in other words, whipped cream,” laughed pastry chef Jennifer Helmore Lewis).

I usually ignore the still-ubiquitous 100-year-old fad that is flourless chocolate cake, but when it’s good—darkly rich, brownie-like, not too sweet—it’s really good, & all the better for the spike of cool citrus.

Also reveled in the tender-crumbed, salty-sweet, sugar-dusted corn fritters with caramel corn & bourbon-toffee sauce.

And though those were the standouts in my book, I didn’t try anything I didn’t genuinely like, from the peppercorn-crusted & perfectly seared ahi tuna with sticky rice

& the moist crème fraîche-roasted salmon over “beet-braised’ kohlrabi

to the lovely old-fashioned banana split

& springy, zingy monkey bread topped with Stranahan’s whiskey-brickle ice cream (all the ice creams presently come from Sweet Action).

In short, Jax is raring to go over here, & the second-floor bar, Hi*Jax, is soon to follow (on the 4th to be exact). You’d best be ready to live it up.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: Going Cheeseless at Pizzeria Locale Denver

At this point we’re closer to the next New Year’s than the last one, but some of us (ahem) are still staggering along in half-assed (or full-assed, as the case may be) resolution mode. Now, you might assume that just as the quick-casual Baker District outpost of Boulder’s celebrated Pizzeria Locale (you know, the Frasca folks’ full-service nod to Napoli’s most legendary creation) caters—unlike the original—to non-Italophiles (read: red-blooded, flag-waving, stubbornly unadventurous eaters) with American-style pies, it’s catering to calorie counters (read: blue-blooded, yoga-mat-carrying, stubbornly unadventurous eaters) with cheeseless pies. But you’d be wrong. After all, Italians sport their own stubborn streak when it comes to culinary traditions, such as the rule that frutti di mare & formaggio don’t go together. Though I happen to disagree with that assessment in general, I’m a big believer in doing as the Romans (or whoevers) do—& I have vivid & fond memories of the pizzas topped with red sauce, chunk tuna, red onions, corn, & capers, but decidedly no cheese, that I spent 1 summer eating in the seaside cafés of Otranto. So I appreciate the fact that Locale holds the dairy while applying the anchovies to its Campagnola pie—as well it should. The combination of those salty little fishies with equally salty chopped green olives & capers, atop a tomato base as intensely tangy-sweet as its color suggests, is pungent enough by far to pique & sustain the palate. (The crusts here, which the state-of-the-art oven finishes in a flash, are rather more uniform & therefore less interesting to me personally than those at the original, but as Mia Farrow says in The Purple Rose of Cairo: “I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.”)

In fact, I liked it so much that I decided to experiment with my own version 2 nights later: behold the Ruthless with tuna, grilled eggplant, red onion & a drizzle of olive oil (that latter actually the creative contribution of the guy behind the counter—one of 7 or 8 adorable sweethearts who are surely reason #2 if not 1 that the neighborhood’s gaggles of young hotties appear to be congregating here).

Yeah! I nailed it—good stuff. And while shaving off a few hundred calories in the form of fermented-milk product wasn’t even my primary intention, it didn’t suck as a bonus.

Still, if you’re not watching your figure, by all means do as the Director did & go for a white (that is, all-cheese-all-the-time) pizza like the aptly named Bianca—its blanket of fine mozzarella scattered with the most delicately rendered of sausage crumbles & bright, slightly bitter bits of broccolini as well as red-pepper flakes.

Or, what the hell—do as my pal A did & stick with the Supreme: sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, red & green peppers, red onions, you know the Americano drill.

As for the “caponata” salad in the forefront, it’s flavorful enough, though it’s really just a sprinkling over arugula of random ingredients used in Sicily’s namesake specialty (eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, red onions, green olives) rather than the full-fledged stuff, which I’d just as soon hoover by itself (my favorite version also contains tomatoes, capers, pinenuts, & raisins). Those hunks of pizza crust on top, though? Perfetto, just as at the Locale flagship.

Pizzeria Locale on Urbanspoon

An Oddly Charming Detour to The Weber

I’ve said many times that Oceanaire is the only chain restaurant in town I cotton to, but that’s not quite true; I’ll sheepishly confess I don’t mind North, the Cherry Creek link in an Arizona-based franchise that manages to help meet Denver’s sore need for mid-priced modern Italian cuisine. I minded it a bit on Tuesday, however, when my conversation with a bartender went like this: “Will you be showing the Spurs-Heat game?” “Most likely.” (The Director & I sit down.) “Except that those guys over there want to watch the soccer game, & no one else has asked for basketball.” “So you’re showing soccer then?” “Well, it depends on what gets the most requests.” “But at present it’s soccer?” “Yes.” “So—not ’most likely”?” “Right.”

We stood up, headed out, and found ourselves peering into a quiet, unassuming little nook I’d wondered about occasionally in passing: The Weber, on the ground floor of the Inn at Cherry Creek. The menu posted out front looked okay—not widely diverse or wildly inventive, but fine; more importantly, the tiny bar area had a TV that nobody was paying any mind.

Thus commenced a weird but pleasant little meal that evoked the streetside cafés of Europe in myriad amusing ways, particularly with respect to the service provided by a lone waiter named Miko—tall, straight spined, with a courteous yet decidedly unhurried & even slightly deadpan air about him & a thick accent we later learned was Hungarian—& the chef himself, Mike Hendricks, whose signature is printed right on the menu. He’d wander out of the kitchen every so often to chat & catch a bit of the game, whisking me right back to a trattoria in Trieste many years ago, where my companion & I dined on horsemeat in a room that was empty but for the mamma cooking in her slippers in back & her figlio up front, who plied us with grappa every time the team he was cheering for on the tiny TV behind the bar scored a goal.

Speaking of booze, though the small wine list consisted of your most basic stuff, we could hardly complain given the prices—$8 by the glass & $30 by the bottle across the board. And the food was just right for the mood as well. We started with breakfast for dinner: a nicely maple-smoked hunk of salmon accompanied by toasted brioche, crème fraîche, capers, & a fried egg—a strange yet intriguingly hearty substitute for the more-common chopped, cold hard-cooked egg.

Then there was my honking pork chop, not quite juicy but thankfully not dry, & aided on the succulence front by cinnamon-apple chutney; the smashed red-potato dish on the side wasn’t exactly the “gratin” it was described as—no breadcrumbs, the key by most definitions—but it was pretty delicious, layered with onion & loads of melted cheese.

Simiarly, the Director’s “boneless half chicken” seemed to lack body parts, but it was generously portioned nonetheless as well as perfectly browned & juicy indeed, set over a bed of roasted potatoes, red peppers & buttery artichoke hearts.

We left rather charmed by the whole affair, & the next day I received an e-mail about an upcoming 4-course wine dinner: Hendricks will be serving smoked-oyster risotto, wild salmon over roasted rainbow cauliflower & goat cheese, & more paired with pours from the Pacific Northwest—for all of $60. Not too shabby.

Weber Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon