Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Michocoán Pico de Gallo at Adelitas Cocina y Cantina (& much more)

After the apparent disaster that was 3 Monkeys Cantina, amid the ongoing disaster (i.e. “construction”) zone that is the Platt Park stretch of S. Broadway, I didn’t have high hopes for its successor, Adelitas Cocina y Cantina. But a look-see last week raised the stakes considerably. Not only was the crowd fairly lively for a late Sunday afternoon, but both bar & kitchen comported themselves with enough integrity & flair to indicate this Michocoán-themed joint might actually have a fighting chance of survival. (Even the handsome scroll of a menu points to attention to detail—& that “mezcalrita” behind it was exquisitely balanced: smoky but not too, sweet but not too.)

Take the pico de gallo made with not vegetables but chile powder-spiked ”seasonal fruit” marinated in orange & lime juices & served alongside warm (yay!) chips. Served in a gigantic goblet, it was a simple affair, composed only of fresh pineapple & mango—but nonetheless impressive, a) because I sure as hell wouldn’t have the patience to dice what must be huge amounts of 2 of the world’s most annoying fruits to prepare & b) because the result was ultra-refreshing, all tart-sweetness highlighted by hints of salt & smoky spice.

I genuinely liked everything else I shoved in my hole, too. Guacamole rarely sucks, but that’s not always to the credit of the chef, some of whom are prone to adding way too much stuff that isn’t avocado—which should entirely dominate, as it does here.

Likewise, my vegetarian enchiladas were all about the intensity of fresh flavor—stuffed with savory, mushroom-studded sauteed spinach & smothered in an appealingly sour, citrusy salsa verde alongside refried beans & nice, fluffy rice. Behind it are pal A’s tamales,

which I didn’t try, nor did I try @Mantonat’s tacos de lengua, but he praised the properly cooked tongue, & his AOK is good enough for me. I did, however, sample the tomatillo salsa on the side, which had a more sweetish-tomatoey cast than I expected from its color—which called to my mind my beloved, Worcestershire-esque Costa Rican Salsa Lizano

as well as the Director’s enchiladas suizas con mole: though not the most brilliantly complex version of the sauce I’ve ever encountered (Tarasco’s is better for sure), it was certainly acceptable, with plenty of that dark ancho savor.

Based on 1 meal, I’d be willing to wager Adelitas could break whatever curse the brujas negras of Denver real estate have placed on this joint.

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Baby Vegetable Crudité (& more) at Opus Fine Dining & Aria Wine Bar

Let’s not mince words: Opus Fine Dining, now cohabiting with sibling Aria Wine Bar in Cherry Creek since closing shop in Littleton, is as spendy as it ever was—we’re talking major destination-level dollar signs. If you’re just wandering into the lounge for a few snacks, you may leave with a good old case of sticker shock. But you’ll also take along the memory of some pretty darned impressive eats, served by a bartender as friendly & comfortable in his skin as any I’ve met in a while. (Too bad I’ve forgotten his name, & it’s not on any of my receipts. But trust me—you’ll know him when he greets you.)

I won’t be forgetting this baby vegetable crudité any time soon, for instance. It’s an adorable little garden in a glass, with sliced radishes, peas, pickled white asparagus, & so on “growing” out of layered hummus, buttermilk dip, & crumbly black garlic “soil” to yield a delightful mixture of complex textures & flavors both earthy & brightly refreshing.

And practically the second you sit down, you’ll be treated to ultra-soft, yeasty-sweet rosemary focaccia alongside olive oil seasoned with pepper & smoked salt for dipping. I do so love bread baskets in all their vanishing glory.

And though I’ve only tackled the bar menu & the appetizer section of the regular menu (which overlap somewhat), the admittedly wee portions thereon register surprisingly large thanks to their detailed compositions. For all of 3 tablespoons of burrata, $12 is a bit outrageous—but the careful arrangement of the buttery cheese with the crisp, sharp radish slices, fruity drizzled olive oil & balsamic, & nutty toasted focaccia crumbs, plus a sprinkling of fleur de sel, brought a lot to the table.

Same went for the charred spring-onion ravioli over chunks of brisket, herb purée & braised chanterelles: sure, $15 for 3 pockets of pasta seems like a chunk of change when it’s not attached to the name of a chef like, say, Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson—but the robustness of the tender beef, the depth of flavor in the sauce, & the silkiness of the dough managed to go a long way on the palate. That’s the thing about small portions that we Americans tend to dismiss in our obsession with “value”: they force you to pay attention to what’s really there.

As for the ballotine, ’twas a beautiful showcase for rabbit—a swirling kaleidoscope of rose-delicate meat, intense parsley purée, fried capers, more focaccia crumbs, & brown butter transformed into a funky powder.

The only disappointment in the course 2 visits was a cramped basket of twice-cooked—really somewhat overcooked & grainy—fries. Strangely, when a dish doesn’t meet expectations, its paltry size is more problematic than when it does. (You can skip the house nut mix by the same logic.) Excellent, potent housemade ketchup though.

Overall, it seems chef Sean McGaughey has picked up on & owned the pizzazz of original Opus talent Michael Long. Shelling out “a lot” for “a little” is always an iffy proposition, but at least his kitchen is working hard to make good on their end of the deal.

Opus on Urbanspoon

Coming up roses—& blondes!—at Elway’s Pink Patio Party

Granted, I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby, or a polo match, or a cotillon, but I’ve never seen so many yellow-headed, pink-clad dames in one place before—a number of whom I recognized from step aerobics sessions at 24 Hour Fitness. Heh. Like me, they were at Elway’s Cherry Creek on Wed. to sample some 55 rosés from 10 different local distributors so that this natty gent, sommelier Adam Vance,

                                                          (photo by John Imbergamo)

could get some input before choosing 3 for a flight of 2-oz. pours he’s putting on the summer wine list. The winners will also be available by the full glass & bottle:

2012 Merryvale Starmont Rosé, California
2012 Remy Pannier Rosé d’Anjou, Loire Valley
2012 Saint Roch Cotes du Provence Rosé

Vance told me that the Merryvale in particular was as fit for a steakhouse as rosés get & recommended it with a burger, so look for that one next time you’re bellied up alongside my gym classmates at the ever-packed bar downing some sliders.

Me, I didn’t expect my top picks to go very far, because they’d never sell—I seek out the weird stuff for better or worse. Take the Sangiovese-based 2012 bottling from Waterbrook in Washington, of all places; it can’t be all that easy to coax sufficient ripeness out of Tuscany’s famed grape there. Or Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare, a slightly savory blend of multiple Rhône grapes. Interesting stuff, fun evening, good time as any to think & drink pink…

Win Some, Lose Some at Fourteen Seventy-Two

After 2 visits to this Lowcountry-inspired joint on Pearl St., I confess bemusement. Though a Jan. review by Westword’s Gretchen Kurtz sheds some light on the obviously well-meaning but somewhat amateurish operation, one would think that after 9 months in business, it would no longer “feel like it’s in the soft-opening stage.” It still does, starting with the lack of a host stand—you just hang out rather vulnerably in the dining room until someone comes to get you—& the somewhat awkward approach of the admittedly very sweet servers, one of whom explained to me that though soup portions were very large, “they just go right through you,” the other of whom scratched her neck a lot while alluding to the restaurant’s pair of 5-star reviews. On Yelp? Otherwise I can’t fathom.

But it also has its fair share of charms. Occupying an old renovated 2-story with umbrella-lined patios both upstairs & down, all cozy brick & wood on the inside, it’s unusually comfy & relaxing compared to its often headache-inducingly packed neighbors. On the broadly coastal-Southern menu, much appeals & even surprises: gourd soup with brown-butter crema & almonds? bison-lamb meatloaf in vindaloo-style curry with bourbon-&-cinnamon-buttered sweet potatoes? a full-on seafood boil? Sure thing. There are even a couple of wines you don’t generally see outside of enocentric hangs, like a Hungarian Furmint BTG.

Execution is nonetheless erratic, right down to the fact that some of the most potentially disastrous items are actually the most fun. The “roll of Monte Cristo” makes no sense on paper: while egg rolls & their ilk have been receiving the fusion treatment for years—filled to evoke Philly cheesesteaks or burritos, say—I’ve never seen an example that stuffed 3 cuisines into a single wrapper. This one advertises not only its Asian influences, with sesame seeds & wasabi as well as rice paper, but also French (well, sort of—the variation on a croque monsieur that is the namesake Monte Cristo usually still contains Swiss cheese along with the ham, not white cheddar as this does) & Southern in the form of pulled pork & chicken. I mean, that’s ridiculous. But a bunch of meat & cheese mixed together & fried is a bunch of meat & cheese mixed together & fried—finger-licking! (Granted, said wasabi was undetectable in what seemed to be just a glob of mayo alongside some indifferent sweet-chili sauce.)

Curiously, the barbecued pork-&-slaw sandwich pal A got did come loaded with ham & gruyère, making the choice of cheddar in the spring rolls an even bigger mystery (if not one I intend to overthink).

I assume they call this “Lowcountry ceviche” to indicate that it’s not really ceviche; the fish is entirely raw, not marinated in citrus. Why they didn’t therefore just call it “Lowcountry tartare” is beyond me—other than the use of corn, which is indeed traditionally Peruvian. Whatever—though the chunks of tuna & avocado are almost obscenely large, the whole thing comes together lusciously.

Topped with cheddar, the grit cakes needed far more crunch on the outside, but they were good on the inside: slightly creamy, robustly flavored.

Likewise, the patty on the veggie burger I got to go was downright mushy—it needed something in there for structure. But the intensely mushroomy pieces it crumbled into otherwise stood up to the strong savor of feta, roasted red pepper, red onion & green goddess dressing, & smashed potatoes made for a nice change of pace from fries.

I didn’t try Mantonat’s burger, but the serious pile of ground beef & venison, tasso-ham gravy, caramelized onions, gruyère & fried-green tomatoes he got means it’s on my list.

By contrast, the Director’s half-rack of wild-boar spareribs in chipotle-maple sauce were as slapdash as they looked over slaw in the to-go box—overcooked, ketchupy-sweet.

Finally, about that soup: I indeed received what appeared to be nearly a whole batch of Manhattan-style conch chowder. A little heavy on the tomato-soupy flavor at the expense of everything else, & the conch was a tad chewy—though it wasn’t skimped on, & generally speaking the bowl hit the spot as refreshing & nourishing on a roster of dishes that doesn’t make eating light easy.

Overall, one senses that these guys are really trying to do right by their neighbors, & they’ve succeeded in creating an attractive, stress-free environment to hang out in. Just a little more detail orientation & precision in the kitchen could go a long way.

Fourteen Seventy-Two on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: blackened catfish at Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar

I was no less sorry to see 8 Rivers close—I’ll never forget that festival bread—than I was jazzed to learn of chef Scott Durrah’s return to the scene with the opening of Jezebel’s Southern Bistro + Bar a few months back. And after an overdue visit last night prior to the Maria Bamford show at the Oriental (my comic hero—do yourself a favor for an hour & watch this), I’m still feeling the afterglow. It’s just an earnest, comfortable, likeable LoHi joint all around.

The relatively short menu is heavy on the classics—fried chicken, barbecue plus all the fixings, a couple Low Country & Cajun/Creole specialties, cobbler & sweet-potato pie—though it takes a few minor twists & turns as well, from hummus made with black-eyed peas to the variation on a Caprese salad featuring fried green tomatoes (& the Brunswick stew is made with pork, not the traditional squirrel; here’s a great, if slightly raw, little short by documentarian Joe York on cooking up squirrel in the South).

We started with warm cornbread & honey butter; of the 2 offered types—plain & jalapeño-cheddar—I strongly preferred the latter, not only for the extra flava but because the fat in the cheese kept the little muffins moister. (Don’t hate on the word “moist.” When I mean “tender,” I’ll say that. When I mean “juicy,” I’ll say that. When I mean “of or relating to moisture,” I’ll employ the term thus defined, even if it turns a few stomachs.)

They also made a fine sop for the housemade jerk marinade, which strangely I saw only on our table—if it’s not on yours, ask for it. Addictively vinegary, if not especially searing.

The Director totally plotzed over his half-rack of ribs with mashed potatoes & gravy as well as green beans. I mostly dug them too, though I’m really curious to know what the kitchen’s smoking set-up is (if the answer’s out there, I’m not finding it)—they were borderline overdone, meaning almost falling apart. But not quite, & I disagree with the Post’s William Porter about the sauce, which I thought was great: sweet but balanced by acidity, St. Louis style.

Still, it was my honking portion of blackened catfish over hoppin’ john & sauteed kale that really won me over. The filet was eye-openingly flaky &, yes, moist, the seasoning perfect—not overwhelmingly salty & bitter as it so often was back in the 1980s, when Cajun cuisine swept the nation before the nation was ready. And the hoppin’ john was primo, both nuttier & sweeter than the traditional version for its inclusion of barley & corn kernels instead of rice. As for the gravy, it wasn’t like any red-eye I’ve ever had, being thick & seemingly tomato-based, but a nice counterpart to the greens nonetheless.

All in all Jezebel’s made a fine 1st impression on me—& the Director was so pleased he wants to go back tomorrow. It could happen.

Jezebel's on Urbanspoon

Crosstown Culinary Crazy Quilt: sweet recent eats (& 1 clunker) from all over the map

So much busy. It’s high time I take stock of all I’ve shoved down my gullet in recent weeks.

Come NBA playoffs season, there are few places I’d rather be than Rackhouse Pub (for a full review click here), which has the screen coverage of a sports bar but the thoughtfully designed & prepared menu—not to mention the smartly curated booze program—of a gastropub. The Ocean Deep—strewn with lobster, shrimp, artichoke hearts, tomatoes & chunks of cream cheese atop a fontina & pesto base—goes all creamy & delicate amid intermittent bursts of garlic & salt, & the crust stirs reveries of ye olde New England bar pizza (yes, that’s a thing).

Plus, they now bring Goldfish gratis to start you off. Pure class, of a sort.

An attempt to behave during brunch at Lou’s Food Bar (full review here) with the help of a Caesar & lovely French onion soup—when you’ve got a hankering, it’s as good as any—

was derailed by the compulsion of a companion to order plate after plate of housecured pork belly for the table. Damn, it’s luscious.

Likewise, I was forced, forced I tell you, to supplement my Mediterranean salad at Elway’s Cherry Creek flagship—a delight with chickpeas, fried capers, warm pita wedges, & that most underappreciated of 1980s food fads, sundried tomatoes (as well as plenty of yogurt vinaigrette; many a rabbit eater bemoans overdressed salads, but I shudder at dry greens)—

with the huge, slide-right-down beer-battered onion rings that the Director got to round out his adorable, bacon-&-chile-flecked chicken-corn chowder.

A drink at Boulder’s Radda Trattoria led to 2 drinks accompanied by a fine fritto misto with rock shrimp, squid, zucchini & onion with thick, tangy lemon aioli.

And Oceanaire, the only national chain I can muster any enthusiasm for, did a bangup job of smoked trout with balsamic vinaigrette, watercress pesto, & fresh potato chips; snappy parmesan-crusted asparagus in blue cheese-tomato butter;

& Front Range frites supposedly smothered in pork green chile, but actually smothered in major chunks of green chile-marinated pork, along with avocado & queso fresco. (The Director’s filet mignon sliders with horseradish sauce & fried shallots went too fast for me to nab a bite.)

Now that I can order from Viet’s Restaurant via GrubHub, I’m a happy homebound camper. Canh ga don thit—pork-stuffed chicken wings—are an A1 example of mon nhau (Vietnamese drinking food—RIP Red Claw),

& classic goi dac biet is nicely done as well—if, that is, you can handle the jellyfish, 1 of the few ingredients in this big blue world I’m still feeling my way around.

But a word of dark warning about BeauJo’s, in case you haven’t heeded any others. With our Platte Park half-duplex on the market (interested? hit me up), the Director & I have been sporadically hanging out in a hotel on S. Colorado, to which this self-styled institution delivers. We gave them 2 chances—1st with the Cajun (pepperoni, Andouille sausage, cheddar, jalapeño, red onion, provolone),

2nd with your more typical meat-&-veg combo.

I’ve had several fine pies of late—Bonnano Bros. & Udi’s Pizza Café Bar come to mind—& neither of these ranked in the top, oh, 30—though they both cost over that number. That’s right: they charge more than $30 for nondescript toppings on that “famous Colorado-style crust.” I guess you get the stale, overbaked whitebread you pay for. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, still shame on you, because we were just trying to go back & figure out how you fooled us the first time. What the hell?

 

Root25 Taphouse & Kitchen Breaks Ground in the DTC

I rarely have cause to be sniffing around the DTC, but after an invite to the media preview for this brewcentric newcomer in the Hyatt Regency, I took a glance at the goods & liked what I saw—not only a serious collection of local beers, both on tap & in bottle, but also a gastropubby menu that’s itself drenched in booze. I counted some 17 alcohol-infused dishes, from the chocolate malt-honey butter on the buttermilk pancakes for breakfast & the Avery White Rascal salad dressing to the chorizo-IPA consommé, beef-cheek pastrami sandwich slapped with Vodka 14 aioli, & hops-smoked pork shortrib with malted cranberry-bean puree & apple-mustard marmalade. And I liked it all no less when I saw it for myself; hotel director of food & beverage Ben Hardaway admitted to me that he’d had to make some noise to realize his vision in the face of corporate hesitation, but he did it. Good on him.

For this casual premiere, the team graciously put the spotlight on their purveyors above all—take this salad bar courtesy of Grower’s Organic, featuring some of the prettiest black radishes, baby carrots & teardrop tomatoes I do believe I’ve ever seen.

Or this spread of locally produced salumi & cheeses (think Continental Sausage, Avalanche, etc.), plus housemade accompaniments. That pan-fried pancetta in the foreground? I want some more RIGHT NOW. I want to wrap this apple I’m eating in it. I’m not even one of those bacon freaks who won’t give it a rest already, but the pancetta-apple scale definitely tips in favor of crispy pork product.

I didn’t manage to get around to the prime-rib carving station (but the Director, who adores the stuff—RIP Rodney’s—raved about it). Why not? Because I was too busy snarfing up the sandwiches: BLTs with house-cured bacon, green tomatoes, smoked cheddar, & cipollina aioli; grilled cheddar-&-swiss with roasted tomatoes, onions, arugula, & amber ale-infused Dijon mustard;

& the RIGHT ON whiskey barrel-smoked beef brisket with rutabaga sauerkraut & Hazel Dell mushroom ketchup on jalapeño-cheddar bread. One of those surprises that makes your pupils dilate—you think you’re biting into one standard thing that turns out to be a whole other rainbow thing. (It didn’t hurt that the delish cocktail I’d paired with it was whipped up by none other than that old smoothie Sean Kenyon, on hand to guest bartend.)

I was also loading up on wings & drumettes, for which the kitchen goes to town. The chicken itself is malt-roasted; then it’s coated in 3 different sauces—Wynkoop Black Lager buffalo, Left Hand Milk Stout BBQ, & spicy Dry Dock Apricot Blonde; finally, it’s served with housemade ranch & ridiculously chunky, good-quality blue-cheese dressing.

Dessert was a charm offensive of assorted Mason-jar pies, eclairs, & truffles.

And while the bartenders kept the flow of suds from Funkwerks, Elevation, Odell, Avery, Great Divide, Upslope & other beloved locals going, I was tickled to see their investment in a barrel-aged cocktail program—there must’ve been 8 or 10 of these on the counter for sampling (click to read the labels).

It goes without saying that you wouldn’t expect such passionate, community-conscious effort from a hotel oriented toward business travelers. Here’s hoping these guys get the crowd they aim to cater to.

Root 25 Taphouse & Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Now Open! Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria

Think of the latest outpost in Frank Bonanno‘s sprawling empire, located way down south at the Park Meadows Mall, as a breezier, more streamlined, family-friendlier Osteria Marco. Though smaller, the menu shares obvious elements with that of its older sibling, including an assortment of formaggio fatto in casa & imported salumi, a few salads & panini, & above all pizza, here baked in a custom-built Italian oven. But you also got your crudo & your fritto—that is, raw & fried—selections, & at a family-&-friends preview this week I started with one of each as a real-world compromise to starting with all of each (my appetite floating in a whole other dimension as it does).

We all reach a point where we’ve had our fill of a trend: beets, brussels sprouts, marrow, molten chocolate, Fernet Branca, what have you. Because it’s our job to cover trends as they develop, food writers tend to reach that point well before the average diner. Then again, we also get over being over things quicker, I think—we’re reminded that before they become trends & after they cease to be, they’re just ingredients that have their time & place.

Take raw tuna. There are only so many ways to prepare it; I’ve had them all countless times, & since I’m usually on a mission to try the new & unusual, I tend to ignore it. I’m glad that, this time, I didn’t, because the sliced ahi crudo was terrific topped with a salad of chopped romaine, basil & olives in caper vinaigrette. Simple, straightforward, refreshing. I also liked the pan-fried polenta pictured with it below, though if I ordered it again I’d mix it up bite-for-bite with some house-cured lonza or something! Because why not!

As for the pies, come on—Bonanno’s probably been making pizza in his sleep since he was 12. Of course the crust boasts great structure, with crunch & pop & give; of course the toppings are premium. The question that remains is one of personal preference, so I can’t offer much guidance except to say that the fresh, velvety ricotta—which appears on 4 of the 10 combos—is just dreamy; it certainly made for a meltingly delicate counterpoint to the mozzarella, garlic, olive oil & chili flakes also on the punchy Walter White, along with, of course, Blue Sky crystals—I mean blue-cheese crumbles! Heh.

Meanwhile, earthy accents highlighted the overall lusciousness of my companion’s wild-mushroom pizza with béchamel, robiola, & truffle oil,

but the pie I’m jonesing to try next combines fontina, ricotta & sausage with broccoli rabe & garlic butter, which sounds like just the right balance between salty juiciness & jolts of bitterness.

Finally, Osteria Marco’s butterscotch bread pudding has made the trek to Lone Tree intact; it’s a springy, peachy take on a typically heavy dessert.

In short, it’s heartening to see an independent chef bringing octopus, burrata & Aperol spritzes to the ‘burbs, damn the old “will it play in Peoria?” dilemma. Here’s betting it will, at that.

Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Pane Bianco (& much more) at Udi’s Pizza Café Bar on Colfax

Since the Director’s place of employ is in the Lowenstein Cultureplex, I end up in those parts a lot. So I have to confess to some disappointment upon hearing the news that a branch of Udi’s would replace Encore on Colfax; a passable sandwich shop does not a twinkly, cozy hangout make.

But a full-service, contemporary Mediterranean-American restaurant with a well-stocked bar does a twinkly, cozy hangout make; as it turns out, I like almost everything about this place.

In fact, it’s not even all that distinguishable from its predecessor. The long, narrow space looks pretty much the same, & so does the menu—a smart, breezy collection of small plates, flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, & heartier entrees. One thing makes all the difference, however: THIS.

Pane bianco just means “white bread” in Italian, but here, the structured loaf you might expect is not what you get. Rather, the high-risen round is a lot like a giant puff of pizza crust: golden, crunchy, & touched with olive oil on the outside, airy, soft, & chewy on the inside. On 3 visits I couldn’t keep my hands off it until it was gone, & I’m craving it hard all over again just looking at it here, pictured with baba ghanoush—which, however, is a little too pure in eggplant flavor for my tastes; I’m an eggplant fiend (by all its beautiful names: melanzana, aubergine, berenjena, etc.), but it can be sharp on the palate, & in this case I think a little more tahini would soften those bitter edges.

Good thing the bread comes with all the other small-plate selections too, including these terrific Tunisian-roasted carrots:

root-sweet, loaded with smoky cumin, & accompanied by a smear of thick, rich tzatziki—which is also offered separately, doused in olive oil & sprinkled with za’atar. The word “intense” doesn’t usually apply to yogurt, but it sure works here.

Some of the sandwiches also feature pane bianco, including this French dip I got to go—which is great, because why shouldn’t tender, thin-sliced roast beef & aioli be the icing on the cake of killer dough? I didn’t even mind that they forgot the side of jus—for which I mistook the container of orange-balsamic vinaigrette meant to accompany my salad. Look, I’ll dip anything in anything, so what do I care. (Ever had sushi with hummus? Primo.)

In the above light, you’d think the pizza would be equally smashing. Not quite. The crust is certainly all that, as is the zingy fresh tomato sauce—& those are the most important parts, to be sure. But the toppings still need some refinement. Take the vegan kale pizza, which sounded intriguing but proved out of whack: it was basically just a pile of nearly raw kale, plus maybe two slices of mushroom, with the bare minimum of advertised breadcrumbs & no detectable note of the garlic or truffle oil it also supposedly included.

Or the version with prosciutto, béchamel, gouda & caramelized onions—sort of; the below pie boasted the right amount of the former 2 ingredients, but not nearly enough of the latter 2. (In the rare bites where I did get the full effect, it was a throbbingly vibrant one.)

The mushroom-sausage pizza with mozzarella & red peppers was, however, ready for its close-up, so clearly the potential’s there.

To take a quick carb break, Udi’s salads aren’t wildly original—you got your Cobb, your Greek, your chicken “Oriental,” etc.—but they’re solid. The combination of frisée, radicchio, poached pear, blue cheese, & slivered almonds in balsamic vinaigrette may not be conceptually fresh, but it’s literally refreshing, crisp, balanced, generous, & fine. You can have similar salads all over town, but I’ll vouch for this one.

Same goes for the beet, goat cheese, hazelnut, & watercress salad. Overplayed times a million, sure. But nicely done nonetheless.

To return to meatier stuff (click below to enlarge): the falafel burger’s a bit dry, but the earthy, nutty, herbal flavor’s delightful, highlighted by the chipotle aioli—& the Jerusalem chicken is superb: juicy, evocatively spiced, comforting in the extreme.

So next time you’re catching a flick at the Sie Film Center, stop by the bar—I’ll probably be there, face down in a bread pocket.

Udi's Pizza Café Bar on Colfax on Urbanspoon

Swimming in Thai Flavor

I never cruise through Aurora without spotting 15 places I want to try; it was a new East African joint that turned my head recently on the way to meet my pals/partners in chow crime Denver on a Spit (DOAS) & Mantonat at Thai Flavor, which sits in a strip mall next to a West African place (that happens to make amazing meat pies), the Ghanian-owned African Grill & Bar. As Mantonat puts it, “Peoria Blvd. is a kind of Bizarro World version of west Denver’s Federal Blvd. In fact, Thai Flavor lines up directly on an east-west axis with the the block of restaurants on Federal that I’ve been frequenting recently for Westword [see above link], as if the strip mall it’s located in is a slightly distorted mirror image of the row that includes Hong Kong BBQ or Lao Wang Noodle House.”

I’d like to say that, once inside, I stopped grasping at the riches around me & focused on the task at hand, but we all admitted afterward that we were a bit distracted—partly by DOAS’s hilarious little twin squirmers, but primarily because we were seated at a table near the entrance in the middle of the room in broad daylight. It’s always hard for me to concentrate when I feel like I’m circling my wagons on the prairie. (I definitely get that old urban myth about mobsters who insist on sitting with their backs to the wall.) Though the adorably gregarious old guy who, I assume, was the owner helped to make us feel at home, if we’d been concentrating more we might have sampled a broader selection; instead “we ended up with what seemed like several plates featuring the seafood mix—shrimp, scored curls of squid, & mussels,” as Mantonat observed later, adding that “the pacing of the dishes threw me off; I think I must have eaten half of your order before my curry came out and we realized that we needed to swap plates.” (What a gentleman. It was the other way around—I who took a big chunk out of his food before clarity set in.)

Then again, seafood is clearly the star here anyway, comprising Thai Flavor’s entire list of house specialties—with good reason. They do it right. Mussels in particular stood out: plump, juicy, perfectly cooked—& able to shine in every instance thanks to the kitchen’s light touch. The key difference between mediocre & quality Thai, in my book, is that the latter is surprisingly subtle. Thai-cooking experts often refer to the importance of balance between elements—sweet, spicy, salty, sour, bitter—and while I agree with that, I’d add that the ideal result is above all refreshing; the brushstrokes aren’t as bold as they are in, say, the neighboring cuisines of Malaysia/Indonesia/Singapore. Seemed to me Thai Flavor nailed that distinction in almost all the dishes we tried: from the steamed mussels with a vibrant dipping sauce—not the ubiquitous, neon-pink, sweet-chili stuff but a simple blend of fish sauce, citrus, & fresh chilies—

to Mantonat’s jungle curry

& the mixed stir-fry that both DOAS & I ordered (though neither of us can remember exactly what it was called—it doesn’t appear to be listed here),

which were all exceptionally light, fresh, crisp, & peppery. The seasonings highlighted the main ingredients rather than the other way around. Mantonat had that impression too: “The entrées showcased a more elegant side of Thai cooking; the sauces seemed more broth-based & less reliant on coconut milk or massive hits of spice blends. Despite ordering my curry ‘Thai hot,’ I never approached that moment of terror when you realize your tastebuds are being tortured but your brain has yet to receive the full impact (although I have been working on building my tolerance, much as the Dread Pirate Roberts slowly built up an immunity to iocane powder). The vegetables were definitely allowed to speak for themselves. I’m a fan of huge flavors that make me sweat & reach for a beer, but occasionally I like to be reminded that something as small as a green peppercorn can lend its little voice without completely overwhelming a dish, adding just a hint of peppery zing & a caper-like pop.”

DOAS, for his part, felt chili spice was a little underutilized in the kitchen, so he covetd the condiment caddy that gave me the sweats just to look at: “For an extra fun kick, the jar with the mix of red & green sliced peppers was tremendously hot, so I did get that familiar burn that builds and builds past heat through pain to the sort of numbed pleasure-state that I strive for when I eat Thai.”

I was likewise enamored with the accompaniment to the fish cakes, which I could’ve eaten by itself—again, I assume lime juice & fish sauce formed the base, but it was also chock-full of red onion, cucumber, cilantro, & crushed peanuts. I don’t think the fish cakes themselves

or the fried catfish

were quite as successful, simply because they weren’t quite hot enough, temperature-wise, to remain crisp for long. The potential was there, though—both dishes were put together well, the coating was deft, the flavors clear & bright.

As for the marinated-eggplant salad with shrimp, strips of sweet omelet, red onion, & basil,

I’d had it once before & remembered it vividly; the follow-up left no doubt in my mind that it’s the masterpiece here. It’s so colorful & unusual: by turns tangy & delicate, sharp & soft, crunchy & silken-textured.

For DOAS’s complete take on our oceanic extravaganza—& more comments from Mantonat—click here.

Thai Flavor on Urbanspoon