Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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

Dish of the Week: Toast at Caffè on Esquire.com

I shared this killer panino di tre formaggi, pomodoro & prosciutto from Frasca Food and Wine’s take-out Caffè with the world via Esquire, but you, should you choose to follow me there, best not share it with anyone.

You’ll behold it in all its glory when you click the link, but what you won’t see are the housemade chips that accompany it, in bags emblazoned with a custom photo by Dave Woody, who did the prints that hang throughout Pizzeria Locale. Che adorabile!

More Noshes for the New Year from Pastavino

Surely it’s possible to have an ultra-fattening meal at this mod Boulder trattoria—but it isn’t easy. Having derived so much pleasure from this lunchtime tuna dish, I’ve since returned to try a number of items, & even the heaviest of them were rendered with a light touch—as is typical in cucina italiana, of course; the heaps of meat-&-cheese-smothered carbs we all grew up with in the States aren’t typically found in chef-owner Fabio Flagiello’s homeland. (Which isn’t to say they’re “inauthentic”; Italian-American food has its own history &, at its best, myriad charms. But that’s another post.)

While white flour’s a no-no on many of today’s diets, those of us whose regimen entails simply trying not to eat like a draft horse all the time are in luck: breads are baked in house (generally about 3 types on any given day), arriving warm with olive oil, balsamic vinegar & red-pepper flakes for dipping. (Also on the table is a trio of sea salts, much appreciated since traditional pane tends to be very low sodium.)

One of these loaves was supposedly flavored with rosemary, the other with black olives; damned if I could really tell whether they were, but fresh bread is fresh bread—staff of life & all.

Admittedly, anything with the word “fried” in it isn’t on anyone’s diet. But Pastavino’s fritto misto—literally “fried mixed”—of calamari, bay scallops, caperberries & a single ricotta-stuffed raviolo is unusually delicate & greaseless, paired with a bright, pure tomato sugo. So if you’re powerless to resist a little splurge, you could do much worse.

Same goes for the gnocchi alle noci e salvia—that is, with walnuts & sage, as well as brown butter, fontina sauce & a sprinkling of ground espresso beans. Though definitely one of the richest pastas on the long menu (there are 15, including 3 daily specials), it too is executed with restraint—gently coated, not drowned, in burro & formaggio. (And if you split it with a pal, as I did—what’s pictured below is a 1/2 portion—you won’t even feel guilty at all.)

Then again, you could hardly do better than with the acqua pazza (“crazy water”), an examplar of cucina povera (“poor cuisine,” ironically among the richest aspects of Italy’s culinary heritage). Pastavino’s version isn’t so impoverished, containing vino bianco as well as mineral water—but it’s highly refined, subtle, even pristine with steamed clams & chunks of sea bass, cherry tomatoes, olives (albeit black ones, not green as advertised), & chopped parsley. Gently delicious.

Ditto the tonno al pistacchio—perfectly cooked pistachio-crusted tuna atop a mixture of balsamic-marinated onions & roasted fennel, alongside a dollop of zingy salsa verde.

Streamlined elegance permeates this place—& your bones as a patron of this place.

Pastavino on Urbanspoon

Preview: Lunch Launched at Central Bistro & Bar

Last I gave Central Bistro & Bar some love, Lance Barto was heading up the kitchen; now Gerard Strong’s at the helm, & the CIA-trained Hudson Valley native is looking every bit as sharp as his predecessor. I had ample opportunity to arrive at that conclusion: the media preview of the lunch menu, which is now being served Wed.-Fri., included a sample of every. single. dish thereon (with the exception of the ice-cream sampler). Two days hence, I think I’m about halfway done digesting the 16-course meal.

Among them, there were only a couple items I could’ve taken or left—most made my eyes shiny & wide. Here’s a look-see, with my very very favorites in bold:

Dungeness crab salad with pomelo, avocado & housemade herbed yogurt

Caesar salad with a sprinkling of prosciutto bits; save some croutons for dipping into

the preserved tomato soup, the depth of whose concentration goes way beyond the bottom of the bowl

Beautifully nuanced cream of asparagus soup with green garlic & chives

Duck-fat chicken-salad sandwich on sourdough with a touch of apple & petal-delicate seasoned potato chips (they’re cut on the meat slicer)

More of those incredible chips alongside the roasted pork sandwich with charred onion, pickled red jalapeños & garlic aioli—the shaved meat is so impressively tender & gently seasoned—& the boxcar burger, easily as good as any of its kind (paired with fries, aioli & ketchup)

Central tartine with mushroom ragu, white cheddar, sunnyside egg—a beauty, eh?

The ubiquitous chicken & waffle with sausage gravy

Crab mac & cheese, unusually sprightly with mascarpone & pepper relish

Steak frites: grilled bavette steak marinated in soy, sherry vinegar & green garlic, topped with oyster mushrooms & accompanied by fries daubed with blue cheese

Seasonal vegetarian selection, currently hand-cut pappardelle with maitake mushrooms, asparagus, kale, green garlic & parsley in a white wine-butter sauce

The signature Nutella waffle with banana butterscotch & pretzel ice cream

And the surprisingly light & springy sweet-potato cheesecake with spiced-crumb topping, pecans & whipped cream.

The bar’s doing some nifty things too, offering half-pours of all wines by the glass & lower-alcohol cocktails so you can keep your wits about you midday—including the gin-based, agave-sweetened Blueberry Lemon Light:

Do it to it, kids.

Central Bistro Bar on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: The Universal’s BBQ Chicken Salad Sandwich (& more!)

About a month ago, the nice little buzz The Universal—a downhome daytime joint at the edge of Sunnyside—was generating took a sharper tone when then-chef Seth Gray was let go. Having had just gone in for a snappy little meal, I was suddenly all the more curious to return & see what sort of impact his departure was having on the type & quality of the food served.

The short answer is none at all. That’s no knock on Gray, & it’s certainly not meant to justify or weigh in on behind-the-scenes decisions of which I have zero knowledge. It’s simply a fact that the menu remains the same, & the kitchen’s still executing it with flair.

As I’ve noted many times before, I’m really not big on the American breakfast table—egg dishes, pancakes & the like leave me pretty cold in theory & sluggish in practice; here, there’s not much else to go for—a few sandwiches & salads, a few dishes based on grits (the house specialty). But I appreciate a thing done right. And at The Universal, every thing is.

I hope, for instance, that this sandwich special I had last Friday—so technically the Dish of Last Week—is still available, because it was rooty tooty fresh & fruity, combining succulent, tangy barbecued-chicken salad on a chewy baguette with shaved brussels sprouts, chopped lettuce & tomato in a thick & zippy layer of cilantro aioli; a sprinkling of spiced walnut halves added crunch & a touch of elegance. And the side of velvety buttered heirloom grits—in all their cheesy richness, though they don’t contain cheese—were just as addictive as they were the first time I tried them

in my companion’s Nitty Gritty, with eggs & flavorful, juicy chicken-apple sausage.

My own griddled Brie sandwich with apples and onions cooked in white-balsamic vinegar on multigrain bread brought salt, sweetness & sourness together in a warm gooey, crusty package; a side of chard sauteed with onion wrapped it all in a pleasantly bitter yet silken bow.

In short, if there’s still discord in the back of the house, it sure hasn’t spilled to the front. May all parties find peace & keep the kitchen fires burning.

The Universal on Urbanspoon

Bombay Bowl: Take this with a grain of insanity spice

I’m as impatient as I am sloppy, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the so-called quick-casual genre, mainly because it’s synonymous with franchises, or would-be franchises. I mean, many a fine indie sub shop/pizzeria/taqueria manages to be both quick & casual without tacking on that tacky echo of corporate-speak, code for “1 step up from fast food.”

Though it’s presently a single-unit operation, Bombay Bowl is clearly built for growth as well as speed—which necessarily means it aims to be as many things to as many people as possible. That includes people who put fullness before flavor, convenience before ambiance, familiarity before discovery. Hey, those folks gotta live too—really!—but I don’t generally wanna eat where they’re eating.

Yet on a recent lazy whim, I went ahead & did just that (or close—ordered delivery). And then I did it again. Because guess what? Most of the food tasted good. Was it an uncompromising foray into regional-Indian culinary tradition? Of course not. But were the flavors fresh & distinct, the ingredients well handled? By & large, yes.

Especially the saag bowl, which I got with surprisingly tender cubed beef, extra sauteed veggies, chili-lime chutney & insanity spice. Served over basmati rice, the classic spinach dish brimmed with brightness & nuanced aromatics—except where that chutney spread like wildfire. Man, it’s hot. And I eat phall, so I’m not fooling around. As for the insanity spice, which comes its own little container—as near as I can tell it’s just ground chilies, nothing more. Insane indeed.

Yes, the samosa chaat looks a bit of a mess, but the mixture of chickpea-tomato curry, potato-stuffed samosas, cilantro chutney & raita worked for me, swirlingly robust & more properly textured than you’d guess. Think of it as the savory Indian answer to chopping up your birthday cake into melted ice cream.

I blacked out those backgrounds because my kitchen was a mess, & didn’t even bother to snap a shot of the daal I’d reserved for lunch the next day (here’s one thing you should know about ordering from D-Dish: Bombay Bowl’s prices are so low that a normal order for 2 won’t meet the $20 minimum). The lentils didn’t show quite the same flair (perhaps the extra time in the fridge caused the muddying of their flavors, though I don’t see why it should have), & neither did the tikka masala I got on a later delivery, which unfortunately proved rather watery & bland—but the beef was still done right.

Finally, the so-called naan isn’t anything like the real deal—I’m guessing there’s no tandoori oven on site, eh? Rather, it’s a small, flat oval of something more like pita. It’s fine if not exactly as advertised.

Ultimately, if it’s the total Indian-food package you want, Bombay Bowl isn’t your place. If it’s comfort on the fly, you’ll find it here, at least in spots. That’s enough for me, occasionally.

Jackpot: Punch Bowl Social

Being shudderingly antisocial & unplayful by nature, I recognize I’m not the target market for the bananas hyperspace that is Robert Thompson’s Baker District bowling alley-pool hall-video arcade-watering hole-retro diner, especially given the strongly mixed reviews the latter, i.e. the only part I care about, has been receiving.

But as a big fan of Thompson & his exec chef Sergio Romero in general, I meant to give it a go eventually; a recent snowy weeknight seemed just the time to skirt the chaos inherent in all the parts I don’t care about. Maybe it’s the case that on a Friday night, the kitchen gets lost in the wild weeds of birthday & bachelorette bashes; I dunno. My experience, though, was totally satisfying; no reason I can see thus far that a neighborhood institution shouldn’t be in the making.

Because pickled eggs! The old-school pub staple ain’t fancy or subtle, just creamy, sharp & meaty by turns.

And housemade beef jerky with horseradish foam for dipping! Way barklike to be sure—I’m partial to jerky that’s a little more steaklike, as at Doug Born’s Smoke House & Sausage Kitchen in Montague, Michigan. Still, that doesn’t mean I kick this chewier style to the curb—so long as it brings such full-throated flavor.

And complimentary biscuits with herbed butter!

But nothing topped my pastrami sandwich. Layers of lovingly cured, pepper-crusted, shred-tender meat are slathered with sauerkraut, melted gruyère, & gribiche—a dressing of mayo, chopped eggs & pickles—then griddled on rye; the effect is warm & hearty & sepia-toned, an ode to delis gone by. Actually, one thing topped it—the baked beans it came with, richly textured & chock full of pancetta & cayenne. And get this—you’ll find the recipe in the Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table, edited by moi, when it comes out this summer!

Before you say you’re over chicken & waffles, listen up—PBS serves the soul-food classic with syrup &, not or, sausage gravy. The 1st time I ever had it, some 15 years ago just south of Harlem, that’s how it was done—but I’ve never seen it that way again until now. Kew-dohs. Not that that would matter if all the appropriate descriptors—hot, crispy, greaseless, juicy—didn’t apply to the bird, but they did.

You can’t hardly tell this is a Frito pie. Yet it is—an especially fresh, thoughtful twist on the trashy original.

Though this was my 1st meal at PBS, I’d been in previously for drinks—& every time I walked by the dessert case, something managed to catch my fancy: huge brownies, sticky cinnamon rolls, etc. Gotta love the effort to revive the pure Americana of daily-made, sky-high cakes & tarts à la Wayne Thiebaud—& the banana-cream pie was heartfelt, actually tasting of fresh fruit.

How ’bout that? Perhaps I just got lucky—but I don’t think so. Perhaps, rather, an operation of this size just needed some time to gel, & things will only get better from here. I for one am giving it the benefit of the doubt.

Punch Bowl - Social Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

March Madness, Mile-High Style: So Much Fun Upcoming Stuff!

Press releases pass my virtual desk daily, but time & energy being what they are for a working girl—limited—I follow up only every so often, when I’m genuinely interested. And right now the intrigue is at critical mass.

3/9: First up, apparently Sat. is National Meatball Day. I don’t generally put much stock in those sorts of PR-driven holidays—doesn’t it seem like National Pancake Day is every other week?—but since there are actually some deals to be had out there, OK: FREE albóndigas with drink purchase at Al Lado! Conversely, FREE beer with the purchase of a meatball dish at Wazee Supper Club! Also, fine time to check out The Slotted Spoon! Or Axios Estiatorio, for that matter, which gives good keftedes:

For dessert, head over to The Shoppe between 5 & 10pm, when the inimitable Andrew Novick is hosting Sweet Tooth—an exhibit of 1000 photos of sweetmeats from his collection of, well, everything. (Give him the old Google treatment, you’ll see what I mean.) And he’s whipping up fruit punch-lemonade cupcakes for the occasion to boot:

3/10: Assuming you’re skirting the chaos of Cochon 555, Panzano is launching a Sunday-night, monthly-changing, 3-course prix-fixe Tour of Italy ($35 per person/$50 with wine pairings). Well, you know how I feel about Panzano—& as for the inaugural region of honor, Trentino-Alto Adige, I fell in heart with it & its hard Alpine twist on Mediterranean cuisine during a media tour a couple of years ago; so I reckon will you. Check this out: just one of myriad vendors at the market in Bolzano.

3/13: In conjunction with the Boulder Wine Merchant, Flagstaff House is featuring Long Meadow Ranch Winery & Farmstead at a 4-course dinner ($125 per person) that caught my eye because I attended a killer soirée at the LMR guesthouse myself while in St. Helena last fall. Swell stuff.

3/15: As always, St. Patrick’s Day is on like leprechaun at the LoDo branch of Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant, starting with its annual St. Baldrick’s Charity Event from 10am to 7 pm: a head-shaving, fund-raising extravaganza for kids battling cancer. You can donate to the participants daring to shear their locks for the cause or chow down & let Fadó do the honors, which is turning over 20% of all food sales. And you know what? I had the corned beef & cabbage last weekend, & it really hit the spot—ultra-thin-sliced & tender under white wine-mustard sauce, plus delightfully old-school buttered spuds.

Behind it is the open-faced breakfast sandwich served with these batter-fried potato nuggets that you just shouldn’t say no to on Sat. or Sun.; Fadó opens for paradegoers at 8am & keeps the party going all weekend with live music, dancing, kids’ activities, etc.

3/16: Also on Sat., from noon to 2pm, TAG|Raw Bar becomes the home of Raw University: in this month’s installment, attendees will learn to make sushi for a lunchtime feast while being treated to cocktails (so careful with those knives).

Staying home is not an option.

Old Major: Purebred

…You know, like the prize boar in Animal Farm, whose name chef-owner Justin Brunson (of Masterpiece Deli &, more to the point, Denver Bacon Company) took for his ridiculously hot new LoHi spot. Others (such as the Denver Post) have noted the aptness of the moniker insofar as Orwell’s pig leads the way to a livestock utopia. Granted, it doesn’t work out too well in the book, because power corrupts & all that. Still, the idea that a crew of serious, natural, “pure” talents—not only Brunson but GM/somm Jonathan Greschler, pastry chef Nadine Donovan, certified cicerone Ryan Conklin (ex-Euclid Hall), & bartender Courtney Wilson (ex-Williams & Graham down the street)—could come together to nurture a team of engaged pros in both the front & back of the house, where everyone pulls his or her own weight for the sake of what they’re calling “deformalized fine dining,” is an enlightened one. Such sense of community colors everything they do & includes everyone they work with, among them Infinite Monkey Theorem’s tireless Ben Parsons, who’s not only making their exclusive house wines—currently a Viognier-Roussane blend & a Malbec, though the blends will change with the input of the staff—but also lending them a garden plot at his facility.

And so far, it’s all working like a charm (maybe this one). As always when I’m writing about media tastings rather than meals I independently paid for, I’ll note that this isn’t technically a review & keep the in-depth analysis to a minimum. But after all the buzz & buildup, you already know Brunson’s bringing everything he’s got to the table: technical chops, playful sensibilities & grounded integrity.

Exhibit A is the smoked fish plate I already dubbed Dish of the Week. As for Exhibits B-Z: check out the hot, crusty, chewy yet soft pretzel rolls, made traditionally in a lye bath, with mustard butter.

And the black truffle-pistachio sausage over potato puree in a clean, clear pool of herbed escargot vinaigrette that positively lifted the whole.

The pan-roasted striped bass over leeks, turnips & beets, spritzed tableside with lemon verjus; an unpictured side of braised rapini proved an insightful accompaniment, picking up on the appealing bitterness of the charred skin.

The meltingly fat-edged, pan-seared pork chop with parsnip puree & chips, brussels sprouts, tableside-poured pork demiglace &, the highlight, a chunk of deep-fried guanciale (cheek meat)—which I strongly suggest should be offered in a bowl as a snack, chiccharón-style. Holy roly poly.

An unusually light & lovely, strawberry-foamed variation on baked Alaska.

Candied-bacon crème caramel.

And last but hardly least, a take-home jar of “pork butter”—basically rilletes, except sweetly meaty rather than intensely salty.

We sampled a couple of cocktails, too, most notably the ultra-smooth Fair Deal: blended Scotch, Drambuie & Cocchi Americano.

But I can’t wait to play with Greschler’s iPad wine list, which is quite the eclectic grab bag of old familiars & up & comers. Lemme at it.

Old Major on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Smoked Fish Plate at Old Major

Done. Deal. No. Brainer.

Back in 2011, the fish charcuterie Justin Brunson served during his stint at the ill-starred Wild Catch was 1 of my picks for Dish of the Year; version 2.0, which I just experienced at a media tasting for the feverishly anticipated Old Major, is every bit as delectable.

Along with the smoked trout (far right; click to enlarge) & pickled veggies, the sturgeon rillettes (center) are a startlingly delicate affair—not the standard salt bomb, they’re cloud-fluffy & rose-pale, & perk your palate right up rather than weighing it down. Same goes for the extraordinarily plump & juicy smoked mussels (left) in a honey-mustard sauce that frames their briny sweetness like a watercolor painting of a riverbed.

I’ll go into further detail later this week, but right now I’m content to just dream about all this.

 


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