Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Toast at Caffè on

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.


The Great Wine List Debate—& Denver’s Place In It

Despite my day job at Sommelier Journal, I don’t spill a lot of ink on wine here. In that, I’ve got nothing but company. Look at the past several restaurant reviews in Westword, the Denver Post & 5280, & you won’t find more than a passing mention of the subject, if that—never mind list specifics or pairing suggestions. Granted, we’re living in a beer town in a cocktail era, & many a local bar program reserves its baskets for those eggs. But wine goes largely ignored even in reviews of restaurants that specialize in it, be it Al Lado or Il Posto.

Over a year ago, I was on a media panel for a Q&A with restaurateurs, & when Fuel Café’s Bob Blair asked pointedly why that was the case, not one of us could give him a satisfactory answer. If ever there was a time for a remedy, however, it might be now, when wine writers themselves are all up in arms about the current state of independent American restaurant-wine programs.

At the center of the recent debate was the charge, led by the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo & The Gray Report’s W. Blake Gray (of whom I’m a fan, by the way), that too many sommeliers/beverage directors these days are catering exclusively to an oenophilic few rather than to the masses of novice wine drinkers by compiling geeky selections of little-known producers, varietals, regions—undermining their entire raison d’être, namely unpretentious hospitality, in the process. Coming to their defense were the New York Times’ Eric Asimov & the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné—whose counterarguments in favor of progressive wine lists seem, to me, pretty obvious. First & foremost, there’s the matter of concept. A restaurant is built on a philosophy & a vision that determine every aesthetic choice its principals make: if it’s old-school Italian, then it’s old-school Italian, & by all means bring on the Sangiovese to go with the chicken parm. But if it’s farm-to-table, then it’s farm-to-table, in which case boutique wines from organically or biodynamically minded producers make perfect sense alongside the carefully sourced, seasonal food. No one would insist that the chef of a contemporary Asian restaurant has to serve a burger—& that if he doesn’t he’s somehow sniffing at meat-&-potatoes types; why should the wine list alone bear the burden of being all things to all people?

If the answer—as some have suggested—is that wine intimidates people more than food, & that therefore it’s sommeliers’ obligation to throw them the welcoming bone of big-name Chardonnay or Cab, I call BS. One argument that I don’t think has been made, but it seems pretty cut & dried to me, is that unlike food, wine is wine—a single category. Yes, there are thousands of grapes & styles. But very few of us are trained to be sensitive to every single phenolic variable & nuance—& that’s a point in wine’s favor, not proof of its inherent elitism: it means that if you like wine in general, you’re probably going to be OK with most offerings. There’s no real vinous equivalent of palate-challenging ingredients like natto or Limburger or headcheese (with the possible exception of Greek retsina, but that’s a singular case). So I consider highly ironic the claim that to specialize in relatively obscure pours is to be condescending to less-knowledgeable customers: it seems to me condescending instead to assume that they’re too dull or rigid to step out of their comfort zone for even one minute. It’s just a goddamn glass of wine—& let’s face it, half the time it tastes like any other goddamn glass of wine!

But if they are that picky & narrow minded, well, guess what—there are 100 other places they can go. Ultimately, those who say that too few restaurants are offering familiar wines are clearly dining at too few restaurants: they’re only going to the very places that do make a point of catering to adventurous diners & drinkers—the ones that even bother to hire sommeliers to begin with rather than just tasking a manager with pulling from a single distributor’s grab bag! In my book, too few restaurants are taking chances on their selections. For every one with a list that really excites me, there are 10 that toe the line at Malbec & Riesling.

That said, I actually think we’ve got it pretty good here on the Front Range. Putting aside the obvious leaders of the high-end pack—Frasca Food & Wine (& by extension Pizzeria Locale) & Barolo Grill, as well as your trophy showcases like Flagstaff House—numerous venues craft their lists with care & passion, an eye toward discovery, & a belief that dumbing it down is a self-perpetuating act in bad faith. Fuel Café & Il Posto are 2 of them; here are 10 other admittedly very personal favorites (in no particular order)—particularly for their by-the-glass options, which are really where the art of curation’s at.

Black Cat Bistro & Bramble & Hare (kudos to Eric Skokan’s team for the double whammy!)

Sienna Wine Bar

Axios Estiatorio (all Greek)

Beatrice & Woodsley

Lala’s Wine Bar + Pizzeria

The Kitchen Boulder

Osteria Marco (all Italian)

Bin 1884 Cheese Bar (because aside from the BTG list, anything on the shelves of the adjoining wine shop The Empty Bottle is fair game, enoteca style!)

Table 6

Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar