Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week/Noshes for the New Year: Tonno at Pastavino

I’ll do a full post about this stylish Italian café, run by a native of Trieste on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, in the very near future, but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in thinking the place underappreciated (see Douglas Brown’s recent props in the Denver Post).

This lunch entrée, simply listed as “Tonno” (tuna), was not only the best thing I ate last week but a fine choice for those still committed to world’s #1 New Year’s resolution (see other recent picks here), at least if they’re taking the low-carb approach. Twofer!

Nicely seasoned & grilled on the outside, rare yet warm on the inside, the gorgeous hunks of albacore perched atop a generous mound of spinach, asparagus, leeks & mushrooms sauteed in a tangy, garlicky lemon-caper sauce; my own resolution—to not eat everything on my plate—melted away in the face of the pure, simple pleasure.

Stay tuned for more on Pastavino’s very real appeal.

Heads Up: An Argentine puerta cerrada, the PlatteForum unGala, & a street-food sampler

Hey y’all, my dear friend Rebecca Caro, cooking instructor & author of the blog From Argentina With Love, has launched a puerta cerrada (closed-door) supper-club series at her pad, aka Casa Azul in Littleton. You can find the details for the 1st 5-course feast, which includes a sparkling cocktail & 2 glasses of wine, here; I was once invited over a for a Christmas feast of lechon (roast suckling pig), & it was some kind of awesome, so go forth & have a ball.

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Another dear friend, Judy Anderson, is the founder of PlatteForum, an arts-education program for at-risk youth; to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it’s hosting the unGala at the Infinite Monkey Theorem’s new facility on Larimer—a dance party/fundraiser replete with live music & DJs, artists’ demos, IMT wines & eats from Carmine’s on Penn & the Denver Cupcake Truck. More info here.

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Finally, the Tap Room at Broomfield’s Omni Interlocken Resort & Spa is holding the kind of promotion I usually ignore, but this one caught my eye for its cleverness. Called Simply Street Food, it’s based on a culinary competition among affiliated hotels around the world; from among some 100 recipes, 6 were chosen to be featured on a menu that’s being served through the end of March.

Apparently the Tap Room has been undergoing renovations for awhile; I’d never visited before I was invited in to check it out, so I can’t speak to its previous incarnation, but it’s a woody, handsome sports bar, with foosball & pool tables & soon-to-be 26 taps devoted to Colorado craft beers (16 at present)—about which bartender Nick Zepeda, a furniture designer by day, knows all. He was also quick with quips like “You could put that dip on a rock & it would taste good” (& “the smaller they are, the more there is to say,” which was hilarious at the time, though I don’t recall what it means anymore).

Hotel sous chef Troy Micheletti was a sweet host, bringing out samples on paper plates (food here seemed otherwise to have been served on regular dishware, so I guess it’s part of the theme) & explaining their origins. Here’s what my pal (& Twitter wit) Mo Smith & I happily noticed: the kitchen’s really adept at meat cookery. While the whole lineup was fun, in every case the protein stood out—from the lamb braised with citrus & ancho on the tostadas (pictured middle) & the duck confit in the fried empanadas with lightly pickled slaw & smoked-tomato mayo (bottom)

to the sumac-marinated musakhan chicken in the Palestinian-style pita sandwich with curried mustard & chili ketchup

& the short rib on the especially fine grilled sandwich with cheddar, arugula & Breadworks brioche (top). I mean really delectable meats!

The Southeast Asian-inspired char kway teow (bottom) was oversauced, & I’m guacamole seemed unnecessary on the Bahian acarajé de orixá (1st picture, top) with smoked shrimp. But the black-eyed pea fritter itself was nice, most & robust, the overall concept was a kick, & I have a thing for out-of-the-way hotel bars. So I may just get back there sometime, along with Baca at the Inverness.

Jelly: Chill, Still Gelling

Numerical ratings have their uses, but they don’t tell stories. In a recent post, I rated Boulder’s Arugula Bar e Ristorante a 3 (“Solid”) for delivering what I considered to be a perfectly lovely meal. Here, I’m giving the Evans Ave. outpost of beloved Capitol Hill daytime joint Jelly a 3 for a meal that I had some issues with. What gives? In a word, context. When it comes to upmarket Italian restaurants, you’ve got everything from incompetent ripoffs to unforgettable representatives of one of the world’s greatest cuisines (taking its regional variants collectively, that is); overlay such a wide spectrum atop a scale of 1 to 5, & it turns out a 3 is pretty damn admirable. By contrast, the distance between the worst American diner & the best is hardly so vast; just by using fresh ingredients & cooking from scratch, you’re halfway to the top. In that sense, casual, homestyle eateries have a bit of an advantage.

Then again—not to blow your mind, but lower expectations are, in a way, also higher ones, or at least firmer ones. The less I’m asking for, the more I expect to get it. Jelly’s flagship, in my experience, tends to see those expectations & raise them some retro-pop flair (as I assume it will continue to do post-current renovations); take the adorable little goat cheese-frittata sliders with bacon & spinach-walnut pesto—simple fun, done well.

The new branch at the edge of the DU campus shares its siblings’ jazzy sensibilities—same juicy colors & vintage cereal-box display; same what’s-not-to-love selection of tricked-out classics: pancakes festooned with Frosted Flakes & bananas, 7-veggie hash, deviled egg-salad sandwiches. What it still needs, based on my recent visit, is a tad more quality control in order to earn its inherited reputation.

These doughnut bites, for instance, were almost a slam (coffee) dunk.

Of the 8 types on offer, I chose the Thai with peanut butter, Sriracha & powdered sugar; that I expected them to be filled rather than topped was my problem—the menu didn’t indicate as much—but still, using less peanut butter on the outside when you could use more on the inside spells “missed opportunity” for junkies like me, especially considering that the dough was, well, a little too doughy, rather than airy/springy. Big points for the inspired flavor combo; small deduction for the too-dense texture.

Though the roasted-turkey hash didn’t look terribly appealing—not so much actual hash as scattered pieces of beige—it came together well, the white meat moist & complemented by red potatoes, apple, onion & a touch of tarragon. Rather, it was the biscuit that was on the dry side, & the poached egg rubbery (it usually comes with 2; I requested only one).

By contrast, the Molly Hot Brown—served at breakfast as well as lunch—sure looked like bunches of fun, piled with more turkey, tomatoes, chopped bacon & green chiles, & a bucket of Mornay sauce (cheese-enriched white sauce). A vibrant mess indeed, but the damper was stale French toast—& I don’t mean fittingly day-old, I mean kinda tough.

But how hard can it be to fix what ain’t broken at the other branch? The concept’s proven solid, the vibe’s a kick, the menu’s a smart start, & I’m confident these guys can straighten the kinks out in good time—enough so that I’ll head back soon.

Jelly U Cafe on Urbanspoon

Soft opening alert: Epernay

Though my arrival in Denver only slightly preceded chef Duy Pham’s departure, I’d certainly heard tell of his exploits, so I was psyched for the opportunity to preview Epernay, the sleekly swanky, slyly clubby downtown restaurant & lounge that’s opening on Tuesday to mark his return to our fair city.

Now that I’ve had it, my curiosity isn’t sated. That’s a compliment; rather, I’m all the more intrigued at the thought of returning on my own dime—or rather dollar (cheap eats these ain’t)—when it’s in full swing to answer certain questions. For instance, will the service be as solicitous when I’m not an invited guest & the house is packed? Because on Saturday night, every detail was certainly seen to, promptly & with care, right down to the charming delivery of sushi condiments. (As someone who practically drinks the stuff like water on a daily basis, I’m all for nursing a veritable coffeepot of soy sauce.)

And: will I need to manually count the number of Champagnes on its list & that of Corridor 44 to confirm whether Epernay’s claim to the largest selection in town is true (it’s named, after all, for a town in the region, albeit sans accent over the initial E)? Are they including non-Champagne labels, of which they offer a number, in their tally? Eh, I don’t really care, so long as they’ve got some bottles I want to drink—& they do, e.g. Laurent Perrier & a couple of Alsatian sparklers that pique my interest. (One suggestion though: can we get a few more grower producers on there, like Chartogne-Taillet or Jacques Defrance?! I’ll totally be your best friend! Hell, if you can score an older vintage or 2 of Defrance’s Rosé des Riceys—one of the region’s few still products—like the ’82 or ’75 I tried last fall on a visit,

I’ll be your bitch 4lyfe.)

And: will geoducks make regular appearances among your specials, as they did the other night in sushi form? Because yay!

No questions about the regular menu, only praise for the chef so far. Whole-grain mustard vinaigrette furnished this gorgeous chunk of pork belly over mac & cheese with an unexpected touch of elegance;

a dish of poached salmon came together beautifully with parsnip puree, pine-nut pesto & especially those seriously luscious sous vide tomatoes mixed with braised fennel;

my companion’s perfectly cooked strip loin over bacon-fat baby potatoes & brussels sprouts boasted a blue-cheese foam that really made the dish—a heavier sauce would’ve been too much;

& best of all, maple crème brûlée with candied pecans & bacon bits was rendered with surprising delicacy. (How many exceptions to the rule of my indifference to custard must I encounter before the rule is null?)

When I return for a review rather than a preview, though, I’ll be all about the sushi—the full list of which wasn’t available during the soft opening—& the sake; I actually like the looks of that selection better than I do the sparklers. Stay tuned.

Epernay Lounge on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: Tomato-fennel bisque (& more) at Arugula Bar e Ristorante

Still with me, weight watchers? Let me tell you what a pleasure it was to leave Boulder’s Arugula last night feeling chipper rather than sluggish—feeling, for once, quite unlike Louis CK (you know, “The meal is not over when I’m full! The meal is over when I hate myself.”)

For starters, I actually heeded the advice of all those experts who recommend soup for its volumizing benefits. That is, it takes up stomach space you might otherwise devote to something more fattening—assuming, of course, that it’s not cream-based or something; bisque, for one, should be off-limits, defined by The Oxford Companion to Food as “a rich soup of creamy consistency, especially of crayfish or lobster.”

Being vegan, however, this tomato-&-fennel-based number fills that bill not a whit; it’s not really a bisque at all except in the very broadest terms—i.e., it’s pureed. Sticklers for etymological accuracy may thus grumble. Calorie counters will not. Because it’s very good! Small amounts of balsamic vinegar, olive oil & grated grana padano (for the non-vegans) give it some depth, smoothing out the sprightly vegetal edges.

Arugula also deserves credit for offering half-portions of pasta. Granted, what’s pictured below are full portions, namely of hand-rolled garganelli 2 ways: with Italian sausage, goat cheese, tomatoes & caramelized onions (top) & with roasted squash, apples, fontina, honey, rosemary & more sausage (bottom). And granted, neither is diet-friendly per se. But the al dente pasta’s just lovely—perhaps tossed in the sauté pan briefly for a touch of toast—& the earthy, tangy flavors fully melded, & the range of textures such that your mouth’s interest is held bite for bite, so you can slow down & savor. And if you can do that, you might even do what I did—only eat half. (Then again, if you can do that, you might as well go with the half-order & save yourself a few clams. Hindsight!)

When I’m not in dieting mode, though, I could come back to the below dish again & again.

Last I had it, it was called squid scampi, & boy, did it pack a punch (& undoubtedly a pound)—buttery indeed, but garlicky & acid-edged too, with lots of chopped herbs. The current menu lists it as “big squid” & mentions cherry tomatoes as well. Either way, it’s a nifty twist on a classic.

By the by, if it’s your wallet that has lost weight post-holiday, chef-owner Alec Schuler cuts some weekly deals: 3-course prix fixe menus ($26) on Mondays & Wine Wednesdays, when the entire selection by the bottle is 40% off. And a smart bottle list it is: neither boringly small nor bogglingly big, adamantly narrow or indiscriminately wide, it’s focused on charming picks from some of my own favorite regional Italian producers like Paolo Bea, Foradori & Alois Lageder.

All in all, a suavely low-key, serenity-inducing performance by Arugula.

Arugula Bar & Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Last day alert: Get yourself to Bittersweet for Ian Kleinman’s doughnuts, Sat. 1/26!

You may have heard that The Inventing Room’s Ian Kleinman’s been doing a doughnut & coffee shop pop-up this week at Bittersweet; tomorrow morning from 6-11am is your last chance to get in on the goods—& you damn well should, because they are so very good.

The selection of 10 flavors is posted on his catering company’s homepage; I tried 3, including the Tropical with mango buttercream, coconut mousse, brown sugar-braised pineapple & pomegranate bubbles,

the bananas Foster-inspired Banana-rama (below right), & the Carrot Cake (left) with cream cheese, candied carrots, rum raisins & crumbled walnut paper (fascinating).

If all doughnuts were as artful as these were—not just for their innovative & luscious fillings but for the pastry itself, its interior so tender it practically melted into the custard it was slathered with—the world would be a much better, albeit more somnolent, place.

A tablemate got the Oink (below top)—maple pastry cream, salted chocolate, spicy bacon & bacon-Nutella powder—& the PB&J (bottom) with burnt peanut-butter cream & grape caviar; behold:

I have just 2 suggestions for Kleinman: 1) how about some savory options, like a burrito-style doughnut with eggs, queso & green chile—or a Southern version with sausage gravy or ham & red-eye gravy! 2) how about opening a brick & mortar already? Your converts are waiting.

Imperial Chinese Restaurant: Define “imperial”?

To get all my usual disclaimers out of the way: a delivery order is not the same thing as a restaurant meal. You’re missing the ambiance & the service, which of course factor into a typical review—& by a majority of accounts to which I’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt, Imperial Chinese is lovely & smoothly run. You’re also risking the possibility that the increased time & space between the kitchen & your mouth will be detrimental to food quality—although if the restaurant in question is willing to deliver in the first place, it stands implicitly behind the results, which may not look quite as comely or be as piping hot as they would in house, but you’ll get the idea (especially if you avoid fried calamari or, um, soufflé or something that’s really best served immediately).

Taking all that into consideration, & recognizing that this place is something of a South Broadway institution, I nevertheless wouldn’t call anything we ordered on 2 occasions last weekend “imperial”—as in “royal,” “extravagant,” “magnificent,” etc. It was all pretty disappointingly commonplace, in fact.

I guess the best of the bunch were the Imperial noodles (pictured above right)—described on the website menu as containing chicken & shiitakes, but the round egg noodles were tossed instead with pork, scallions & peppers. Odd, but okay by me, though observers of various dietary strictures might object more strenuously. Simple but flavorful, nice & toothy, though I liked them even better when I splashed them with a little of the duck & mushroom soup (unpictured) that, by itself, was a bummer—starchy in texture, indifferently seasoned, highly suggestive of a packaged soup base—but that added a little moisture in lieu of sauce. Above left, the Director’s yue shang lamb—a variant spelling, I assume, of the more common yu hsiang, a term that usually indicates the presence of a fairly spicy, garlicky, salty-sweet sauce—wasn’t notably pungent, but at least the lamb & shiitake pieces were tender, the broccoli bright & crisp.

The “dim sum sampler” sure looked pretty by any measure, but proved a mixed bag. Pork shumai (right) were just fine, no better or worse than 100 other examples—unlike the gluey, drab har gow (shrimp dumplings, bottom). As for the green ones (left), the vegetarian filling was a pleasant surprise—cabbage, scallions, sweet winter squash, & what seemed to be couscous?! any ideas?—but the skins were doughy & chewy, not delicate & silky.

Which brings us to “Johnny’s seafood gumbo,” a supposed house specialty. Though brimming with perfectly firm-tender mussels, whitefish, scallops, shrimp & squid, the soup itself tasted exactly like equal parts gazpacho & sweet-and-sour dipping sauce—gloppy, cloying & just weird.

So I dunno. Imperial won’t be on my regular delivery rotation, that’s for sure. I may head there sometime to see if dining in yields a vastly different experience, but I won’t hold my breath in the meantime.

Imperial Chinese on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Sichuan Noodles (& oodles more) at Uncle

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s you know what! This LoHi noodle bar is almost everything it’s cracked up to be.

When the Director, Mantonat, Mrs. Mantonat & I arrived for dinner at 6, the casual, warmly lit little joint was already jumping. By the time we left at a quarter to 8, it was absolutely slammed; the line went out the door. As well it should. The menu is smart as hell: super-playful yet focused on the basic tenets of most Asian cooking—extreme freshness, cross-palate balance. There’s no “irreverence” without “reverence”; my own definition of “authenticity,” as I’ve said many times, hinges not strictly on tradition but on knowing the rules inside & out before opting to break them in good faith. Apparently chef-owner Tommy Lee believes as much himself.

Case in point: the steamed bao (Chinese buns).

Traditional bao are stuffed with a lot of delicious things—barbecued pork, bean paste, mixed veggies; you’ll find some of my local faves here, here & here. They do not generally contain avocado—a New World ingredient despite its adoption by Japanese sushi chefs—or breaded & fried cod, a fish whose importance to Atlantic & to some extent Mediterranean cuisines can’t be overstated, but which isn’t nearly so prevalent in East Asia.

Lee, however, has created a sort of hybrid between bao & sliders, & he gets away with it because a) the fillings are delectable—the cod firm & flaky & crunchy but not greasy, the grilled avocado almost custard-like in texture—& b) the buns themselves are beautiful, uniformly soft & silky. (I don’t know if they’re made in house or purchased, & I don’t particularly care, any more than I care that Biker Jim doesn’t make his own sausages. It’s cool when everything’s done on site, but a chef’s primary objective is to realize his or her creative vision with integrity & aplomb. Beyond that, so long as they get to point B, the route they take from point A is up to them. Sourcing’s no shame; they can’t all be churning butter & harvesting their own oysters.)

As for the beef tartare, whether or not you buy the story that it has its origins on the Mongolian-Manchurian steppes or whatever, it has a place here, in all its cubist glory.

The curious thing about tartare, to me, is its call for bold flavoring: if you season the meat delicately to let it “speak for itself,” it comes across as bland. If you go all out, the meat always seems to rise to the occasion—to see that spice & raise it. Paradoxical but true (think kitfo). Here, the use of sweet-spicy hoisin (&, I’d swear, fish sauce, though the menu doesn’t mention it) rightly highlights the bloody iron tinge of the minced beef; drag it through the sprinkling of minced garlic around the perimeter for an extra touch of pungency.

But the Dish of the Week, the one I loved most, may hew the closest to tradition: the Director’s Sichuan noodles.

Under that blanket of scallions & fried shallots are an abundance of thick, smooth, round noodles, lots of finely chopped pork & Chinese broccoli & a modicum of broth; when you mix it all up, what you’ve got is an immensely savory situation that has an almost creamy, gravy-like aspect. It’s not particularly spicy, despite the name; instead it’s memorably homey & hearty. Next time I’ll keep it all to myself.

Rather spicier was Mantonat’s kimchi stew, centered around a barely lightly egg; I only tasted the broth, but it was spot on with that sour, fiery, funky flurry of sensations.

Clearly—unlike the stereotype of its slobby namesake relative—Uncle is operating at an excitingly high level. So I’m inclined to judge it on its own terms—& therefore disinclined to give it a pass on a couple of kinks that could be easily worked out.

For example, I didn’t think my dish of rice noodles (pictured below right) was particularly well integrated; though the almost pâté-like wedges of herbed chicken sausage were killer, the charred brussels sprouts great on their own, the noodles the right texture, & the peanuts & julienned cukes a nice touch, they didn’t meld, perhaps primarily because they were dry—if there was any nuoc cham in there at all, I couldn’t tell. I ended up adding a lot of Sriracha not because the dish needed spice but because it needed moisture.

For another, the bibimbap (pictured left) was absolutely gorgeous but for one thing: because it wasn’t served in a stone bowl, it lacked the rice crust that, for me, is the cherry on top of the Korean classic. Now, according to this Saveur article, a dolsot isn’t mandatory; to return to that sticky authenticity issue, Lee’s decision not to use one is perfectly valid & by no means an indication of bad faith. It’s just: waah, no toasted rice!

Finally, while this isn’t & shouldn’t be the sort of place to stand on ceremony, ol’ Uncle probably should drag a few nieces & nephews in up the service quotient. As near as I could tell, there was only one guy working the floor the entire time we were there. And though he did an admirable job under the circumstances, the fact he was being pulled in every direction at every moment was somewhat disconcertingly obvious to all involved. Besides, with a little support he might have time for things like, say, getting to know the wine selection, especially if it’s going to include lesser-known varietals like Valdiguié—which, frankly, I’d never heard of, & I work at a wine magazine! Unfortunately, neither had he—or at least he couldn’t tell me where it was from, which a server should be able to do. To his credit, he did write the name down on a piece of paper for me (so I now realize that I actually do know the grape, by other names).

That said, I left Uncle exceedingly satisfied. It’s got gumption, pizzazz & soul in spades—& we’ve got a lot to look forward to from the young talent who runs it.

Uncle on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: L’Atelier’s Salade Niçoise

Straight up, L’Atelier in Boulder isn’t really my tasse de thé. Though I know what I’m about to say is positively gauche for a food writer to admit, French cookery in the Escoffier vein tends to kind of bore me. However rich & beautiful, it’s so cooked—it lacks rawness & soul. (Unlike the generally more rustic cuisine of the regions surrounding the nation’s capital, & with the exception of stuff like steak tartare, whose origins are murky but probably not Gallic anyway.) And though I’m sure Radek R. Cerny is every bit the culinary artiste the restaurant’s tagline or subtitle or whatever you’d call it claims him to be, & further recognize that his repertoire isn’t devoid of contemporary flair, it hews closely enough to the classic model, especially at lunch (pâté, coq au vin, steak au poivre), that I just can’t get into it—not least considering the rather dainty, linen-&-porcelain environs, in which a klutz like me feels on constant guard.

All that said, L’Atelier’s Niçoise salad does the trick. Granted, Nice is not Paris; it’s in Provence, where the food is Mediterranean in character. For that matter, this is not even a classic Niçoise, which contains neither seared tuna (it’s either canned or absent in favor of anchovies) nor potatoes (but rather bell peppers); I believe there are some quibbles over artichoke hearts versus green beans as well, though they’re minor. What this is, except for the choice of arugula over Bibb lettuce, is the version Julia Child popularized—& besides being pretty & precisely prepared & dressed in a fresh, simple vinaigrette, it’s perfect for the diet-minded individual insofar as the ingredients aren’t bite-sized. Instead of mindless shoveling, you have to cut them up, & spear a little bit of everything onto each forkful, & consciously experience how well they work together.

Slowing down & savoring, they say, is the key to better eating habits; my own mantra, however poorly practiced, has long been: “Appreciate, don’t anticipate.” I’ll keep this New Year’s mini-series going for the nonce in hopes of finally abiding by it, while offering a glimpse at local restaurant dishes that don’t break the scale for my fellow resolution makers.

Noshes for the New Year: Lola’s Tuna Poke

So 99 out of every 100 of us who have now embarked upon the dreaded post-holiday diet know perfectly well, deep down, that we’ll last a few miserable, white-knuckled weeks tops before succumbing to whichever of our myriad weaknesses is closest at hand.

I’m writing this while vacationing in Akumal, Mexico, where I owe the fact that I haven’t gained 5 pounds a day to 1 thing & 1 thing only: ceviche. Actually, long before it was well known in the States, I’ve loved ceviche (& its international variants—tartares, crudos, tataki, etc.) for its guilt-free pleasures: so much flavor, so little fat.

Poke, as I noted in my recent post on Corner House, is the Hawaiian equivalent of the South American original; so far as I know it’s made only with ahi tuna. Lola’s lusciously fruity, piquant take includes finely chopped papaya, pineapple, avocado, serranos, a touch of sweet chili sauce & cilantro alongside a chili pepper-dipped lime wedge & taro chips for scooping (or ignoring if you’re still in detox mode).

If a tad more sustenance is required, the farm greens salad rocks too, containing just enough goodies to keep you from sweating the fact that you’re not ordering fried oysters over sweet potato-chorizo hash or housemade pork rinds: pickled golden beets, warm green beans, roasted chiles, herbed goat cheese, radishes, toasted pumpkin seeds, fried tortilla strips & a fried egg—although I skipped the latter in exchange for grilled shrimp (steak or chicken are options as well)—in charred tomato-bacon vinaigrette. It maintains that perfect balance between healthfulness & satisfaction, such that you might not even be tempted to steal a bite of your companion’s chile relleno stuffed with black beans, roasted squash, mushrooms & smoked goat cheese in deep, dark chile rojo (pictured back) or to overdo it on the side of huitlacoche rice (which tastes more like tomato rice—I’d ask them to go heavy on the huitlacoche next time).