Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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

Dish of the Week: Linger’s raw meze trio

The last time I posted about Linger, I was enamored with its so-called raw samosas (not really anything like their Indian namesake, but memorably delicious nonetheless). Well, déjà vu. The free-wheeling, jet-setting small-plates menu always has at least 1 raw preparation; if you’re not familiar with raw-food “cooking,” to use a contradiction in terms, there’s some useful info here—& as healthful as it is in many ways, its copious use of plant-based fats like nuts, olives & avocados means it tends toward richness, not the dry, dreary vittles you might expect. Anyway, the current offering knocked me out all over again.

Though the menu listed my choice of grilled naan or flax crackers, I received take-’em-or-leave-’em pita wedges—which was fine; I’d have polished off the cashew ranch dip (left) & green-olive chutney (right) on cardboard. While the former was intensely thick & creamy & the latter surprisingly airy, both were luscious—not just twists but improvements on their respective standards. So was the beet “cheesecake” with date-pistachio crust (center; click to enlarge): tinglingly tangy yet balanced by its silken texture, savory-sweet, just superb on all counts.

As was most everything else. Linger really does capture the zeitgeist, don’t it? Local sources, worldly results; craft cocktails, ever-changing beers, wines by the glass for the enophile as well as the novice; electric but still comfy, not painfully edgy, vibe. I’m not sure the falafel balls made with carrots & lentils as well as the traditional chickpeas exactly matched their description: cashews, gingered shiitakes, zucchini pickle & more were also listed, yet may or may not have been present, & fried shallots weren’t listed yet clearly played a role. Regardless, their flavor was smackingly vibrant, enhanced by the chile-dusted lemon-tahini-yogurt dip, & smartly served on Bibb lettuce leaves, since their interiors were fairly soft & loose.

Also inspired were the French-onion mussels. Italians aren’t wrong about much, culinarily speaking, but their insistence that seafood & cheese don’t go together is way off-base. The umami of the broth, the salty gruyère & parmesan, the sweetly meaty shellfish, the tart crispness of sliced apples & fennel, the crunch of the warm grilled sourdough for sopping it all up—this dish was a reminder that there’s virtually nothing that can’t be combined if you’ve got the vision & the touch.

As for the coconut milk-based Thai soup known as tom kha gai, it doesn’t usually contain butternut squash or avocado, but their addition here provided buttery sweetness & warmth.

My companions & I dug into some other goodies as well—unusually creamy salmon ceviche with super-papery root-veggie chips, for instance,

as well as some bao, tacos & dosai. But it’s the raw dishes that will continue to, yes, linger in my thoughts. On that note, sister restaurant Root Down hosts a monthly Raw Food Night—I’d best amble over soon.

Noshes for the New Year: Camarones agua chile at Torres Mexican Restaurant

I’ll add my digits to Mark Antonation‘s 2-thumbs-up in Cafe Society this week for the camarones agua chile we shared during a recent meal with Denver on a Spit & c. at Torres Mexican Restaurant. Though akin to ceviche, it was different in a few key aspects: the shrimp—not chopped but rather butterflied whole—were, like the sliced cucumber & onion, still basically raw in their marinade of not merely citrus but a red-pepper flake-dusted purée of lime juice & serranos. The electric effect was one of savory melted sorbet—a fascinating discovery I won’t soon forget. (And did I mention healthful? A worthy inclusion in the diet-friendly New Year’s series for sure.)

I’d never heard of vuelve a la vida either until I ordered it; essentially cóctel de mariscos stuffed with scallops, shrimp, squid, oysters, & avocado, it was notable for being much less ketchupy-sweet, more tomato-brothy, than the standard—& thus more refreshing.

Both the tostadas generously topped with diced shrimp, octopus, whitefish, tomatoes, chiles & onions

& the caldo de pescado con camaron (which came with rice & warm tortillas) were simple, honest, generous & fine;

of the chicken mole

& the enchiladas suizas, I took only a small bite of the creamy (but not drippy), well-spiced beans, but I’d take Mark’s word for it that neither dish was worth returning for.

The margaritas on the other hand, might be, at least when quantity takes a front seat to craft—& sometimes it sure does,

especially on a cold winter’s night among friends in a cozy joint filled with regulars who set a festive mood.

Granted, that was broken by my accidental dash-&-dine, as said friends fended off a rather menacing floor manager while waiting for me to answer their increasingly worried calls. It’s all fun & games until someone stiffs the house.

Torres Mexican Food inc. on Urbanspoon

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