Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

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).

Welcome Mat(ty) at Corner House Neighborhood Eatery

The Jefferson Park space, already weathered amid recycled woods of all stripes (pine, cedar, hickory), is tiny. The menus are tiny, at least at present, listing only a handful of items for both daytime & evening. But Corner House feels big—filled with light & personality, above all that of big-hearted chef Matt Selby (“Matty” to many).

Prior to the opening on 1/11, the original Steuben’s & Vesta Dipping Grill vet has pared the original list of about 40 dishes down to just a few unanimous staff favorites; he’ll gradually expand it over time, but until then you’ll be privy to such nibbles & sips as:

Sean Kelly’s roasted almonds—named for the fellow longtimer Selby calls one of his heroes, they’re tossed with olive oil, garlic, rosemary & chilies, & I couldn’t keep my grubby mitts off them—& the PCP, whereby a glass of Port-style wine from Paso Robles’ Justin Vineyards is topped with shaved prosciutto San Daniele & Manchego, which you’re invited to dip into the drink or eat separately.

A sunny little snack of kampachi (a type of yellowtail) dotted with supremes of orange & yuzu, slivered Manzanilla olives & jalapeños, & a pinch of smoked salt; this is the kind of precise arrangement that bids you include a touch of each element in every bite for the full effect, which is much bolder than the sum of its seemingly delicate parts.

The tuna-poke bowl: poke is essentially Hawaiian ceviche, here served over a small mound of sushi rice & topped with sliced avocado & a sprinkling of roasted seaweed. The flavors are clean, clear, a touch herbal & fruity—instant classic. I could eat this for breakfast on a daily basis.

Chocolate duck-egg crème brûlée. Pal Tyler Wiard of Elway’s, Selby told me, “loves duck eggs. We were talking all the dishes he’s used them in & I asked, ‘What about crème brûlée?’ He thought about it & shook his head. So I feel like I beat Tyler to the punch with this.”

As someone who craves neither chocolate nor custard, I have to confess I was crazy about it—so toasty & smooth & mellow.

Speaking of brûlee, the Clay Street Collins was distinguished for me by its garnish, a torched lemon wheel that added a ray of warmth to the blend of gin, herbal liqueur, IPA (in this case from Avery, though it may vary), & simple syrup; between the citrus, the herb-&-barley tones, & the Ball jar it was served in, it possessed a rather soothing, tea-like quality.

Though the whiskey-based Three-Oh-Three contained both chai liqueur & apple cider, it proved surprisingly light & none too sweet, illustrating bar manager Gerard Collier’s knack for the balance so key to cocktailery.

About 10 wines & microbrews round out the beverage list, along with Novo coffee drinks for the morning shift. As for the rest of the repertoire, think deceptive simplicity: a panino of curry-smoked chicken-thigh meat with Brie, pickled onion & scallion mayo; roasted squash soup with lobster & mushrooms; foie gras cured in truffle salt, drizzled in pear gastrique & accompanied by pickled cauliflower & brioche.

Culinary theatricality, in short, is not the raison d’être of Corner House; low-key, comfy conviviality matters most. It all goes back to the origin of the word restaurant—to restore. To revive. To replenish. I foresee many an hour slipping by unmarked here.

Denveater’s “Year in Eater” Standbys

In Eater’s roundup of local writers’ top picks for 2012, I named Beatrice & Woodsley & Panzano my standbys. I’d have said the same last year & the year before that too, pretty much by definition. Granted, there are plenty of places I love equally, for all kinds of reasons. But a place becomes a standby for rather personal ones. It’s not just that everything on the menu appeals but also that you feel so good there: inspired & transported, as in the case of B&W, or utterly relaxed, as at Panzano. And whaddaya know—I’ve been to both in recent weeks, & done as right as ever by both.

If you’ve visited neither in some time, here are a few current items worth trying. At B&W, the wilted-greens cobbler with sausage & cheddar spoonbread (behind the cheese plate, below) boasts that bygone sensibility, that deeply homey savor that is chef Pete List’s hallmark, as though he’d found his recipes written in cursive in a yellowed old notebook, invoking potbellied stoves & well water. (Actually, he does do lots of research on historical American cookery, so there you go.) I once had escargots here that were way too salty, but this batch (pictured right) was spot on, bathed in butter spiked with Pernod & piquillo pepper alongside warm, soft olive bread—enough to sop up all the drippings.

The cod on the left came with bright pea brandade & smoked onions; how the delicately flaky fish stood up to both I can’t fathom, but it did. On the right, earthy, crunchy-velvety feta-&-oat croquettes made a splash amid spaghetti squash in tomato vinaigrette—much like a dish I dug recently at Euclid Hall.

As for Panzano—I usually avoid chefs’ counters, because putting my nose in their business while ignoring the business of the one that brung me strikes me as doubly awkward. But this place is an exception, because it’s too much fun to watch chef Elise Wiggins switch from English to Spanish while balletically navigating the closet-sized open kitchen with her crew.

Like everyone else, I’ve had brussels sprouts in every way, shape & form over the past few years; it seems they, of all things, have finally succeeding in nudging beets out of the top veggie spot. (What’s next? I hope it’s celery. I mean, celery’s key to mirepoix & so forth, but it rarely plays the central role its awesomeness warrants.) But here at year’s end, I’ve had 2 of the best takes on sprouts in quick succession: Ace Eat Serve’s & this one.

Both are fried, because fried! But while Ace’s skews Asian with shishito peppers, sesame seeds, & lime, Panzano’s version has an Italian agrodolce (sweet-sour) thing going on, tossed with toasted pistachios, reduced cider vinegar & rosemary salt & topped with green apple. Unexpectedly refreshing.

We also took delight in a special of baby octopus braised with tomatoes & capers over soft polenta. Set in a pool of spiced oil, this was, conversely, unexpectedly rich. Nothing wrong with that, of course, & Wiggins’ touch with every Italian starch—pasta, polenta, etc.—is so light & smooth.

That goes double for her gnocchi, which we had 2 ways that night: once made with pumpkin & served with the smoked pork chop I named one of my top 10 dishes of 2012, the other sauteed with rabbit confit, tomatoes, mushrooms, & leeks, then sprinkled with gorgonzola. Quite the cool combo, though I was so enamored with the chop I only had room for a few bites.

On that note, may 2013 be full of equally filling moments!



Dish of the Week: Lettuce with Pickled Tofu Sauce (& more!) at Hong Kong Barbecue

You’d think, after a matinee of Django Unchained, the Director & I would have been feeling particularly bloodthirsty upon stopping by the real-dealio Hong Kong Barbecue for takeout on Xmas Day, where the delightful family in charge was tending to 2 other couples of (I’m guessing) my tribal ilk as they dug into heaping platters of roast duck, whole fried fish, & garlicky pea shoots.

But of the quartet of dishes whose every last bite we adored, it was the titular vegetable (pictured on the right) that proved for me the ultimate revelation.

I’d initially ordered water spinach with pickled tofu sauce & jalapeños, but they were out of that, so I got the variation sauteed with romaine instead. Either way, if I’d thought about it too much beforehand, I might have gotten cold feet; after all, it should’ve occurred to me that “pickled” is synonymous with “fermented”—& one of my greatest gastronomic shames is that fermented soy beans, known to the Japanese as natto, absolutely turn me green with revulsion, try as I might to undo the damage done by Steve, Don’t Eat It!’s now-classic diatribe against the stuff.

But as it happens, fermented bean curd is a whole different (non-)animal, not unlike a soft cheese; this source nails the description as “reminiscent of Camembert, with a hint of anchovy flavor.” Turned into a thin sauce, it becomes a sort of Asian Alfredo—creamy & gently funky & spiked with the fresh green zing of sliced jalapeños—to highlight the distinct vegetal heartiness of the romaine, which is so much more obvious when it’s cooked than when it’s raw.

Pictured left is fish-ball curry, also a winner. Likewise relatively thin—the gloppiness one tends to associate with bad Chinese-American fare is nowhere to be found here—the curry was sprightly, dominated by the tang of ginger & onions, & the fish balls addictive, with the texture of scallops but the clear flavor of whitefish & whitefish alone (if they use any filler, it’s minimal). Chunks of red & green bell pepper & celery added a touch of contrasting crunch.

Satisfied as I was, I couldn’t keep my paws off either the Director’s ultra-treyf house-special fried rice with both shrimp & barbecued pork as well as scrambled egg (oy vey, kids) or his minced pork with sweet-potato glass noodles.

You can see for yourself how beautifully 2-toned the gristle-free pork on the left is, & the plump, firm shrimp were no slouches either, but the rice itself really brought it all together—only lightly fried to offer a little toastiness rather than soaked through with cooking oil. As for the dish on the right, it too was all about the slight sweetness of the actual, crisp-fried noodles & their thorough integration with the bits of tender pork & loads of bright carrot & celery—robust to be sure, but surprisingly variegated in effect.

The menu goes on & on, yet the number of concessions to whitebread expectation are refreshingly few compared to the myriad hot pots, congee bowls, & specialties rife with duck’s tongue & jellyfish, gingko nuts & lotus leaf. I won’t be waiting until next holiday season to explore it further.

Hong Kong BBQ on Urbanspoon

Year in Review: Denveater’s Top 10 Dishes of 2012

Damn. For someone who’s always bitching about everybody else’s pork fetish, this here’s a pretty piggy, veggieless roundup. What can I say? These are the dishes that lingered in my memory long after the last bite.

You’ll notice, too, that most of them are relatively simple affairs—things you could practically eat every day. (The links will take you to the posts in which they originally featured.) That wasn’t by design either; I’m a natural-born novelty freak. But perhaps this list, in its comforts, is all the more useful. After the 2012 we all had, we need them.

Foie longjohns at The Squeaky Bean (with renewed apologies for the cruddy photo)

Panzano’s smoked Berkshire pork chop with pumpkin gnocchi, gorgonzola fonduta & cranberry-rosemary marmalade (Actually, this has yet to link to a post, because I had it for the 1st time just last night. But wow, what a winner. Epitomizing chef Elise Wiggins’ lusty style, the meat put a hell of a lot of barbecue to shame, holding court with both the bracing sweetness of the preserves & the saltiness of the cheese sauce—& the gnocchi were just perfect, as if made by someone with air for hands.)

Amala with fish stew at Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine

Bramble & Hare’s Mulefoot rib with pork-skin noodles

Phat Thai’s whole fried tilapia

Pork & beans at Central Bistro & Bar

Sesame-seed paste at Ace Eat Serve (condiments being, after all, the most important food group)

Doughnuts at Tom’s Urban 24 (this comes as a surprise even to me, but so be it—they’re just that swell)

Stuffed buns from Paris Baguette

Mateo’s signature burger, an exemplar of the genre—one I crave more often than I’ve ever craved any burger

BIG NEWS of the cookbook ilk. That’s my excuse.

You may recall how, in the fall of 2011, I posted at the pace of an escargot while working on the Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder, which Globe Pequot released this summer.

And you may have noticed that this fall, I’ve been similarly mum.

That’s because I was slammed with a second GP project, this one titled Denver & Boulder Chef’s Table. The next-summer release will burst at the seams with recipes from over 50 local restaurants, not to mention sizzling photographs from gentleman-chef Christopher Cina.

Look for it, buy it, love it up.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some soul searching about this here opus. Having made my name as a food writer in Boston over the course of 6 years, I moved to Denver in August 2007 & started blogging in early 2008 as a way to immerse myself in the scene and promote my work at the same time. Though it took a while, I guess I’ve succeeded, with my share of freelance gigs, a full-time job that I love at Sommelier Journal, & 2 book titles under my (now much bigger) belt.

Writing about restaurants will always be my passion. But is this the best outlet, the best format? Of what use are my reviews to readers—those that are left following my absence? Given that I rarely do recipes & that Cafe Society’s got all the news coverage anyone could ask for, are there other things you’d like to see here?

While you & I ponder, I’ll get back to publishing the sorts of posts I’ve been dishing up for 4 years now, but I dunno. Could be time to hang it up or shake it up…

Dish of the Week: Mushroom Burger at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant

I first went to Leaf a few years back & frankly didn’t much care for it, other than the pretty, airy space, with its blond woods & waterfall sculpture & green-tea ice-cream hues.

Nor was I expecting much from this homely thing.

But talk about deceiving looks. Slathered with vegan rémoulade (essentially a pungent, red-peppery mayonnaise) on whole wheat toast, it stars a lusciously velvety, meaty, nutty patty of portobellos and walnuts topped with melted provolone; bursting with flavor, it barely needs tomato or red onion, though leaves of butter lettuce add a nice touch of greenness.

I’ve been making the veggie-burger rounds lately & this is up there with my faves, along with that of TAG Burger Bar; when in Boulder town, do give it a try.


The smell of kimchi & aji in the morning: Zengo launches brunch

A few weeks back, Zengo launched a weekend brunch whose terms of service may seem highly irregular in the upscale circumstances: it’s all you can eat & drink for a $35 prix fixe. The average customer had better have a smaller appetite than me, or this set-up won’t stand—after all, we’re not talking about some sloppy buffet of oatmeal & link sausage but small plates that reflect flying restaurateur Richard Sandoval’s vision of Latin-Asian fusion no less than the dinner menu does.

Certainly the theme makes for some adorable hybrids, like salmon Benedict with kimchi & bao (steamed buns) spread with salsa verde, then stuffed with bacon & scrambled eggs, plus a sprinkling of queso Oaxaca.

The latter lacked something in translation—maybe the fillings would cohere better in omelet form—but a little tweaking would be no thing. Fully realized, however, were both the Peking duck chilaquiles & the short rib hash.

In the former (pictured left—click to enlarge), juicy, shredded roast duck, a little pickled onion, guajillo salsa & cotija both crumbled & infused into crema mingled beneath a fried egg atop hot, crisp tortilla chips—the flavors well integrated, the textures layered. As for the latter (right), glistening against glass, the poached egg ruled the roost of shredded beef rib browned with cubed yuca & onion, the yolk enriching the pan drippings.

The last of the sushi roll pictured in back & a quartet of potstickers were just fine if not, sans any Latin flourishes, especially true to style. But overall it’s a saucy extension of the repertoire. Bring on the guava mimosas.