Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Deluxe: Delish, Dish for Dish

If, as I’ve claimed, all that keeps Black Pearl from being my neighborhood ideal is its budget-blasting wine list, and all that keeps Steuben’s from same is occasionally amateurish output, then all that keeps Deluxe from the title is precisely nothing.

This totally jazzy little joint—all black-on-tan and leopard print, the warm hum of wining-and-dining grown-ups counterpointing the cool silvertones of big-band swing—just wins me over with its easy pizzazz. I’ve mentioned my predilection for bar seating, the only disadvantage being less privacy; well, get a load of Deluxe’s two-seater—a veritable canoodling corner for borderline drunkards like us! I’ve given Steuben’s Abra the nod for the discretion that is the better part of friendliness; now, meet Derek (Derrick?)—funny & enthusiastic, but only to the extent you invite him to be. I’ve complained about wine lists whose boutique leanings belie the casual ethos of the eateries they supposedly represent; here, the wine list seems as though it was written just for a plain old ordinary oenophile like me—select yet unfussy, favoring ballsy reds from places other than California, it hovers around a price point commensurate with the pricing of the food.

And, on that note, the food itself? Likewise unfussy, but not for a moment uninspired. Robust, but not so you bust. The menu’s laden with signatures, so cravings for faves rarely go unmet, but the kitchen knocks out nightly specials to keep restless tastebuds from roaming too far from the home-away-from-home it has established itself as. (Sticky syntax is, in my case, a sure sign of epicurean excitement. Bear with me.)

Cases in point are the 2 appetizers we shared a few nights back. First, stellar steak tartare: textbook in almost every way, from its near-deliquescence to its perfect balance of secondary flavors—yolk, Dijon, caper—this staple diverges from the classic only in its all-the-more-luscious use of foccaccia rather than baguette points.

Tartar

Second, a special of potato skins—that foolproof fave circa 1985 that seems to be making a welcome, and classy, comeback—in this case via a mound of smoked salmon, caviar and tarragon cream. All told, a study in textural contrasts and salty complements.

Skins

Moving on to mains: while my huge smoked pork chop was, to my taste, just slightly overdone, as I welcome a hint of pink in my pig, it was by most standards done to a turn; but what really made the plate were the whipped sweet potatoes—intriguingly spiced, not merely nutmeggy, and not at all cloying—and the tender-crisp brussels sprouts, bathed in a bacon-sprinkled cider reduction.

Porkchop

My dear DC—let’s, from here on out, call him the Director (with a nod to galleygirl & her Commodore)—didn’t care quite as much for his grilled swordfish with cilantro pesto, avocado, black beans and hominy as he did for my chop; conversely, save for the fish’s slight (but only slight) dryness, I may have liked his even better for its tropical snap.

Swordfish

The fact that it all began with a fine flatbread reminds me it will soon be time to expound upon the importance of bread baskets to the overall dining experience. And also that right now it’s time for supper.

Flatbread

Dave & Buster’s—oh, the humanity(-ish)

As though a holiday week’s worth—make that a year’s worth, compressed into a week—of a real Iowa grandma’s meat and potatoes weren’t enough, we had ourselves some steak dinners the other night at Dave & Buster’s, where we went to catch UFC 79 on the big screen. Because what else are you supposed to eat while watching two men in a cage maul each other to a yummy pulp? A nice piece of salmon and a side of asparagus with a lemon wedge?

On a gut level, I have to admit I find a fair share of chain restaurant food tough to dislike. After all, it’s got visual appeal down to a ridiculous science; the dishes set before us looked exactly like the dish shown in the below photo from D&B’s website—right down to the perfectly fake grill marks on the sirloin and the colorful bits of mystery topping on the potatoes. As for flavor, it’s got plenty: fat + salt + flavor-enhancing additives in bright, shiny array pretty much = deliciousness. I vacuumed up every last shred of those greasy onions, infused with the bonus flavor of Fryolater oil undoubtedly ancient enough to qualify as fossil fuel.

Bdsteak

What’s more, franchises demonstrate dining democracy in action. The Burger King slogan “Have it your way” says it all: while, at a haute destination, what the chef says goes, low-to-middlebrow eateries operate on the principle that the customer knows best (which may, after all, be literally true, given the percentage of line cooks still in the teething stage). You want your steak bloody, you got it; you want it black-and-blue, you got it, no questions asked. (Hey, that steak looks just like those guys on TV!)

It’s on an intellectual level that I object to chains. I don’t want to know better than the chef; what’s the point of going out to dinner if not to have your culinary horizons broadened beyond the boundaries of your own kitchen? If he or she is going to take my advice as to how my meal should be prepared, why not just shove over and let me cook it myself?

On my first tour of Italy, I entered a tiny trattoria in the tiny village of Atrani, on the Amalfi coast, and was promptly greeted by the enthusiastic gent who served as the sole waiter as well as chef-owner. He clapped his hands and asked what I would like for him to bring me. He could, he said, make me any kind of pasta, any kind of sauce. He named some examples: I could have A with B, or C with D, or E with F…I said, oh, I’d like A, but could I have it with F?

He looked pained. No, he said gently but firmly. They don’t go together. Then he reiterated the acceptable combos.

That was the moment Italy became my one true place-love. I was charmed by my host’s loyalty to culinary tradition & the logic behind it, as well as by the un-American, oh-so-Euro notion that the guy with the dough, literal, could and should dictate to the guy with the dough, merely monetary. I let him choose my meal from start to finish—and returned the next night to relive the experience.

On that note, compare the above steak to that served at Black Pearl (no, I’m not on their payroll; I’ve simply got the memories and I know how to use them).

Bpsteak_4

It’s a mess, smothered in breadcrumbs atop a slick of olive oil & balsamic vinegar. The honchos over at D&B’s HQ would be scandalized: why, it practically looks homemade!

Having had it more than once, I can assure you that’s exactly how it tastes—like a real adult is cooking a real piece of meat, from a real cow with a real place of origin, just for you. How’s that for a slogan, BK?

Steuben’s shows me the $$$

Steuben’s is my Jerry Maguire: I love it for the neighborhood place it almost is. And I’m rooting for every inch of the little bit of room it has to improve.

It fits much of my criteria for a neighborhood place to a T—a capital T in some adorably funky font, no less, like Square Meal Hearty. With décor that puts a streamlined spin on the urban diner circa 1962—from the coffee-and-cream color scheme of the upholstery and floor tiles to the retro barware on display—it’s got the stylishly cozy vibe down pat. It’s got the stylishly cozy menu, too, a compendium of red-blooded, blue plate special–style neo-comfort food.

And more often than not, its substance is in league with its style. If it were even more often than not, Steuben’s would have me at hello every other day. As it is, it’s the waitstaff more than the kitchen crew who… completes…me.

Abra in particular (nickname Cadabra, natch) works the bar with verve and grace. Without ever obviously aiming to ingratiate herself (sticking to flashes of recognition rather than overbearing gestures of friendship), she almost always goes, in some subtle little way, above and beyond the call of duty (see: stylishly cozy service)—serving up brunchtime prosecco in a nifty cyclindrical flute for the price of a mimosa, say, or appearing with a free dessert when she finds she’s got one extra on her hands.

Flute_19

Like this strawberry bread pudding.

Breadpudding_8

No soft block of sugared egg, this really puts the bread in bread pudding—the crumb, the crust, the chew and all; in fact, it’s not so much pudding as jumbled French toast. Studded with strawberries and sided by vanilla ice cream, it was exactly what we didn’t need after a heavy meal…which is why it was exactly what we didn’t, but Abra did, know we had to have.

Said meal began with what’s listed on the menu, somewhat misleadingly, as “fried cheese.” To me, that ideally implies hunks of quality mozzarella, crusted as gently as possible, fried to a crisp, and served with a fresh, chunky herbed marinara. What arrived instead were more like crumb-coated, deep-fried grilled-cheese sandwich-sticks.

Friedcheese_8

In concept, it’s a charming twist on the original; in execution, the bread really puts the squeeze on the cheese, which now may as well be a parsley sprig for all it contributes to the whole.

Still, I managed to swallow my slight disappointment along with my share of the dish. The same went for a Caesar whose croutons were likely prepackaged; as I’ve mentioned (and as I’ll further explain in a future post), a Caesar is one of the most important tests I administer to any kitchen. Steuben’s gets maybe a C+ for its half-efforts.

On the other hand, a veritable passel of fried chicken far surpassed my expectations.

Friedchix_3

My other half let his other half polish off rather more than her share of four super-juicy pieces of poultry (IIRC, a wing, a breast and 2 legs), breaded for crunch and glisteningly, not drippingly, fried. The gravy, too, was a judicious goo, unctuous and salty and thick but not jellied.

As for washing it all down, Steuben’s is home to no oenophiles’ trove; pickings are slim. But then, anything more complex than a grape juice like the cheap house red would be wasted on tastebuds in such a down-and-dirty mood as the food here’s sure to put them in.

Rioja’s pork belly & Black Pearl’s chili-fried calamari: pictures!

In lieu of photos to illustrate my debut post compiling my Top 5 fave dishes in Denver thus far (nos. 4 & 5 to come soon—oh the suspense!), please enjoy these fine artist’s renderings by my beau over at La Pistola:

Fresh bacon, Rioja
Chili-fried calamari, Black Pearl
Porkbelly

Squid

Goldilocksian: The right place at the right time, part 2

Last spring I wrote a piece for Boston’s Stuff@night magazine that sought, with the help of local chefs, to define the quintessential neighborhood place in an era of (IMHO) rampant misappropriation of the phrase. If it weren’t for a grandiose wine list—with bottles starting at $40-plus (there are maybe 1 or 2 exceptions) and the majority running much higher, it’s strikingly and shamefully disproportional to the menu pricewise—Black Pearl would fit the profile, at least as I sketch it, perfectly; as it is (and as I’ve said), it comes close enough for me to pop in at least a couple times a month. Here’s how:

Stylishly cozy digs. Though in their thoroughly adult ways both stand together against the family place, a neighborhood joint is not the same as a corner dive. When a round of white Russians, jukebox nostalgia, another round of white Russians and increasingly sloppy turns of pinball are on the agenda, the latter’s what matters (and Gennaro’s, for one, delivers). The former, meanwhile, possesses just enough pizzazz to put the gleam in (rather than a glaze over—see “white Russians”) the eyes of couples, but not so much that singles don’t feel comfortable too. Snug & dim, woody & moody, Black Pearl strikes the ideal balance.

Stylishly cozy eats, for that matter. As the setting goes, so goes the menu. If, on the entire spectrum of independently run restaurants, you’ve got corner dives at one end and five-star destinations on the other, than somewhere in the middle is a subspectrum of neighborhood places with, say bar-and-grills at one end and contemporary cafes/bistros on the other. In the kitchen is neither a celebrity chef-tyrant nor an ever-changing lineup of hash-slingers, but a real cook, putting heart and thought into a menu whose ratio of creativity to comfort is roughly 1:1.

Perhaps, then, the closest synonym to “neighborhood place” is “home away from home.” The food that emerges from its kitchen bears close resemblance to what you’d cook yourself given greater resources/better skills than you’ll ever actually have. If it bears no such resemblance, being too esoteric of ingredient and/or elaborate of preparation, it’s likely neither palate nor wallet are up for the challenge of regular visits. If it bears an exact resemblance to what you already can and often do cook at home, then the point of regular visits is what, exactly?

On that note: behold Black Pearl’s grilled romaine, a smart defamiliarization of the Caesar—one of the ultimate litmus tests of a kitchen’s integrity, being so easy to compromise. Here the warm greens add a nifty twist with a hint of bitter char; grilled bread topped with fine white anchovies and a roasted garlic clove puts plain old croutons to shame; and the dressing is all tang and twang, just as it should be.

Caesar

Stylishly cozy service to boot. They may well know your name, but they don’t take the liberty of using it too often. They ask all the right questions and offer all the right suggestions—and none of the wrong ones—effortlessly. You have neither to flag them down nor wave them away with the promise/threat to flag them down if need be. Enough said, really. It’s all about genuine goodwill on the one hand and no-nonsense discretion on the other.

To be continued…

Celebreating

Recently my sweetie pie scored a super-duper new job title with the word “director” in it; I, in turn, scored a congratulatory dinner on his shiny new dime. We decided to add Izakaya Den on South Pearl to the sites we keep in heavy rotation come revelry-time (above all Rioja and Sushi Sasa). Having dropped by a couple of times to be pleased but not wowed, we hoped the third time would be the charm. (Though why it should be is beyond me; doing a quick Google search for the origin of that phrase yields only brilliantly shruggy non-answers like “Three seems to be the right number of times to try [something]. Two isn’t enough but four is too many.”)
Five small plates (izakaya are, essentially, Japanese tapas) and mumble-mumble glasses of wine later (a rich Salentein Malbec, not too juicy, $36), my first impression remains intact: in contrast to its stupidly popular sibling Sushi Den a few doors down—where each admittedly exquisite bite has to be taken into account to determine whether any given meal was worth the neo-yuppie hassle—Izakaya Den seems to me greater than the sum of its parts.
First of all, it’s a gorgeous joint—equal parts cozy, rustic Japanese cottage and cool sleek exhibition space, oozing with nooks and their unique vantage points. As at most places, we’re fond of the seating at the darkly glinting bar (not the sushi counter); it seems to be a truism that chowhounds prefer the discretion of bar service to the interjections of table service (I’ll explore the myriad reasons for this in another post). Second of all, the menu is just a joy to peruse; it’s hard to believe each tidbit could have so much in it.
On that note, as will become increasingly clear, my tastes are not subtle. In fact they’re pretty fluorescent, pretty blood-and-guts. So while I can appreciate, say, the precision of a classic French composition, my favorite dishes tend to be jumbles, throwing a bunch of wild flavors together and letting them work it out themselves or tear each other to pieces. (Boston’s Neptune Oyster [espeically under former chef David Nevins] again comes to mind—in fact, certain dishes never really leave, like the fried oysters with pickled beef tongue. And warm gruyère. And Russian dressing. And sauerkraut. Oh yeah. Pure edible chutzpah.)
And yet, at Izakaya Den, the simpler turns out to be the better. Could that be a function of Japanese culinary tradition—a reflection of its essential sparkling minimalism, its (if you will) ethnic purity, as compared to so-called New American cookery, all done in one big bold melting pot? Because while I got, for example, a guilty kick out of richness of the salmon roulade (see photo)—a vaguely Philadelphia roll-esque concoction—it doesn’t quite come together; from the smoked fish to the sake crème to the mango-jalapeno jam, each ingredient seems to pale next to the next.
Salmon
By comparison, the miso eggplant (see photo) is so lush and sweet, so velvety, that bright bits of red pepper and shiso leaf can only stand out in perfect contrast. Likewise, the short ribs are all about the deep, dark marinade, no more and no less, that renders their flesh so—don’t make me write it!—OK, toothsome. (Why is that word so embarrassing to food writers? Anyone have a theory?)
Eggplant
We’re celebreating again tonight, so make vicarious room in your mental belly.

Diner does Denver: a Top 5 list-in-progress

What a cyberschmuck, eh? Starting a food blog at the turn of 2008? What sort of exclusive scoops could a jalopy on the information highway like me, just chugging along, possibly deliver? Hey kids, keep your eyes peeled for pomegranates! Whoa, those wacky foams are funky fresh! Check out this chocolate cake—it’s all gooey in the center!

But allow me to explain. Back in Boston, where I worked, steadily enough, as a food writer for several years, blogging struck me as pointless. For one thing, I got paid to share my thoughts on food & drink; why would I bother to repeat myself for free? For a-somewhat-contradictory-nother, I spewed gratis daily as a regular poster on www.chowhound.com; and since the Boston-area board of that David-turned-Goliath of a gastronomic site is so active—the info so thorough and the constant debate so stimulating—it seemed to me I already had a blog, one I just happened to co-author with 10,000 other Beantown eatfreaks.

But now I find myself in Denver, shocked at the lack of info and debate about the local dining scene—especially given how dynamic it is, growing by leaps and bounds and heaps and mounds. We’re atop a working goldmine, y’all! So I humbly hope both to impart the nuggets of wining-and-dining wisdom I’ve dug up since moving here—and to glean from you still more glittering morsels.

On that note, here (in no particular order) are the 3 dishes that, thus far, have rocked my new Rockie-peaked world hardest.

Chili-fried calamari at Black Pearl.
Leaving the East Coast, I bade a sad farewell to superior seafood—only to find it throwing me a surprise party upon my arrival. Turns out it was here just chilling all along! (In hindsight, I should have known better—considering a) our global economy and b) the depletion of native populations due to overfishing, it’s no surprise everyone’s flying their finny supplies in from everywhere; much of the sashimi I now snap up at Sushi Sasa [see below] comes from the same famed market in Tokyo as that I inhaled at Boston’s Uni.)
Anyway, this is not your average fried calamari, breaded and deep-fried beyond recognition, doomed to be drowned in the deluge of spaghetti sauce-slash-salsa-from-the-jar most marinara amounts to. Think rather lightly crusted, spice-dusted, presumably pan-fried slabs of flesh (likely cut from the filets of giant squid?), so meltingly tender that no other ingredient is needed to boost their flavor: their texture is their flavor, as gently salty-sweet as, say, sliced baby’s butt. (I’m guessing.)

Fresh bacon at Rioja.
Is the image of infant tush pushing it? How about little piggie tummy? Ever since the notion of nose-to-tail eating reared its, um, nose-to-tail, ugly but yum, a few years ago, pork belly—essentially bacon at its most pristinely fatty—has been popping up all over even the fancy-pantsiest of menus, not as a finishing touch but as the starting point. With this appetizer, Rioja grants it the respect it turns out to deserve. The porcine equivalent of birthday cake, one thick slice yields the cushiest of layered interiors, quintessentially savory rather than salty—the icing on which is of course its freshly crisped lid. Offsetting its lushness just as ice cream does cake’s is a sort of light curry of fresh chickpeas—which, unlike their dried counterparts, indeed possess something of the off-sweetness of green peas. Kudos to the kitchen for handling something so hearty with such delicacy, showcasing it so subtly, as to reveal the synonymity between the humble and the noble.

Miso black cod at Sushi Sasa.
Why, it’s piscine pork belly. Enough said.

At least, that is, for now. In a future post I’ll compare Sasa’s version to those at other local sushi strongholds; in another I’ll drop top dishes 4 & 5. If you’re reading, many thanks.