Miscellany & Poetry - On food, wine, film, lit & then some.

Nevermore a cutievore!

Having gone bonkers for Planet Earth, that soul-boggling Discovery series featuring creatures I’m convinced are from anywhere but—birds of paradise like maniacal wind-up toys and body-snatching mushrooms and glowworms so closely resembling strands of pearls you’d think their habitat were jewelry stores—and spouting facts I’m equally sure are sci-fi: deep-sea mountains taller than Everest! Dolphins never sleep!, I hereby swear off…

well, not meat-eating. Let’s be reasonable. I mean that—while I bow deeply to those who choose vegetarianism, I consider it a superhuman endeavor, in the literal sense of the adjective. Conversely, though, most Westerners obviously eat meat in excess—which is also, in a sense, a superhuman activity; humans are animals, and most animal species don’t practice overconsumption or suffer from obesity. To me, then, deriving just enough protein from the richest, most straightforward sources makes the healthiest human sense.

But what to do when an embarrassment of riches is also a bundle of loveable joy? I allude, of course, to the octopus. On the one hand (arm!), it’s high in potassium, iron & zinc as well as protein. On the other hand (arm), come on! An octopus has no bones, three hearts and baby-blue blood! What! It’s as smart as your cat! And its aesthetic instincts are utter genius—its powers of camouflage the stuff of painterly masterpieces, its ink jets the coolest defense mechanism a writer can fathom.

Wanting to hold one and love one, I solemnly vow to renounce octopus, be it sliced into sashimi or chopped into spaghetti con frutti di mare or…oh man, grilled with olive oil, garlic and lemon? OK, I solemnly vow to try to renounce octopus.

Octopus-RY

vs.

Octopus-grilling_320

As for the lowly, lonely, lovely turtle—I long ago gave my word to Prince Myshkin, my dear little reptilian idiot who wallowed without a care in his dishful of mashed banana, that my lips would never touch any member of his family unless in the act of kissing. Whether he heard me remains a mystery, as does the length of time that transpired between his death and my awareness of same.

So there you go: in the name of gastromorality, I’m giving up octopi & turtles. And any and all fungi with the ability to blast holes straight through my body from the inside. I mean, unless they’re really, really good.

Northeast/Southwest Showdown Pt. 2: World Series of Chow

I’ve been writing since before I could tie my shoes (first short story, age 4: “The king and the qween got marred. The end.”) But that food writing in particular was my destiny wasn’t clear to me until one night in my mid-20s, after a huge red-sauce Italian dinner out with my then-boyfriend (we’ll call him, oh, Bluto). As we waddled, groaning, out of the restaurant, I spied a new eatery across the street and headed over to peruse the menu posted in the window—much to Bluto’s dismay. “How,” he demanded to know, “can you even think about more food right now?” Huh, good question, I admitted. Never was the phrase “food for thought” more apt.

I’ve been thinking and writing about it ever since—and, just as important, cultivating relationships personal and professional with like-minded, like-bellied individuals (bye bye, Bluto) from coast to coast. In the course of missing my old drinking-and-dining buddies back in Boston and discovering new ones here in Denver, it occurred to me to gather some of them together in cyberspace and turn my recent monologue on the two cities’ respective culinary profiles into a conversation.

Welcome, then, my distinguished panel: from the East Coast, we have the dapper MC Slim JB, a contributor to Boston Magazine and the Boston Phoenix, among other publications, with a black belt in all things bar-related; from the Rocky Mountain region, here’s Claire Walter—author of Culinary Colorado (both book and blog) as well as of numerous tomes on snowsports—and Joey Porcelli, enviable world traveler, author of Rise and Dine: Breakfast in Denver and Boulder and co-author (with Clay Fong) of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range.

Denveater: Tell us about one ingredient and/or dish you think tastes better in your city/region than anywhere else in the world.

Slim: North Atlantic seafood: Gulf of Maine shrimp—never frozen, with only brief seasonal availability; steamer clams; countneck and littleneck clams; stuffed quahogs; raw Wellfleet oysters; pan-roasted or boiled Maine lobster. That’s not really a single dish, so I’ll nominate the New England clam boil, which combines many of these beautifully, and adds in elements of the Yankee boiled dinner: onions, root vegetables, cheap meat (frankfurters and/or Portuguese linguiça and chouriço), and lots of broth. Green Street in Cambridge offers a fine one-dish version in warmer weather.

Claire: I haven’t been all over the world, so keep that in mind. [But] Colorado lamb is first-rate. I don’t eat much red meat anymore—I’m in Boulder, after all—but when I do, it’s usually local lamb. Western Slope stone fruit (peaches, apricots, cherries, sometimes plums) is also outstanding.

Joey: The one ingredient I think [Coloradans] excel at is green chile. You can find these smoky peppers roasting outside many local restaurants; Jack-N-Grill on Federal does an outstanding job in its parking lot. They’re not like the slimy green bits you buy in little cans at the grocery store—in fact there’s nothing quite like a batch of freshly roasted green chile on top of a just-off-the-grill flour tortilla. My nephew flies here from Seattle expressly to buy them.

Denveater: Tell us about one dish or type of cuisine you think your city/region excels at unbeknownst to most.

Joey: As an Italian Midwesterner (now there’s an oxymoron) who grew up on pot roast, Jell-O, and mashed potatoes along with eggplant parmigiana and lasagna, I was surprised, when I moved to Denver 30 years ago, at how many quality ethnic restaurants we have here. Some even rival the coasts. Probably the most unexpected for me were the Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants dotting the city. The hummus at Ali Baba in my hometown of Golden is by far the best I have ever eaten—creamy, tasty and floating in olive oil.
We also have a hidden gem in Indian chef Biju Thomas, who is now knocking ’em dead with his new menu at Swimclub 32 in the Highlands neighborhood. Biju—a bike-racing stand-up comic turned chef—makes curry that ranks up there with Vij’s in Vancouver. And that’s the highest compliment I can give!

Claire: While Colorado’s Chinese food is, by and large, mediocre, many of its Japanese and Southeast Asian—Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian—restaurants are excellent. Most of the pho retaurants (Pho 88, Pho 99, Pho 88, Pho Fusion) do wonderful versions of this Southeast Asian comfort food. Chez Thuy in Denver is a recently renovated Vietnamese classic with lots of Chinese specialties too. I haven’t been there for some time, but did like the curries and soups. It has been getting mixed reviews lately for both food and service. Westminster is Vietnam Central. For Thai food, Chada Thai and maybe Swing Thai or US Thai. Maybe I also should have suggest the Himalayan/Tibetan restaurants here—Sherpa’s in Boulder and Tibet House in Louisville. Food is simple and hearty—as can be expected from mountain folk.

Joey: For Thai food, I love Erawan. Personal service, great pad Thai and mango rice pudding that melts in your mouth. Ask for Arthur to get the history of the place. Tell him I sent ya.

Slim: [New England’s] hidden center of excellence: Portuguese and related cuisines. Our fisheries were long manned by immigrants from Portugal, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil, and that culinary influence is everywhere. Nobody shows off our great local seafood better in their cooking. We have great small restaurants reflecting the cuisines of each of these Portuguese-speaking communities, with excellent bakeries, pastry shops, and sausage-makers. On a single quarter-mile stretch of East Cambridge, you can get a superb Bahian moqueca, mainland Portuguese-style pork and clams, and a fine Portuguese-American chouriço sub, while Dorchester has a couple of great Cape Verdean restaurants.

Denveater: Imagine that you relocated cross-country—you, Slim, to the Southwest; Claire & Joey, to New England. What do you think you would miss most, foodwise? What would you anticipate most?

Slim: What I’d miss most: the handful of bars here that feature great, modestly priced cooking along with superb cocktail making: the Franklin Cafe, B-Side Lounge, Audubon Circle, Green Street, Silvertone, Alchemist, etc., where I’ve built up “regular” status. Not only do I expect such places to be in shorter supply elsewhere, but I’d be starting from zero again in building up those relationships. As someone who is practically required to try every new place that comes along, I like to remind people that it’s as important to cultivate regular status at a few favorites, and so enjoy the very different class of service that such patrons get.

What I’d anticipate: real Southwestern (AZ/NM) style cooking—which effectively doesn’t exist in Boston—and greater access to authentic Mexican cookery with some regional diversity, which Boston still sorely lacks.

Joey: If I moved to New England, I would eat seafood 24 hours a day. Lobster rolls and linguini with vongole in white wine sauce would almost make me forget the chicken enchiladas and chile rellenos from the Mexican restaurants here. (I think the best Mexican meal in Denver is at Taqueria Patzcuaro on 32nd. Their guacamole is amazing; their grilled shrimp with homemade tortillas, beans and rice is a huge bargain. In Boulder, it is La Gonzales Carniceria, a little out of the way grocery, that makes tacos with every type of meat imaginable. Cheeky.) I would also seek out great Italian restaurants that know how to make sauce without sugar in it.

But I would really miss dinner at Frasca. Just the thought of the homemade gnocchi and coconut gelato sends me into raptures. And hosts Bobby and Danette epitomize the word hospitality.

Claire: I’d miss the good hole-in-the-wall taquerias like Pupusas in Boulder for Mexican/Salvadoran tacos-plus. Cheap and good.
I’d know what to expect in New England since that’s where I grew up: boiled or steamed lobster that the restaurant did not feel obligated to open up, because New Englanders already know how to do it.

Claire and Joey, how would you cure Slim’s homesickness for the sort of simple, intimate contemporary supper lounges he frequents in Boston? Me, I’d take him to Deluxe, a twinkly little nook that passes my neighborhood place test with flying colors.

Claire: If Corridor 44 has a good chef right now (they have, on and off), I’d take him there on Larimer Square. Tahona Tequila Bistro in Boulder has fantastic tequilas and tequila-based mixed drinks, a dynamite happy hour and good food. If he was in the mood for a Manhattan, we might just have to look elsewhere.

Denveater: Check it out, Slim—happy hour’s alive and totally kicking here in Denver! (Not so in Boston, where allegiance to many a blue law is as staunch as it is stupid.)
And you just might find that Manhattan at classic downtown luxury hotel bars like The Brown Palace or the Oxford’s Cruise Room.

Joey: I’d take him to Zengo for a fantastic mojito, while my husband would take him to My Brother’s Bar for a beer—it’s got a nice neighborhood feel, baskets of fries, and a spicy turkey sandwich.

Denveater: I hear it’s also got one of the city’s best burgers, no?

Denveater: Slim, you & I know very well about Boston’s wealth of vera cucina italiana. If Joey came to town with her beautifully simple request for genuine, sugar-free red sauce and/or linguine alle vongole, where would you take her? And if Claire arrived with a hankering for her beloved lamb, where would you take her for a dish she might not be able to find in Denver?

Slim: Ricardo’s, Vinny’s at Night, Antico Forno or Massimino’s.
A couple of lamb ideas: Union Bar & Grille for roast rack of lamb (not especially novel, but a lovely version of a classic) or Brookline Family Restaurant for hunkar begendi (Sultan’s Delight), a subtly spiced lamb stew over a featherweight eggplant puree (like most dishes here, kind of swoony).

Denveater: Man oh man, do I miss Antico Forno’s baked pastas—mascarpone, sausage and plum tomatoes, oh my—and BFR’s lahmacun.

Denveater: Bonus round! What if the 2007 World Series had been played by chefs? Who would represent the Sox, who the Rox?

THE SOX LINEUP PER SLIM

Player
Josh Beckett: the young staff ace. Added new pitches to his searing fastball to round out his game and achieve dominance.
Chef
Ken Oringer (Clio et al.)

Player
David Ortiz: the veteran slugger, a gentle giant, much beloved, does only one thing but does it better than just about anybody.
Chef
Gordon Hamersley (Hamersley’s Bistro)

Player
Manny Ramirez: an eccentric genius, hard-working with great consistency and formidable skills.
Chef
Jamie Bissonnette (KO Prime)

Player
J.D. Drew: overpaid, not exactly lovable, but has the tools and occasionally hits a big home run.
Chef
Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park et al.)

Player
Jonathan Papelbon: young, crazy, goofy, relentless, with undeniable talent.
Chef
Jason Santos (Gargoyles on the Square)

Player
Daisuke Matsuzaka: the pricey exotic import, incredibly talented but still adjusting, great upside.
Chef
Tim Cushman (o ya)

Player
Curt Schilling: once a game-changer, now mostly bluster and ego, but still worth having around.
Chef
Michael Schlow (Via Matta et al.)

Player
Tim Wakefield: aging, won’t blow you away, but crafty, prolific, workmanlike and reliable.
Chef
Seth Woods (Aquitaine et al.)

Player
Dustin Pedroia: lacks headline-grabbing gifts, but compensates with old-fashioned guts—a key future building block.
Chef
Peter Sueltenfuss (Green Street)

Player
Jason Varitek: a wise old student of the game, a bit past his prime, but with great leadership skills.
Chef
Lydia Shire (Locke-Ober et al.)

Player
Kevin Youkilis: unflashy, versatile, modest, bargain-priced, a superb everyday player—what every team needs more of.
Chef
Zamir Kociaj (Trattoria Toscana)

Player
Mike Lowell: the MVP, well-liked, well-respected, well-rounded, and delivers in the clutch.
Chef
Ana Sortun (Oleana)

Player
Jacoby Ellsbury: the future superstar, a five-tool player with brains as well as enormous talent.
Chef
Jeff Fournier (51 Lincoln et al.)

Player
Hideki Okajima: the sleeper foreign import, a gifted prodigy that no one saw coming.
Chef
Angela Atenco Lopez (Angela’s Café)

Player
Nomar Garciaparra: became a superstar here, but no one much misses him now that he’s moved on.
Chef
Todd English (Olives et al.)

THE ROX LINEUP PER CLAIRE

Lachlan McKinnon-Patterson (Frasca) as the team captain.

Bradford Heap (Colterra in Niwot)
Frank Bonnano (Mizuna, Osteria Marco et al.)
Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja, Bistro Vendome)
Bertrand Bouquin (Broadmoor in Colorado Springs)
Thomas Salamunovich (Larkspur in Vail, Larkburger in Edwards)
Mark Fischer (Restaurant Six89 and Phat Thai in Carbondale)
Chad Scothorn (Cosmopolitan in Telluride and Durango)

And because every team now needs a Japanese player, Gaku Homma (Domo). If I had answered this just a few days ago, before my long-overdue first time there, I would not have nominated him, but I was knocked out by the food.

The Rox alas traded away Adam Mali (now playing for some California team), Bryan Moscatello (Washington Capitols) and Charles Dale (Atlanta Braves).

THE ROX LINEUP PER JOEY

My team is going to be in a league of its own. I will call them the Roxettes, with all-female chefs. (My apologies to Matt Holliday fans.)
The starting lineup includes Panzano chef Elise Wiggins—who understands how to cook calamari—and Aix chefs Cyd Anderson and Rachel Woolcott, who bake brioche and buy local produce for their rustic French fare. And, since there’s no crying in baseball, the only tears shed at these two restaurants are ones of joy with every bite.

Denveater: Wow. What a game that would be, if plays were dishes! Jasinski making a double play with that cardamom-spiced pork belly in fresh garbanzo puree and that goat cheese & artichoke mousse-stuffed tortelloni. Santos coming out of left field with pollen-crusted scallops with boar bacon and Tabasco-soaked cherries. Hamersley pinch hitting with his roast chicken. The Aix team heading for home with their truffles to go.
And the fans the real winners, exiting the park fat & happy!

Chowder redux

Having said that, in the age of globalization, the concept of terroir (or, if you prefer to reserve that term for wine, the eat-local ethic) doesn’t always hold water, I remain a tad astounded by the wealth of good seafood in this town. Hell, I’m impressed by the wealth of good seafood on South Pearl alone. Black Pearl has proven our neighborhood go-to, and go-to we did just last night, in the mood to do more than our usual grazing. (Yet another truism of contemporary cookery I’ll explore at some point: appetizers, generally speaking, exhibit far more chefly innovation than entrees. For what good reason should portion size and creativity be inversely proportional? Discuss.)

Inspired by Claire Walter’s comment regarding homesickness for chowder, I bit the Boston-built bullet and ordered the “chowda, served unassembled” (see photo)—despite the fact that the description alone gave me more than one pause. First, the corny spelling of “chowder” is anathema to any Bostonian lacking the financial incentive to cater to tourists with his/her wacky accent—hence a warning sign on any Boston-area menu, indicating possible bad faith on the part of a restaurant thus liable to serve up just the stereotpyical slop sketched below. (That sign doesn’t necessarily translate here, but still.) Second, the assembly requirement raised an obvious question: how clammy could clam chowder that didn’t actually contain clams upon being served be?

Yet I trusted Black Pearl enough to give it a go—and happily, my trust was not misplaced. While hardly traditional, it sure is delish (see: authenticity v. integrity) —apparently sherried, lightly creamy, it’s akin more to bisque than chowder. Actually, it’s more complex than that, being essentially two soups in one; the broth in the cute little copper pot o’ clams is lovely too, delicately shellfishy yet, intriguingly, a touch sour too.

Chowder_3

Knowing full well I’d have to search-n-slurp long and hard around Beantown to find a bowl of green chile as good as this Mile High chowder, I’ve got to say: Denver, 1; Boston, 0. (Consider it my post-Series penitence.)

Northeast/Southwest Showdown Pt. I: clam chowder v. chile verde

So moving to Denver from Boston hasn’t all been bye-bye, bivalves and buenos dias, burritos—not all apples and oranges. In fact, I’m struck by the ways in which the culinary traditions of the two cities (as regional hubs) mirror each other.

Take clam chowder and green chile, no mere staples but heart-and-belly-warming emblems of New England and Southwestern cuisine, respectively. Back in Boston, debate as to what truly defines clam chowder rages on ad infinitum (like debate about everything in Boston). The two main sticking points:

Thickness. Locals will tell you, loudly and often (the way they’ll tell you almost everything in Boston), that if it’s the yellow-gray color of snot and the viscosity of snot, it’s probably…OK, not snot, but close enough, an inferior product adulterated with flour or cornstarch and heavy cream. After all, though we often interchange the terms, what’s chunky isn’t necessarily thick, any more than what’s smooth is necessarily thin; chowder (the word derives from chaudière, as the pot in which French fishermen made their seafood soups was called) should indeed be chock-full of goodies, but since they aren’t going anywhere, it needn’t immobilize them like millipedes fossilized in amber. Still, coagulation has its apologists.

Goodies, type of. Most chowder-eaters agree that, in addition to the namesake ingredient (and lots of it), clam chowder should contain pork of some sort (granted, what shouldn’t?)—generally chunks of salt pork or bacon—as well as the potato purists tout as the original thickening agent. Few would pooh-pooh onion. Other veggies—garlic, celery etc.—are iffier; ditto herbs besides parsley. Don’t forget this is New England we’re talking, where, again, culinary disputation gets far more fiery than the cuisine itself ever will.

But lo and behold—here in Denver, where the natives are ever so much sweeter, debate about green chile turns out to be equally heated. As I sample the stuff in all its myriad forms in eateries across town, I’m just beginning to get a handle on it; maybe you longtime locals could chime in on my findings.

Sure enough, the meatiest bones of contention are:

Thickness. Should green chile have the consistency of a stew or a sauce? Which is it, fundamentally? My suspicion is that chile purists, just like their chowder-slurping counterparts, scoff at the sort of starchy stuff spoons stand up in; that said, it’s no mere condiment, am I wrong?

Goodies, type of. As near as I can figure, the essence of green chile is pork and, natch, chiles, just as chowder inheres in pork and clams. (Beyond that—tomatillo or not tomatillo, that seems to be the question. Ditto tomato.)
But which chiles—oh, whichiles? (When the questioning gets intense the intense get efficient.) Around here, roasted Hatch chiles are the be-all-end-all, blood-brother Anaheims a close second, poblanos a distant third. So what does the fact that jalapenos appear in some of the gringoiest versions, like Racine’s (see photo), mean? Since the dish has a prototype in Mexico, home of the holy jalapeno, can these actually make claim to some sort of accidental or roundabout authenticity?

Racines_chile

Actually, all of this just brings me to my usual conclusion that authenticity is a red herring. Knowing where a dish originated and how it evolved is important from the standpoint of culinary history, but not from the perspective of one’s brainless tongue. Terroir may be a beautiful rule, but it has its exceptions; adaptation isn’t necessarily adulteration. Perhaps, then, when we say authenticity we really mean something like integrity. I’ll explore that possibility as I keep a running chile tally in future posts.