Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cart-Driver - Italian Market-Driven Restaurant

I love it when a restaurant's existence surprises me. I was walking past Work & Class to my car when I noticed the Cart-Driver sign. Lights went off, name recognition went on, and I burst up the stairs to check out this restaurant where I was greeted by Andrew Birkholz, the co-owner.
He explained the inspiration: Italian truck stops, the practiced concept: standard wood-fired pizzas and market menu items that change with recent market finds and why they have Chartreuse VEP: distributor confusion. It was an excellent first meeting, but I couldn't stay because we had already eaten.

Two weeks later I returned with my girlfriend. This time we were greeted by Ross. He explained the menu and highlighted the market items.
We asked a few questions like - what's rapini? Related to broccoli and mustard greens. What's grandma's pizza? Essentially their gluten-free pizza with chickpea flour. Is the cart-driver pizza too spicy with the chili flakes? Not at all.
You order at the counter and then have several seating options - outdoor facing 25th, indoor (high top(s) for 2-6 people and low), and outdoor in the shipping container shared space area (still separated slightly). It was quiet here in complete contrast with the packed and boisterous Work & Class. It was a good dinner date choice.
We sat down and were quickly served our market menu items starting with the prosciutto mousse. We flattened the mousse with our knives and bit into it. The basil hit our nose first, then we tasted the saltiness from the prosciutto and we finished going through the greens and bread.
Next was the egglant and burrata. The egglant was a charcoal gray, a dark relation to the white burrata drizzled with oil and dotted with fennel pollen. I recommend sampling both separately and then proceed from there. The fennel's licorice flavor did not come through for me, though I did not realize it was there and therefore wasn't attuned to it. When we inquired about the yellow substance, we got to sample some fennel seeds off the stalk.

Finally, the pizza came. Between order and sit down, it took nearly 5 minutes for everything to arrive. It looked delicious and came pre-sliced. The rapini's strong bitter flavor immediately hit us. The mild sausage and mozzarella did balance it out. The crust was gently doughy and elastic and lightly touched with charcoal. It was a delightful pizza. Everything was quite filling and we left with half a pizza.
Overall, it was a quite satisfying, memorable experience. I look forward to their ever-changing menu.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sugarmill - The Chef in Front

How can I explain the great time I had at Sugarmill? It begins and ends with Noah. The face of the restaurants, he's a maddening advertising force. You're only here to browse the take away dessert counter? Well, you might be tempted to stay with their "sex on a spoon" (not my words) pineapple cannelloni-looking dessert. Noah doesn't bulldoze your protestations, he merely slipstreams past them. And if you're only here for one purpose, dessert, he might tempt you with an amuse bouche comprised of a brandied cherry tucked inside an herbed cream puff with lightly sweetened whipped cream.
When you arrive, ask for seats at the bar. You want to glimpse the kitchen action. From Noahsphere construction to short rib tortellini plating, you'll indubitably love this food orchestra section. As we agonized over choosing a dessert, we were tempted many times by their savory selections.
We ordered their apple almond tart and chocolate jasmine bar. It was certainly fun watching both being prepared while jamming to great soul tunes.My girlfriend still daydreams over their muscavado ice cream that came with her chocolate jasmine bar, while I recall the constant balance between almond and apple as texture and temperature contrasted - almond meal against apple slices, warm tart against chilled diced apples.
And when Noah heard we were celebrating Valentine's a day early, he generously gave us raspberry truffles which were saved until the next day. Delicious! We swore we would return the following day early before the Valentine's Day rush.

Visit 2

V-Day brought us to an empty restaurant with staff bustling about with preparations. I misunderstood they were only doing a fixed price menu (makes sense for such a crazy day) as we sat down. Noah overheard us debating because we had wanted to sample their savory menu. He kindly excused us for another day and another attempt, but not before sharing champagne sorbet with us. Sugarmill - leaving impressive impressions. Go there.

Visit 3

Good thing I listen to and take my own advice. Our third visit placed us directly before Denver Restaurant Week's bustling madness and more fixed price menus. I'm not against fixed price menus, but when there are many things to explore on Sugarmill's regular menu, I want that experience. However, fixed menus are great for managing budgets and restaurants can focus on select items rather than two separate menus.

This evening's focus was dinner. We've done sweets, a tease, now savory awaited.
Again, we start with an amuse bouche, bagels and lox in miniature with house cured gravlax, pickled onion, and cream cheese. Small, yet potent flavor.

We took much time browsing the menu. We discovered the short rib tortellini was through and instead they featured a special with salmon, house made fettuccine, and parmesan mushroom sauce. The foie gras torchon had also been eliminated. Restaurant Week was a'comin' and they were starting a new menu March 1. We decided to begin with the hummus.
 
This $4 plate featured red and golden beet hummus topped with pistachios and beet cubes and accompanied by a lightly oil drizzled baguette. The hummus was substantive, yet light. The beet flavor was prevalent not dominant. The golden beet hummus was perhaps a touch sweeter. With these generous helpings, be prepared to generously top your bread and use your silverware as backup. 
We knew the main dish ending our meal, but we wanted a middle item. We couldn't agree, so eventually we asked our server. She suggested the roasted mushroom toast. It starts with a thick slice of earthy dark bread, topped with roasted mushrooms with arugula, julienned radish, and parmesan. Truffle is the first scent that arises. The parmesan was lightly melted, the bread easily cut and divided. It was a delicious mushroom treat.
Our finishing bite was crispy salmon atop their house made fettuccine, parmesan mushroom sauce and lemony 'chokes. I marveled at the salmon's richness and hunted down those 'chokes (arti- or sun-, I couldn't tell). Even with two splitting, we still had leftovers.
And... and... Noah tempted us once more with lemon and chocolate mocha macarons. These were not the airy macarons I know in France, but macarons with some heft. So good!

Their spring menu began March 1 and I will return. From my three visits, I have some overall impressions to share. 1. With generous portions and high quality food, Sugarmill could and perhaps should raise their prices $1-2. I never say this, but I am today. 2. It's rare to see a chef leave his kitchen, but Noah frequently does to encourage people to try his savory or sweet foods, find the restroom, and deliver a menu item. His open personality is found within his staff also. 3. He's made me into someone who wants to be a regular. That is extraordinary, but I'm a willing participant. With avidly writing reviews on Yelp, I always strive to find new places and rarely return to old ones. A few places make the cut, but I'm always drawn to the next bright thing. It seems that Sugarmill will continue burning bright on my horizon.

Sugarmill
2461 Larimer St
Ste 101
Denver, CO 80205

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sassafras American Eatery - Denver, CO

Elvis Beignets. I cannot get you out of my mind. You're crack. You're pornographic. You're filthy good. You're a round volcano waiting for me to bite into you and splatter your sticky gooey peanut butter mousse lava all over my extremities. Did I mention their bacon molasses jam also?
I was here for several reasons. My friend couldn't stop talking about Succotash. Succotash this, Succotash that. I wanted to eat here so bad but couldn't find any restaurant called Succotash. I was angry, pissed, thinking she was teasing my food mad sensibilities. Yeah, she clearly got that name wrong. Second, the Sassafras American Eatery chef had such a great interview in the Westword. Third, I needed a brunch destination and their menu rocked my face.
Alongside the beignets, we also ordered the buffalo hash with chicken fried eggs and fried green tomatoes benedict. I seriously cannot wrap my mind around the chicken friend poached (soft boiled??) eggs. How? It doesn't matter because I made a gif of me slicing into it.
My girlfriend describes her fried green tomatoes benedict in this manner "My first bite was perfect. Soft tomato, crispy outside, warm egg and hollandaise. Subsequent bites were inconsistent.... sometimes the tomato was hard and parts of the dish not as hot as I desired. The cornbread was superb and filled with chunks of corn and jalapeños."
Not only does Sassafras serve great tasting food, it's also fun to play with. We received advice that the Voodoo Jam tastes really great with cornbread. I concur. Their cornbread reminded me of cornbread I used to make with jalapenos, cheese, and whole corn bricks (kernels). Great memories there.
Afterwards, I wanted more, but I wasn't wearing my elastic waistband jeans. Each dessert featured chocolate which I avoid. I was craving french toast, but tried to be sensible, but then I saw the french toast on someone else's table. Just gorgeous looking with the bacon and blackberries. I want more Sassafras!

Sassafrass American Eatery
2637 W 26th Ave
Denver, CO 80211

Devil's Kitchen - Barcelona, Spain

 
You know what's an unusual sight? Entering a pub where everyone's staring intensely at the futbol game on television. I know I'm in a major futbol country, but the Spanish are much louder. I look closer. Lighter complexions, yellow jerseys, aha! Dortmund versus Arsenal, a German runs this establishment, therefore German futbol. Mystery solved.

Not knowing whether to wade through the crowd and block a view, I waited near the back. Finally, someone came to take my order. Devil's Kitchen has a select menu featuring burgers and German sausages, fries, wings, and beer. For beer, you have cheap or good. I chose good and asked for something dark. I was forewarned it was the most expensive, but I accepted. It was light, like most German beers I've tried, but had some light spicy notes.
For food, I ordered the well regarded Devil Burger and Fries. The waiter asked me where I was from. I respond with "Colorado". Then he asks confirming "so, you don't want mayo, right?" Correct. They will serve you mayo for an extra €.30 and perhaps mild scorn if you're sporting anything but a Spanish accent.

I received the beer and discovered the server's sister lives in Boulder, Colorado. He's visited numerous times for skiing and loves our scenery. Go Colorado!

I received my burger, but screwed something up in the progress. They give you white waxy paper for eating and the chef reached with his metal spatula on which the hamburger lay. I inadvertently touched the spatula trying to help. My future advice- just move the wax paper so it's easier. The only available seat was tucked in the far back corner, a longer reach for him.
The burger was great. The meat was flavorful, the bun hearty, some juices ran. The fries were a welcome sight also, nearly covered completely in paprika. You should see all the sauces I had. When in a German restaurant, go with the Curry Sauce. Delicious, especially when applied on my burger too.
After the game, people cleared out relatively rapidly. I took my ticket up to the register and paid. They have a different system when the game is on. Assuming you want to watch every minute, they'll hand you your ticket and you'll pay afterwards. Good futbol loving system.

Devil's Kitchen
Carrer de la Lleialtat, 4
El Raval
08001 Barcelona

Las Sorrentinas - Barcelona, Spain

Ever cut into ravioli and it wilts beneath your fork's pressure? This ravioli doesn't. Las Sorrentinas' ravioli is packed; no, stuffed with ingredients. Cutting into their ravioli is like revealing the center of a dense cake.

I passed this place last night after midnight yesterday. Most of this area was closed or closing, but I made note of their location. I visited this restaurant the next day around mid-afternoon and it was moderately busy. Seating is mostly shared around 3 tables and some counter seating. A WC visit gives you a fine view of their kitchen.

Their menu is posted outside, but the prices are incorrect. The ravioli is actually €1 more. Fortunately, their menus inside are all updated. Barcelona locals might be more familiar with them under their original name, Con Pasta y a lo Loco.

I ordered the beetroot ravioli with poached pears in sugar, goat cheese, and ricotta topped with green pesto and ricotta. Their menu advertises picking a pasta, a sauce and a topping. Since the prices build on each other, you probably don't have to get all 3.

Wow! Was that ravioli delicious! First, it was smothered in green pesto lending a small grainy earthiness to balance my ravioli's slight inherent sweetness. And then ricotta balanced everything else with its refreshing intact creaminess.

I strongly recommend this spot. It is slow, but they advertise this. If you're traveling by yourself and don't get alone with your thoughts, bring a book, practice your Spanish with someone at your table, or order a salad or soup to keep you busy.

Las Sorentinas
Pl. Sant Pere, 5
08003 Barcelona
Spain
+34 930 102 114

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ten's Tapas Restaurant - Barcelona, Spain

I count myself fortunate I stumbled onto Ten's Tapas Restaurant earlier tonight. Chef Jordi Cruz has an outstanding pedigree with his 4 Michelin stars. Now let's forget I know this less this shades my review.

Ten's menu caught my eye. It hung off the awning leaning into the pedestrian path's center. It highlighted the 15 tapas menu items in 3 languages including English. I quickly scanned looking for something interesting and eye fell upon several items, but would my friends want to try this restaurant? They did.

After checking with management, we sat ourselves outside. As our server was receiving our drink orders, he sung Chef Jordi's praises. For myself, I ordered the foie gras dish with sichuan pepper ice cream (intriguing) and the slow cooked egg dish. I also shared some bread, fried potatoes, and black rice (all not photographed).

Onto the dishes. First, we have the foie gras with figs, sweet and sour stir fried bread with sichuan pepper ice cream. Overall, this dish was quite sweet. The crunchy topping (perhaps the stir fried bread?) alleviated some of the sweetness. I was hoping the sichuan pepper ice cream might lend slight heat in balance, but even that was blatantly sweet with little peppery bite. What sat between each foie gras piece was lost in the shuffle.

The second presented dish was the slow cooked egg with Iberian ham and sobrassada paprika sausage, permantier potatoes, mature gouda and rocket salad  It sounded really good and again, presented well. With those components, this is a lustworthy dish. However, I was told that to properly eat it, one must swirl it around thoroughly and apply it atop the tomato toast. My gorgeous dish became a seething eggy mass. It tasted nice, but the egg overwhelmed everything else. The iberian ham, sobrassada paprika sausage, mature gouda - all lost.


Where does this leave Ten's? Merely satisfactory. I appreciate Chef Jordi Cruz's presentation skills and willingness to pair disparate items. However, I am underwhelmed when a dish doesn't elevate any one flavor or masks too many pieces. 


Also, the service was confusing at times. Our waiter was quite thorough, but sometimes too quick with his suggestions. Customer(s) and waiter must work harder to overcome both 
 a challenging menu and language difficulties (he spoke acceptable English, though quick and Catalan tinted).


Ten's
Carrer Rec, 79
08003 Barcelona

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Here Piggy, Piggy, Piggy at Old Major - Denver, CO

Old Major, dedicated to all things swine. I was so excited for this restaurant to open; so excited I emailed them from Madrid asking about their anticipated mid-February opening date. Their now fired manager, Jonathan Greschler, promptly emailed me back saying they would open February 15. The date was pushed back and, amidst the chaos of my quick Denver return, I lost track of Old Major.
Fortunately, a friend didn't lose track, scoring an invitation to Old Major's soft opening. She teased with pictures of their pan seared foie gras with Leopold Bros apple whiskey pie, their 24 oz ribeye, and recollecting the Williams & Graham co-owner going crazy for the maple bacon creme caramel. Upon this Denver return, I got 3 friends together for an Old Major food adventure.
Our foursome was tucked at a corner table with an outside view and hostess stand shot. Upon entering, I was immediately drawn to the wood paneling, chairs and seats; speaker lines; and the jean, vest, and tie uniform. It felt rustic and laidback without slacking off.

We sat down and began scanning the menu. The waitress came over and offered us still or sparkling water. We all chose sparkling. It was a gentle carbonation, a mild bubbling. Their menus were encased in brown leather. I jokingly thought "they really do use the entire pig".

A drink menu hadn't arrived yet, so we asked for that. Their drink menu comes in a tablet. Slick. I hadn't seen that before, but wondered if it gets cumbersome if diners want new second drinks at their full table. We scanned it and my friend chose the Captain Tootsie.
More like Captain Disappointment. The description held so much promise, but like this cocktail's Scotch presence, the promise was fleeting. My friend was immediately disappointed with the petite glass. Too small for a $12 cocktail? Perhaps. I tasted it and immediately found it too sweet. This cocktail would be better placed on a dessert menu. I had hoped it would be Scotch forward, but the sweetness overwhelmed the cocktail, relegating the Scotch to the background. A dainty cocktail in a dainty glass.
After we placed our orders, we were served two chopping boards with Old Major's twisted pretzels with light mustard butter. They were delicious and glutinous, perfect for tearing apart. I especially enjoyed the light mustard kick the butter gave. It was a great respite from what felt like a service lapse between the drink and food orders.
We ordered two small plates and two main entrees. The smoked fish plate was first to arrive with smoked trout, salmon pastrami, and mustard smoked mussels with pickled vegetables and grilled bread. We took a moment to visually enjoy this colorful plate and think how to divide this among four people. 2 trout, 3 salmon, 5 mussels makes for difficult math. My favorites were the salmon pastrami (the spice, yet salmon taste) and the smoked mussels. Those were a delight and a favorite of my friends too.
We were also splitting our attention with the Colorado Pork Butter plate with pork pâté, pickled vegetables, grilled bread, mustard, and apricot jam. I enjoyed the pork pâté texture, but found it imparted little flavor. I took a cue from a friend, spreading a thin layer of spicy mustard on the grilled bread, then the pork pâté. That was the ideal marriage. The spicy mustard was so strong, but the pork pâté mellowed it. I also successfully tried this with the pickled vegetables. Of the pickled veggies, the beets were my favorite. Pinkish color, great veins.
How do I explain the affect the Dry Aged 24oz Bone-In Ribeye had? Someone may have been crying over the beautiful foie gras butter. Someone may have been giving half-lidded bedroom eyes after a few bites. The meat was savory, rich, and filling. The demi-glace poured medium thick and mixed well with the foie gras butter. The Crater Lake bleu cheese had a lower salt content than other blue cheese, so I enjoyed it more than other blue cheeses. The meat was gorgeous, resplendent in its age (21 days).
It's equal was the full body Nose to Tail Plate with confit rib, pork chop, crispy belly, city ham, crispy pig ears, guanciale vinaigrette, rhubarb jus. I asked our waitress if there would be guanciale and she mentioned we might get lucky. We did. Topping this dish amidst the pig ears were two small crispy guanciale pieces. I've been hooked ever since I discovered guanciale, pig jowl or cheek bacon, at a Kansas City butcher. I quickly directed my friends' attention there, excitedly saying "magical Roman bacon!". They were pleased and amazed. This dish may have been the night's winner. So many flavors and textures. The crispy belly was out of this world, the ham was great (3 cheers for non dyed ham!), etc etc.

Juan, one of the co-owners, stopped by our table during this time. We discovered they raise two pig varieties at their own farm and slaughter 5,000 lbs of meat every two weeks. We discovered that Wednesdays are a great time to watch butchery in the kitchen area, especially if you sit at three particular tables (want the table numbers? I have them). I really appreciate their dedication to farm to table and involving their guests in the experience.

Overall, I had a great time at Old Major. I certainly want to return to experience the butchering and learn more about it. For splitting plates, I definitely recommend sharing the main entrees rather than the small plates. You might find other small plate winners, though. And regarding drinks.... well, Williams & Graham is next door.