Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The happiest hour at Colt & Gray

The restaurant Colt & Gray has won more than a few accolades since it opened on Platte Street in Denver several years ago, and is also conveniently located right next to ES's workplace. But how do you eat at a high-end gastropub without dropping a load of cash on a full meal?

Enter happy hour. Colt & Gray has a particularly nice one, boasting a variety of specialty cocktails along with a small, low-priced menu of interesting nibbles.
All of this takes place in the restaurant's elegant and clubby-feeling barroom, full of tall, cushy leather chairs and extremely pleasant, white-aproned servers. So one afternoon ES and I settled ourselves at a corner table—and then proceeded to order nearly everything on the happy hour menu.

Our first drink order consisted of a Sazerac (rye, absinthe, and Peychaud’s bitters) for ES, and a Platte St. Sling (gin, rhubarb, lemon, basil, and club soda) for me. Though ES found my drink too sour, and though I wrinkled my nose at the taste of whiskey in his, we were both perfectly pleased with our choices. I loved the floral sweet-tartness of the cocktail, as well as the surprising saltiness of the olive garnish, and I wasn't a bit sorry that ES wasn't trying to steal sips.
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The cocktails made a nice accompaniment to the food—or was it the other way around? The one-bite wings tasted like very tender pieces of barbecued short ribs, or some other kind of fatty, succulent meat; the sheep's milk cheese (whose name I can't remember) came with a delightful apple compote that made a strangely excellent pairing with its funk. And while the gougères were not what I expected—instead of small puffs of a savory pâte à choux, these were Utz cheeseball–sized nuggets dusted with what tasted like a slightly more complex version of neon "cheez" powder, and with an oddly grainy and pasty texture within—they were crisp and warm and made for good snacking.

The only one I wasn't impressed with was the crispy pig trotter, which ES had fondly remembered from past visits. I was imagining a whole, deep-fried pig foot, like something I'd get in a Filipino restaurant, but out came two breaded pucks of chopped and mushy meat in a pool of mild-tasting mustard sauce, the whole of which tasted a lot more like tuna than pork. Nothing against tuna; the disconnect was strange, is all.
And then along came the caramel popcorn. Not just any caramel popcorn, but a bacon and cashew caramel popcorn, each bite smoky and salty and chewy and sweet all at once. It was so good that we ordered it twice, our fingers having reached the bottom of the bowl too soon. Apparently we're not the only ones enamored with this popcorn's charms; the recipe can be found as part of Bon Appétit's 2010 "Best Bar Snacks" feature.
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All the while we were having more cocktails, such as the Marguerite (gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and orange bitters), the Picador (tequila, lime, and Curaçao), and the Bees Knees (gin, lemon, and honey). I also ordered Colt & Gray's housemade Brandy Milk Punch, which according to the menu consists of "Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, applejack, Batavia Arrack, milk, Teatulia green tea, lemon, and spices." I expected the punch to be, I don't know, milky, but actually it wasn't at all—just clean and sharp with the taste of mingled rums and liqueurs and freshly grated nutmeg.
By the time we left, both of us were full and I was just a little bit tipsy. More than that, however: I was satisfied that I'd taken in not just food and cocktails, but also the pleasures of dining in an eminently civilized, stylish, and somehow still friendly atmosphere—all without breaking the bank. It is obvious that I'll be returning, right?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The tale behind the veal

A new post is coming soon, but in the meanwhile, I thought you guys might enjoy reading a guest post I wrote for the Colorado Review's Editor's Blog. There's a cooking story here, but it's not solely mine—it really begins with that of writer Floyd Skloot and his exploration of preparing a mysterious recipe that surfaced after his mother's passing. Get the full meal, here!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Two dinners, one night: Ototo Den and Sushi Den

Ototo Den is the newest of a set of long-established Denver restaurants that also includes Izakaya Den, a self-described "sake house with tapas," and Sushi Den, one of the city's most popular sushi restaurants, all of which I'd been hearing about for a while. It so happened that I was in town the week that the three restaurants were pledging to donate a portion of their dinner sales toward Japan relief efforts, and it seemed like a good time to finally give the place a try.

ES had heard that Ototo Den was offering ramen, and as the night was chilly we drove to Pearl Street especially eager for big, steamy bowls of noodles and soup. Unfortunately, when we sat down and opened up the menu there was no such bowl to be found. A query to the server revealed that the restaurant had decided to revise their offerings and decided ramen didn't fit in. He suggested that we have some snacks at Ototo Den while happy hour was still on, and then walk across the street to Sushi Den, where ramen was still being prepared. Ototo Den has a great happy hour list, with both food and drink at a good discount, and I was totally fine with that plan.
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We ordered a number of small plates, not knowing exactly how much food we would end up with, but figuring that we couldn't get that full just off of appetizers. The foie gras terrine came out first, drizzled with marinated beetroot cubes and microgreens and accompanied by grilled triangles of chewy bread. For five bucks this was an ample amount, and the sweetness of the beets set off the rich creaminess of the duck liver beautifully.
Roasted sunchokes with aioli were wonderful too, the preparation bringing out the tuber's gentle sweetness and lightly crunchy texture, not quite potato and not quite water chestnut. A coating of garlic and parsley finished the dish, and the aioli was a nice touch.
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We'd ordered all of the three skewers that were on the happy hour menu, and they came out at once. I didn't get to try the oyster skewer, but the single bite of panko-crusted calamari I had was tender and perfectly fried. I liked the charred shishito peppers and fat shiitake mushrooms too—each bite was earthy, intensely smoky, almost bitter.
The last thing we'd ordered was the country pate, which came out with more grilled bread and accompaniments of grainy mustard, greens, and cornichons. You can't really tell in this photo, but this was a fairly large slab—maybe a few centimeters thick and a little bigger than the size of a playing card deck. This is definitely a hearty appetizer, especially at the same price as the foie gras terrine.
Both of us were getting full at this point, but we'd had our hearts set on ramen all along, and so even after all that food somehow it wasn't a question that we would still head over to Sushi Den. Though there was a busy crowd that night, we were seated at the sushi bar after only about twenty minutes. Hot hand towels and water were set down before us, as well as little bowls of a refreshing cucumber and squid salad.

But wait! There was udon on the menu, but again, no sign of ramen. We flagged down a server and once more made an inquiry, and his reply? To try Ototo Den, "because they're still serving it." ES and I shook our heads and, with sadness, filled in our server on the situation.
No matter. Since we were already sitting we figured there were other intriguing items to try, including the Dynamite, which ES checked off on the sushi bar menu immediately, explaining that he orders this appetizer every time. Shrimp, button mushrooms, and tiny scallops blanketed in a thick, creamy layer of broiled mayonnaise—sure, what's not to love? The richness of the dish made eating too much of it at once a little bit sickening, but it was nonetheless a trashily delicious indulgence.
The meat in the Kobe Beef Roll, paired with lettuce, asparagus, mayo, and a sprinkling of shichimi, was thinly sliced, marinated in a sweet soy-based sauce, and tasted exactly like Korean bulgogi. While it was good, it really wasn't all that special—the beef could have been any beef, and the roll was hastily constructed and already unraveling when it reached us.
Better was the Tuna Firecracker Roll, filled with tuna, avocado, and cucumber and paved with wasabi tobiko, and then topped with cilantro, shallots, and slices of raw jalapeno. Normally I'm not a fan of fusion-y Japanese food like this, but something about the flavors really worked, with the jalapeno adding freshness, crunch, and heat. I admired the rice, too, which was perfectly done—each warm grain flavorful and distinct but also melding together with the ingredients to create a tasty mouthful.
By now we'd eaten so much food I was about to burst, but nonetheless out came the "new style" salmon roll, where the raw fish had been quickly passed through hot oil seasoned with ginger and scallion—just enough to warm up the fish and lightly cook the outside. These tender pieces arrived draped over a roll that held asparagus, cucumber, and avocado, and I really enjoyed the interplay of textures and temperatures in each bite.

Thankfully, that was the end of our meal. Somehow ES and I had managed to consume two dinners in one evening, our brains believing that because each plate had been so small, and that so many had been billed as appetizers, we hadn't eaten as much as we really had. Our groaning bellies told the truth, though, and though we'd had no ramen that night, we'd definitely had plenty else to satisfy, and how.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Back at it

Soft serve sampler from Momofuku Milk Bar in the East Village: horchata, red velvet, old-fashioned donut, cereal milk flavors; caramelized corn flakes, toasted coconut, and cinnamon sugar toppings. Consumed, with friends, January 2011.

Readers, I've mentioned this before, but you really don't know how sad I was that I was unable to keep up Salty/Savory/Sweet for the last few years. Those of you who follow me (anyone still out there?) know that I rely on this blog to serve as a document of my adventures, both in eating and in life, as well as a record of my success or failure with the recipes I try. Unfortunately, the work involved in pursuing my fiction MFA degree while teaching simply made regular attention to this blog impossible. It's all appropriate, I suppose, but it didn't make my prolonged departure from this venue any easier.
Polish meal at Karczma in Greenpoint, Brooklyn: white borchst; pickle soup; stuffed cabbage; pierogis; kielbasa; sauteed cabbage; and roasted ham hock in beer. Consumed, with friends, January 2011. We followed this meal with donuts from Peter Pan.

But hey! I've submitted and defended my thesis, and am due to graduate at the end of the semester. My workload has lessened, which means I now—finally—have time again to restart this blog. So stay tuned, willya? Posts on recent Denver-area eating are forthcoming: a buffet at a casino nestled deep in the mountains; a burger so large and juicy that I needed a stack of napkins to consume it; a cream-cheese frosted cinnamon roll as large as my face; and a buffalo wing joint that also serves an extensive menu of Cambodian and Indonesian food. An upcoming weekend in Taos, New Mexico promises encounters with Pueblo green chili and the slopper, and I'll also be back in NYC for a visit in May, armed with a long list of places I want to try or revisit.
Hotpot at home: consumed, with family, Christmas 2010. Who needs ham or a roasted bird?

In the meanwhile, here are the rest of the Coloradoan restaurant profiles I've written since the last roundup:
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"Big Al's Burgers and Dogs serves up satisfying fare"
"A Mediterranean feast awaits diners in Old Town"
"Ace Gillette's Lounge indulges sophisticated pleasures"
"BBQ Buffet: Nordy's a comfort food haven"
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"Vincent Heavenly Pies and Pasta serve it up in an elegant atmosphere"
"Farmer's Table fills you up with no-fuss comfort food"
"Souza's Smokin' BBQ should be on your radar"
"Fresh choices make Little Bird Bakeshop irresistible"

So there it is—I'm excited, are you? See you soon!