The chocolate fest actually kicked off on November 17, but I was too busy eating at First Bite Boulder restaurants to notice. But there are still several weeks of chocolohia during which Keystone restaurants feature signature dishes, appetizers, desserts, drinks and even salads with a sweet chocolate twist. Examples: The Edgewater Café‘s chocolate raspberry pancakes at breakfast, Ski Tip Lodge’s chocolate bread and Der Fondue Chessel’s rich pumpkin-spiced chocolate fondue. The resort also is giving a complimentary tin of chocolate cookies to each dinner sleigh ride guest, and the Keystone Lodge and Spa introduces a sublime Wake Up and Smell the Chocolate Package through December 23.
There is not much I like about chain eating places — most of which don’t deserve the name “restaurant.” But yesterday evening, despite my skepticism and principles, I ate at the rare Colorado-spawned and -owned, healthy, reasonably priced example of the species. A shopping area called The Village distributes a coupon book that included a two-entrees-for-the-price-of-one voucher for Tokyo Joe’s — and there is a Tokyo Joe’s just a few blocks from the theater where my husband and I were planning to see a movie.
I ordered a small salad and a noodle bowl that came piping hot and filled with chicken breast and a load of vegetables in a just-right spicy sauce atop well-cooked noodles. I didn’t know that there would be so many vegetables, which is the reason I had ordered a small salad to start. My husband asked for yakitori chicken with rice. Including a big iced tea, with the two-fer coupon dicount and Joe’s no-tipping policy, we spent less than 10 bucks on fast, tasty dinner for two. It’s no substitute for home-cooked and especially not for chef-prepared, but I had no complaints.
When we sat down a little before 6:00, only three tables were occupied. When we left, 15 were taken, and there was a fast-moving line. The service was efficient. We put in our order, paid, took a number to our table and waited just a little bit for a freshly prepared meal to be brought to us. We even got to the theater early, and that rarely happens. I won’t pretend that this positive experience has converted me to the chain way of eating, but this one brand is far superior to most — those that I’ve forced myself to try, anyway.
I did a little research about Tokyo Joe’s and found that it was started a decade ago by a man named Larry Leith. Although he launched the first one in ultra-suburban Centennial, Leith is a Boulder-type guy, who was convinced that cyclists, mountain bikers and skiers like himself would be receptive to a place serving fast, healthy food inspired by Japanese dishes. He was right.
I was intrigued by a piece in today’s New York Times about the small, but mushrooming, wine industry in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest. Intriguingly titled “Iowa Finds Itself Deep in the Heart of Wine Country,” it reported on Iowa and other mid-country farmers who have discovered the pleasure and profits in growing grapes and making wine.
The lead reads:
“Stan Olson used to grow corn and soybeans on hundreds of acres here on the Raccoon River west of Des Moines, but no more. These days, Mr. Olson’s empty grain silo is useful only as a rustic image to promote his new vineyard and tasting room.
“Mr. Olson’s Penoach Winery is a tiny operation in a red barn behind his family’s farmhouse, next to a small grape nursery. It does not have much of a customer base yet or any vintages that go beyond last year, but Mr. Olson is thrilled nonetheless.
“ ‘I will make as much selling grape plants off of two acres this year as I did many years on 1,000 acres of corn and raising 3,000 head of hogs,’ ” said Mr. Olson, who makes much of his money selling cuttings to other aspiring vintners.”
In the wine business, production from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa is collectively known as “New World Wines.” Iowa and neighboring states might have the newest of the new, but they are not all that far behind Colorado’s burgeoning wine industry. When I moved here in 1988, the first vineyard had just planted its first grapes. Now, according to the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, there are upwards of 60 wineries here.
As in the Midwest, Colorado vineyards have planted hybrid grapes that can take cold weather. Most of Colorado’s vineyards are in the Grand Junction area, with wineries scattered throughout the state. BookCliff, for instance, has its vineyard near Palisade, just east of Grand Junction, but its winery and tasting room are in Boulder. The beautiful Winery at Holy Cross Abbey grows some grapes on the grounds of the former Benedictine monastery in Canon City, west of Pueblo, where the winery is located and also buys grapes from other growers. Due to a change in state law, multi-winery tasting rooms are now legal. When you come across one while traveling through Colorado, stop in and sample some of the state’s wines. You might be surprised at their quality.
Aji’s special menu offered a choice of three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts, while Mateo gave no choice at all. Black Cat Bistro owner/chef Eric Skokan provided the most attractive deal of all that I tried. Diners were able to order from the regular menu, with a choice of any one of the six small-plate first courses ($4-$7), any of the seven entrees ($17-$22) and any one of the five desserts (I don’t know their individual cost because prices weren’t printed on the dessert menu). To read what my party and I ordered and what we thought, please go to my website and click on ‘Dining Diary.’ But I’ll tell you here that everything was beautifully presented, well prepared and served with care and elan. The photo above of Black Cat’s molten chocolate cake, for instance, shows a signature presentation of several desserts: warm sauce poured from a small pitcher at the table.
First Bite Boulder is winding down. Many/most top Boulder restaurants have participated — and it seems to have been an outstanding success. Mild November weather certainly encouraged people to leave the house and eat out, but I believe that the fine values were the main incentive for people to try different Boulder restaurants this past week.
Another terrific value this week has been the fifth anniversary promotion at Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar at 5410 East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Solera’s owner/chef Goose Sorensen is offering a three-course dinner for two for $54.10 and “select” wines for $5.41 per glass and $54.10 per bottle. I wish I’d been able to alert you to it before it was almost over.
Colorado food (and parenting) blogger Anne-Marie Nichols has honored this blog by making it her pick for “food blog of the week.” She wrote: “Claire has only been food blogging for a couple of months, but she covers the Colorado (especially Boulder) food scene better than any of the local papers.” Her site, This Mama Cooks, is one of my links, but I’d like to draw your attention to it. You’ll find it at http://mamarant.blogs.com/mamacooks/.
When I didn’t see Fort Collins-based Bingham Hill’s cheeses at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market this summer, I vaguely wondered why. Perhaps they outgrew the farmers’ market model for selling cheese at retail. Perhaps they had been bought out by a larger corporation, rather like Boulder’s Izze natural sparkling juices have been slurped up by Pepsi Cola. Perhaps they had succumbed to the belated after-effects of a production problem in 2003 that prompted a voluntary recall of a ton of their fabulous Rustic Blue Cheese. Eventually, I heard a rumor that Bingham Hill had closed, but I chose to ignore it. The “Nibbles” column in today’s Rocky Mountain News reminded me to look into this.
Alas, the rumor was true and Bingham Hill Cheese Co. is no more. The mom-and-pop cheesery (mom being Kristi Johnson and pop being Tom Johnson) was established in 1999 and quickly began winning accolades and cheese-competition awards. In fact, every one of the 20 artisan cheeses the Johnsons eventually made won some award or another. Dean & DeLuca put Bingham Hill into its prestigious Christmas catalog. Trader Joe’s became the biggest customer, buying up 50 percent of its production, and the cheesemaker struggled unsuccesfully to meet the Trader’s demand. As recently as 2005, Bingham Hill waltzed off with ten medals at the World Cheese Awards in London, bringing their half-decade medal haul in national and international cheese competitions to an astonishing 35.
Then, Bingham Hill’s problems mounted. Although the Johnsons expected to increase their production, Trader Joe’s stopped buying their products, and the landlord wanted the cheesery out in order to demolish the building and redevelop the site. The price of milk rose, and profitability fell. Wisconsin tried to entice the Johnsons to move Bingham Hill there, but Tom’s roots are in Colorado. Bingham Hill closed earlier this year, and as if to add insult to injury, the Johnsons contended that the Morning Fresh Cheese Co. made off with trade secrets from the closed Bingham Hill Cheese Co. I understand that Kristi returned to law practice, and Tom took a position as business manager of The Coloradoan, Fort Collins’s daily newspaper.
That leaves Fort Collins with two micro-cheeseries. MouCo Cheese Co. was started in 2001 by another couple, Birgit Halbreiter, whose father is a master cheesemaker in Germany, and Robert Poland, formerly fermentation manager for New Belgium beer. Morning Fresh Dairy, which the Johnsons alledged made off with their cheesemaking secrets, was established in 1894 and jumped on the artisanal cheese bandwagon in March 2006, when it introduced eight all-natural cheese.
Belatedly, I mourn the loss of Bingham Hill, both for the quality of their cheeses and for the Johnsons’ pioneering Colorado cheesemaking. And I am happy that we still have locally made artisanal cheese to enjoy.
The monthly potluck of the Boulder Media Women was yesterday evening. Thirty or 40 local writers, editors, designers and other media professionals gathered to chew the fat and chew on a lavish spread. The two hostesses, who provided beverages and a fabulous African stew (recipe, please!), had asked for guests to bring an “ethnic” dish. I originally wanted to make a Jamaican banana custard for dessert, but I didn’t have (and couldn’t get) five very ripe bananas. I decided that Italian was ethnic enough, so that’s what I made. Other BMWers were apparently of the same mind, because dishes included satisfying mix of dishes from many traditions, including quiche, cous-cous, a pasta dish or two, a couple of green salads, a silky bisque, a sweet potato dish, long Asian green beans and a fruit tart.
This fittata is equally good hot and at room temperature, and therefore is well suited to a potluck. I adapted the recipe from True Tuscan by Cesare Casella.
3 to 4 tbsp. olive oil, plus additional for drizzling on the frittata at the end
1 large or 1 1/2 medium onions, peeled and sliced thinly
1 to 2 tbsp. fresh herbs (marjoram, sage, thyme or other — individually or mixed), chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 large eggs (or 7 medium)
1 cup reduced-fat ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In an ovenproof skillet (I use cast iron) over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add onions, herbs, salt and pepper, and saute about 7 or 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent and begin to brown slightly.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine eggs and both cheeses. Stir until smooth and homogeneous (the lowest speed on a hand mixer works well). Add egg-cheese mixture to the sauteed onions and stir to incorporate the eggs. Cook on the stovetop until the eggs begin to set. Run a knife around the edge of the frittata. Transfer skillet to the oven. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until firm.
Remove from oven. Run a knife around the edge of the frittata. Place a serving plate over the skillet and turn the fritrata out. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
Serves 4 as an entree, 6 as an appetizer or whatever number at a potluck.
I’m not the only foodie in BMW. Mary Collette Rogers, author of Take Control of Your Kitchen, is teaching a collaborative, hands-on cooking class featuring “warming winter dishes” in North Boulder this coming Sunday (November 19 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.). The cost is only $10, including eating the dishes prepared in class. Since time is short, it’s probably best to phone in reservations; 303-730-8960.