Category Archives: Chef

From-The-Heart Thai Food Prepared in a Home Kitchen

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the Denver family that introduced Thai restaurant food to the US, I didn’t know that I would be privileged to enjoy a home-cooked meal by Nita Chittivej (left), who runs Chada Thai with her son, Peter. The home where Chef Nita performed her magic belongs to Holly Arnold Kinney, owner of The Fort. The Arnolds and the Chittivejs, two foodie families, have been friends for a long time, beginning when the Holly’s parents took their children to the ChittivejsChao Praya Thai Restaurant. Holly recalls the her favorite childhood dessert was Thai custard prepared by Nita’s late mother-in-law, Lilly.

Nearly 10 years ago, my husband and I spent two weeks in Thailand. The dishes that Nita prepared were the equals of those we oohed and ahed over at a dinner in the fanciest Bangkok restaurant we went to, and better than any others we had in the country and at Thai restaurants here. The reason that I was able to sample Nita’s fantastically fresh Thai fare in a matchless home setting setting is that Holly, the current president of the Colorado chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a group of culinary professionals, invited the chapter to her home. Holly’s husband, Jeremy Kinney, poured champagne, and we watched Nita cook.

In Holly’s spectacular kitchen, Nita prepared the following dishes:

Appetizer
Roll-your-own green lettuce leaves to be filled with a selection of dried shrimp, fresh garden mint, fresh lime pieces and fresh Thai ginger, with a tangy-sweet vinegar/chile dipping sauce

Second Course
Lemon Grass Soup (the best I’ve ever tasted)

Main courses
Chicken Thai Curry
Mee Crop Thai (crispy rice noodles with a deep fried crispy shrimp and a tangy tamarind sauce, right)
Rice

Dessert
Thai Jasmine Custard (which Holly remembers so well)

Nita cooked specially for Les Dames on Tuesday evening, her one night off. One of my good LDEI foodie friends and I plan to go to Nita and Peter’s restaurant, Chada Thai (2005 East 17th Avenue; 303-320-8582).

Nita, the food was a-roi. Khawp khun kha.

Big-Name Chefs, New Eateries in Minneapolis


I haven’t been to the Twin Cities since Noah got off the Ark, but I’ve been reading a lot lately about the thriving restaurant scene, especially on the Minneapolis side of the river. In fact, I’ve been reading so much about it that I thought I’d share it here, but remember that this posting is informational, not personal. What I like about all this news is that another mid-country metro area has really good restaurants and a populace that appreciates them.

Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21, recently opened in the Walker Art Center, is his first full-service establishment in Minnesota. He brings his sprightly style and his signature Asian-influenced California menu to the great north country. He’s not the first star chef to do so. Less than a year ago, celebrity chef chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (left) opened the Chambers Kitchen in the chic, sleek and sophisticated Chambers Hotel. The restaurant offers art on the walls and art from the kitchen. Foodies can reserve the chef’s table, though J-G himself is unlikely to be presiding

While not graced with such marquee names, but popular nonetheless are Brenda Langton’s Spoonriver and Cue in the Guthrie Theater, both in the booming Riverfront District.
La Belle Vie, Minnesota’s most highly rated restaurant, is getting a run for its culinary money with these new big names but so far is reportedly holding its own. Also, quaint 112 Eatery has has been in Food & Wine magazine as one of the “hot ten,” while Azia and Mission American Kitchen have been cited by Bon Appetit as casual chic spots. Cooking Light noted the Dakota Jazz Club for its heartland cuisine.

The newest kid in town is Chef Todd Stein of Chicago’s heralded MK – The Restaurant. He heads up B•A•N•K, in the new Westin Minneapolis built in and around the historic Farmers & Mechanics Bank building in downtown Minneapolis. Features are locally-cultivated, seasonal ingredients (tricky indeed in Minnesota), an extensive wine display (no trick at all; all it takes is money) and do-it-yourself martini-ing. The bartender invites guests to “enjoy the personal experience of shaking their own martinis” (a gimmick that I predict will either go over big-time or not at all).

Personal Chef Course

Switching careers sometime in mid-life — which can be from the late 30s to the indefinite 60s these days — is a hot trend. Many people who have burned out of whatever they have been doing and who enjoy cooking and baking gravitate to culinary programs, with the idea of becoming a professional chef or even opening a restaurant. Alas, these can be impossible or impractical dreams, perhaps in the case of the former because of the hours, intensty and rigors of working in a restaurant kitchen are too much, or in the case of the latter because the financing for a new business just isn’t there. Being a personal chef is another option for a career in the culinary field — one that can combine the creativity and satisfaction of cooking every day with the financial benefit of doing so in someone else’s kitchen.

To that end, Denver’s Cook Street School of Fine Cooking offers a personal chef course in its professional curriculum. I know it’s short notice, but an open house is scheduled for tomorrow to introduce the US Personal Chef Association personal chef course. The date is Monday, May 7. The time is 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The place is 1937 Market Street. If you can’t make it tomorrow but are interested, contact the school for more information on the course.

Sandoval at La Sandia — In Person

Just last week, Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehen took Richard Sandoval to task for having become too distant from his numerous restaurants. He was named Bon Apetit’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2006, but now his restaurant group operates Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandia in Denver; Maya in New York, San Francisco and Dubai; Zengo in Washington, DC; Pompano in New York; Isla in Las Vegas, and another La Sandia in Tysons Corner, VA. Five more restaurants will open soon in Mexico City, Acapulco Chicago, Scottsdale and San Diego. That’s an overloaded plate, and Sheehan noticed.

Setting the backdrop for his review of La Sandia, Sheehan wrote, “Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of…he has no day-to-day control over his properties…He sets a concept, writes a menu, staffs up with trusted lieutenants (sometimes), trains a crew and then unlocks the doors. His business is not so much about creating great restaurants as it is about creating great food-service machines that can run flawlessly in his absence. And there’s nothing wrong with that — as long as customers understand that going in….As a chef, I can’t help but be impressed by his menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint…[but] I’m not a chef anymore. And what might have once made me respect a guy for his smarts now makes me disdain him for his detachment and those parts of the dining experience that are just too cold-blooded and calculating to be ignored.”

Yesterday evening, I went to La Sandia for the second time. Previously was for lunch with friends, and it was fine — a little programmed, but fine. The space is attractive, every item dishes was very nicely presented (a Sandoval signature), the guacamole was good, and the tortilla soup and house salad made for a nice, moderately priced lunch. There was a sterility to the place, partly because it’s in the NorthfieldStapleton “village” which alone equates to sterility, plus La Sandia occupies a fairly large space, and very few of us were in it. Still, because I enjoy Tamayo so much, and I was ready to return to La Sandia at dinner, to see what other dishes were like.

Last night, I did. New York-based Richard Sandoval Restaurants hosted a small media dinner, complete with tortilla-making demonstration, and Richard Sandoval himself (top photo) was there to do a little demonstrating and a little Q&A with writers. Outstanding watermelon mojitos, and regular and hibiscus margaritas were passed around before the demonstration. Then, we sat down at a very long table set with baskets of tortilla chips, three-legged lava bowls with guacamole and little bowls of roasted tomato salsa. The waiter took our orders for a choice of “Mexico City-style” tacos, which means on soft, freshly made corn tortillas. The offerings are from the regular dinner menu.

I picked the grilled chicken, which was cut into a rough dice and well cooked — perhaps a tad too well, because it was no longer moist. Grilled slivered vegetables and a small bowl with two sauces (a light and a dark presented in sort of a yin/yang fashion but not easily identifiable) were came on a hot platter. On the side were a small plate of rice and black beans and a basket of napkin-wrapped tortillas to make the “fajita-style” tacos.

Maybe it was because I’d drunk two mojitos, or eaten entirely too many tortilla chips with guac and salsa, but my taste buds wouldn’t hook onto anything. The textures were pleasing, but something was missing in the taste department. Dessert was churros with hot chocolate for dipping. The chocolate was thin (maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be), but didn’t have much taste either. What I really like about Tamayo is the interplay of strong, distinctive flavors. I didn’t find them last night. Like the Northfield/Stapleton venue, it was all watered down and bland. The Cafe de Olla (made with decaf coffee on request, orange zest, cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican dark brown sugar) was so delicious that it made me almost forget the empty flavors that marked the rest of the meal.

We were told that Sandoval visits Denver about every six weeks and hosts events in various cities. I asked whether the events were all for the media or whether some were open to the public too. I didn’t get a real yes or no answer. Sandoval is an engaging man, one who has created awesome food elsewhere. I just haven’t found it at La Sandia. Neither, FWIW, did Jason Sheehan.

Jacques Pepin to Appear in Denver

Jacques Pepin, an eloquent, elegant French chef with true celebrity status in the culinary world, is coming to Denver for two intense days to promote his newest book, Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook ($45), published last month by Stuart, Tabori & Chang. This most recent of his 20 books is both a visual stunner and a sentimental journey. It is partly an art book featuring 200 photographs and some of the chef’s own paintaings, partly autobiographical and partly a cookbook with 100 of his favorite recipes. Even though he had been the personal chef to three fussy French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, he became a public figure in this country when he co-starred with the late Julia Child on the award-winning “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” television series on PBS.

Denver has been high on M. Pepin’s radar screen, since his daughter, Claudine, moved to the Mile High City. She co-owns and operates a cooking school called A Cook’s Kitchen at 850 Ogden Street. In fact, she and her father will host a private cooking class on Monday evening at the school, but it is unsuprisingly sold out. Other Denver appearances on his calendar are:

Monday, May 14
Marczyk Fine Foods, 770 East 17th Avenue
10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Book signing
Marczyk will prepare a recipe from the book. Therefore, reservations are requested; call 303- 329-8979

Steuben’s, 523 East 17th Street
12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m.
Meet and Greet luncheon and book signing
Reservations at 303-830-1001
Tuesday, May 15
Strings Restaurant, 1700 Humboldt Street
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Meet and Greet luncheon and book signing
Reservations at 303-831-7310

Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Aveue
2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Book signing

Barolo Grill, 3030 East 6th Avenue
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Meet and Greet dinner and book signing
Reservations at 303-393-1040

Omni Interlocken Chefs’ Competition.

The Omni Interlocken Hotel down the pike in Broomfield was the setting for another chef’s competition — this year called Sonoma Meets the Rocky Mountains, featuring four teams from mountain resorts who prepared meals to pair with Sonoma wines. Like television’s “Iron Chef,” the contestants were presented with a secret ingedients: mushrooms from Hazel Dell. The Omni’s own chefs set out hors d’oeuvres to hold the guests/judges (one and the same) while the four chefs and their sous-chefs toiled at four cooking stations to create small plates. Of course, there were paired wines. Of course, there were sweets afterwards. And of course, my note-taking and photographing deteriorated as the evening wore on.
The contestants and their dishes:
  • Bob Burden (above left), Beaver Run Restaurant, Breckenridge – Sautéed herb-rubbed lamb loin topped with micro greens and enoki mushroom salad tossed in pinot noir dressing, with Bing cherry and pomegranate demi-glace and forest mushroom bulgur risotto.
  • Jake Linzinmeier, Chair 8, Telluride – Wild mushroom consomme, cappuccino-style topped with a celery root and potato foam, with goat cheese biscotti.
  • Tim McCaw, Zach’s Cabin, Beaver Creek – Coquille St. Jacques (above right, seared scallop and brandied curry cream atop puff potato, which one of the Zach’s crew described to me as duchesse potatoes and five different mushrooms — lion’s head, shiitaki, baby portabello king oyster and oyster).
  • Aaron Taylor, Keystone Ranch Restaurant – Venison strip loin with mushroom duxelles, stuffed with mushrooms and foie gras, with wild ramp potato risotto, huckleberry compote and mushrooms.

I had a heck of a time marking my ballot from four excellent dishes. Burden’s lamb was super-flavorful, and the demi-glace was sensational. Linzinmeier’s “drinkable” soup was imaginative to the max. McCaw’s scallop was perfectly seared, brown-crusted on top and delicate in the center were a straightforward flavor that worked beautifully with the subtly complex mushroom mix. The stuffing for Taylor’s venison was a rich counterpoint to the venison, and the mushrooms and compote tamed it all down a tad. In the end, Linzinmeier took “Best Dish” honors, and McCaw was voted the “Best Food & Wine Pairing.”

Speaking of pairings, the chefs created their mushroom dishes to pair with the following wines:

  • 2005 Buena Vista EVS Pinot Noir for Burden (tied for “Best Wine” honors)
  • 2004 Wattle Creek Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Linzinmeier
  • 2005 Clos du Bois Reserve Chardonnay Russian River Valley for McCaw
  • 2004 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexander Valley Meritage for Taylor (Geyser Peak’s 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, served during the reception, tied for “Best Wine”)
Even as the the competing chefs were preapring their dishes, the Omni’s own chefs prepared the following appetizers for the reception (and I hope I got them right):
  • Crab cakes with Meyer lemon relish and tarragon aioli
  • Cocoa seared pork tenderloin
  • Heirloom tomato and California artichoke on puff pastry, with opal basil pesto
  • Sesame seared ahi tuna, with wakame salad and pickled ginger, crisp lotus root and wasabi-scented soy sauce
  • Tempura calamari “lollipops”
  • Tomato-lemongrass coulis shooters
  • Duck confit spring rolls with California raisin chutney
  • Niman Ranch steak tartar on crisp potato gallettes
  • Citrus-scented lobster and jicama salad with vanilla Anglaise
  • Spicy Baja ceviche and taro chips
  • Niman Ranch tri-tip with warm tortillas

Then there were the desserts. I thought I’d died an gone to heaven when I ate Wen Chocolates’ offerings. The Mission Fig chocolates were great. Then there were pecans in chocolate that were even greater. Then there were the several teas in dark chocolate — a formula for the longevity if ever there was one, especially with red wine — that were so good that I think I ate myself into a coma!

Farewell to Mel’s

Mel’s to Close in Cherry Creek North

Singers planning retirement frequently book a farewell tour. Athletes announced their final season of competition. But too often, even treasured restaurants close abruptly, with no time for one, last nostalgic visit. Not so with Mel’s Restaurant and Bar (originally, Mel’s Bar and Grill), a Cherry Creek North eatery at 235 Fillmore Street that is closing on April 28 after 12 years as a favorite in Denver’s toniest shopping/dining district. Real estate issues are the reason that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master are shuttering the restaurant, but real estate isn’t what this blog is about. It’s about food.

I’m looking forward to one final visit to Mel’s with a couple of friends for lunch on April 24. If we had deeper pockets, we might have reserved spots for the $90 grand finale dinner that evening that will be prepared by past and present Mel’s chefs: Frank Bonnano, now owner of Mizuna and Luca d’Italia, Goose Sorensen, owner/chef of Solera, Tyler Wiard and Corey Treadway, now at Elway’s, and Chad Clevenger, currently the captain of the kitchen at Mel’s. The 24th is the Masters’ 42nd wedding anniversary, which somehow fitting. On the 28th, Chef Chad prepares popular dishes for Mel’s final curtain. If you want to attend one of these specials, or just wish to have a private last meal at Mel’s, call 303-333-3979.

Instead of going into deep mourning, the Masters, including their son, Charles, have already opened instant-hit Montecito at 1120 East 6th Avenue and plan Montecito South at Orchard and Holly. Executive chef for Monty North and Monty South, which is how the Masters refer to this California/Mediterranean eatery, is Chef Adam Mali. He was previously owner/chef of the sadly short-lived Restaurant Kody in Evergreen and more recently executive chef at Aspen’s Ajax Tavern. For reservations at Montecito, call 303-777-8222.

In the works, and also under Chef Mali’s culinary supervision, is Annabel’s, projected to open in May at 5960 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village. It will serve “American comfort food.” Annabel’s is named after Mel and Janie’s granddaughter and Charles’ daughter. I’m happy that I’ll have one more opportunity to eat at Mel’s and even happier that the Masters will be keeping Colorado foodies happy and well fed even after it closes — and if naming a restaurant after a grandchild is an indicator, hopefully for years to come.