Category Archives: Chef

Small Plate Delights at Denver’s New Amuse

I recently wrote about the coming of Amuse by Michel at 5 Degrees in Denver. Now it’s here, and on Tuesday, I attended a preview for media and other guests. The 5 Degrees part is a big bar/lounge in front, geared for the LoDo evening social crowd, while the Amuse part is the eatery that occupies the back. The restaurant is small and very cool-looking. It reminded me of a house of mirrors, with mirrors set in white frames against black walls, antique-white chandeliers with robin’s egg blue shades (right) that could have come from Cinderella’s castle, birchwood table tops, black armchairs and wood floors. An expansive patio in back looks inviting for a summer evening but was not open for the preview for media and guests on Tuesday evening.
The wine list was imposing, but I selected a sparkling Micheltini to start, and it was so good that I had another during the progression of a dozen small plates, each one attractively presented. IMHO, the best were:
  • The mixed Mediterranean olives with fresh herbs, lemon, orange, spices and garlic. I doubt that Wahaltare cures his own olives, but they displayed variety and marinade was terrific.
  • Seasonal Pacific oysters (right) with Maui onions mignonette. The oysters were “gentle,” not assertive, thereby not competing with the onions — and vice versa.
  • The lemon buerre blanc that blanketed the potato gnocchi was delicious.
  • Even better was the saffron mustard cream sauce for the PEI mussels. Understandably, given so many dishes to try, there was no bread on the table, but if there had been, I would have been tempted to sop up every drop. As it was, I made sure that ever mussel was well coated.
  • The Mountain Meadow Colorado lamb loin was tender and sweetly lamb-y, and the cassoulet of beans and balsamic emulsion was a lovely counterpoint.

One of Michel’s marketing minions came around and asked what we thought of different dishes, so if I was not alone in my opinions, the following dishes might change in the future, but as of last Tuesday, the least successful were:

  • The Red Bird Farms chicken drumettes confit with home-made ginger and sun-dried apricot barbecue disappointed. The chicken was tender enough, beneath a coating of a tempura-like batter, but I couldn’t taste the ginger, just the apricot, and the “barbecue” component mystified me.
  • The lightly fried citrus almond-crusted calamari served with spiced tomato sauce featured tender enough calamari, but the crust bore no taste of citrus or of almond, and the tomato sauce packed no flavor punch other than the tomatoes.
Too full for dessert, I lumbered back to the Market Street station and rolled back to Boulder on the bus.

Amuse at 5 Degrees is at 1475 Lawrence Street, Denver. It is open from 4:00 to 10:00 p.m. except Sunday. For reservations, call 303-260-7505.

Cooking Class at Maggiano’s

I’m normally not a fan of chains, but Maggiano’s Little Italy (two locations in Denver, 20 other states) is one of the best of the lot. Maybe it’s nostalgia. The ambience mimics East Coast Italian neighborhood restaurants, though the ones I have been to ramble from room to room and seem as big as some entire East Coast Italian neighorhoods. Maybe it’s because relatively few locations thinly spread across not-too-many states (only four in excessively chainified California) makes it feel less corporate. Maybe it’s because the food is really quite good — heaping platters of filling southern Italian-style favorites, served family-style.

In any case, on Monday evening, I attended a small cooking class put on by George Poston, chef at the downtown Denver Maggiano’s. Normally when the restaurant invites some media friends, the classes are hands-on in one of their kitchens, but this time, every dining room was packed, the kitchens were all occupied and we were exiled to the very pleasant patio where the class ended up being a demonstration. (Poston is above right, with his “assistant,” 7News consumer reporter Bill Clarke)

I’ve never been to a cooking class — hands-on or demonstration — where I didn’t learn something. This time, I learned that there are better ways to make buschetta than my never-quite-totally-successful oven-toasting. Poston took very good Italian bread (from Whole Foods, he said, which makes better stuff than Maggiano’s generally puts on the tables) grilled it over very low heat (200 to 250 degrees) in a cast-iron skillet with a bit of olive oil and garlic until lightly toasted and then topped it with chopped tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

Denver Chefs to Food & Wine

I’ve been deadline-crazed lately and haven’t had/found/made time to blog for several days. But I just found out which Denver chefs will be at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 15-17 and can resist sharing their names with you.

I don’t have a schedule so don’t know exactly what each one will be doing or when. Speaking generally, some chefs go to Food & Wine to cook for admiring crowds in the Consumer portion of the event, which is truly an honor, but others quietly attend seminars and panels in the Restaurant Trade portion of the event and network with their colleagues. The combo makes it a chef fest of the highest order. The Front Range chefs heading for this toniest of food events, which is billing itself as “the height of good taste,” are:

Matt Anderson, Bistro Vendôme
Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja
Carl Klein, Corridor 44
Ian Kleinman, O’s Steak & Seafood at the Westin Westminster
Curtis Lincoln, Ellyngton’s at the Brown Palace
Christian “Goose” Sorensen, Solera
Tyler Wiard, Elways

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.