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.
Sterling-Rice’s client roster includes a number of food and beverage corporations (Nestle, Horizon Organic Dairy, Frito-Lay, Kraft, Kellogg’s Tropicana, Starbucks, Heinz, Quaker Oats, Fantastic Foods, Hellmans, Coors and Celestial Seasonings) and one of their top executives is culinary director Cathryn Olchowy (Johnson & Wales culinary grad and MBA holder), which makes it all the more remarkable that they took on a one-week, local restaurant festival.
Rosenberg made Sweet Potato Bisque (served in tall tall shot glasses), Sweet Potato Hash, Sweet Potato Corn Muffins, Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin and Sweet Potato Souffle. The photo above shows him cutting the peeled sweet potatoes for his gratin (recipe below), which would be ideal for a Southwestern-themed Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, but could easily be reduced for fewer people:
Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin
1 large yellow onion
3 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper
5 pounds of sweet potatoes
1/2 can chipotles in adobo
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup Gruyere or other Swiss cheese, grated
1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
Peel and slice onion. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook onions with a little salt and pepper until soft. Turn up heat and cook until onions begin to caramelize, being careful not to let them burn. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin or slicer (or sharp knife), cut potatoes into thin strips. Oil or grease the bottom of a two-inch-deep baking pan and place an even layer of potatoes on the bottom. The “pattern” resembles shingles. Sprinkle with a small amount of the cheeses, onions, salt and pepper, distributed evenly over the sweet potatoes. Repeat process, ending with a layer of potatoes. Press down with a spatula to even the layers. Pour cream over the potatoes and top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil, being careful not to permit the foil to touch the cheese. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and pierce with a knife to make sure the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. Allow to rest before slicing; slice as you would a lasagna.
After we feasted on sweet potatoes, a group of us continued to celebrate. Sterling-Rice clients include Applebee’s and some other chain, but fortunately, we headed for Mateo, where we enjoyed the First Bite Boulder menu. See the Dining Diary on my website for a review.
An eyeball evaluation of First Bite Boulder gives it high marks. En route to Sterling-Rice’s offices and then to Mateo, I walked past a number of participating restaurants. While I didn’t see any out-the-door lines, most tables appeared occupied. And that was the whole idea.
Aji is Boulder’s newest South American restaurant
My husband and a friend an I took advantage of the great prices during the First Bite Boulder promotion to visit Aji Restaurant, a South American restaurant east of the Pearl Street Mall and a few blocks from our home. The food was wonderful, the portions ample and the price appealing. For a review, please go to my website’s Dining Diary.
Beyond our own satisfying meal, I have to sing the praises of cities and participating restaurateurs that team up to offer well-priced meals for a special week each year. Denver does a Restaurant Week each February, following the lead of such culinary meccas as San Francisco and Seattle. Whatever these promotional weeks are called and whenever they fall on the calendar, they provide an opportunity for diners to try places they haven’t been or to return to a favorite without running up a huge bill.
First Bite Boulder (Nov. 11-18) is a week-long opportunity to try a new eatery or return to a favorite at a good price. Three-course meals at some of the city’s best restaurants from Aji to Zolo will be just $26 per person. Beverages, tax and gratuities are, of course, additional. Go to First Bite’s website and click on ‘Restaurants’ for a complete list, as well as click-on menus and, in some cases, links to on-line reservations. I’ve been to many of these restaurants myself and have posted writeups on my website ; click on ‘Dining Diary’ and use the clickable index to see whether I’ve reviewed the restaurant that interests you.