Category Archives: Denver

What Makes a Great Food City?

Tucker Shaw, the Denver Post restaurant critic, posed that question today in an essay called “Do Clientele or Chefs Make a Good City? Weigh In.” He wrote about five foodies from five different cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam and Denver) chowing their way through San Francisco and discussing, among other wide-ranging topics, whether talented chefs or an appreciative, knowledgeable dining public that makes a city great for food.

He wrote, “It made me think about Denver, and I wondered: Are we, as an eating public, truly dedicated to food and restaurants? Are we demanding enough? Are we willing to spend the time and money that’s required to encourage our chefs to ever-higher heights? Do we have enough desire and commitment to spur our food scene to a nationally relevant level E-mail me and let me know what you think about the state of Denver dining, and what we, as customers, can do to improve it.”

I think I’ll answer here.

It takes good, creative chefs and talented restaurateurs, of course, but in my opinion, the people who go out to eat are the ones who make or break an individual restaurant and even a city’s collective restaurant scene. Denver has some wonderful chefs, and some really fine restaurants. But it’s a challenging city for talented chefs and fine dining. I think often of Sean Kelly’s poignant comment when he was ready to morph the exquisite Clair de Lune into the more casual Somethin‘ Else. On many weeknights, he remarked, there are more people in line for the restrooms at the Olive Garden than at the tables of his dream restaurant. He has now gone corporate and is no longer in any restaurant kitchen.

Kelly isn’t the only first-rate chef to have ridden the roller coaster of Denver’s highs and lows. Kevin Taylor has had some noteworthy successes (Restaurant Kevin Taylor and two Prima Ristorante locations) and some disappointments (Nicois and Dandelion). Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Bryan Moscatello pulled up stakes when Adega closed and moved to Alexandria, VA, where I understand his Indigo Landing is packing ’em in — just as Adega did not long ago. Fellow Best New Chef James Mazzio left the Front Range for Illinois, but luckily for Denver diners, is now the top toque at Via Ristorante, where I hope he stays for a long time. Jon Broening cooked his way north from Colorado Springs to Denver, where he turned culinary heads at Brasserie Rouge, but it also abruptly shut. He now is entrenched in Duo, which I also hope lasts a long time with Broening at the helm.

As long as Kelly’s observation remains true, Denver will not be a first-rate dining city. There are too many national chain restaurants, especially outside of the downtown/LoDo core, Uptown, Cherry Creek North, northwest Denver and a very few other pockets of fine and interesting food. Some of those good-food enclaves have “parking issues,” and some people just won’t dine anywhere that doesn’t have a convenient parking lot (or perhaps valet parking). With sprawl comes an automatic dilution of good dining, because chains also value convenient parking.

Shaw and his foodie friends picked New York and San Francisco as America’s top two dining cities and bandied about what the others might be. New Orleans, Portland (OR), Miami, Seattle, and Washington, DC, seem naturals. Los Angeles and Houston were also suggested. LA, which benefits from cultural diversity and a lot of show-biz, show-off money, and Houston whose sprawl makes Denver seem compact, excepted, the contenders are all geographically tight. They feel sophisticated and lively, which Denver is also becoming, now that so many people live in urban neighborhoods.

If I could help speed the process, I would. If I could wave a magic wand and make every local outpost of a national chain evaporate, I would. Of course, if I could hypnotize the entire city to make Denverites and their visitors avoid these “concepts” where corporated-planned meals are served, I would do that too. And then, only then, would Denver have a shot at being a top food city.

That’s my opinion. Share yours, either here or at www.denverpost.com/foodcourt.

Buying a Raclette Machine

I just received the following question: “I am trying to find a place to purchase a raclette machine. I live in the Denver Metro area but have not been able to locate any retailers who sell raclette grills. Do you have any suggestions? I can order online, but it would be great to buy it and grill the same day!”

In Denver, The Cheese Company at 5575 East Third Avenue; 303-394-9911 sells raclette machines (“and the cheese to go with them,” said the guy I talked to).

In Longmont, Cheese Importers has both raclette machines and the cheese. They are located at 33 South Pratt Parkway; 303-443-4444.

In Boulder, Peppercorn has one SwissMar machine (right) that a salesperson told me comes with “eight little dishes for melting your cheese and a surface that you cook your meat on.” This seems to be some kind of a hybrid and not purely a raclette machine. I’ve been in Switzerland and France a lot and never had meat with raclette there. Cornichons, boiled potatoes, small onions and rustic bread but no grilled meat. In any event, Peppercorn is at 1235 Pearl Street; 303-449-5847.

My Own Farewell to Mel’s

When I learned learned that Mel’s Restaurant and Bar was closing, I posted “Farewell to Mel’s” as a euology to this wonderful Cherry Creek North restaurant, a genuine contemporary Denver dining institution. Two friends and I went there for lunch yesterday, expecting to be part of a real crowd. It didn’t happen. Most of the intimate booths, whose pink walls are decorated with framed menus and other graphics, were occupied, as were a few of the tables. None of the overflow space was used. Even the big bar was uncharateristically empty too. Granted, the restaurant was gearing up for last night’s last gala dinner before it shutters after Saturday service, but still….

I don’t usually drink wine with lunch (except in Europe or at the occasional press lunch), but a private farewell toast seemed called for, so I ordered glass of of chardonnay from Tortoise Creek in Languedoc. It was just $5. Mel’s hasn’t ever overcharged for wines by the glass and also offers well-priced bottles too. I chose a thick mushroom-lentil soup topped with a float of creme fraiche and a salad. My friends and I caught up on each others’ news and didn’t dwell on the “last lunch” aspect of this final Mel’s meal. The weather was icky (heavy rain, cold air, standing water on the roadways, low-lying fog), so we didn’t linger. No dessert. No coffee. Just a quick exit. Perhaps it was better that way.

But wait. There’s more!

My modest little farewell here coincides with greater ones in the Denver print media — I’m sure with more to come. “Mel’s Ever-Expanding Universe,” the lead story in today’s Denver Post food section, following “Casual But Elegant Mel’s is Bidding Adieu,” yesterday’s piece by travel editor and former restaurant critic Kyle Wagner. The illustration for today’s front-pager charts Mel’s influence on the Denver dining scene, citing the chefs who have cooked there and gone on to other places, as well as the local and national celebs who have dined there. The Post also ran half-a-dozen recipes from Mel’s chefs, past and present, should you wish to try to recreate a taste of Mel’s at home.

Meanwhile, this week’s Westword features critic Jason’s Sheehan’s complementary review of Montecito, the restaurant that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master opened a few months ago. My earlier blog posting on the then-impending end included information on Montecito, the Masters’ California-inspired restaurant, and other culinary projects they and their son Charles are undertaking.

New Chef, Special Offer at Denver’s Prima

Prima Ristorante at Denver’s Hotel Teatro has a new executive chef. Toby Prout comes to Denver from Arizona, where he worked at the Ritz-Carlton Phoenix and at Fox Restaurant Concepts, which operates several stylish eateries in the Grand Canyon State. He has assembled a $35 three-course dinner menu incorporating the dolci created by Jason LeBeau, one of Denver’s most talented pastry chefs. This Spring Special will be offered from April 20 to June 8. Here’s the menu, which looks terrific and tempting:

ANTIPASTI
Corn and Zucchini Chowder, Crab Salad, Opal Basil Syrup
Baby Greens, Grapes, Shaved Fennel, Celery, Crostini, Lavender Vinaigrette
Crispy Polenta, Sage, Cambazola Cheese, Balsamic Tomato Sauce
Fresh Melon Salad with Prosciutto, Figs, Port Wine Drizzle
Spinach Salad, Warm Pistachio Goat Cheese, Pickled Onions, Tomatoes, Tomato Vinaigrette

SECONDI
Veal Au Poivre, Black Pepper Linguine, Caramelized Onions, Demi Cream
Roasted Garlic Gnocchi, Hot Sausage, Fennel, Leek Fondue
Apple Wood Smoked Bacon and Shrimp Fusilli, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Vodka Sauce
Vegetarian “Lasagna”, Mushrooms, Spinach, Grilled Onions, Squash, Basil Reduction
Salmon, Artichokes, Confit Baby Carrots, Charred Tomatoes, Red Olive Vinaigrette
Scallops, Red Onion Marmalade, Butter Mash, Micro Salad, Carrot Mint Nage
Ribeye Steak, Gorgonzola Twice Baked Potatoes, Caramelized Shallots, Port Reduction
Marinated Lamb Loin, Caramelized Parsnips, Fava Bean-Mushroom Ragout, Truffled Demi
Cherry Rubbed Pork Tenderloin, Goat Cheese Risotto, Wilted Spinach, Cherry Torani Sauce
Oregano Chicken, Roasted Baby Potatoes, Zucchini, Squash, White Wine Pan Jus

DOLCI
Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Meyer Lemon Gelée, Cassis Purée
Honey Vanilla Cheesecake, Sweet Cherry Ragout, Piñon Cluster
Strawberry Cassata, Sweet Crème Fraiche, Rhubarb Purée, Torbinado Cookie
Chocolate Cocoa Terrine, Mocha and Milk Chocolate Cremeaux, Bittersweet Sorbetto
Toasted Hazlenut Budino Cake, Caramel Mascarpone, Frangelico Gelato

Call 303-228-0770 for reservations, and mention the words, “Spring Special.”

Dining When There’s No "There"

Gertrude Stein famously observed, “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” In today’s Denver Post, restaurant critic Tucker Shaw turned his attention to La Sandia. This nuevo Mexican restaurant in the Northfield shopping area is operated by the talented Richard Sandoval whose Tamayo is a Larimer Square favorite. Shaw wrote that he was surprised to hear a 9:00 p.m. last call from the bar on one Friday night, his party of four being immediately seated on another Friday evening and an again empty restaurant in the middle of March Madness that he speculated might been because basketball addicts stayed home or visited places with big-screen TVs. “Each time, the discernible lack of clientele was a bummer,” he wrote.

I had lunch at the also almost-empty La Sandia a few months ago. Like Shaw, I thought the food was terrific and the decor appealing. “It was easy to lose myself in these dishes,” Shaw wrote of La Sandia’s beef barbacoa sopes and beef skewers (with and without bacon and sausage), “and forget about the cavernous space, which, if it were a little more busy, would be quite beautiful.”

One topic on which Shaw and I disagree is the mix-it-yourself guacamole. He thinks that for $6.95, someone should mix it for you, but if you are dining — as I did — with fussy eaters, the notion of mixing your own has a lot of appeal. If someone can’t eat onions, doesn’t like anything spicy or doesn’t care for cilantro, it’s OK. The table can still share an order of guac.

For my part, I was sad, but not surprised, by the emptiness when we ate there. Like Stein’s Oakland, Northfield doesn’t have much “there” yet. The attempts at a New Urbanism town center are sincere, but the curvy streets, the back-of-beyond parking lots and the total cleanliness and “managed-ness” of the place have an Stepford quality to them. The designers and managers have certainly tried, planting street trees, installing attractive street furniture and creating all the Disney-ish trappings that try to tap into nostalgia. Boulder’s 29th Street has a little of this same quality, but it benefits from being surrounded by Boulder. Northfield is at or near the northern end of the old Stapleton Airport’s runways and is surrounded by a lot of emptiness. I prefer more authenticity, vitality and grit to my environment.

I hope La Sandia survives, because it does dish up good food (and the parking out back is free), but I think I’ll return to Tamayo or try Zengo, which I’ve never visited, next time I want a hit of Sandoval’s cuisine.

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.

Brioche in Boulder and Beyond

I received a message directly from fairly new Boulderite, and since I presume that my correspondent is not the only one around who likes this classic French specialty, I’ll answer here. The question is: “Since moving to the Boulder area a year ago I’ve not found a bakery who makes real Brioche. Any suggestions?”

The first flip answer is, you came too late to enjoy the Continental baked goods at Le Francais and from the Belgian Bakery, respectively at the BaseMar Shopping Center and on 28th Street, south of Iris. I seem to recall having had a wonderful brioche at each at least once, and I’m glad that I did because both, alas, are gone.

Other than those two dearly departed bakeries, the only local place I know about is Breadworks at 2644 North Broadway (the same strip mall with the Boulder Wine Merchant, Moe’s Bagels, etc.; 303-444-5667). when I called to inquire, they told me that they bake brioches daily. When my husband made a Breadworks run, I asked him to pick one up for me. It turns out that they bake brioche bread, not individual brioches like that shown above. When he said that we wanted the smaller individual brioches, the woman behind the counter said, “Oh, you want a popover.” And that’s what he came home with. It’s a good popover, but it’s not a brioche.

You might have more luck elsewhere if you are willing to commute to find the brioche of your dreams. There are other French bakeries around to try. Calling in advance seems to make sense before undertaking an expedition, even if you have another errand in the general vicinity.
I have heard (or perhaps read) really good things about Daniel’s of Paris at 12253 East Iliffe (303-751-6084) in Aurora, especially about their croissants (my particular favorite when they are flakey rather than bread-y), but I don’t specifically know whether they do brioches. Another place is Katherine’s French Bakery (303-695-5000) at 2832 South Havana near Yale, also in Aurora. I’ve never been to either.

In Denver, Cook’s French Market, which recently relocated to 1600 Glenarm Place on the 16th Street Mall (303-893-2277), bakes brioches. I haven’t had them, because I’m never in downtown Denver in the morning, but I’ll bet they are good. Also, Denver’s Trompeau Bakery at 1717 East East Evans (303-698-9682) and Les Delices de Paris at 5303 Leetsdale (303-320-7596) are worth trying. The Denver Post just wrote of Tompeau, “As close as it comes to a neighborhood French bakery in Denver, Trompeau has an ever-present aroma of yeast and flour, and baguettes constantly coming out of the oven.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they both make brioches — and probably good ones too. Both have excellent word-of-mouth reps, but I haven’t been to either. Emogene Patisserie and Cafe at 2415 East Second Avenue in Cherry Creek North (303-388- 7900) is a also possibility. They make to-die-for pastries, but I don’t know about their breakfast goods, although I know that they do serve breakfast.

Babette’s Feast, a lovely little French bakery and cafe in Fort Collins, recently closed their original location, and according to their website, is taking catering orders until it reopens on April 1 at 1200 South College. I am not sure whether there will be a cafe, but you can call 970-223-0172 and ask.

Breadworks is evidently not alone in baking bread with brioche dough. I’ve seen brioche French toast and sandwiches on bread made of brioche dough on the menus of several area restaurants. However, for no reason at all, I assume that you are looking for indvidual breakfast brioches — the kind that resemble cupcakes or muffins in shape but a jaunty topnot. Good luck. Let us know what you discover — and what you thought when you tasted them.