Category Archives: Restaurant & multiple restaurants

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.

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.

Boulder Weekly’s "Best Of" Picks

The current Boulder Weekly offers up its annual “Best of Boulder County” issue. Here is the long list of the paper’s staff and readers’ picks — and mine too (sometimes instead of an sometimes in addition to the Weekly‘s selections):

Appetizers/Tapas
Staff and Readers: The Mediterranean Restaurant (“The Med”)
Runner-Up: The Kitchen
Honorable Mention: DeGabi Cucina
Claire’s Pick: Zolo Grill, Tahona Tequila Bistro

Bagel
Staff and Readers: Moe’s Broadway Bagel
Runner-Up: Einstein Brothers Bagels
Honorable Mention: Big Daddy’s Bagels
Claire’s Pick: No contender this side of the Hudson River; Moe’s all the way

Breakfast
Staff and Readers: Lucile’s
Runner-Up: Walnut Cafe and Walnut Cafe/South Side
Honorable Mention: Dot’s Diner, Turley’s
Claire’s Pick: Foolish Craig’s

Bakery
Staff and Readers: Breadworks
Runner-Up: Great Harvest Bread Company
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Breadworks and Whole Foods for breads; Spruce Confections and Breadworks for pastries

Burger
Staff and Readers: Mountain Sun and Southern Sun
Runner-Up: Tom’s Tavern
Honorable Mention: Dark Horse; V.G. Burgers
Claire’s Pick: Jill’s at the St. Julien

Burrito
Staff and Readers: Illegal Pete’s
Runner-Up: Chipotle
Honorable Mention: Wahoo’s Fish Tacos
Claire’s Pick: Mina’s Latin Restaurant (Erie)

Business Lunch
Staff and Readers: The Kitchen
Runner-Up: Brasserie Ten Ten
Honorable Mention: Prima Ristorante
Claire’s Pick: Jill’s at the St. Julien, Q’s at the Boulderado, The Boulder Cork

Dessert*
Staff and Readers: Glacier Home-Made Ice Cream
Runner-Up: Spruce Confections
Honorable Mention: Belvedere Belgian Chocolate Shop
Claire’s Pick: The Flagstaff House, Q’s at the Boulderado
*In my opinion, the paper combined “Dessert” and ” Miscellaneous Sweet Stuff” here. “Dessert” in this context should have been limited to the dessert course in a restaurant. An ice cream dipping store, a bakery and a chocolate retail shop — no matter how worthy — do not fit into this category. Anyone editing this newspaper?

Happy Hour
Staff and Readers: The Mediterranean
Runner-Up: Triology Wine Bar & Lounge
Honorable Mention: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Claire’s Pick: Tahona Tequila Bistro, Redfish, El Centro

Fine Dining
Staff and Readers: The Flagstaff House
Runner-Up: Frasca Food and Wine
Honorable Mention: Sunflower
Claire’s Pick: The F-team, Flagstaff and Frasca, get high votes from me too. So do The Kitchen, Q’s at the Boulderado, L’Atelier

Chinese
Staff and Readers: The Golden Lotus
Runner-Up: Moongate Asian Bistro
Honorable Mention: Orchid Pavilion
Claire’s Pick: China Gourmet (casual), Spice China (Louisville, fancier)

Ice Cream
Staff and Readers: Glacier Homemade Ice Cream
Runner-Up: Ben & Jerry’s
Honorable Mention: Boulder Ice Cream, Bliss Organic Ice Cream
Claire’s Pick: Hatton Creamery

Coffee
Readers: Trident Booksellers and Cafe
Staff: Laughing Goat Coffee House
Runner-Up: Vic’s Coffee
Honorable Mention: Amante Coffee, Bookend Cafe
Claire’s Pick: Bookend Cafe

Indian
Staff and Readers: Taj Restaurant
Runner-Up: Tandoori Grill
Honorable Mention: Sherpa’s
Claire’s Pick: Same three

Juice/Smoothie
Staff and Readers: Jambo Juice
Runner-Up: Berry Best
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Juices Wild, Anjou, Cafe M

Catering
Staff and Readers: A Spice of Life
Runner-Up: Whole Foods
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: No opinion; I cook

Margarita
Staff and Readers: The Rio Grande (“The Rio”)
Runner-Up: Zolo Grille
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: The Rio for the wallop, Tahona Tequila Bistro for variety and taste

Mexican
Staff and Readers: Efrain’s Mexican Restaurant
Runner-Up: Zolo Grill
Honorable Mention: Rio Grande, Juanita’s Mexican Food and Casa Alvarez
Claire’s Pick: Mina’s Latin Restaurant (Erie)

Pizza
Staff and Readers: Nick-n-Willy’s Take-and-Bake Pizza
Runner-Up: Abo’s Pizza
Honorable Mention: Proto’s Pizzeria Napoletana
Claire’s Pick: Proto’s, O-Pizza

Place to Bring Kids
Staff and Readers: Red Robin
Runner-Up: Noodles & Company
Honorable Mention: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Claire’s Pick: Cafe Gondolier

Place to Eat Outdoors
Staff and Readers: Chautauqua Dining Hall
Runner-Up: Boulder Farmers’ Market
Honorable Mention: Mediterranean Restaurant
Claire’s Pick: All of the above, plus El Centro (which continues the patio from the location’s Rhumba incarnation) and anyplace on the Pearl Street Mall

Late Night
Staff and Readers: Abo’s Pizza
Runner-Up: Hapa Sushi
Honorable Mention: Cosmo’s Pizza, Dark Horse Bar
Claire’s Pick: The Reef (new owners introducing late food service)

New Restaurant
Staff and Readers: V.G. Burgers
Runner-Up: Panera Bread**
Honorable Mention: California Pizza Kitchen, 7 Eurobar***
Claire’s Pick: Black Cat Bistro
**The one on 29th is new, but Panera is not new to Boulder. The former Panera location on the Pearl Steet Mall (and also the one in Louisville) closed in 2004. Paradise Bakery now occupies the Pearl Street Mall space.
***This is now simply called Seven and has been reborn as a Latin/Asian fusion place and no longer is European-influenced.

Overall Restaurant
Staff and Readers: The Kitchen
Runner-Up: Frasca Food and Wine
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Both of those, plus the Flagstaff House and L’Altelier

Microbrewery
Staff and Readers: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Runner-Up: Walnut Brewery
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Oskar Blue’s (Lyons)

Sushi
Staff: Japango
Readers: Sushi Zanmai
Runner-Up: Hapa Sushi
Honorable Mention: Sushi Tora
Claire’s Pick: Hapa Sushi

Vegetarian Friendly
Staff and Readers: Sunflower
Runner-Up: Whole Foods
Honorable Mention: V.G. Burgers
Claire’s Pick: Cafe Prasad in the Boulder Cooperative Market for vegans

Sandwich
Staff and Readers: Snarf’s
Runner-Up: Salvaggio’s
Honorable Mention: Deli Zone
Claire’s Pick: Salvaggio’s

Take Out
Staff and Readers: Siamese Plate
Runner-Up: China Gourmet, Jimmy & Drew’s 28th Street Deli
Honorable Mention: Khow Thai
Claire’s Pick: Whole Foods, Nick-n-Willy’s

Thai
Staff and Readers: Know Thai Cafe
Runner-Up: Siamese Plate
Honorable Mention: Thai Basil, Chy Thai
Claire’s Pick: Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai Food (Louisville), though I understand that it recently closed. Sad.

Martini
Staff and Readers: Purple Martini
Runner-Up: Trilogy Lounge & Wine Bar
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: The Flagstaff House

Teahouse
Staff and Readers: Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
Runner-Up: Pekoe Sip House
Honorable Mention: Celestial Seasonings, Tea Spot
Claire’s Pick: Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse

Vietnamese
Staff and Readers: Chez Thuy
Runner-Up: May Wah
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Kim Food to Go

Wine Selection
Staff and Readers: Frasca Food and Wine
Runner-Up: The Flagstaff House
Honorable Mention: Trilogy Wine Bar and Lounge
Claire’s Pick: Those are my top three too

Italian
Staff and Readers: Laudisio Ristorante
Runner-Up: Carelli’s
Honorable Mention: DaGabi Cucina
Claire’s Pick: Trattoria on Pearl

Real Food Returns to The Reef

The Trattoria on Pearl, a favorite Italian restaurant on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, has acquired The Reef, a popular nighspot around the corner on Walnut Street between Broadway and 13th Street. The Reef has been known as Boulder’s “dueling piano bar,” but in the past, it has made efforts to be a restaurant too. When it first opened, it served lunch and dinner, but the food component quickly eroded. The Trattoria’s chef/partner Daniel Cofrades (right) is planning to address that immediately with the introduction of an upscale bar menu, including big burgers, to transition from happy hour through late-night entertainment and food.

The Trattoria on Pearl also has a booth at the seasonal Boulder County Farmers’ Market, providing three very different venues for eating Cofrades’s excellent fare.

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.

A Bad Day at the Fairway Cafe

Yesterday, my Upper West Side-dwelling friend and I went to the second-floor Fairway Cafe (right) for a late lunch. Fairway is the one of the best-stocked, worst-looking food stores I’ve seen in this country. This scruffy crowded place is a purveyor of an incredible variety of gourmet goodies: pasta, bread, dairy products (including a fabulous cheese assortment), condiments, imports, artisanal domestic foods and superlative fresh produce, meat and seafood. Plus. Plus. Plus. It is like one big market stall. I love it. Upstairs is a cafe, presided over by one Mitchell London — former art student, culinary student, chef to then-Mayor Ed Koch and foodinarian.

We were seated at the table with the sign that declared, “Ignore These People,” that was visible only to the waitstaff. Eventually someone brought us menus. Eventually someone brought us water. Eventually someone took our order: a BLT and iced coffee for my friend, and a composed salad and a lemonade for me. Our waiter disappeared. Whenever he reappeared, he looked in every direction by at our table. Eventually, he stopped by to confirm our orders: one BLT, one Cobb salad, one lemonade and one iced tea. We corrected the 50 percent that he got wrong. He disappeared again.

Sometime later, an iced tea and a lemonade appeared. We traded the tea in for coffee. He disappeared again. He reappeared. We got his attention. “Two minutes!” he declared. And disappeared. The cafe emptied out. Our food didn’t arrive. Our waiter wandered into our range of vision again. “What about two minutes?” we asked. “I’ve just been fired,” our waiter said — and disappeared for good. A waitress came over with our order: one BLT and one Cobb salad. We were too exasperated to complain. If we’d sent the Cobb back in favor of the composed salad, we might still be there.

Through it all, Mitchell London sat across the room from us, chatting on his cell phone, conversing with staff and patrons who stopped by. He had crutches leaning against the wall behind him, so I’m not surprised that he wasn’t patrolling the floor. Bit he did seem curiously disinterested in what was going on. And while I will continue to visit Fairway and even buy something exotic to bring back to Colorado, I am disinterested in ever eating at the cafe again.

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.”