Most Unusual (Chocolate) Truffles

I never pass up the opportunity to eat truffles, both the fungus and the chocolate. During this about-to-end visit to New York, I lucked into an invitation gourmet truffle tasting at Vosges HautChocolat in Manhattan’s oh-so-trendy SoHo. In an aggressively designed retail space (one purple wall, one large crystal chandelier, gleaming cases and shelves displaying truffles as if they were precious jewels, one long white marble table where the tasting took place and where usual habitues gather for coffee-and…), I tasted some weird, wild combos. A red wine (I think the Merlot) from Long Island’s Osprey’s Dominion Vineyard was poured with the trufffles.

Olio d’Oliva is single-origin white chocolate around an olive oil-infused ganache core. It came plated with a natural potato chip. Naga (“inspired by Nagaland, India,” we tasters were told) has a slightly nutty core, with a subtle coconut flavor and curry on top was served with small corn-nut snack crackers from the subcontinent. Black Pearl is a dark chocolate with ginger-wasabi ganache and a sprinkling of toasted black sesame seeds and accompanied by toasted wasabi-flavored edamame. Rooster is the name of a tall, conical truffle with a bittersweet chocolate mantle around a center that includes taleggio cheese. Absinthe is all about dark chocolate, black licorice flavor and a topping of powdery cocoa. Dulce de Leche combines Argentine caramel and cashew in a milk chocolate mantle, accompanied by a piece of applewood smoked bacon. I’ve had some better truffles in my life, a lot that were not nearly as good and none that were more more unusual.

This line of truffles was improbably established in Chicago by Katrina Markoff, who studied psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University and then culinary and pastry arts at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. During a subsequent eight-month trip around the world, she discovered many new flavors that she now incorporates into her truffles. In addition to the Vosges Haut-Chocolat store in SoHo (132 Spring Street), there are stores in Chicago (where the factory is also located) and at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

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.”

First Farmers’ Market of 2007

Actually, the Boulder County Farmers’ Market kicked off its 2007 season last Saturday, but A) the weather was icky, and B) I was on the road back from Telluride and couldn’t be there anyway. Therefore, today was my my first famer’s of the year and, judging from the crowds and the overheard comments, the first for many other people too.

Because much is local and everything is from Colorado, early season mainly means greens (various lettuces, spinach), a few root vegetables (radishes, new potatoes), plants and cut flowers, plus, of course, an assortment of organic cheese, preserves, mustard, honey, granola — things that didn’t have to be picked yesterday. And by noon, many booths had little left. Many familar favorite vendors were there and some new ones too.
In addition to lining 13th Street between Canyon and Araphoe, several new (or new-to-me) booths were set up along Canyon between 13th and 14th. These included Pasta Bozza run by pasta-maker Michael V. Bozza of Boulder, Wisdom’s Natural Poultry from Jay and Cindy Wisdom farm in Haxton, which is east of Sterling, and Destiny Dairy, a goats’ milk dairy (dips, beverages, yogurt) in Eaton, run not by anyone named Destiny but by a veterinarian named Dr. Jennifer Zindel.

The food court was jammed. People patiently waited in line, while a mellow duo sang classic folk and folk-pop tunes (CDs for sale, of course). My husband went to his favorite burger stand. I tried the spring rolls and ginger tea from a new Southeast Asian vendor. We are looking forward to a long season’s worth of farmers’ market lunches and ingredients to prepare at home. Tonight, we are grilling some of the Wisdoms’ chicken and making a green salad to go with it.

Cooking Tilapia, a Sustainable Fish

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website has been nominated for a Webby Award for website excellence. It is the most recent of several honors bestowed on this worthwhile site that informs cooks and consumers on which seafood choices contribute to or are detrimental to ocean health. As one who loves almost every fish and shellfish, I do pay attention to Seafood Watch’s lists. In honor of its honors, I prepared tilapia for dinner this evening.

This farm-raised fish, which is available year-round, is rated a “best” choice when raised in the US, a “good” choice when raised in Central America and a “poor” choice when it comes “from China and Taiwan, where escapes, pollution and weak management are common.” I was assured that our tilapia was born in the USA.

Here’s how I cooked it, drawing inspiration from a recipe I found on the Internet and again, changing it:

Poached Tilapia

2 tilapia fillets
About 3/4 cup organic apple juice
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
Water
2 tsp. dried basil leaves

Sauce:
2 Tbsp. reduced fat mayonnaise
2 tsp. bottled horseradish (or quantity to taste)
Sea salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
Dash hot pepper sauce

Rinse tilapia and marinate in apple juice for about an hour. Fill a a saute pan that has a lid with water to about 3/4 inch. Heat water to boiling, turn off flame and add sliced garlic. Place fillets in the water, top with basil, cover and poach over very low heat for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients. Serve fillets topped with sauce, or serve sauce on the side.

Serves 2.

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.

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.