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.

Outdoor Dining Season Has Started

Six months and 20 days ago, I wrote my first post for this blog, noting that the 2006 outdoor dining season seemed to have ended in Boulder. Although we optimistically uncovered and cleaned the outdoor furniture on our south-facing deck several weeks ago, and although we have grilled on the Big Green Egg, last night was the first time we actually had dinner outdoors. And was it ever nice to look down on the cleaned-up backyard where the last of the tulips were blazing beautiful colors, the grape hyacinths and vinca were showing purple blossoms, and the sweet woodruff’s delicate white blooms contrasted against the green. The trees are leafing out, and the lawn is still spring-green. No remarkable culinary feats here. Just a quick dinner made mostly from ingredients purchased at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market that is now in full swing.

Sunday Night Dinner for Two

Boneless chicken breast from Wisdom’s Natural Poultry, sauteed in butter with shallots, a splash of wine, several kinds of mushrooms from Hazel Dell (Wisdom’s natural chicken breasts are so large that one amply served both of us)
Pasta Bozza‘s pasta
Garlic bread (using a few slices of leftover Breadworks rustic baguette)
Green salad with home-made vinaigrette

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.

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.

Omni Interlocken Chefs’ Competition.

The Omni Interlocken Hotel down the pike in Broomfield was the setting for another chef’s competition — this year called Sonoma Meets the Rocky Mountains, featuring four teams from mountain resorts who prepared meals to pair with Sonoma wines. Like television’s “Iron Chef,” the contestants were presented with a secret ingedients: mushrooms from Hazel Dell. The Omni’s own chefs set out hors d’oeuvres to hold the guests/judges (one and the same) while the four chefs and their sous-chefs toiled at four cooking stations to create small plates. Of course, there were paired wines. Of course, there were sweets afterwards. And of course, my note-taking and photographing deteriorated as the evening wore on.
The contestants and their dishes:
  • Bob Burden (above left), Beaver Run Restaurant, Breckenridge – Sautéed herb-rubbed lamb loin topped with micro greens and enoki mushroom salad tossed in pinot noir dressing, with Bing cherry and pomegranate demi-glace and forest mushroom bulgur risotto.
  • Jake Linzinmeier, Chair 8, Telluride – Wild mushroom consomme, cappuccino-style topped with a celery root and potato foam, with goat cheese biscotti.
  • Tim McCaw, Zach’s Cabin, Beaver Creek – Coquille St. Jacques (above right, seared scallop and brandied curry cream atop puff potato, which one of the Zach’s crew described to me as duchesse potatoes and five different mushrooms — lion’s head, shiitaki, baby portabello king oyster and oyster).
  • Aaron Taylor, Keystone Ranch Restaurant – Venison strip loin with mushroom duxelles, stuffed with mushrooms and foie gras, with wild ramp potato risotto, huckleberry compote and mushrooms.

I had a heck of a time marking my ballot from four excellent dishes. Burden’s lamb was super-flavorful, and the demi-glace was sensational. Linzinmeier’s “drinkable” soup was imaginative to the max. McCaw’s scallop was perfectly seared, brown-crusted on top and delicate in the center were a straightforward flavor that worked beautifully with the subtly complex mushroom mix. The stuffing for Taylor’s venison was a rich counterpoint to the venison, and the mushrooms and compote tamed it all down a tad. In the end, Linzinmeier took “Best Dish” honors, and McCaw was voted the “Best Food & Wine Pairing.”

Speaking of pairings, the chefs created their mushroom dishes to pair with the following wines:

  • 2005 Buena Vista EVS Pinot Noir for Burden (tied for “Best Wine” honors)
  • 2004 Wattle Creek Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Linzinmeier
  • 2005 Clos du Bois Reserve Chardonnay Russian River Valley for McCaw
  • 2004 Geyser Peak Reserve Alexander Valley Meritage for Taylor (Geyser Peak’s 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, served during the reception, tied for “Best Wine”)
Even as the the competing chefs were preapring their dishes, the Omni’s own chefs prepared the following appetizers for the reception (and I hope I got them right):
  • Crab cakes with Meyer lemon relish and tarragon aioli
  • Cocoa seared pork tenderloin
  • Heirloom tomato and California artichoke on puff pastry, with opal basil pesto
  • Sesame seared ahi tuna, with wakame salad and pickled ginger, crisp lotus root and wasabi-scented soy sauce
  • Tempura calamari “lollipops”
  • Tomato-lemongrass coulis shooters
  • Duck confit spring rolls with California raisin chutney
  • Niman Ranch steak tartar on crisp potato gallettes
  • Citrus-scented lobster and jicama salad with vanilla Anglaise
  • Spicy Baja ceviche and taro chips
  • Niman Ranch tri-tip with warm tortillas

Then there were the desserts. I thought I’d died an gone to heaven when I ate Wen Chocolates’ offerings. The Mission Fig chocolates were great. Then there were pecans in chocolate that were even greater. Then there were the several teas in dark chocolate — a formula for the longevity if ever there was one, especially with red wine — that were so good that I think I ate myself into a coma!

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.