Superstar Salad Bar

We went to a South American-style steakhouse last night, and what impressed me most at Texas de Brazil was the salad bar (a tiny corner of which is shown, right). Restaurateur Salim Aswari, who opened the first American rendition of the Brazilian churrascaria in Addison, TX, in 1998, told a Dallas Observor, “We want to be the P.F. Chang’s of steakhouses.” Good for his bank balance (the privately held chain raked in $50 million last year), but not inspiring for diners who want something other than a “concept” that will fly across the country.

There are (or will be by the end of 2007) three Texas de Brazil restaurants clustered around Dallas (Dallas, Fort Worth and the original in Addison), three in Florida (Miami, Orlando and Miami Beach), two in Virginia (Norfolk and Fairfax), two in Illinois (Schaumburg and Chicago) and one each in Las Vegas and Denver — the last where my husband and I and two other couples went last night.

Churrasco, the Brazilian equivalent of barbecue, is derived from on-the-range grilling in the cattle lands of the southern part of the country. Brazil de Texas’s all-you-can-eat shtick involves a squadron of “gauchos” who bustle from table to table with chunks of open-fire grilled meats skewered onto big swords, like shishkebobs on steroids. Each “gaucho” comes around bearing two skewers of beef (filet or picanha, a seasoned top sirloin that is the house specialty), pork, lamb, Brazilian sausage or chicken, which he will flick onto your plate on request. Want your meat medium-rare? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-rare. Want it medium-well? The piece on the bottom of the skewer is medium-well. The picanha was best-tasting of the meats. The chicken was tender but didn’t have much flavor — not even bacon flavor to the bacon-wrapped chicken or any hint of cheese in the grilled Parmesan chicken. Small sides of garlic mashed potatoes and grilled bananas (“to cleanse your palate,” explained the waiter) were brought to the table. Bottom line is that not even the most ardent carnivores among us truly raved about the meats.

The salad bar was the star of the meal, and it is such a star that I’d return just for that. The 50 or 60 items were opulently displayed as if on a cruise ship or at a Club Med, but the offerings were not just there for show. Here, quality matched quantity, and everything tasted really good. One bowl held romaine lettuce hearts and one contained mixed greens, but there were no sprouts, no grated carrots, no underripe tomatoes, no radishes, no cottage cheese, no straight-from-the-can beans or chickpeas, no wilted green peppers — in short, nothing that makes the average salad bar so depressing.

Everything (and I mean everything) so artfully arranged on a large, square buffet, was over-the-top beautiful and very good or better than that: balls of fresh buffalo mozzarella, shaved Parmesan, gorgonzola, goat cheese terrine, spiced mixed olives, Greek olives, pepperoncini, grilled red and yellow peppers, grilled eggplant, grilled portabello mushrooms, sauteed button mushrooms, steamed asparagus, pesto-topped tomato halves, Italian cold meats, crisp bacon, cold shrimp, hearts of palm, salmon and rare ahi tuna (each with an appropriate sauce) and so much more. In addition to house-made dressings (doubtless from company recipes), a shelf above the main buffet held a fabulous assortment of olive oils and vinegars so that those of us who like to dress our own salads can do so and also baskets of fresh, nicely crusty bread. I was happy to see a bowl of chimichurri, a South American condiment that comes in many variations. The Texas de Brazil rendition isn’t very garlicky, but a tasty herb blend nonetheless.

A smaller linear buffet held soup (a slightly oversalted lobster bisque was the soup of the day), jasmine rice, Brazilian black beans and probably another side dish or two that I can’t recall. There was also a small selection of pre-made sushi — OK considering that it is served at a Brazilian-themed steakhouse but otherwise a weird combination — Japan de Brazil, perhaps? There were two desserts — a “traditional Key lime pie” whose center was so cold it seemed to have recently emerged from the freezer (I wonder when it was baked) and a far better bananas Foster pie. which the waiter described as “bananas Foster cheesecake.” Each chef selects a handful of nightly desserts from the company’s list.

The dramatic restaurant has high ceilings, huge lighting fixtures, lots of dark wood and lavish out-of-reach flower arrangements that I’m guessing are fake. A tall, glassed-in wine room displays many bottles, but because there was a special on Beringer wines as part of the Denver Restaurant Week promotion, my husband and I shared a bottle of very nice bottle Beringer Knights Valley Reserve cabernet sauvignon, a steal at the restaurant week price of $26.80. I understand that Texas de Brazil is planning to introduce private-label wines made from Portuguese grapes.

Other than my misgivings about multi-restaurant “concepts” that leave little or no room for individual chefs’ interpretations, Texas de Brazil does not lend itself to a seamless dining experience. Granted, we were there on a non-snowy Friday evening that happened to be the last night of Denver Restaurant Week, but the service component was, by its nature, intrusive. We were seated in a small, very dimly lit room fortuitously separated from the main part of the restaurant with sliding walls, enableing the six of us to hear each other), but the waiter insisted on launching his long, well-memorized recitation of how the concept works while we wine drinkers were still squinting at the wine list.

Individual second trips to the salad bar are par for the course conversation interrupters, but the person who leaves voluntarily removes him- or herself from the flow, but the steady procession of gauchos offering more of this, that or the other meat was somewhat intrusive. It can’t be helped, given the concept, but still…

Again, I acknowledge that we were there at a very busy time, but when a server offered to clear our salad plates and bring clean ones for the main course, I wasn’t quite finished with my salad but said that I would like a clean plate. He came back with one for everyone else but not for me, although I had finished my salad by the time he returned. I had to ask three different people for a clean plate before one finally materialized.

Texas de Brazil does have an a la carte menu, but we didn’t even consider it, because the two for $52.80 Denver Restaurant Week offer that lured us there in the first place. I”m not sure what the regular price is, but I think it’s about $38-$40 per person, still a good value for all that food and that fabulous salad bar.

Tennessee Truffles

A recent article in the New York Times reported that Dr. Tom Michaels, a plant pathologist, is growing black truffles of the sort usually found in France in Chuckey, TN. The good doctor sprouted hazelnut trees from seed to create an orchard (is orchard an appropriate word for a bunch of nut trees?), inoculating the roots with Tuber melanosporum, the revered Périgord truffle, before transplanting them outdoors seven years ago. Dr. Michaels, who grew up on a mushroom farm and lives in a modest East Tennessee ranch house, has been thinking about all this for a time. In fact, he wrote his thesis about in vitro truffle cultivation. He knew about unsuccessful efforts at domestic truffle cultivation over the last three decades, and given the truffle bonanza, he might be trading houses soon.

Writer Molly O’Neill explained her Times piece, “Tending a truffle orchard is as much of an art as it is a science and it is, most of all, an act of faith — it typically takes 6 to 12 years for the fungi to form truffles in the earth. Mystery and scarcity are part of the truffle’s allure.

“According to James M. Trappe, a professor emeritus of mycology at Oregon State University and the co-author of the forthcoming Trees, Truffles and Beasts: How Forests Function (Rutgers University Press), there are about 60 species of true truffles, the subterranean fungi that attach to a plant’s roots and issue long tendrils that gather nutrition for the plant and use the carbohydrates that the plant returns to eventually form the ‘fruit’ we call truffles — but only a dozen are prized in the kitchen.
“Most fungi sprout a stem and cap that contain reproductive spores. The truffle does not. The truffle is a ‘sack of spores,’ explained Dr. Trappe, and while other mushrooms need nothing but a rustling wind to loosen and spread their seed, the subterranean bulb needs to be digested and excreted by an animal. In order to attract rodents and marsupials, the truffle, like a tiny underground perfume factory, produces up to 50 different chemicals that combine to create a scent powerful enough to penetrate up to three feet of earth.”

Dr. Michaels is not the only American grower attempting to raise “black gold” in American soil. Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, NC, began growing truffles in the 1980s and, in fact, was Dr. Michaels’ truffle muse. He has reportedly given trees to 45 farmers to give truffles a try. Charles K. Lefevre of New World Truffles in Eugene, OR, told O’Neill that there are about 300 truffle growers in the US.

One, perhaps, is Truffled Truffles or Eros of Santa Fe, NM (I’m not sure which is the name of the comapny and which is the brand of the candy. In any case, I purchased a small piece box of truffles (the fungus) and truffle (the sweet) encased in to-die-for Belgian chocolate in Santa Fe last year. The 4.9-ounce box of five truffles cost $18. A 4.9-ounce box of five Truffled Truffles is $18, which can be purchased in town or ordered from Senor Murphy, a Santa Fe candy purveyor. Expensive, but fabulous fusion for those of us who love both kinds of truffles.

Restaurant Weeks Abound

Restaurant Weeks — those successful and increasingly popular promotions during which legions of a city’s restaurants try to attract new customers and reward loyal ones with incredible deals for multi-course meals — are on my mind right now, because Denver Restaurant Week is February 24 to March 2, with dinner for two for $52.80 in dozens of Mile High City eateries. We are going in to Denver at least once, to Texas in Brazil, and maybe we’ll be lured in to Denver another evening as well, though time is getting tight.

Also coming right up is Winter Restaurant Week in Boston, March 4-9. It’s not quite a week — just Sunday through Thursday. More than 135 restaurants have signed up to three-course prix fixe lunches for $20.07 and three-course dinners for $33.07. In fairness, Boston has compensated for the short winter week with a summer equivalent that runs for 12 days.

Among the numerous other cities that have annual restaurant weeks are Washington, DC, in early January; San Diego also in early January; Norfolk in late January; Downtown Atlanta in July; Center City Philadelphia in late September; and of course, Boulder in November. Every city’s restaurant offer a different price point, and every specific restaurant works out its own offer. Regardless of the details, anyone living in or near or visiting any city during its restaurant week is missing a good thing by not eating out as often as possible.

The New York Times Discovers Boulder Dining

The New York Times Travel Section today contained a short article on Boulder dining titled “Fine Dining With a Hippie Past.” Writer Michelle Auerbach rounded up the usual recent suspects: Frasca Food & Wine, The Kitchen and Mateo. She observed, “The new kitchens are refining the town’s hippie past, with an almost obsessive focus on organic ingredients, brand-name boutique farms and eco-friendly practices, like composting, recycling and renewable energy.” True enough. However, I think that she falls into a “stereotrap” when harking back to Boulder’s hippie days, which were ascendant a long time ago. I’ve lived in Boulder for nearly 18 1/2 years, and that hippie heyday had already waned by the time I got here. Now, you have to look hard to find what’s left of that ’60s and ’70s counterculture in Boulder itself, though it is alive and well living up the hill in Ward.

Fabulous as the “new kitchens” are, there’s also a lot to be said for some of the “old kitchens” — John’s Restaurant (established in 1969), the Flagstaff House (1971), Laudisio’s (1986), L’Atelier (owner/chef Radek Czerny opened his first Boulder restaurant in 1988). I know that there were space constaints to this assignment, but it always pains me when the media — especially the New York- and California-based media — are so fixated on the newest, hippest, trendiest restaurants that they ignore those that have been carefully preparing and graciously serving fine, sophisticated food for a long time.

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.

Brown Palace Food Sampling

The other night, it was just great to be a travel writer. To showcase its lovely new spa, Denver’s historic Brown Palace Hotel hosted a reception for local travel media. Rather than put everything in the hands of the events catering department, the organizer invited chefs from all of the Brown’s restaurants to prepare something special. The graceful event was held in the small, elegant second-floor Brown Palace Club, located at the “prow” of the triangle-shaped hotel. White-gloved servers welcomed guests with champagne, wine or mojitos — and a bar prepared other drinks on order.

In addition to hors d’oeuvres passed by other white-gloved servers, each restaurant had set up a station. I had eaten in various Brown Palace restaurants over the years, but never was I able to sample all of their dishes at once. This was what the chefs presented — and I had no favorites among these excellent offerings:
PALACE ARMS (the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant)
Foie Gras Torchon Canapes
Scallop & Potato Gratin with Champagne Caviar Beurre Blanc and American Caviar
Caesar Salad Prepared to Order

SHIP TAVERN (Denver’s answer to waterfront traverns, open since 1934 and the repeal of Prohibition)
Mini Crab Cakes with Tropical Fruit Salad
Seared Ahi Tuna on Crispy Won Ton and Asian Slaw

ELLYNGTON’S (the hotel’s gracious main dining room where its legendary Sunday brunch is also served)
Yogurt Panna Cotta with Mango
Souvlaki Taquitos
House Made Flat Bread, Tzatziki, Romaine, Tomatoes and Red Onion, Baba Ghanoush and Tabbouleh

LOBBY TEA (afternoon tea in the lobby, a Brown Palace tradition, replicated a portion of the offerings for this reception)
Tea Pastries, Tea Sandwiches and Canapes

BROWN PALACE BAKERY (pastries and desserts fit for royalty and served in various restaurants at the Brown)
Mile High Chocolate Shot (Arriba Grand Cru Chocolate Shots with Grand Marnier Foam and Chocolate Spikes)
Chocolate Cocoa Nibs
Fruit Bellini Shots
Arriba Grand Cru Chocolate Shots
Black Currant Puree and Passion Fruit Puree
Creme Brulee Cheese Cake
Candied Pineapple

BROWN PALACE CATERING/BANQUETS (serving individually shaken seafood martinis, prepared fresh by a catering cook)
Seafood Martini Bar (Fire Grilled Rock Shrimp, Lobster, Lump Crab, Ginger Citrus Glaze, Brunoise Vegetables and Pickled Green Beans)

Upcoming Food Events – One in Town, Two on the Snow

I expect a fundraiser featuring four top chefs to live up to its name, “Night of Excellence.” Chefs Mark Fiorentino of Daniel Boulud Restaurants (New York), Mike Morehead, Gourmet Fine Catering (Denver), Christian “Goose” Sorensen of Solera Restaurant (Denver) and Bradford Thompson of The Phoenician (Scottsdale, AZ) will pull out all culinary stops in a fundraiser for the Brian Thompson Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which supports aspiring young chefs in undertaking a formal three-year program at a local culinary school. Brian Thompson, a young chef with Whirled Peas Catering which is instrumental in putting on the event, died accidentally and tragically on February 28, 2006. He was not related to The Phoenician’s Bradford Thompson.

The “Night of Excellence” is scheduled exactly one year later, on February 28, 2007, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm at the Cable Center, 2000 Buchtel Boulevard, Denver. The program includes cooking demonstrations, wonderful food, paired wines and a silent auction. Tickets are $100 per person. For reservations, call 720-335-2718 or visit the foundation’s website.

The annual Crested Butte Nordic Council Progressive Bonfire Dinner combines a distinctive four-star, four-course, four-fire dinner with cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Locals and visitors alike share the warmth and camaraderie around crackling fires, with good food and warm drinks along the way. The dinner starts at 5:00 pm on March 17, at the Town Ranch trailhead with a cup of hot wine or cocoa to sip while sitting on straw bales around the first fire.

Skiers and snowshoers follow a path of luminarias along 4 kilometers of Nordic trails with appetizer, soup, entrée and dessert courses of Italian fare served around bonfires along the way. The dinner costs $30 for adults and $15 for children under age 12, with proceeds supporting the Gunnison/Crested Butte Junior Nordic Ski Team. Reservations are required; call 970-349-1707.

Various Vail charities benefit from the 17th annual Taste of Vail, from April 11 to 14, the perfect bridge from the end of the ski season to the beginning of the food-festival season. The busy schedule includes food and wine seminars, winemaker dinners at some of the Vail Valley’s top restaurants, the Grand Tasting (fine wine poured by winemakers and winery owners from around the globe, an abundance of great food, an auction and dancing), and my personal favorite, the popular mountaintop picnic extravaganza at 10,350 feet atop Vail Mountain. I can ski before the picnic, but I’ve never managed to ski afterwards!

The Taste of Vail is an a la carte production, with various ticket categories offered. It’s complicated, so check the website if you are interested. For tickets or further information, go to the Taste of Vail website or call 970-926-5665.

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.