‘5280’ Magazine’s Best Denver Restaurants

Annual list cites Denver area’s top newcomers

5280-cover-2013The March issue of 5280 magazine arrived yesterday, with it the cover story of the publication’s selection of the year’s best new restaurants. Seven are in Denver — all in trendy emerging neighborhoods (no Cherry Creek North or downtown eateries here) — and one is in Boulder. Two are not totally new but rather reincarnations. The Squeaky Bean, once in a cramped location with a teeny make-believe kitchen, is now in larger quarters, while Boulder’s Oak at Fourteenth expanded slightly and reopened in the original location after a devastating fire. The Universal is a breakfast and lunch place.

‘Top Chef': I Can’t Believe I Watched the Whole Thing

After oh-so-dramatic ups and downs, Kristin Kish anointed Top Chef

TopChef-Season10-logoI really don’t care for the unreal (or surreal?) realm of reality telvision, but I tend to make an exception when a Colorado chef is a cooking show contestant. Then, my “state-riotism” kicks in and I start watching. With three Colorado chefs on season 10 of “Top Chef,” I became regular viewer. The locals were eliminated one by one, but I kept watching the program — but not the “Last Chance Kitchen” online spinoff.

By the beginning of the final episode telecast yesterday, the initial field of 21 “cheftestants” had been whittled down to two — and by the end of the program, just one remained to be crowned Top Chef. In the meantime, I had watched interesting moments of cooking and plating, plus soap opera-style interviews with the contenders (fierce and determined, or disappointed and resigned — much like the “Kiss and Cry” bench in every figure skating competition), processions of plated dishes being brought out to judges and audiences as small as those who could fit around the dining table in the Alaska governor’s mansion (Episode 15, I think) or as large as the studio audience in the finale, Episode 17.

Thinking back, I feel that the judges make their decisions using flexible and arbitrary parameters. Sometimes cheftestants are praised for being creative and thinking/cooking outside the box and sometimes they are eliminated for having strayed from what they know and do well — and what the judges suddenly say they “expected.” This was particularly evident in Finale Part I (Episode 16), in which Sheldon Simeon, a kid from Hilo who worked his way up, way up from dishwasher to one of Hawaii’s leading kitchenmeisters, was eliminated for going beyond his expected style of cooking. Only Emeril Lagasse, a kid from Fall River, Massachusetts, who himself started working in a Portuguese bakery as a teenager, identified with and praised Sheldon’s remarkable climb.

Kristen Kish, the eventual Top Chef , loaded down with ingredients during one of the elimination challenges.
Kristen Kish, the eventual Top Chef , loaded down with ingredients during one of the elimination challenges.

The finale pitted two talented women, Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson. Kristin went on to win the title of “Top Chef.” She had been eliminated earlier triumped over other cheftestants people in the “Last Chance Kitchen” series and faced Brooke in the finale, an episode playing off the Iron Chefformat that involved cooking in front of the show’s judges, past winners (includinr Boulder’s Hosea Rosenberg, Season 5 winner) and others. Co-host Tom Colicchio  was underwhelmed with this gimmick, tweeting: “I hear you out there you didn’t like the format well neither did I and I doubt we will do that again.”

Old Major is Newest Highland Eatery

New gastropub features rustic-style decor, tightly focused pork- and seafood-centric menu and keg wines

P1010905There’s a literary reference to the name Old Major, chef Justin Brunson’s latest venture in the neighboring red hot restaurant districts west of the South Platte and I-25. In Highland, Old Major, named after the featured porker in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, sports the trendy rustic look utilizing reclaimed wood and hefty furniture, has a small menu (changing every two or three months, says Brunson) and a big vision of featuring the distinctive tastes of “seafood, swine and wine.” A cool slogan, and the adjective “fine” could accurately be attached to each.

Executive chef Justin Brunson caffeine loading during Old Major's opening.
Executive chef Justin Brunson caffeine loading during Old Major’s opening.

The upscale gastropub’s buzz built instantly from a soft opening over the weekend, a couple of private parties and a mid-day media preview today. The food at Old Major is both robust and sophisticated, but what also really impressed me is the restaurant’s ground-breaking policies in the food service biz. There are no runners or bussers (those who bring the food-laden dishes also take the dirty ones away). In fact, there are just two levels of servers, a word that general manager Jonathan Greschler says actually isn’t used. because it implies a class system that is eschewed.

Along the same egalitarian line, Brunson says they’ve hired cooks who might become chefs and waitstaff who might become restaurant owners. Additionally, to help staff on the road financial stability should they want to take out a loan or a mortgage, tips are added to each person’s paycheck rather than distributed nightly in cash. Real admirable policy which Greschler calls revolutionary in the restaurant industry. In other words, policy copycats welcomed.

Spacious gleaming kitchen, open to view. Other kitchen
Spacious gleaming kitchen, open to view. Other kitchen “amenities” include a wood-assisted pizza oven, meat-curing room, butchering area, smoker and much more.

Continue reading Old Major is Newest Highland Eatery

Oaxaca in the Roaring Fork Valley

Aspen’s Zocalito is restaurant, rum bar, chile purveyor and more

ZocalitoTo Aspenites and visitors hungry for south-of-the-border fare, Zocalito Bistro on the Hyman Street Mall exerts a magnetic pull whether for drinks and tapas, dinner or dessert. Cookbook aficionados page through Zocalito To the Source, a beautiful cookbook sprinkled with favorite recipes. To replicate Zocalito’s recipes, home cooks stock up on dried Oaxacan chiles, imported from Mexico ad not Oaxacan in name only.The restaurant and chile purveyor has a website page that is labeled “Oaxacan Travel,” which is a blog about the owners’ travels to Mexico.P1020098

Describing their quest for special chiles to import, chef Mike Beary wrote about “Finding the Rare Chilhuacle Chiles for Importation” on the restaurant’s blog:

“As we pulled through the gate to Felix’s house I couldn’t help wondering what his wife was fixing us for dinner. After all, we had arrived in Cuicatlan barely 24 hours ago and only met Felix early this morning. Now, after spending eight hours with him in his fields, where he was growing the most beautiful chilhuacle chiles I’d ever seen, Felix didn’t hesitate to invite perfect strangers into his home. We piled out of Roberto’s Suburban very hungry– it was 3 p.m., and we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Then it hit me. The aroma pouring out of the kitchen meant one thing: mole negro!”

I have never been to the restaurant, and I don’t own the cookbook, but I did receive a package of chiles that I’m eager to try. It came with recipes, and I’ve also been perusing other cookbooks for a model recipe in which to use robust Chihluacles chiles, both black and red, that Zocalito imports and distributes.
Zocalito Latin Bistro on Urbanspoon

Two French Chefs Next at Aspen’s Chefs Club

French culinary team at the St. Regis Aspen for three nights

The Chefs Club by Food & Wine is set to bring another top resatuant team to Aspen. The $150 (wine pairings additional) dinner on March 6, 7 and 9 does push most people’s restaurant budgets, but  it’s a lot mor afforedable and closer than a culinary trip to Paris. Cyril Lignac, one of the great modern day chefs of France, plus his pastry chef and culinary team prepares a four-course menu for three those nights only.

CyrilLignacLignac is chef/owner of three popular restaurants in Paris, Quinzième, Le Chardenoux and Le Chardenoux des Prés, and two patisseries. In 2012, Chef Lignac received his first Michelin star for his restaurant Le Quinzième. At the same time, GQ magazine recognized his entrepreneurial spirit and his talent for sharing simple pleasures when they named him “Chef of the Year”. This spring, Lignac will release his first cookbook in English. Perhaps advance copies will already be available — or perhaps not.

MathieuPacaudLater in the month, on the 14th and 16th, Mathieu Pacaud, chef/co-owner the Michelin three star restaurant L‘Ambroisie in Paris, He partners with his father Bernard, to run this Parisian mainstay of French haute cuisine, L’Ambroisie that  L’Ambroisie has retained three Michelin stars for more than 20 years. The restaurant.lies in the heart of the historic Marais at 9 Place des Vosges. The cuisine of Bernard and Mathieu Pacaud is classical, sophisticated and seasonal.

CSA Fair in Fort Collins This Weekend

Grant Family Farms ‘orphans’ & others learn about other local farmers’ and ranchers’ CSAs

This logo is frp, The Calhoun School in Manhattan.
This logo is frp, The Calhoun School in Manhattan.

Be Local Northern Colorado hosts what its anticipates to be the first annual CSA Fair on Saturday, March 2 to give local residents a chance to meet and connect with farms and ranches in northern Colorado that operate Community Supported Agriculture programs. The event takes place at the Opera Galleria in downtown Fort Collins from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Grant Family Farms “orphans” take note. CSA members left high and dry with the farm’s unfortunate lapse into bankruptcy last year can shop around for a new one to join from the 20-plus in northern Colorado.

It seems unlikely that any foodie would be unaware of the CSA concept. But just in case, know that the initials stand for Community Supported Agriculture, a mutually beneficial commitment between a farmer and a community member to produce and purchase locally grown and raised foods. The most common model is vegetable “shares” in which people purchases “memberships” to a farm, which then supplies a “share” of the harvest throughout the vegetable growing season. Hereabouts, that is  roughly from May to October. A membership also engages people in the reality of farming in a difficult climate.

Be Local Northern Colorado, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, also operates the Winter Farmers’ Market at the Opera Galleria from November to April. If you are in north Colorado and haven’t been there yet, so go. The Opera Galleria is at 123 N. College Ave., Fort Collins.

Mile High Spirits Distills in RiNo

Denver distillery makes branded and private label vodka and bourbon in former muffler shop

LogoColorado has gained a rep for its abundant micro-breweries on the Front Range and elsewhere and also boasts scores of vineyards and wineries from the Western Slope to the eastern Plains. More distilleries are now entering the state’s adult beverage mix. The first I encountered was Peach Street Distillers in Palisade. At the time, it seemed like a novelty, but when Stranahan’s Whiskey emerged in Denver, it was clear that a boom was being born.

Belly up to the bar or have your drinks in the lounge, furnished with deep sofas and chairs.
Belly up to Mile High Spirits’ bar or have your drinks in the lounge, furnished with deep sofas and chairs.

Spirits are now a serious business in Colorado, most recently as evidenced by Mile High Spirits, a Denver private label and custom brand distillery. An old muffler shop has been reborn as a state-of- the-art facility in the River North area. It is one of just 3  (or is it 5?) distilleries in the world to use an all-glass still, meaning that there are no metals and impurities picked up throughout the distilling process. The result: a pure, crisp and high-quality product possible.

A colletion of house-Infused vodkas such as pineapple, mixed berry, cucumber and pickle peperoncini (really).
A collection of house-Infused vodkas such as pineapple, mixed berry, cucumber and pickle peperoncini (really).

Visit Denver arranged for a media group visit to tour the distillery and taste its products. You might have drunk private-label spirits without knowing that they came from this facility. Its own labels are Elevate Vodka, Fireside Whiskey, Peg Leg Rum and Denver Dry Gin served at the bar, at a table or in the lounge (and also found increasingly elsewhere in the local market). Signature drink: Mile High Mule made with infused vodka, ginger beer and a slice of fresh citrus. Next time I’m ordering one!

Fold-your-own soft tacos from Mestizos.
Fold-your-own soft tacos from Mestizos.

After some infused vodka, a potent bloody Mary and a distillery tour, I was hungry and since Mile High Spirits doesn’t serve food, I was grateful when Mestizos Fusion Tacos food truck pulled up and opened its window. Authentic ingedients and recipes, plus low prices make this truck a favorite as it prowls the city. Four flavors each of soft tacos, burritos and quesadillas, regular or naked fajitas and a couple of sides (including guac served in a half avocado shell) and some nightly specials — and that’s about it.

Mile High Spirits is at 2920 Larimer St., Denver, 303 – 296-2226. Mestizos Fusion Tacos truck is wherever it happens to park.

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.