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Denver trip report: Rioja, TAG, Euclid Hall, Bittersweet, Fruition, La Sandia, Jus’ Cookin, The Truffle

k
Kelly Jan 11, 2012 06:40 AM

Back from our annual holiday trip to Denver, and I’m pleased to report that we ate well. I was saddened to see that Root Down had temporarily closed its doors; but it sounds like they will be reopening in LoDo sometime this spring? I’ll get there someday…

Here are some capsule comments (please forgive the gaps; I should have written these immediately, and the time lapse plus jet lag have done my memory no service):

Rioja
One of two Must Go’s for us while in Denver (the other is Chick-Fil-A!). I love love love the fact that in mid-December, we were lunching on the terrace in shirtsleeves. We have an admitted soft spot for this place, and thoroughly enjoyed our meal: the requisite pork belly with chick pea puree, succulent as ever, and the heirloom beet salad with cucumbers, mint and chevre (excellent) for starters, followed by the skirt steak (one of the beefiest pieces of beef I’ve had in ages) and the lamb burger. But the unexpected highlight was the lemon-yuzu sabayon tart, which stands at the top of my 2011 dessert list. Tangy and bright, with a crumbly cornmeal crust, and perfectly set off by pine nut ice cream and a TOTALLY sour lemon granita. Delish.
$100 for two, including two cocktails and four half-pours of wine

TAG
First of all: Continental Social Food? WTF? How pretentious is that? Second of all: MEH. Or perhaps worse than meh. I will admit that the French onion soup dumplings were more-ish. My mother also said she enjoyed her chicken/dried cherry/pear/arugula salad. But every thing else was a major disappointment. Who puts hiramasu sashimi, yuzu, pop rocks AND TRUFFLE OIL in the same dish? My Kobe beef sliders were 100% flavour-free, and the duck fat fries with sugar instead of salt were revolting. The potstickers were gluey, and the wok-charred edamame were serviceable at best.
Don't remember how much the bill was, but whatever it was, it was way too much. Never again.

Euclid Hall
Am only moderately embarrassed to say I ate here twice in less than a week. And am not at all embarrassed to say I had the Duck Duck Goose poutine both times. :o) I love the fact that the staff is generous with tastes of everything on tap; of all we tasted, I liked the Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale best. Other dishes included the sausage sampler (kielbasa (meh), hops/cheddar (surprisingly good), weisswurst (good, with an unexpected hit of caraway) and boudin noir (the winner!)), the pickle sampler (I wasn’t all that impressed), the braised/grilled cabbage stack (undercooked and with an achingly sweet currant sauce), apple-caraway-cabbage slaw (a much better cruciferous choice) and the brat burger (very nice). But that poutine…ain’t nothing even remotely subtle about the combo of duck gravy, cheese curds, a fried duck egg, foie gras and fries, but holy hell, it was yummy.
$70 for two people at lunch (including two beers per person)

Bittersweet
The big letdown of the trip; we took my partner’s daughter and her vegetarian boyfriend there for a special dinner (Root Down was our first choice, but alas…). Unfortunately, they’d removed their vegetarian starter option and the server could only make the inane (and IMO totally unworthy of a restaurant of its supposed calibre) suggestion of a tossed salad. He gamely chose to go pescatarian for the night and settled for the arctic char gravlax, which he said was good. The rest of us opted for Italian sausages and gnocchi; “bacon and eggs” (pork belly, brioche French toast and poached quail eggs); and foie gras and a savory pancake with quince reduction. Sausages were okay; I felt the bacon and eggs were let down by cold and out-of-proportion brioche chunks; and my foie gras might as well have had Mrs Butterworth’s poured all over it – sickeningly sweet. Mains (vegetable shepherd’s pie; pork cheeks with kale and polenta; duck confit with foraged mushrooms) were workmanlike but by no means flawless. Desserts (chocolate chocolate chocolate something and a pecan tart with lavender ice cream) suffered from the same unrelenting sweetness that had characterised my starter. All in all, totally NOT worth the money. I will say that the 2006 Vega Escal Priorat was very, very yummy (though expensive for what it was at $53).
$250 before tip for four people, including pre-dinner cocktails

Fruition
I’ve been angling to get here for the past two years, and finally made it. Did it live up to my (very high) expectations? Probably not – though it certainly didn’t fall as short as Frasca did last year. That said, it was a very, very nice meal, and I would like to go back in summer/fall to taste more of Fruition Farms’ own produce offerings. I found the service here better than anywhere else we’ve been in Denver – straightforward, unobtrusive, knowledgeable and genuinely excited about the food and drink on offer. The ambiance of the room was very nice, and we enjoyed the breads and seaweed/sea salt butter while we perused the menu. For starters we chose the cassoulet with homemade duck sausage and the bay scallops/sweetbreads/Meyer lemon gnocchi/marrow jus. I was 85% delighted with the scallops (I felt both scallops and sweetbreads were slightly overcooked, but loved the bright citrus spark of the gnocchi and the earthiness of the jus) and 100% delighted with the server’s rec of a 2010 Cour Cheverny to go with; it had a touch of unexpected funkiness that went well with the sweetbreads and also picked up magnificently on the lemon notes. Mains were the massive pork chop (fantastic, though I can’t remember the sides) and the “crock pot” veal cheeks with chestnuts, foraged mushrooms, potato purée and Brussels sprout chiffonade. The veal was delightful, though I felt slightly cheated by getting only two cheeks (similar dishes in Paris will get you four, a real turnaround in the usual transatlantic portion control contest!). The wine rec came through again, as a 2006 Chianti paired excellently. I couldn’t resist trying the Fruition Farms’ Shepherd’s Halo brebis for dessert; I thought the cheese was excellent, but really couldn’t be bothered with the accompaniments (pistachio-olive oil cake, candied pecans and something else) – just shoved them to the side and wolfed down the fromage.
On a very nice end note, after a spirited (no pun intended) post-prandial discussion of Belgian beers, digestifs and Calvados (which they do not offer), our server comped us to glasses of Stranahan’s whiskey, which we’d never had before. I’m not a whisker person at all, but found this delightful.
$145 for two people, including four glasses of wine.

La Sandia
Met a friend at Park Meadows mall for lunch, and although my premium margarita was no more than workmanlike, I LOVED my pork carnitas tacos. Warm corn tortillas: excellent. Tender, flavourful pork: savoury. Habanero salsa: explosive. Smoky charro beans: Damn near stole the show.
I’d been to Richard Sandoval’s Tamayo in Larimer Square once before and thought it too fussy, but was really, really pleased to find this so close to my sister-in-law’s house, otherwise stranded in a desert of over-cheesed Tex-Mex. We will definitely be back.
$35 for two people.

Jus’ Cookin’
Laugh if you will – I did – but my partner’s 72-year-old cousin took us to this place out in Lakewood. It is a total time warp, taking me back 30 years to trips to my grandparents’ favourite restaurant, where the waitresses knew everyone and the menu ran to liver and onions, pot roast and pot pie. That’s exactly what this one did, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t really satisfying! I will not dwell on the iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing, but my pot pie had a fantastic crust and was loaded with massive chunks of chicken and fresh veg. An amusing, totally-not-tongue-in-cheek retro experience.
$40 for three people.

The Truffle
Totally delightful, if miniscule, fromagerie near Cherry Creek. I went in to purchase cheeses for our New Year’s Eve Dinner and ended up tasting just about everything in the place. I’d wanted to go all domestic, but a lot of the best regional cheeses were out of season, so ended up with a mixed bag, including a raw milk goat’s cheddar from Basalt, CO; a pasteurized soft rind goat’s from Vermont; a bleu de Basques; and a FANTASTIC German washed-rind cow’s milk the shop calls Anton’s Hot Love. Next time around I want to get to St Killian’s in Highland and compare.

I regret not getting to Beatrice & Woodsley for cocktails. Next time! And our Fruition server also recommended Potager, Twelve, ChoLon and Masterpiece Deli, so we’re adding them to the list for next year, in addition to Lao Wang Noodle House, The Red Claw, US Thai, Pho 95, Row 14, Trillium…

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  1. m
    monopod Jan 11, 2012 09:06 AM

    Root Down is definitely open; our friends had dinner there last weekend. Perhaps they were closed for a holiday party or something when you were there.

    And your comments seem to indicate a trend that I'm also feeling - dissatisfaction with the places that charge a lot and go for the "high-end," and a preference for the homier/less pretentious places. I don't know if it's inflated expectations or what, but I seem to always be at least a little disappointed at places like Fruition, Frasca, TAG, etc. Maybe it's just that the prices require them to be transcendent, and no restaurant can always be transcendent - you're lucky if you happen to get a truly excellent night there, and any other time you're overpaying. I too have been much happier recently eating at places like Euclid Hall, Jus' Cookin', and the various noodle/pho places on South Federal, maybe because it's easier for a giant bowl of pho to seem unbelievably delicious when you paid $8 for it instead of $30. My recent find is Tossa in Boulder - it's a pizza/pasta place that's the first in a proposed fast-casual chain by the owners of Smashburger, but they do table service at night and darned if their arugula/mushroom/truffle pizza isn't one of the more delicious dinners I've had recently. Not as refined or authentic as Locale or Basta, but I leave with a bill of $30 (including apps and wine!) instead of $80 or $90 for two, and I'm just as satisfied and happy.

    Curious if others have had similar thoughts/experiences of late.

    1. p
      Pastajohn Jan 11, 2012 09:19 AM

      I think the OP is confusing The Squeaky Bean with its Highland neighbor Root Down. The Bean reopens late spring at 15th and Wynkoop in LoDo's Saddlery Building. Root Down remains open for biz.

      6 Replies
      1. re: Pastajohn
        k
        Kelly Jan 11, 2012 11:05 AM

        You're absolutely right - see aforementioned jetlag. :o) Root Down was just packed solid and no tables available every night we tried!

        1. re: Kelly
          b
          blythe Jan 13, 2012 10:57 PM

          Try Cholon next time. Get the weird coconut fuzzy stuff and coconut toast. I didn't want to get it, but my friends did. So glad they ordered it.

          1. re: Kelly
            b
            blythe Jan 13, 2012 10:59 PM

            Is Euclid Hall owened by Frank Bonanno? Either way, if no , or if not, try any of his places in Denver - Bones, Osterio Marco and a few others . . . . can't go wrong. I worked at Creekside Grill with him in the 90's when he was starting out. Good guy even tho I haven't spoken with him in years

            1. re: blythe
              r
              rlm Jan 14, 2012 12:36 AM

              The dish you are referring to at Cholon is Kaya Toast. Agree that it is unforgettable.

              Jennifer Jasinski opened Euclid Hall. Other places by FB are Mizuna & Luca D'Italia next to Bones on Grant, Lou's in Highlands, Green Russell/Russell's Smokehouse across from Osteria Marco & downstairs on Larimer.

              Regarding an earlier post, I have been eating at Frasca at least once a month (more frequently in the early years) since they opened in August of '04 and there's always a couple of meals there which are in contention for meal of the year. Where else are you going to chat with Terry Theise about wine or find some of the country's best chefs like Daniel Humm putting in guest appearances?

              1. re: blythe
                p
                Pastajohn Jan 14, 2012 11:01 AM

                Euclid Hall is owned by Jennifer Jasinski and Beth Gruitch who also own Rioja and Bistro Vendome on the same block.

                1. re: Pastajohn
                  cookmyassoff Feb 6, 2012 01:14 PM

                  yes yes yes, pho 95 is the best pho in denver. the combo bun bowl and the fresh spring rolls with pork and peanut sauce are as good as the pho. also lao wang noodle house.....of course get the xiao long bao, but dont miss the pot stickers and the noodles with peanut sauce. if u are going dim sum, star kitchen is the spot. good stuff. they have great peking duck and dry style beef chow fun too, if u go for dinner.

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