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Mouthing Off

Take a dip: Every decade has its dip. Clam dip in the Fifties. Lipton Onion Soup dip in the Sixties. Yogurt in the swinging Seventies. Hummus in the international Eighties.

And the Nineties? During the past decade, assorted artichoke dips--sometimes with spinach, sometimes with chiles, and always heavy on the parmesan and mayo--have insinuated their creamy way onto menus and into the pages of women's magazines across the country. But none are as delicious as the Yuppie-I-O Dip you'll find at Castle Cafe--and which you now can re-create at home (in industrial strength) thanks to the chef's willingness to spill his secrets.

One key to Castle Cafe's success with this starter is that the kitchen broils the dip in a very shallow serving dish--the more surface there is to broil until brown, the more mayo-rich, parmesan-sharpened flavor there is to mix around. Most places make the mistake of placing their artichoke dips in little round crocks and then broiling the top, which means the rest of the dip sometimes tastes of nothing but hot cream cheese. According to Castle Cafe kitchen manager Valerie Broom, the type of mayonnaise you use makes a big difference in the final product--she recommends Best Foods--as does how well you blend the cream cheese.

Castle Cafe serves the dip with corn chips, but simply handing out spoons would eliminate the middleman.

Castle Cafe's Yuppie-I-O Dip
1/2 pound cream cheese, brought to room temperature and blended until smooth
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
7 ounces artichoke hearts, drained
1/4 pound spinach, chopped
1/4 of a small yellow onion, julienned thin

Blend the cream cheese until it's smooth (use a food processor or medium speed on an electric mixer for best results). Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Place in a shallow casserole dish and broil until golden. Can be refrigerated for up to four days. Serves eight to ten as an appetizer.

You'll find other noteworthy variations on this theme around town. The hot artichoke and parmesan cheese dip ($5.95), served with beer bread, has been a consistent bestseller since it was introduced at the Wynkoop Brewing Company (1634 18th Street), Denver's first brewpub, on the original menu ten years ago. But the gloppy mix continues to be such a crowd-pleaser that even new restaurants, such as the recently opened Rialto Cafe (934 16th Street), wouldn't think of leaving the appetizer off its roster.

Some versions are more successful than others, however. While Rialto's baked artichokes and parmesan ($8.00) is an updated take on a still-current classic, the hot artichoke dip ($6.95) served at the Pearl Street Grill, a neighborhood institution since it opened in 1983 at 1477 South Pearl, was much less satisfying and far from "loaded with artichoke hearts," as the menu had promised. In fact, the dip tasted mostly of cream cheese, and the crusty baguette slices that came on the side had been sliced too far in advance, which left them crusty on all surfaces and made for tough chewing even after they'd been thoroughly dipped.

And that wasn't the only flaw I encountered on two recent meals at this cheerful, Cheers-like place. Pearl Street's house-made cold-smoked salmon ($8.50) was quite good, as were the hot chili poppers ($6.50), a half-dozen of the deep-fried, cream-cheese-filled nuggets served with an unusual but delicious dipper of blackberry jam. But the homestyle meatloaf entree ($8.50) featured slices of ground chuck with an unsettlingly smooshy texture, and the accompanying burgundy mushroom sauce was soused with too much wine.

An order of steak burgundy ($9.95), on the other hand, brought mushroom gravy barely kissed with burgundy over tender, ball-tip steak that was sliced London broil style (which means across the grain). There was so little of the meat that we thought someone had goofed, but our waitress informed us that the kitchen is a bit stingy with that dish. I could have done with a lot less of my fish-and-chips ($6.75); after about three bites, I couldn't stomach another speck of the greasy, overly thick coating, and the two fillets of Alaskan pollack were no match for the batter.

On a second stop, I tried the chicken cardoon ($11.95), which the restaurant wisely has put on the menu after offering it as a special for years. The dish paired chicken with shrimp in a sherry cream sauce sparked by capers and tomatoes, and the overall effect was rich without being heavy. But the capellini shrimp ($10.50) was another miserly portion, with just four tiger shrimp in a chablis butter that contained so much lemon juice it seemed that the shrimp had been puckered to death rather than cooked. And beneath the shrimp was too much capellini (misspelled on the menu, it's really just angel-hair pasta) that had been left to sit before the sauce was applied and so was stuck together.

A waitress later informed me that there are several cooks in Pearl Street's kitchen and different ones at lunch and dinner. Maybe that's the problem with this restaurant's uncomfortably inconsistent take on comfort food. Then again...

We all scream for ice cream: Just a few blocks away from the Pearl Street Grill is a new place purveying one of the most comforting foods of all: ice cream. Pearl Street Ice Cream & Deli (1300 South Pearl Street) was opened by Tracy Hagelund this past June. Hagelund is doing everything right: The ice cream comes from Liks, the coffee is from Scottish Roasters, and the emphasis is on the neighborhood. (Hagelund and her employees get involved in area fundraisers, and she keeps a big bowl of water sitting outside for local canines.)

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