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Mouthing Off

Asia like it: The Pacific Rim influence isn't new to Denver--chefs here have been fusing East and West for nearly a decade now, with mixed results. Generally, the restaurants that were successful got there by giving traditional American and European dishes an Asian accent, gently applying Pacific Rim cooking concepts and ingredients rather than reworking cuisines entirely.

The now-defunct Transalpin, which for years held down the fort at 416 East Seventh Avenue (now home of JV's The Cork), was acknowledged as one of Denver's first fusion spots; when the fusion fad really arrived, though, it exposed Transalpin's recipes as outdated. And then there was China Cowboy, an eclectic--and too large--spot at 233 East Colfax Avenue (once filled by the Quorum) that chef Billy Lam opened several years ago. Although Lam had gotten lucky with the small roster of Western-enhanced dishes he added to the Vietnamese favorites at T-Wa Inn (555 South Federal Boulevard), he was fighting a losing battle at China Cowboy. The space was lousy, and the kitchen couldn't pull off the overly ambitious dishes night after night (a problem shared by 1515 Market Grille, reviewed above). Lam, by the way, is still plying some of the best noodle bowls in town at his Chef's Noodle House, 10400 East Sixth Avenue--a location as out of the way and tiny as China Cowboy's was central and huge.

But Denver has had several effective, smaller-scale marriages of Asian-influenced fare. At New Orient, 10253 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora, chef/owner Sue Smith concocts the most outlandish-sounding Vietnamese-based dishes, but they work; Michael's of Cherry Creek, 2710 East Third Avenue, matches its majestic decor with such tempters as dashi-steamed mussels and taro-root-crusted red snapper; Q's, 2115 13th Street in Boulder, a revamped old favorite in the Hotel Boulderado, manages to come up with innovative fare from around the globe on a regular basis (see "Think Big," September 3); 240 Union, at 240 Union Boulevard in Lakewood, consistently serves one of the most imaginative and perceptive fusion rosters around; and even the Wellshire Inn, the beautiful old Tudor-style mansion at 3333 South Colorado Boulevard that has had chef problems in the past, seems to be on an even keel and sailing toward the Pacific.

Still, my favorite fusion destination would have to be Papillon, at 250 Josephine Street, where three years ago chef/owner Radek Cerny introduced a menu that he describes as "French with Thai influences," a focus that has continued with Cerny's trusted executive chef, Frank Kerstetter. This eatery serves some truly inspired items--the lobster ravioli in a light saffron ginger sauce and the tuna carpaccio with Thai vinaigrette and capers immediately come to mind--but perhaps the most intensely flavored Papillon dish is the appetizer of mussels roasted in Thai red curry broth with cilantro and lemon.

If you want to re-create the dish at home--and trust me, you do--you'll need to make a trip to Wild Oats or an Asian market to secure the required red curry paste, galangal, lemongrass and shrimp paste. Back home, you'll also need to find some extra time: The curry sauce is not something you're going to make at the end of a weekday 9-to-5 gig. But for company or a special meal, it's well worth the work. The following recipe provided by Papillon makes four appetizer portions; I threw the whole thing in a huge noodle bowl over rice vermicelli for a heavenly meal that thoroughly satisfied two adults and two kids.

The sauce should have the consistency of a broth, Kerstetter says. "When you get to the stage where you're simmering the cream and coconut milk, it's going to get fairly thick," he cautions. "You can use canned chicken stock to thin it out, and you may use up to a cup of lemon juice to adjust the flavor at the end." Done right, the dish attains the Asian ideal of ingredient equilibrium. "You're looking for a balance between the sour lemon juice, the sweetness of the sugar and the hot chile flakes," Kerstetter adds. "Really taste it at the end to see if that's what you have, and then don't be afraid to slowly make adjustments."

Papillon's Mussels in Red Curry Sauce
4 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
2 tsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. minced ginger
5 pounds mussels
3 c. red curry sauce (see recipe below)

Heat sesame oil in large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven; add green onions, garlic and ginger and saute for one minute. Add the mussels and three cups of red curry sauce. Cover and simmer until mussels open. Adjust seasonings with lemon juice, salt and sugar. Pour into four large bowls and serve.

Red Curry Sauce
2 Tbsp. sesame oil
1-1/2 Tbsp. red curry paste
1-1/2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 large onion, diced small
2 large carrots, peeled and diced small
1 celery stalk, diced small
1 lemongrass stalk, broken into large pieces
1/4 c. coriander seed
2 Tbsp. shrimp paste
1 large nub ginger, peeled and chopped
1 small nub galangal
2 apples, peeled and diced small
1-1/2 c. white port (can substitute a sweet white wine like riesling)
1-1/4 c. coconut milk
4 c. heavy cream
5 lime leaves
4 Tbsp. paprika
1/2 bunch cilantro
Salt, sugar, lemon juice and red chile-pepper flakes to taste

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