By Chris Utterback
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Ever notice that the food served in those places tends to resemble a deep-fried hockey puck smothered in the leftovers from somebody's spit cup? You go to a sports bar to watch buff, healthy athletes do their thing, but you sit there courting a myocardial infarction by munching on a pile of greasy nachos so massive and messy they resemble a pile of Buffs after they've been trampled by CSU, then pelted with bottles and sprayed with Mace. So, hey, if it's already fourth and down for your heart, you might as well see the big game in a place where you can eat good versions of food that's bad for you -- a place like the Lazy Dog Sports Bar & Grill. And not only is the Lazy Dog a great spot to wash down those heart-stopping favorites with a few brewskis, it also offers a few healthier dishes, in case your favorite spectator sport isn't swimming in your own fatty deposits.
Steve Ross opened the first Lazy Dog in Boulder three years ago, then added a Denver Dog last November, in a location most recently occupied by the Larimer Group's short-lived Starlight Cantina, and before that (some would say for forever), a Grisanti's. This stretch of Colorado Boulevard has been in need of some decent food for a long time -- there's not much to choose from between fast-food outlets -- and a casual, comfortable, sports-themed eatery was just the ticket. Especially because it goes easy on the sports paraphernalia and heavy on the eats.
"Steve doesn't like to overdo it on the sports stuff," explains chef Bill Clifford, a Culinary Institute of America grad who joined the team in January and now oversees the kitchens at both Dogs. "He had the concept for an upscale sports bar that would serve good food, but he didn't want to whack people over the head with the concept, so that people who aren't into sports could come, too. Which was a pretty good idea, since the sports crowd really thins out in Denver in the summers."
Still, Clifford is a true sports fan, as is general manager Tim Shaughnessey, and the Denver Dog's decor includes a few of their favorite knickknacks. There's a film poster from Gary Busey's 1984 role as Bear Bryant in The Bear, for example, and an autographed photo of Muhammad Ali, and a jersey autographed by Vince Carter that Clifford says he looks at "every day, 'cause I think the man's amazing." In addition to the memorabilia, the Lazy Dog sports two ten-foot TVs and 26 smaller ones -- strategically placed around the room so that they're easily seen, but not right in your face -- that show every sporting event available every night of the week. And give the place extra points for great service: There's not a lazy staffer at the Lazy Dog.
But it's the food that really scores. The kitchen started turning out winners with the appetizers, and it didn't stop until we'd spooned up our last bite of dessert.
What is it about a sports-bar venue that makes the skins of potatoes suddenly seem appealing, when at any other restaurant you'd eat the inside of the baked spud and then leave the skin on your plate, like an old, discarded baseball mitt? The answer could lie in an order of the Lazy Dog's "the skins game" ($5.25). A large pile of potato skins had been fried until crispy on the outside and French-fry-consistency on the inside, then filled to overflowing with cheddar and jack and baked until the cheeses melted into a gooey mess -- but not an oil slick, since the kitchen had obviously used quality cheese. And that meant we could go for a side of the almost grease-free bacon (for another 75 cents) without fear of coronary repercussions.
The fried mozzarella ($5.25) also had the potential to be a low-grade grease pit, but this version turned out quite respectably. Although it's hard to know what the menu intended by calling the mozzarella "fresh," since it didn't have the wet, super-soft consistency that normally indicates fresh mozz, the cheese was certainly better quality than the rubber-ball version you get at a grocery store -- and truly fresh mozz would have been difficult to work with, anyway. As it was, the four flattened balls of cheese had been lightly coated with bread crumbs, then fried until the centers melted and the outsides turned to an only faintly greasy, medium brown. These golden orbs were elevated to star status by a dip in the housemade marinara, a semi-chunky concoction that was light in color but long on flavor, with just the right amount of herbs and no tomatoey bitterness.
Still, the best starter was the crab cakes ($8.50): three patties that may have resembled crunchy, golden hockey pucks but tasted like nothing but warm, sweet crab with a little seasoning. And the wonderful side of homemade tartar sauce would come as a real revelation if you'd only experienced the kind that comes straight from Kraft. True, it's not rocket science to combine mayonnaise with relish, but there's no comparison between a good, creamy mayo mixed with a lot of chunky pickle bits and a preservative-smacked blob of greenish goo that forms a skin as soon as it hits the air.
That tartar sauce was so good it was reason enough to go for the beer-battered fish sandwich ($8.25). But the sandwich also boasted flawless pieces of cod that had been coated with an ale-spiked batter and then fried -- to perfection, of course -- until crested, golden waves formed around the moist fish, waves that held the faintest pools of clean oil. Although the fish came with its own sauce, an excellent horseradish-based mixture that resembled aioli, there was something about that tartar sauce that was just right. So was the side of fries, a mound of medium-thick-cut, lightly salted and seasoned spuds.
We also enjoyed an enormous mound of garlic-smashed potatoes, which had a gentle garlic bite and enough cheese melted across the top to ensure some with each forkful. But to get to those potatoes, we first polished off some fabulous baby-back ribs ($11.95 for a half rack) that were so tender the mere act of setting down the plate was enough to make the flesh actually fall off the bones. Covering this moist, moist meat was a thick sauce, not too sweet, with a barely spicy kick and a faint tanginess.
With winning dishes like these under our now-loosened belts, we decided to put the Lazy Dog to a real test. No sports bar, we reasoned, ever serves good pasta, and decent pizza is always in short supply in this town. But the Dog was up to the challenge. An order of linguini and bay scallops ($10.95) brought small scallops that were still soft and tender -- and that's tough, since these babies dry out quickly -- floating in a light cream sauce flavored with green onions and roasted red peppers. The pizza ($7) was simply marvelous, with a thin, crackly crust that bubbled up on the edges while supporting copious amounts of artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, all stuck to the pie by a glue of tomatoey sauce and more of that top-notch mozzarella.
The Dog even went for extra points by making its desserts in-house. We slam-dunked a weird but wonderful wood-fired apple crisp ($4.25), with hot, smooshy apples covered by a granola-like topping and ice cream, as well as an unusual banana cream pie ($4.25) that arrived as one delicious smear of bananas, banana custard, some sort of crunchiness and a lot of whipped cream.
So look out, Loretta! It's all raves and no rants here: The Lazy Dog shoots and scores.