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For a long time, restaurants have played a cruel game with diners, vacillating wildly between opposing schools of menu-writing theory. On one side are menus that seem compelled to describe in loving, verdant detail not only the basic ingredients in every dish, but the provenance of each ingredient -- where it was grown or bought, its age, social status ("heirloom," "virgin," "cured") and historic origin. Flowery eloquents are used to illustrate the plate's construction. Notes pertaining to the sociopolitical affiliations of the chef, owner or producer may be included, encoded in such phrasing as "organic" or "farm-raised." And God help you if the dish or sauce or garnish comes from an old family recipe; in those cases, the description can easily overtop a paragraph and begin to approach short-story length.
2911 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
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Flatbread pizzas: $7.50-$8.50
Chicken cutlet salad: $9
Roast beef and Asiago sandwich: $8.50
Asparagus-chicken sandwich: $9.50
Chicken satay: $8
Bacon-wrapped scallops: $11
Grilled shrimp: $11< br>Fried chicken: $16
On the other side are the minimalists, the Hemingways of menu writing who conserve every word. Here, preparations are so economically and inadequately portrayed that you could easily order a plain green salad and be presented with a plate of mixed bitter leaves in a peach-Velveeta dressing surrounded by crisp bits of whale blubber and studded with bacon-wrapped olive pits. Complain about the hog-knuckle tapenade in the middle, and the chef will tell you that's how he's always made his salads, and it goes without saying that his greens will always come over a grilled pork chop.
But at Gelman's Gourmet Market and Bistro, the lunch menu retains a certain dignified poise, holding steady between these two schools. It's comforting rather than complicated -- despite the overwhelming number of sandwiches and salads, soups du jour and specials, flatbread pizza and pastries and baked goods. There's almost too much to choose from on this menu, and in a weird reversal of the usual rule -- whereby quantity generally denotes crushing mediocrity -- almost everything looks good.
On our first visit, we ordered several sandwiches. And soup. And a couple of salads (the chicken cutlet was the best -- very fresh, dotted with sliced mozzarella and served with a good balsamic vinegar). Plus baked goods.
Instead of mysterious fines herbespastries buttressed by tuilles or braces of pulled sugar, Gelman's offers cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats and cookies. The sandwiches occupy that tricky middle ground between East Coast deli classics and West Coast lunchmeat ingenuity, their descriptions simple but not boring and blessedly easy to translate into an impression of what the finished item might taste like. Gelman's does three different roast beef sandwiches: beef with horseradish and banana peppers, barbecued beef served hot, and a wonderful version with roast beef on buttery, chewy, grilled rustic bread with caramelized onion, Asiago and rosemary aioli. There's a hot pastrami -- the classic interpretation with pastrami, Swiss cheese and yellow mustard on grilled rye bread -- and the scallion pastrami, with lettuce, tomato and scallion cream cheese. The very Californian chicken-and-asparagus sandwich could be disconcerting at first bite -- if the menu didn't plainly state that both bacon and cream cheese are included in the sandwich, and that the cream cheese is actually whipped up with more bacon and more asparagus.
We ate as much as we could, sitting by the windows at the front of the colorful, angular, casual-but-high-gloss dining room, left pretty much alone with our overabundant lunch while a slow parade of neighbors and friends came and went, looking for takeout, for a salad, for a glass of wine at the counter/bar. Some stopped to say hello to members of the Gelman family or the gaggle of kids who wandered around. The place had a nice vibe, very cool and neighborly, very come-as-you-are, and we had a good time.
When we were finally finished, Laura and I had the balance of our ridiculously large lunch wrapped in white butcher's paper for the road. On our way out the door, I grabbed a dinner menu, perusing it as we crunched through the leaves in the parking lot. The Gelmans moved here from Boston, and their eastern-seaboard roots are reflected in the menu's fish and chips, fried clams, simple Italian dishes, burgers and chicken parm sandwiches. Being an East Coast restaurant brat myself, my eye was drawn to these dishes -- as well as the Saturday special of five-dollar pitchers of draft PBR and three-buck house margaritas. We made plans to come back one Saturday evening.
The Gelmans opened their place early this year, calling it a "Gourmet Market and Bistro." People can call their businesses whatever they want these days, because -- as with menu-writing -- naming conventions have also broken down. I've been to trattorias that serve burritos and Mexican loncheras with egg rolls on the board. I've been to cafes that are only open for dinner, fish houses where the only edible thing is a cheeseburger, and diners where the meatloaf is deconstructed into three meatballs rolled in dry potatoes and served in a puddle of brown beef stock. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before every boulangerie starts selling soft-serve ice cream, chicken wings and Shanghai noodle soup. I've already seen markets where two shelves of dusty, dry pasta and some T-shirts were the only stock for sale -- but Gelman's has taken the concept to new levels of abstraction, planting pyramids made of boxed DeCecco penne and cans of extra-virgin olive oil on shelves up near the ceiling, where they are neither reachable nor for sale, and at night placing bottles of wine on every table that are removed as soon as drinks are served.
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