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Lots of money. I asked the waiter for the market prices on the caviar -- a couple hundred dollars an ounce for sevruga and osetra, five hundred-some for the outlawed beluga -- and I wanted very badly for that little tin to be opened at my table, for that smell of salt and brine and borax to tint my breath. Men die over beluga caviar. For many years, much of the trade was controlled by the Russian mafia. I've often thought that smuggling would be an exciting way to pass a few years. Nothing so tawdry as drugs or guns -- I would bring in saffron from Grenada, volcanic salts from the South Pacific, caviar. If you know the right people, the right places, food can be worth more than gold or cocaine. Plus, you're dealing with a different class of customer. Become a dealer in sturgeon eggs, and suddenly I would belong in rooms like this one. But not yet. So I passed on the fish eggs and went instead for the short rib of Kurobuta pork. "Like a Kobe beef cow," my waiter explained, "only it's a pig."
And he was right. Imagine a pig made entirely of soft, silky-smooth pork belly and fat. That's a Kurobuta. Braised in star anise, lacquered with ginger and set in a swirled puddle of truffle vinaigrette, this short rib was the best I've ever tasted. Sweet and salty, tender as a marshmallow, seeming to melt against the warmth of my tongue, it was a singular experience. From across the room, my waiter smiled when he saw my eyes flutter closed: another convert. If not for fear of mussing my suit, I would've lifted up the plate and licked it.
Next, the Ruby Red prawn consommé, as clear as flawless amber, eaten, literally, with a silver spoon. A good consommé is amazing, with depths of flavor seemingly coaxed out of thin air; done wrong, it tastes like dirty water. And this consommé was stellar, complex and comforting at the same time, muscled up just slightly by a tangle of softened black trumpet mushrooms mounded up in the center of the bowl, three tiny wisps of sliced prawn, a couple disks of sunchoke and six fava beans. I wanted to swim in it.
321 17th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
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Short rib: $15
The consommé was followed by a pause in service, a pour of spicy Argentine malbec in a bulbous, wide-mouthed glass, a moment stretched long -- just enough for me to grow hungry again. And then came the Rossini of King Canyon bison, a steamship classic given a Colorado makeover by chef de cuisine Thanawat Bates and his crew. I don't know another chef working who wouldn't be embarrassed to put a Rossini on his board; it would be like serving beef Wellington, like opening with stuffed mushroom caps. Yet Bates's unabashed menu also included loup de mer, duck l'orange and potato mousseline, and if there's a place anywhere that could resurrect and give new life to such culinary fossils, this room is it.
Using filet of bison rather than beef was a smart twist, but mostly it was the rigorous replication and perfect presentation of all the ancillary elements -- the things that make a Rossini a Rossini -- that elevated this plate to excellence. The slip of foie gras mounted atop the erect filet was pan-seared and buttery, nearly melting down the edges of the meat tower like something out of Dalí. The hollandaise was fresh, murderously rich, and speckled with slivers of powerful black truffle. The bison sat on a base of sautéed Swiss chard and a disc of stiff, toasted brioche, and the center of the plate was napped with an amazing Madeira sauce so glossy and thick and rich, it must've been mounted with blood, marrow or foie gras butter. Nothing else would have given it this gloss; nothing else would have coagulated so smoothly as it cooled. The Rossini was lovely and imposing, and so delicious that it made me wonder why such beatific preparations vanished from the menus of serious restaurants in the first place, banished to wedding buffets and supper clubs and the odd hotel restaurant.
Around me, flames leaping from the bananas Foster prepared tableside lit up the dining room. I skipped dessert in favor of a pot of coffee, knowing both that I was so full I would waddle when I left and that a meal at the Palace Arms always ends with macaroons: three of them, delivered on a doilied silver tray. Rich with almonds, tasting of honey, textured like crisp taffy -- I don't know what deal with the devil the pastry chef cut, but it was totally worth it. Showing remarkable restraint, I ate only one and slipped the other two into my jacket pocket. It would probably be some time before I made it back to the Palace Arms; I told myself I wanted to take a little of the fantasy with me.
And then I ate both macaroons before I even made it to the car. I'd denied myself the beluga, the century-old cognac. But don't ask someone like me not to eat the free cookies.