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I was having dinner with two friends -- one who was attempting a wise quasi-diet by never cleaning a plate, the other who, like me, ate every scrap of everything she liked and burned the excess calories by viciously mocking anything she didn't. Together, the three of us had worked our way through much of the menu at Dish Bistro, the new restaurant by Leigh Jones, former better half of the Leigh-and-Robert-Thompson restaurant partnership that had given Denver B-52 Billiards, Atomic Cowboy and one of its best restaurants of the past decade: Brasserie Rouge. We'd eaten a lot, enjoyed most of it, then ordered dessert because, like proper gastronauts, we are incapable of quitting while we're ahead.
It looked so good on the menu: a vanilla cream porter ice cream float. It sounded original and smart, combining two of man's greatest inventions -- alcohol and ice cream -- and conjuring an image of bittersweet, creamy, frosty goodness. Had it been edible (or drinkable, depending on your speed of consumption), it would've gained immediate status as one of my permanent food memes, one of those riffs (like Wayne Conwell's sushi, Mike Long's gastro-experimentalism, Brasserie Rouge's charcuterie) that I keep returning to as ideal descriptors of time, place, cuisine.
But it wasn't edible. Or drinkable. And after a few minutes, it was difficult just to look at -- a mess of beer and melting ice cream, mixed together in an oversized coffee cup like a pledge challenge for the world's lamest sorority: Kappa Lambda Sweettooth. Gary, who was already a couple of whiskeys to the wind, took one bite and staunchly refused all further dealings with the horrible beer-and-ice-cream soup. Mary and I were slightly more forbearing, sliding the cup back and forth, stirring its contents, pushing around the lump of ice cream and trying to come up with one ideal, balanced bite in which the essential decency of this culinary collision might come through. But there was no ideal bite to be found, because this dessert had only those two ingredients: dark, hoppy, bittersweet porter and vanilla ice cream, two tastes that go together like nuts and gum.
400 E. 20th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
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Cheese plate: $8
Crab croquette: $7
Lamb gnocchi: $16
Duck à l'orange: $17
Hanger steak: $19
Beer float: $7
I'm pretty sure that we were the first people to order this particular taste sensation, because our waitress kept checking in to see whether we liked it. And after a few minutes, Jones herself arrived, biting her lip and asking what we thought.
Tough to lie when one member of your party is staring daggers at the offending dish like it said something nasty about his mom, and the others are tasting it on a dare.
"It's...not good," we said. "Just really not good."
Jones nodded, as if she'd been expecting that. "Yeah," she said. "I've tried to get the chef to make cookies or something to go with it. Something sweet to cut the bitterness of the beer. Do you think that would help?"
No. Cookies, sugar, chocolate -- none of those would help. What would help would be making the float with root beer, the way God intended, and then adding a couple jiggers of bourbon, because God's okay with that, too. What would help would be if the rest of the dinner was so good that one strange misfire of a dessert got treated (and remembered) not as the meal-killer it could be, but as a quirk -- an odd and almost comical cautionary tale about two tastes that will not wed no matter how much they are romanced.
Lucky for Dish, for Jones, for chef Chris Dougherty and the kitchen crew, the rest of our dinner was that good. And it all began with some mussels.
Our waitress couldn't pronounce vichyssoise. She was unsure of what was stocked behind the bar. But she was a great waitress because she was obviously in love with the menu she was serving and wanted to share it all. "This table is too small for when you really want to eat," she said -- meaning it was too small to hold dinner for six and drinks for four being consumed by three people with an appetite and no shame about showing it. The table could fit the booze, house bread (thick quarters of glaze-top foccacia) and our cheese course just fine, but after that, real estate became an issue.
So our waitress announced that she would bring the food in flights and would not take away any plate until we gave our explicit permission -- a smart move, because I was hungry and unwilling to give up the cheese (a nice sharp cheddar, a dull brie and a smallish slab of the ever-excellent Roaring 40's blue topped with a disk of dark chocolate) until I saw more food coming. And when the mussels appeared, I nearly forked my first right out of the dish in her hand. Mary was more dignified and waited until the bowl with its fat, healthy mussels and caper beurre blanc and central tower of garlic bread pudding was actually set down.
The mussels worked brilliantly, causing eye-rolling, head-shaking and groans of pleasure -- pantomime foodgasms at the corner table. We sopped up every drop of the sauce with the last of the garlic bread pudding. And it was that pudding -- done tightly packed, ring-molded, both redolent of and studded with big chunks of garlic and damp with the briny, astringent, rich beurre blanc that it wicked up from the bottom of the bowl -- that made the beer-float debacle eminently forgivable, ultimately forgettable, even funny.