By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The Cheeky Monk's menu is full of odd little diversions like soft pretzels and charcuterie, as well as apps and entrees, soups and salads and sandwiches, and a half-dozen mussels preparations, all served with frites. Moules et frites is another one of Belgium's national dishes, even if no Belgian would recognize the bacon-and-blue-cheese or the chorizo-and-chipotle-corn-salsa versions served here. Most of the plates, though, are surprisingly traditional — a brave move on the part of the owners, offering Flemish specialties and waffles, crepes and waterzooi seafood soup in a city where even German restaurants can barely compete. And every single plate is listed along with a suggested beer pairing: Chimay Red for the bacon-and-blue-cheese moules et frites, Lindemans Pomme with the fish and chips. Every single plate but those served at a late breakfast — and really, lambics, one of the beers invented by Belgians and served at the Monk, would do just fine then, because they're really just alcoholic fruit juices.
Turns out the owners aren't just brave, but smart. The Cheeky Monk was started by James and Tina Pachorek, the folks who opened the Royal Hilltop in the middle of an Aurora strip mall six years ago, back when that particular neighborhood wasn't a neighborhood at all. The Royal Hilltop quickly became that non-neighborhood's neighborhood bar, drawing big crowds who came for its proper twenty-ounce pints and beer flights and stayed for the fish fries and bangers-and-mash. I liked it despite (or maybe because of) its novelty: a British pub surrounded by taquerías and big-box movie theaters and Chinese restaurants so weird that even I wouldn't go into them.
Dropping a Belgian cafe in the middle of Denver's poverty row was just as daring, just as uniquely American. And against all odds, it worked.
The last time I stopped by the Cheeky Monk, it was a wet, snowy night, and I was looking for somewhere to warm myself along Colfax's long stretch of resistantly wicked geography. The ragged end of October has always put me in a romantic frame of mind, has made me want to wear roll-neck sweaters and wander lonely across chill moors or between the shadows of ancient keeps. The foods of the low countries, the cuisine of the Benelux, seemed just about perfect for my mood.
I settled into a booth in the bar area and ordered a tall, curvy glass of Carlsberg. And cheese croquettes — wads of Gouda, fontina and Emmentaler, breaded in panko and deep-fried — that were like the best cheese sticks ever, presented in a mock-cast-iron bucket that was puddled with oil by the time I was done, and accompanied by a sauce (not listed on the menu) that was a near-perfect copy of a nameless sauce I've been craving for years.
When I was a kid and my parents would throw the occasional dinner party, my mom had one go-to culinary move guaranteed to hold her guests until the casseroles came out of the oven. She would buy a Hickory Farms beef stick, cut it into chunks, stick a toothpick in each one and then make a sauce out of port wine jelly melted over low heat — the recipe no doubt culled from one of the innumerable little hand-bound, mimeographed Women's League and church-group cookbooks tucked away in her pantry — that was just about the best thing I'd ever tasted. Of course, I wasn't allowed to touch the food: the beef log was for guests, the sauce always about the temperature of lava, simmering on the stove top. This was an absolute rule, because my mother knew full well that if she turned her back on me for even a minute, I would eat the entire plate of sausage nuggets, toothpicks and all, and chase them with the sauce, guzzled straight out of the pan. But every once in a while, there would be some scraps of sausage, some thickened drops of sauce left over after the party was done. And those leftovers were all mine.
The memory of that sauce is one of my culinary birthrights — a tiny piece of what turned me into the gastronomic animal I am today. Like chicken French, white hots and Genny Cream Ale, it was one of those particular mysteries of the Rochester foodscape that never made it outside the 14617 zip code. I'd never encountered anything resembling that melted-jelly-and-pixie-dust concoction until I ordered the cheese croquettes at the Cheeky Monk. And I was so happy to find that taste again that even after all the fried cheese was gone, I kept right on eating the sauce — dunking in my fork at first, then just giving up and using my fingers.
When, finally, I surrendered the cheese bucket and sauce bowl to my server, she brought me authentic Belgian (by way of Colorado) frites with a lemon-garlic aioli and a plate of Belgian bangers and mash. The bangers (sausages) had been split and grilled over licking flames, then sided with delicious garlic stoemp (whipped potatoes, more or less, threaded with bits of cabbage and spiked with garlic) and handmade sauerkraut, studded with bits of bacon, that was the best I've ever had. I can say this with confidence, because I hate sauerkraut and have never eaten more than a bite or two at a sitting (and even then, only when paid to do so). But at the Monk, I ate an entire plate's worth and nearly asked for an extra side, along with some more stoemp, just because it was so good — house braised, the sour and savory in perfect balance, the cabbage softened by long cooking and the bacon fat tying everything together. For some cook in the kitchen to have taken such care, given such love to what is normally an un-lovely and un-cared-for side dish was impressive. And to have turned something I instinctively loathed into something I instantly craved was no small trick.