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I can hear the noise already, a rising roar of complaint over my decision to spend a thousand-plus words on So Perfect Eats, a two-year-old eatery in Cherry Creek North that feels more like a grab-and-go lunch spot than a restaurant worthy of review. But before you rant — whether online or under your breath while sipping coffee and flipping print — about my choice to cover a place without servers, liquor license or proper (not paper) plates, please hear my defense, which consists of two words: Craig Claiborne.
278 Fillmore St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
As the food editor of the New York Times for nearly three decades, Claiborne etched the rules for the nascent industry of restaurant criticism — namely, that critics should be anonymous, should dine at an establishment at least twice before forming an opinion, and should not accept freebies of any kind. These notions, though not literally set in stone, remained firmly in place for critics nationwide until food bloggers blasted them apart a decade ago, often passing judgment after one meal, openly accepting free food, and making no pretense of anonymity. Such behavior would surely have elicited a horrified gasp from the father of restaurant criticism. But my selection of So Perfect Eats? I have every reason to believe that Claiborne would have approved.
After all, in an era when restaurants weren't considered fine unless they were French and reviews were still tainted by the false notion that they were rigged by advertisers, Claiborne shockingly awarded two and three stars to places like Gil Clark's, a Long Island joint serving clams, fries and salad, and Jimmy Greek's American Restaurant, where customers were said to have walked into the kitchen to retrieve their moussaka. If the granddaddy of restaurant criticism didn't think restaurants had to have tablecloths, a maître d' and a mixologist to be considered fair game, then neither do I.
Which brings me back to this week's review.
Located on pedestrian-friendly Fillmore Street, So Perfect Eats is a shopper's dream, with a lengthy menu of soups, salads and sandwiches just right for a much-needed pit stop on these grueling, gift-frenzied days. Even with address in hand, however, weary shoppers are likely to amble past, since the restaurant sits up a flight of stairs, with a small sign overshadowed by flashier ones for the pet boutique below. But if something good is coming out of the oven — as it often is — you just might stumble across this spot anyway, as you follow your nose for the source of those sweet, buttery smells.
In the early morning, the tempting scent is likely to be coming from baguettes and ciabatta, baked fresh by chef-owner Lynda Campbell, a New York transplant who left the fashion industry to open the cafe. (Campbell's husband, Colin Power, is a co-owner.) These breads — which she learned to make in an artisan baking class, her only formal training — serve as the foundation for sandwiches made with real meat, not the nitrate-laden deli kind, and reflect the good taste of someone who might not be a trained chef, but who obviously has a background in entertaining. And creating entertaining combinations.
So instead of a ham and cheese or BLT, there's the Holiday in Capris, with pepper-crusted chicken, fresh mozzarella, marinated grape tomatoes and a coat of tomato aioli to soften the chewy ciabatta. The 5280, with thick slices of beef tenderloin, caramelized onions and creamy horseradish sauce, tastes less like a sandwich than the yummy leftovers from a dinner party, and it's good enough to bear the city's mantle. The I Love Paris, served on a baguette with imported French ham, Brie and a pleasant jolt of hardly-sweet honey mustard, might tempt folks turned off by snooty Parisians to reconsider the City of Light.
Not all sandwiches succeed. The Southwest turkey sounds good on paper, but the avocado, Cheddar, tomato and smoked turkey slip around like all-weather tires on an icy road, until you're left eating the ingredients one by one after they fall off the bread. And all of the options, even that delicious I Love Paris, could be improved with better bread; the baguettes and ciabatta, while tasty, have more in common with soft rolls than the crusty French and Italian breads they're named for.
The sandwiches can be ordered whole, ranging in price from $7.95 to $10.95, or as a half, with a side of soup or salad in the $8.95 fall lunch special (though some, like the 5280, require a $1 upcharge). Value aside, the lunch combo is the way to go, as it allows you to sample more of the tasty menu. Three salads (minus the chicken that would be standard if you ordered the salads separately) are offered with the lunch special: the Garden Dream, the Caesar, and the Orchard & Vine, a particularly appealing choice. Sprinkled with tart chunks of Granny Smith, Gorgonzola, grapes and sugared pecans, this salad is loaded so full of yummy stuff, you'll have goodies left over after you finish the mixed greens. Similar in profile is the Perfect Pear, with a balance of sweet (pears and dried cherries) and rich (Gorgonzola). Grilled chicken comes on this salad, too, but the toppings are so generous that vegetarians could leave it off and not worry about facing a bowl of plain spinach. More assertive is the Mama Mia, with arugula, grilled chicken, parmesan and artichokes. These are strong flavors, indeed, but they stand up well to the tart lemon dressing. (Though not technically part of the lunch special, the Perfect Pear and Mama Mia can be substituted for an extra $1 — chicken included.)
Soups, especially from fast-casual restaurants, tend to be highly salted imitations of the real thing. But Campbell's soups are — pardon the pun — better than Campbell soups. Seven or eight varieties are offered daily, with nearly twice that in the seasonal rotation. The roasted squash, which features two kinds of squash, carrots and apples, is superb, with smoked paprika and smoked sea salt for a delightful smoky finish. Lemon chicken orzo, with spoonful after spoonful of chopped celery, carrots and chicken, offers a good alternative to Grandma's chicken soup when you need a little something for your soul. White chicken chili, a thinner spin-off of pork green chile, is so good you need to come early or risk hearing these dreaded words: "Sorry, we just ran out."
Should you find yourself facing such a disappointment, perk yourself up with one of the baked goods that might have been the cause of the yummy smell that led you to So Perfect Eats in the first place. Particularly good are the housemade Oreo, the salted caramel bar and the chocolate walnut cookie reminiscent of a flourless chocolate cake. Or find solace in the shelves of brightly colored bowls, cutting boards, bags and bibs for sale along the back wall. Campbell designed the space — with bright-green walls, green chairs and high-gloss white tables — as a "lifestyle cafe," combining her background in retail with her love of food. Personally, I find salted caramel bars more tempting than hostess gifts, but to each her own. Both make life pretty sweet.
Review wherever you like, but Craig Claiborne wouldn't approve of using the word "yummy" once in a restaurant review, let alone three times.
I don't have problem with your reviewing a sandwich shop like So Perfect Eats (which is a so perfectly awful name), but it's the lack of originality in reviewing what is essentially your third sandwich shop in two months (if you include La Guarida Cubana along with Red Star). I tried both of them after your reviews, and I found neither of them particularly special. Some sandwich shops merit a review (case in point: Masterpiece) but the novelty of a food critic picking out out-of-the-way sandwich shops to extol as hidden treasures wears thin very quickly.
@DenverDoughboy Is the problem the fact that three sandwich shops have been reviewed or that you can't tell whether the review is good, bad, or indifferent? In the case of La Guarida, I got a pretty distinct impression that the review summary could have been "trying hard, but not too successfully." The Red Star review was a little harder to get a feel for. If you go to places that don't exactly get a ringing endorsement and come out thinking "nothing special," either you decided to ignore the critic's conclusion, or you didn't understand the conclusion. If the latter, that could be either an issue with the reader or the writer.
Saying a place "merits a review" basically means that the critic has made up her mind before even entering the place. Every restaurant in Denver that's open and serving customers "merits a review" because readers want to know where the good and bad places are. You don't decide that some place is great and then go write about it. You decide to write about it and then go eat the food a few times before coming up with a conclusion. If the conclusion isn't clear to the reader, perhaps the writer has failed or is pulling punches, but that's for you to decide.
Fair question: what I was trying to take issue with was her choice of three hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops meriting a review in the short time that she has been the Westword reviewer.
You assume that choosing a place to review arises like some immaculate conception of the reviewer. To the contrary, I presume that Ms. Kurtz samples things around town, figures out the mix of types of restaurants she has written about and then figures out what place merits a review based on quality, popularity, geography, novelty, what have you. In that case, I think it is fair to criticize her for using her precious space in Westword to review two (or three) sandwich shops in a few months. It's a waste.
Let's face it, sandwiches don't take as much effort, creativity, and experience and their quality depends in many cases on the quality of the ingredients that the sandwichmaker doesn't even have anything to do with (as far I know, Red Star, La Guarida, and So Perfect don't smoke their own meats, bake their own bread, come up with unique sandwiches.) A cubano is a cubano and there isn't that much that a chef can bring to the process that's going to distinguish it from any another.
Case in point was Ms. Kurtz's falling over herself to call the potato salad at Red Star the best potato salad in the city (or at least that's my recollection), I ordered the potato salad, and it was mayonnaise, potatoes and some spices, and I can't say that it was anything that I couldn't have whipped up in my own kitchen. It was nothing special and totally forgettable (except for the fact that it was inedible because it was for the most part frozen in the middle).
Food reviewers get caught up in their own need to demonstrate that they have such sophisticated palates that they can confidently tell readers that potatoes at Red Star are better than those served from the case at Safeway. Many reviewers such as Ms. Kurtz really don't have much more sophisticated palates than average so they're just making shit up knowing in that most cases, people aren't going to go to Red Star and Guarida and So Perfect to call them on it. It behooves her to go out and review a wide variety of types of food because the more she focuses on sandwiches, the more she's going to prove that she doesn't have the chops as a reviewer.
@DenverDoughboy Good points. And I always go with the test of "is it good?" before any test of "is it authentic?" But at some point, all professional food writers worth their sel gris must take a stand and demonstrate expertise in some category of restaurant food. Because after a certain amount of offering opinions, you must back up those opinions with knowledge. Does Gretchen have sandwich knowledge? My guess is that her expertise is elsewhere, but I still appreciate her attempt to go beyond the hot, trendy restaurants and food fads. I'm guessing that every restaurant critic in town has covered the Squeaky Bean and Linger by now, but I love to read about the hidden places, the mom and pops, and the suburban gems, because more often than not, I'm going to want to find the best food for the lowest price - that way I can save my money and really enjoy myself when I go to the hot, trendy places.
I went back and read the Red Star review and she really doesn't say anything about the potato salad, so I must have read that somewhere else. Also, apparently Red Star does smoke its own meats. My mistake; sorry Gretchen.
I guess my view is different on the larger issue of what Westword should review. There are very very few critics who are good enough to distinguish between an 8 and a 9 on scale of 10 of cubanos (or green chile) and even fewer who can write well enough to express why. While there may be critics who are capable of this--Craig Claiborne, she suggests--it's presumptuous for Ms. Kurtz to put herself in that category and believe that she has this talent. I think she serves herself well by being a broad sampler of everything that Denver has to offer rather than bringing a microscope to one segment of the dining scene (sandwiches). The microscope approach is high risk/high reward because it can demonstrate your talent to distinguish quality or expose you as a total fraud. I trust that most critics like her can be trusted to tell you whether a place is good or bad, but once you get past this analog judgment and dive into the gradations of whether the pastrami sandwich at Masterpiece is better than that of Zaidy's or Red Star it's not useful to readers, since that will largely come down to personal taste.
@DenverDoughboy "Let's face it, sandwiches don't take as much effort, creativity, and experience..." This is where you lost me. The sandwich is the sonnet of the culinary world. The rigidity of the format means that the poet/chef can either produce a formulaic, trite piece of doggerel, or can exploit (or subvert) the rules to create a sublime work of art. The novice must first understand and master the rules before he or she can break them. If the sandwiches at any of the places mentioned above don't impress, don't blame the reviewer. Perhaps her intrepid sandwich archaeological explorations will eventually lead us to the most perfect or outrageously transgressive sandwich in the city.
Two other points:
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