Market watch: If you don't get your fill of the Far East at T-Wa Inn (see review, page 63), head across the street to Lucky Market (506 South Federal Boulevard), where you'll find all those weird, freaky, Jesus-why-would-anyone-eat-that? ingredients you've been looking for. Need some pork pâté? Jackfruit chips? Frozen squid tentacles? Lucky's got you covered. It boasts a wall stacked high and wide with dishes, bowls and all manner of Asian kitchen accessories; it has so much freezer space, you may need a team of Sherpas to get you through; and it stocks such basics as Asian-export condensed milk, Cafe du Monde chicory coffee, Jahe Kopi ginger coffee, and more canned goods than the most discriminating fan of Indochinese cooking could ever use.
The last time I visited, Lucky Market had durian fruit, too -- and in terms of rare, near- legendary regional delicacies, durian is the undisputed king. In case you've never tried one (and that's possible, because I actually thought it was illegal to import these things into the U.S.), a durian looks like a hedgehog with a gland problem. It's heavy -- about the size of a bowling ball -- and covered in spines, smells like roadkill and rotting onions when split open, but has a taste often described as being like that of sweet almond custard.
For you kitchen professionals out there, Lucky Market also offers knives for sale. In particular, it has those long, wedge-headed machetes -- kind of like an usuba vegetable knife, but longer -- that I've always been told were called fish hatchets. In catalogues, these things can regularly go for more than a hundred bucks (if you can find them at all). At Lucky Market? Around ten -- a killer deal.
And like any Asian market worth its salt, Lucky has a substantial selection of fish sauce, or nuoc mam. Nuoc mam is to Vietnamese food what olive oil is to Italian, soy sauce to Chinese, or Twinkies to a pothead -- the latter could exist without the former, but would it be a life worth living (or a cuisine worth preparing)?
Included in almost all Vietnamese recipes, nuoc mam is prepared during fishing season from fresh anchovies and salt layered together in huge wooden barrels, then pressed and left to ferment for up to a year. After just a month, the smell is unbelievable -- like old socks left in the sun, or high noon down at the docks. After three months, a liquid begins to drip from open spigots at the bottom of the nuoc mam barrels.
Is it fish sauce yet? Not quite. The bacteria have yet to do their entire job of fermentation, so the liquid is collected and poured back in the top of the barrels. Patience is what makes a great nuoc mam, and after a minimum of six months, the first sauce is drawn off. What comes out is a perfectly clear liquid, light amber in color; as with the first pressing of an olive oil, this first draining is the most potent and prized. Second and third drainings produce a cheaper sauce that's less clarified and better suited for cooking.
When buying nuoc mam, look for bottles with the word nhi on the label, which denotes the highest quality, and the words ca com, which means it was made with anchovies only.
Cookbooks? We don't need no stinkin¹ cookbooks: Generally speaking, I don't use cookbooks, don't like them, and -- with rare exceptions -- didn't keep any in my kitchens. Still, The Il Fornaio Pasta Book, by Maurizio Mazzon, the executive chef overseeing all Il Fornaio kitchens, is worth a mention. I like the way the book is divided by region to showcase the best and most recognizable pasta dishes from across Italy's broad geographic and culinary spectrum, and I like the lush, beautiful photography (shot by Michael LaMotte) that captures the elegant simplicity of chef Mazzon's creations. The first 28 pages focus on a discussion of pasta: how to properly prepare and serve the different types, equipment you'd need to make it fresh, and so on. This front section alone is a great resource, and that's before you get to the recipes...
Another good thing? Five dollars from every cookbook sold at the two Denver-area Il Fornaio restaurants and the Library Store at the Denver Public Library's central branch will be donated to the DPL Friends Foundation. Retail price is $27.50; it's available now at the restaurants and will be in bookstores starting in October.
Leftovers: The Colorado Restaurant Association and American Express are teaming up for the Big Bite promotion, designed to help Colorado's restaurant community get through the dog days of August. Between the recession, the post-9/11 slump, the wildfires and the drought, tourism is way down in Colorado -- and that means restaurants are suffering. Rather than try to weather the doldrums alone, more than fifty local eateries are participating in the Big Bite program, with fine-dining establishments offering $31 prix fixe dinners and more casual places a $31 dinner for two, through August 31. Based on the number of people charging their dinners on American Express, the credit-card company will make a donation of up to $10,000 to Operation Frontline. Check the list of participating restaurants at www.coloradorestaurant.com; click on the Big Bite link for more information.
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1515 Restaurant (at 1515 Market Street) has just announced a changing of the guard. Olav Peterson (formerly executive chef at Bella Ristorante) and Ben Alandt have signed on as chef and sous chef, respectively. Menu changes are in the works as well, with new summer selections on tap. 1515 also picked up an Award of Excellence this year from Wine Spectator for its globe-trotting 150-bottle list.
The Swan at the Inverness Hotel also has some fresh blood in the kitchen, with a new chef and a new dinner menu. The chef, Eric Scuiller, is one of only about 200 chefs in the world to receive the title of Maître Cuisinier de France, and his ambitious menu (which is heavily French, but with a little Colorado thrown in for color) seems like a fine showcase for those master-chef credentials. Look for buffalo carpaccio, roasted capon breast with wild boar bacon mousseline and a cassoulet of Texas snails with chervil Pernod butter.
I didn't make it to Brewery Bar II for last week's green-chile roundup, but I've been assured the place is a classic. And come this December, you'll be able to savor its green in another location, the Brewery Bar III, bringing some bite to the 'burbs at 9228 Park Meadows Drive in Lone Tree. (The original was in the old Tivoli brewery, now the Auraria student union.) For nearly fifty years, Brewery Bar II has been dishing up the verde at 150 Kalamath Street, where the kitchen went through 10,000 gallons of green chile, eighteen tons of prime pork and almost 37,000 pounds of cheese last year.
Despite its more upscale surroundings, the menu won't change a bit in the new location (with the exception of desserts being added to the lineup), and Brewery manager Doug Lundstrom assures me that Brewery Bar III is "just going to be new, but not different." Transferring that hole-in-the-wall charm to the new place could be tough -- it's roughly three times the size of the Kalamath outpost -- but to ensure a continuity in food and service, some staff from Brewery Bar II will be moving to the new spot.