I found a lot to love at M&D's Cafe (see review), but one thing that didn't wow me? The cornbread. And since cornbread (or, failing that, slices of spongy white Wonder bread) is an integral part of the barbecue experience, I was left feeling a bit cheated.
M&D's kitchen makes tiny, flat-topped cornbread mini-muffins and puts three or four on the side of every entree. And while that's efficient and economical -- no big sheet pans of the stuff cluttering the place, no throwing out those last pieces that always stick in the corners -- it doesn't make for good eating. Cornbread needs room to breathe, to settle and expand, and being crammed into muffin pans like that must have really pissed off all the little cornbread molecules, because rather than having a light, crumbly, sweet piece of bread with which I could mop up M&D's killer sauce, I had several golden-brown mushroom-shaped nuggets the consistency of quick-dry cement.
The Sheads should hurry over to the new Caribbean Cuisine Plus, at 15445 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora, and pick up some of that spot's good cornbread. And maybe a side of curried goat, too.
This was the first goat I've found in the metro area. I eat at a lot of Indian restaurants, Nepalese/Tibetan places and Middle Eastern cafes, and I never see goat on their menus. And that's too bad, because, no offense to the American Beef Council, which has done such a thorough job of convincing folks that cow is the only decent red meat on the market, but goat is good. It's tender -- maybe a little stringy, but incredibly dense with mild, mellow flavors. It's less greasy than yak (which is not very good, in case you're wondering), fattier than lamb and less gamey than venison. In short, it tastes exactly the opposite of how you'd think goat would taste.
And I only got this goat by accident. I was driving past a strip mall at Iliff and Idalia, meaning to make a turn toward home, when I spotted the tiny Caribbean joint crammed between a barbershop and Sam's -- a good butcher shop most notable for its invocation of The Brady Bunch's main meat man, Sam the Butcher -- with a dozen cars pulled up in front. Curiosity piqued, I joined the throng to determine what all the hoopla was about.
It was all about the food. The place was tiny, with the dozen cars representing twice the number of tables available. But people were willing to wait, standing for upwards of a half hour for takeout island cuisine, including great cornbread sold in pieces the size of my fist for a buck each. The kitchen also cooked up big bone-in chunks of stewed goat meat in a sweet-hot green curry sauce with peppers and onions; shredded oxtail; jerk chicken and fried plantains (which were overcooked and tough); and Mala chicken, which was like a Cuban pollo sofrito done as a Chinese stir-fry, then served over dry red beans and rice. I left with a big bag of takeout soul food -- mac and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, cornbread and collard greens -- that I ate at home with the last of my M&D's leftovers while watching the final hour of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on AMC.
I've had a lot of good nights in my life. More than my share, probably. And I've had a lot of great meals. But eating cold barbecue, curried goat and warm cornbread on my own couch with Clint and Lee Van Cleef squinting at each other and Ennio Morricone's squalling soundtrack blowing out of my big speakers? Let me tell you, that was right up there with the best of them. It's an old adage among cooks that the greatest, most fondly remembered meals are not the ones served by strangers and eaten off bone china under crystal chandeliers, but the simple ones eaten just because you're hungry. And you know what? As usual, the cooks are right.
Market watch: People complain a lot about the horrors of suburban sprawl. They bitch about strip-mall blight and the nasty, Stepford conformity of 1,000-unit apartment complexes broken up only by big-box retailers and Super-MegaMart grocery stores. But sprawl has its good points, too. For proof, head over to the stretch of South Parker Road just east of Mississippi, which is awash in weird little restaurants and markets that offer more diversity than the U.N. men's room after chili night in the commissary.
I was there to check out Nazar International Market, which just went into a crooked strip-mall lot at 1842 South Parker Road. I liked the idea that within a dozen paces, I could eat East African food (Masawa Cafe) and maybe a little Thai tom yum goong (Thai Spice), have my cat neutered at the vet's office, buy a rifle at Dave's Guns, and then pick up some Halal meat and Turkish delights at the new market. Nazar's shelves were well stocked with Middle Eastern goods and bizarro-world candies even stranger than that ribbon stuff Grandma always kept in a bowl on the coffee table. The market has a small produce section (suffering badly because of a broken cooler on the day I visited, but with fresh stock available for the asking from working coolers in the back) that covered all the basics -- potatoes, onions, carrots and such -- along with some of the odder flora required by the immigrant communities Nazar services. Gray squash? Never heard of it, but there was a box jammed between the parsley and the red onions. I'd never seen a whole quince for sale, either, but now I know where to find one.
Nazar's prices are bodega-cheap, and the service is very friendly and helpful. Need a unique cut of meat for some special occasion? A butcher will hand-carve whatever you want. Don't like the look of the baby eggplant in the cooler? Maybe there's something better in the back. Anti-sprawl activists claim that places like this are being forced out by the machinations of chain businesses and big retailers -- but here's Nazar, smack in the middle of the problem and doing fine.
What's more, while looking for Nazar, I found another market that just went into the Food Stop at 1370 South Parker -- a gas station/convenience store in a deep strip mall filled with nothing but mechanics and auto body shops. This one is more Indian than Middle Eastern, and while it has no meat counter, it does have a small produce section with apples, potatoes and Persian cucumbers, plus three aisles of groceries where spices, chile sauce, bagged henna powder and chickpeas all share space on the shelves with cans of Dinty Moore stew and beef jerky.
Less than a block from the Food Stop, Andrey's Pizzeria has taken over a space next to the Little Siam sushi bar and attached to one flank of the Russia House. Odd, because a few blocks to the west, in Russian Plaza, the California Bakery -- which makes the best pirozshkis in the city and is the least Californian place I've ever seen -- also started serving pizzas about six months ago. The pies must be popular with ex-pats. Around the corner from Siam/Andrey's/Russia House, on Parker and Mississippi, is another local grocery -- the Black Sea Market -- that's been serving the transplanted Russian community for some time now, and just down the street from that is yet another new business, the Mongol Nest, advertising its grand-opening specials of "bar food, $3 pitchers and Jäger shots."
So tell me again why sprawl is bad? Quince, sushi, pirozshkis and Jägermeister sounds like a pretty good combination to me.
Leftovers: Chef Kevin Savoy has been booted from Agave Underground. He's the guy who -- very briefly -- helmed the kitchen at Flow before Duy Pham stepped in, then bounced to Opal as a sous chef before stepping onto the line at Agave, which opened late last year in the old home of Bistro Adde Brewster.
Kirk Bliss of Seven 30 South is now running Agave's kitchen and "doing double duty," according to Scott Holtzer, owner of both Agave and Seven 30. Bliss is tweaking Agave's menu back into shape, focusing on a "kinda fish-heavy Mexican-Latin concept," Holtzer says. Agave's lunch service is also suspended, but dinner's still on, as is a happy hour that runs from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
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Gone for good is Full Measures Bakery. Owner John Stamper is out of the retail biz but will still do private parties.
In the February 19 Bite Me, I referred to Opus's Mike Long as "a deconstructionist, a culinary anarchist" and one of the smartest cooks I know. Proof positive: his menu for the "Opus Night at the Cinema" dinner, which he hosted a few days later. The kitchen pulled out the stops for the $69 prix fixe, all-night affair, putting together a six-course sampling of every line dog's favorite flicks. There were champagne cocktails with "peppers and sausage for Pantangeli," from the Godfather, Part II; "Big Paulie's lobster spaghetti with very thin sliced garlic," from GoodFellas; Doctor Lecter's favorite, pan-roasted foie gras over fava beans with a nice Chianti (sauce); a "Timpano for Louis Prima," with veal polpettini, pancetta, egg and spinach à la Big Night; and a dessert of chocolate tickets wrapped in gold leaf inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Long has another theme dinner coming up March 15: the "Ides of March Roman Feast," featuring soothsayer soup, a seafood triumvirate, insalata "Et tu, Brute" with (and I love this) hearts of romaine in a pool of tomato-basil dressing, and a Cleopatra panna cotta of almond-steeped milk and honey custard over spiced dates in blood-orange sauce. The price is $69 at the door (not counting tax and tip); for reservations, call 303-703-6787.
See you at the movies.