While out wandering a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the Bugling Bull Trading Post out on Highway 67, west of Sedalia, where I had one of the best orders of country-style ribs of my young life. Granted, I wasn't looking for ribs: I'd muscled the car off the road because I'd seen a hand-lettered sign saying the Bugling Bull was grilling brats and burgers as a weekend special, offering them up along with the canned goods, cold Cokes, fly kits, bug spray, radiator fluid and other esoteric sundries of a proper back-road pull-through. But as soon as I spotted the box smoker set up in the dirt parking lot, the outdoor grill, the lanky fella with tongs in his hand and the ranked bottles of mysterious, unlabeled sauces, I figured a burger was the least of the good things going on.
"Yeah, we got burgers," said the man behind the counter. "Dogs, some brats. And we're doing ribs. Baby backs and country style." He then proceeded to explain to my wife the difference between the two by (somewhat disturbingly) pointing out on his own anatomy where the two cuts would have come from if he were a pig. At least, that's what I hope he was doing. Come to think of it, I never did specifically ask if those were pork ribs on the grill.
No matter. I knew I was in the presence of a competent pit man at my first sniff of the deep, rich, woody clouds coming out of the smoker, and thought that maybe -- just maybe -- he could be a great one when I saw the scorched foil of a couple dozen brick-like packages banked up tight against the back of the grill. And when I cut into my first rib with a plastic knife and fork, peeled the meat back from the bone and popped it in my mouth, I knew the man was a genius. The rib was just plain porkerific -- kinda light and hot-doggy-tasting close to the bone, thick and dense at the tips; the meat chewy-tender, lined in beautiful pinks and grays from the smoker, then doused with just enough home-brewed mystery sauce to give it a lingering, sweet-hot sting.
Granted, a lot of the ribs' goodness was situational. There was the pleasant surprise of blundering on the Bugling Bull in the first place, the pure joy of standing on the porch in the summer sun talking with the locals, bathed in fragrant smoke while my order was drawn, sauced and wrapped up picnic style. And then there was the eating, which I did mostly with my fingers, sitting cross-legged on the hood of our car parked off in the quiet of a nearby pine wood.
I've had a lot of good meals in my time, but this one was a different sort of perfect -- a meal I never would have found had I been looking for it, a discovery that was equal parts luck and circumstance. Which just goes to show, you never really know where you're going to find the truly great meals of your life. They're often in the last place you'd expect -- and almost never in a place that requires reservations.
Turn the page: Speaking of great meals, I had one a few months back at the Fourth Story ("Another Story," June 3) while checking out the stylings of new chef Christopher Reap. But now the restaurant above the Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek has dumped Reap and is beating the bushes for a new top dog.
"We have an incredibly strong, tight kitchen, and things are going well here," said general manager Teri Hanifen when I got her on the blower last week. But when I asked what happened with Reap, she was somewhat less than forthcoming. "We really don't talk about personnel issues like that," she replied, then reiterated how strong her team was, how on-course the kitchen was and how everything is the same.
Except, of course, that the one and only Fourth Story chef who's ever served me a great meal is gone. But whatever. If that restaurant's crew is used to anything, it's change. The Fourth Story has gone through a chef a year on average since opening and has had its fair share of shakeups and breakdowns over the years. "A lot of the changes we've made have been internal, and most of the chefs we've worked with have been great," she said. "Every single person who has left the Fourth Story, we've been very supportive of what they've gone on to do. Great chefs are like artists, and we've learned something from everyone who's worked here. So we've never viewed [the staff changes] as a negative. It's always been positive for us."
And, in fact, Hanifen just put in her notice, as well. She's planning to hand over the reins of the Fourth to Jerry Payne, assistant general manager and sommelier, in a couple of weeks. So while the crew left in the Fourth Story's galley soldiers on, restaurant managers are in the early stages of picking chef number seven or eight (depending on how your scorecard works) to man the burners. Once the new top toque is chosen, there will be another menu change, another period of breaking in, and -- at some point -- yet another visit to the Fourth Story by yours truly so that I can see for myself how things are going high above Cherry Creek.
Going, going, gone: Golden's Hilltop Cafe has repositioned itself right out of existence. Back in January, owner J. Allen Adams told me that he and chef John Calloway were looking for a bigger spot than the old house they'd been working out of since 2000 -- a place with a few more tables, some bar space and room for a banquet department. After much wheedling and shameless begging on my part, Adams told me he had his eye on a space in the Golden Hotel -- and sure enough, that's where he is, just recently installed as food and beverage manager at the hotel restaurant that's now called Coburn's and will soon be rechristened as the Bridgewater Grill.
Unfortunately, Calloway won't be there with Adams for long. While he's currently Coburn's exec chef, Calloway will soon turn over his toque and title to Jared Peterson, his Hilltop sous.
"John has come with us to help create a new menu and to pass on his knowledge and expertise to Jared," explains manager Rhonda Davis -- a Hilltop alum, like most of the restaurant's staff. But while that new menu has some of Hilltop's flavor, the Bridgewater Grill will feature a more standard hotel board of fare. "There will be a lot more game," she says. "And steaks. But it will have the same style, the same freshness and creativity, that we had at the Hilltop."
Leftovers: While dining at Kassai Sushi (see review), I spotted one of those big notices in the front window that announces a place is waiting for clearance on a liquor-license application. Although I already like this second outpost of Kassai Sushi (the original is at 731 Quebec Street), I'll like it more when it can serve alcohol. There's nothing better than a nice, warm sake to wash down a cold slip of toro, or a sip of cold sake to chase down the last swallow of miso soup.
Sage Southwestern Grill, which moved to 323 14th Street a few months ago, just got its liquor license. According to Cheryl Brown, who owns the joint with her husband, Rich, the final paperwork came through two weeks ago, and now it's happy hour all the time. During the dry months, the Browns had been serving lunch only to the downtown crowds while they let old customers know about their new home and catering business (which has since started booming). Now that the drinks can flow, Sage is open for dinner as well. Meanwhile, the spot Sage had occupied at 699 West Littleton Boulevard in Littleton now holds Sai, a Japanese restaurant.
This month, Kona Grill -- another link in a Scottsdale, Arizona, chain -- moved into the space in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center not-so-recently vacated by Roy's. Kona styles itself as an American restaurant playing with the accents and flavors of the Pan-Asian sphere -- steaks on the one hand, egg rolls on the other, with a sushi bar and Hawaiian pizza with ham and pineapple bridging the gap. I have to wonder if anyone told the owners of this concept about what was in the space before they were -- because, you know, Hawaiian/Asian fusion did so well there in the past...
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Finally, I've been flooded with letters, phone calls and e-mails since last week's Bite Me eulogy for Sean Kelly's Clair de Lune, and my harangue against local foodies whose neglect and inattention was costing Denver one of its best restaurants. These communiqués fall into three categories. First there's the usual contingent of pissed-off whiners who delight in putting the shiv to me whenever I express an opinion that isn't four-square in line with whatever the prevailing mood of the food community might be. How dare I accuse anyone other than Kelly himself of being responsible for the failings at Clair? How dare I, in one breath, say I wasn't thrilled with the menu at The Kitchen ("Boulder Blahs," July 15), and then, in the next, offer this malediction on those unwilling to jump through hoops for a table at Kelly's place -- when both are locally owned and strive for the same kind of slow-food, artisan menus? And on like that.
Then come the missives from the cooks and restaurateurs who are right there with me. My screed about Denver's careless, clueless, uneducated and unappreciative dining community was not merely an indictment of those who have let Clair de Lune suffer, but also those same crowds that never materialized at Vega, Indigo and all the good houses that have recently been shuttered or are teetering on the brink. It was a wake-up call, delivered in my own charming way, and a warning that if things don't turn around soon, all these guys and girls in white who brought Denver to the edge of being a truly excellent food town are going to pack up their Henckels and go elsewhere. I'm not exaggerating, folks. Phone calls are being made and plane tickets booked as I type, and if something doesn't change, Denver will have to go looking for its former best and brightest in the kitchens of New York and L.A.
By far the majority of letters and calls, though, were from just plain folk saddened to hear of the imminent loss of yet another great restaurant. Most of these people will head out for one last dinner at Clair before the lights go dark (it's at 1313 East Sixth Avenue, for those who complained that I didn't include the address), and Kelly tells me he's already seen a big show of support from diners who want to make sure they're on the side of right before the eatery shuts for good.
No matter where you come down regarding Kelly and Clair de Lune, the fact that everyone is still willing to talk about it is a good sign. It's when such news is met with nothing but silence that I'll really start to worry.