Sometimes when I have a bad day, I console myself by thinking about sandwiches. Not about eating them -- although I do dearly love a good sammich -- but making them. It's an obsession, something just short of a religion. I think of sandwich-as-spiritual-object the way a Mexican Catholic might approach a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a Buddhist would sit in contemplation of the perfect lotus flower.
It's not any particular sandwich I have in mind, either, but the entire sandwich gestalt. I am not elitist in my daydreaming. I am thinking about every sandwich simultaneously -- from the sublime simplicity of salami and butter lettuce on a chewy roll, to a Sardi's stacked ham on rye, to a complicated truffled egg-salad canapé, to my midnight-guilty-pleasure, white-trash fallback sandwich: three individually wrapped slices of yellow mega-mart cheese product on grocery-store white bread heated for fifteen seconds in the microwave.
I even have this fantasy of making it big someday and investing a portion of the windfall from my gambling binge/book contract/ slip-and-fall lawsuit in a sandwich shop of my very own. In it, I would stock all the necessaries for making every conceivable sandwich (except paninis, which I've never liked anyway), including French croque monsieur and madame, Vietnamese pâté banh mi on baguette, Cajun oyster loaf, Rust Belt beef on weck, Philly cheesesteaks, and open-faced Russian sandwiches or even their Kansas cousin, the runza. There would be after-school PB&Js with their crusts cut off, made with Skippy and sugary grape jelly, and then again with cashew butter and white-champagne grape jam; Dutch condensed-milk and jimmies sandwiches; Greek-diner flat-top sandwiches of butter-soaked and grilled bread with hashbrowns, fried peppers and marinated chicken; Italian prosciutto and fried-egg sandwiches; peanut butter and banana à la Elvis; street-fair sausage and peppers on a hard roll; hot barbecued brisket on white Wonder bread; pulled pork on a hard roll; pork Cubanos on lard-heavy bread with plenty of mustard and cornichons; Chinese pork buns; subs, spiedies, hoagies, grinders, po'boys -- everything.
Once a year, I would close down for a month to travel the globe collecting new sandwich knowledge. What do Sherpas eat for a quick lunch at the peak of Everest? Is there a traditional Eskimo sandwich? I would find out. And then, like the archetypal Joseph Campbell hero, I would return to my shop and bestow these boons upon my customers. Once a month, I would hold sandwich-therapy encounter groups for people wanting to get in touch with the simple flavors of their childhood. And every night, I would don cape and mask as the Sandwich Avenger and Superglue the locks on the doors of all Subway franchises.
I would bring to the sandwich-maker's art all the passion, focus and obsessive dedication of haute cuisine. Does a sandwich deserve any less? Of course not. After all, there is so much to consider in the construction of a perfect sandwich. Beyond the obvious concerns of excellent and texturally appropriate bread (stiff, dense hoagie rolls for a meatball sandwich, squishy white bread for that PB&J), acquiring the best artisan or regionally authentic ingredients (hard Genoa salami that actually comes from Genoa, the best German liverwurst for a proper Polish-with-onions), and preparing all the fixings right (cornichons sliced thin and long, the skordalia left slightly lumpy to keep it from becoming starch paste and then dosed with fresh lemon at the last minute), there are more esoteric considerations. Stacking, for instance. What item must go where in the architecture of your sandwich so that each flavor hits your mouth in the proper place and order? And the power of food memory. Is handmade cashew butter intrinsically better than chunky Skippy if Skippy is what you remember from your childhood and what you really, truly desire?
No doubt there are some great sandwiches in town. The croque monsieur at Brasserie Rouge (1801 Wynkoop Street), which you can now enjoy many more hours of the day since that bistro started serving lunch last week; Denver's (and possibly the world's) best grilled cheese at Chedd's (1906 Pearl Street); a great red pepper and mozzarella sandwich served with attitude at Salvaggio's Deli (2609 Pearl Street, Boulder). And Phil Collier gets a lot of things right with the sandwiches at A La Tomate (see review): good ingredients, many choices, a do-it-yourself mentality that leaves decisions in the hands of the customer. He takes a lot of care in the preparation of his spreads -- the olive tapenade, the fig-and-olive paste -- and plain knows a lot of stuff, like how thin the prosciutto ought to be (very) and how to temper the flavor of a strong brie (by adjusting its place in the stack). Still, Collier does not begin to approach the sort of OCD fervor I would bring to my imaginary sandwich shop.
For starters, he doesn't even have a cold meatloaf sandwich, which would be a mainstay on my fantasy sandwich board. Specifically, my wife's cold meatloaf sandwich. At the Earl of Sandwich (that's what I'd call the place -- just Earl's, for those in the know), Laura would be referred to as the Queen of Meatloaf, Dame of Worcestershire, and she would boss her meatloaf minions with an iron hand. The loaf itself would be made with three-way mix from the South Philly Italian Market, the ground beef, pork and veal air-dropped into Denver in the middle of the night in a blacked-out Learjet because -- at least so far -- I haven't found a single butcher in this city who makes anything resembling a proper three-way mix, and if Denverites knew what they were missing, there'd be riots.
Add to that crustless white bread soaked in milk, bacon, two egg yolks per pound of meat, a short-shot of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce measured by smell, salt and pepper pinches unique to Laura's fingers. The kneading is important, and I don't know exactly how she does it. And then there's the assembly: bias-cut French bread; the meatloaf cooked, cooled undrained, then sliced roughly into odd-sized bits and pieces; warm mashed potatoes on top and cheap, grocery-store mayonnaise below. It is, in all of my experience, the most perfect sandwich in the world -- good for any occasion, requiring time, dedication, concentration and an unfailing commitment to quality; it's beautifully rich and balanced in flavor, texture and combination of hot and cold ingredients, and redolent of both childhood sandwich memories and my own particular fascination with off-menu diner food. It is the sandwich to end all sandwiches, and currently unavailable anywhere except my own kitchen.
But if anyone out there in Hotcakesland is interested in an Earl of Sandwich franchise and happens to have a spare couple million in investment capital, drop me a line. We can discuss our plans for sandwich domination over some curried-goat po'boys and yak-butter tea on our way to Mount Everest.
The thousand-dollar lamb chop: It used to be that chefs cooked for a living and didn't do much else, but those days are over. In order to be a successful chef/entrepreneur today, have your name on the lips of foodies and be a force in the larger culinary scene, actual cooking -- in your kitchen and on your line -- has become what chefs do on nights when they're not on stage, on TV, at a book signing or charity event, or making the rounds pimping product for the Cranberry Defense League or the International Popcorn Advisory Board.
And I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. The trade has changed considerably since I left it, and I'll admit to doing a fair share of shilling during my last couple of years in the whites. I taught cooking classes where I was paid (handsomely) to name-drop brands and products while terrifying homemakers with a sauternes sauce made with eleven pounds of butter (it served sixty). I collected a paycheck from the local gas utility for endorsing the ease and speed of gas cookery (its gas in particular) and even did some weekly TV where I was done up like a stock car, labels and brands and the names of the restaurant sponsoring my show emblazoned all over my jacket, my kit and my hat.
But this was an occasional thing back then, and I was a rarity as the guy doing it. These days, it's the odd (and consequently unknown) chef who doesn't.
Goose Sorenson, for example, is a good guy, a great cook and a proven businessman who's not only kept Solera, the restaurant at 5410 East Colfax Avenue that he owns with Brian Klinginsmith, viable through a few seriously murderous seasons, but managed to open a second place with Klinginsmith -- the Ivy Cafe -- and make a buck there as well. He's also a "chef-ambassador" for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board; a few months ago he made a nice chunk of change when he traveled to Atlanta for four days of cooking and huckstering, trying to sell a crowd from Omni Interlocken on the merits of Wisconsin cheese. On Monday, November 8, Sorenson will do another event for the cheese-heads: He's opening Solera at noon to any and all industry folk for a tasting party featuring 140 cheeses, five master cheesemakers and wine pairing from Stelzner and Gundlach Bundschu vineyards; it's free for anyone in the trade who wants to come and an extra paycheck for him. And there'll be another public event on November 10, wrapped up with Solera's usual Wednesday wine tastings.
This weekend, Sorenson will be in Chicago for the Wine Spectator's Grand Tasting, traveling on the dime of the cheese people and staying for a Food Arts magazine award ceremony Saturday night. "I can't believe I have to rent a tux," he complains. Last week, Sorenson was part of a shindig at Johnson & Wales University thrown by the American Lamb Board where he, Sean Yontz, Frank Bonanno and Eric Roeder all cooked in competition -- one plate with lamb as the centerpiece -- and Sorenson won the contest, taking home a cool grand for his saba-lacquered grilled American lamb with roasted radicchio, goat cheese and kabocha squash risotto, and a currant-lamb reduction.
Late last month, Sorenson and Bonanno (along with a bunch of other chefs) cooked at the outdoor Festival Italiano, a benefit for the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District campaign. On October 14, at Westword's own Menu Affair, Roeder was up against Tim Maness of the Samba Room in the Steel Chef competition, winning it on the back of an excellent dessert featuring chanterelle mushrooms. And finally, on October 28, Sorenson and Roeder will be together again (along with about a dozen other local chefs) at the Oxford Hotel cooking for the "Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen" event, a benefit for the Young Fund at Children's Hospital (see Urban Experience).
Makes you wonder how chefs find the time for their own kitchens, doesn't it?
And the trend isn't slowing down, either. The lamb spectacular at J&W was more or less a coming-out party for Jennifer Jasinski, whose Rioja will open in Larimer Square on November 22, and who's also on tap to become the Lamb Board's "Lamb-bassador" -- traveling the countryside spreading the joys of bleating meat to the multitudes. So it's only a matter of time before someone from the Fraternal Order of Fishmongers wises up and asks for my help as the Sturgeon Ambassador, or possibly as Admiral Tuna Belly.
Leftovers: Last week, Sean Kelly picked up the lease on what had been the Two Boys Bakery next door to Somethin' Else (formerly Clair de Lune) at 1313 East Sixth Avenue. "We'll be doing some improvements and stuff over the next couple of months," Kelly says. There won't be big changes until "after the first of the year," by his estimate, and that's cool with me. Just knowing that bigger things are coming for Somethin' Else -- and that Kelly's place is doing enough business to support expansion -- is like an early Christmas present.
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Meanwhile, what had been the New York on 17th deli at 837 East 17th Avenue is now an Italian restaurant, Rizaggio's, with the same ownership and cook. Look for new owners and a new cook, as well as an impressive new menu, at Saverino, the Italian restaurant that's taken over the former home of Tiramisu (and, before that, La Coupole), at 2191 Arapahoe Street. Finally, the Rodizio space at 2222 East Arapahoe Avenue in Littleton will become Tropikai, a 10,000-square-foot fine-dining Indonesian restaurant and sushi bar. Brought to us by Steve Moehler of the Above the Rim wine shop and his pal David Yea, former owner of the late Isle of Singapore, Tropikai will upscale the Indo-Balinese cuisine that Isle did so well. According to Moehler, a chef is being brought in from Singapore, and while the liquor license may not be in place until late this year, he and Yea are looking at a late-November opening.
Finally, it's always a blow when a true landmark goes on the block, and last week rumors were flying about the fate of Don's Club Tavern (aka Don's Mixed Drinks), at 723 East Sixth Avenue. Well, I did some sniffing around, and it turns out that Don's is indeed for sale and, come what may, will be changing hands (according to those in the know) sometime around the end of November.
It's been a tough year since Don Aymami -- a Denver native and the heart and soul of the place, even at age 86 -- passed away in January, moving on to that great saloon in the sky. Here on earth, he left behind a loving family and the 57-year-old Don's, a smoky dive that welcomes everyone with open arms -- from the regulars who plant themselves daily on Don's bar stools to the college kids in search of a decent pool table and cheap drinks. "We would love to keep it in the family," one of Don's granddaughters told Westword this past spring, when Don's earned Best Old-Time Bar accolades in the Best of Denver 2004. "He lived and breathed for this place. He lived an amazing life."
But as of next month, the bar will be going out of the family. Several people are reportedly interested in purchasing the place, with the early odds on it going to the owners of Little Ollie's, the upscale Chinese joint at 2364 East Third Avenue. Could our favorite bar soon be a sushi bar?