I was having dinner with two friends -- one who was attempting a wise quasi-diet by never cleaning a plate, the other who, like me, ate every scrap of everything she liked and burned the excess calories by viciously mocking anything she didn't. Together, the three of us had worked our way through much of the menu at Dish Bistro, the new restaurant by Leigh Jones, former better half of the Leigh-and-Robert-Thompson restaurant partnership that had given Denver B-52 Billiards, Atomic Cowboy and one of its best restaurants of the past decade: Brasserie Rouge. We'd eaten a lot, enjoyed most of it, then ordered dessert because, like proper gastronauts, we are incapable of quitting while we're ahead.
It looked so good on the menu: a vanilla cream porter ice cream float. It sounded original and smart, combining two of man's greatest inventions -- alcohol and ice cream -- and conjuring an image of bittersweet, creamy, frosty goodness. Had it been edible (or drinkable, depending on your speed of consumption), it would've gained immediate status as one of my permanent food memes, one of those riffs (like Wayne Conwell's sushi, Mike Long's gastro-experimentalism, Brasserie Rouge's charcuterie) that I keep returning to as ideal descriptors of time, place, cuisine.
But it wasn't edible. Or drinkable. And after a few minutes, it was difficult just to look at -- a mess of beer and melting ice cream, mixed together in an oversized coffee cup like a pledge challenge for the world's lamest sorority: Kappa Lambda Sweettooth. Gary, who was already a couple of whiskeys to the wind, took one bite and staunchly refused all further dealings with the horrible beer-and-ice-cream soup. Mary and I were slightly more forbearing, sliding the cup back and forth, stirring its contents, pushing around the lump of ice cream and trying to come up with one ideal, balanced bite in which the essential decency of this culinary collision might come through. But there was no ideal bite to be found, because this dessert had only those two ingredients: dark, hoppy, bittersweet porter and vanilla ice cream, two tastes that go together like nuts and gum.
400 East 20th Avenue
Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily except Tuesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday brunch
Cheese plate: $8
Crab croquette: $7
Lamb gnocchi: $16
Duck l'orange: $17
Hanger steak: $19
Beer float: $7
I'm pretty sure that we were the first people to order this particular taste sensation, because our waitress kept checking in to see whether we liked it. And after a few minutes, Jones herself arrived, biting her lip and asking what we thought.
Tough to lie when one member of your party is staring daggers at the offending dish like it said something nasty about his mom, and the others are tasting it on a dare.
"It's...not good," we said. "Just really not good."
Jones nodded, as if she'd been expecting that. "Yeah," she said. "I've tried to get the chef to make cookies or something to go with it. Something sweet to cut the bitterness of the beer. Do you think that would help?"
No. Cookies, sugar, chocolate -- none of those would help. What would help would be making the float with root beer, the way God intended, and then adding a couple jiggers of bourbon, because God's okay with that, too. What would help would be if the rest of the dinner was so good that one strange misfire of a dessert got treated (and remembered) not as the meal-killer it could be, but as a quirk -- an odd and almost comical cautionary tale about two tastes that will not wed no matter how much they are romanced.
Lucky for Dish, for Jones, for chef Chris Dougherty and the kitchen crew, the rest of our dinner was that good. And it all began with some mussels.
Our waitress couldn't pronounce vichyssoise. She was unsure of what was stocked behind the bar. But she was a great waitress because she was obviously in love with the menu she was serving and wanted to share it all. "This table is too small for when you really want to eat," she said -- meaning it was too small to hold dinner for six and drinks for four being consumed by three people with an appetite and no shame about showing it. The table could fit the booze, house bread (thick quarters of glaze-top foccacia) and our cheese course just fine, but after that, real estate became an issue.
So our waitress announced that she would bring the food in flights and would not take away any plate until we gave our explicit permission -- a smart move, because I was hungry and unwilling to give up the cheese (a nice sharp cheddar, a dull brie and a smallish slab of the ever-excellent Roaring 40's blue topped with a disk of dark chocolate) until I saw more food coming. And when the mussels appeared, I nearly forked my first right out of the dish in her hand. Mary was more dignified and waited until the bowl with its fat, healthy mussels and caper beurre blanc and central tower of garlic bread pudding was actually set down.
The mussels worked brilliantly, causing eye-rolling, head-shaking and groans of pleasure -- pantomime foodgasms at the corner table. We sopped up every drop of the sauce with the last of the garlic bread pudding. And it was that pudding -- done tightly packed, ring-molded, both redolent of and studded with big chunks of garlic and damp with the briny, astringent, rich beurre blanc that it wicked up from the bottom of the bowl -- that made the beer-float debacle eminently forgivable, ultimately forgettable, even funny.
You know a sauce is great when you mop it up with the last of the table bread. The first and last bites -- the moment of discovery and the final farewell -- are the best ones. With the mussels, the kitchen had combined those two experiences, making the sauce-soaked bread an integral part of the dish itself, stretching the first bite to the last, in the same way the beer float was supposed to combine dessert's first shock of sweetness with the last drink of the night. That failed miserably, but because Dish's kitchen had done simple so well with the mussels -- because it had shown that it could take comfort food and elevate it by wrapping it around or dipping it in more comfort food -- I could pardon a little awful experimentalism done in the same spirit.
First impressions and final goodbyes: Jones knew that she and her then-husband had a great restaurant in Brasserie Rouge, a true French brasserie, from the moment it opened. They were that rare restaurant couple who could make a theme restaurant that didn't feel like a theme restaurant, that felt somehow better than the real thing. And when it all went sideways a year later, Jones swore that she would never have anything to do with the restaurant business again.
She loaded up a car and got lost, driving cross-country and back again, then got on a plane and went wherever, eating and drinking her way around the world. She was somewhere in Southeast Asia when she got word that the B-52 space had been picked up by producers shooting The Real World: Denver. To hear her tell the story, she wasn't even sure what country she was in.
But when she finally came home, Jones was still insisting that she didn't want another restaurant. So what did she do? She bought two restaurants (the Painted Bench and the space next door that had been both the Perk & Pub and Sweet Rockin' Coffee and is now the Horseshoe Lounge) and got right back into the game.
Dish's menu is her creation, with Dougherty doing the mechanics. She calls it comfort food with a wink, a smile, because she knows that not everyone is comforted by mashed potatoes and big bowls of pasta. Some people like pad thai. Some people like sushi. Some people (though not me) are comforted by piles of truffle fries. And so her board is comfort food for the well-traveled, the very well-fed, the occasionally heartbroken. French and Asian and Spanish and American, Coloradan and East Coast-y. It's a mess, but it works because it's all variations on a theme: all the foods that Leigh Jones likes and hopes you will, too.
Gary ordered hanger steak over potato gratin with spring vegetables -- a skillful version of the classic bistro presentation. The potato gratin was delicious, tasting like something your mother might've made provided you grew up in Lyon and your mom cooked like Julia Child. The hanger was actual hanger -- gnarled and ugly and served fanned against the starch and under a thick veil of onion gravy. I had gnocchi with shredded lamb shoulder and roasted tomatoes that was like a great plate of leftovers you'd eat standing over the sink -- all the flavors melded, all the textures just a little bit off true.
We'd ordered a couple of lemon-spritzed crab croquettes, but they were ignored (and undercooked). We skipped the truffle fries altogether. Instead, we tucked into duck à l'orange (seared breast and confit leg) dressed formally in its citric jus, and a very Spanish paella (meaning a true paella, cooked in a flat pan, not the rice-and-seafood soup so common these days) aggressively seasoned with saffron. Gary thought it was too much saffron. Mary was undecided from one bite to the next. I loved it, because I love saffron. To me, saffron is proof that everything on this planet but rocks is meant to be eaten, mostly by me. That saffron threads are the sexual machinery of the crocus flower is proof that God has a weird sense of humor.
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SHOW ME HOW
In my food-centric world, good meals are marked by the point at which they drive the conversation into reminiscence about other good meals. Better than/worse than, like and not-like -- that's what we talk about when dinner is merely mediocre. But the trick of great food is that it makes you recall the comforts and triumphs of other tables. So sated, laughing, happy -- watching as Jones dimmed the lights and spaced out the parties in the dining room to make the floor look busier on a Saturday night than it really was -- we shared favorite restaurant experiences. And just as I was spinning into a long story about a dinner at Tables, I was interrupted by our waitress.
"Dessert?" she asked.
We shrugged. Why not? What was the worst that could happen?