Try as he might, man cannot live on risotto alone. And after this man had made three visits to Parisi (see review) in five days, it was starting to look suspicious. The wife -- vastly overestimating the dubious sex appeal of a scrappy, long-haired, foul-mouthed restaurant critic -- began suspecting I was getting a little on the side. This despite the fact that I was slinking home stinking of saffron and onions and clutching plastic bags filled with baseball-sized rounds of fresh milk mozzarella, waxy folds of paper-thin prosciutto and fat links of saucisson sec -- my favorite kind of hard sausage, studded with wicked little black peppercorn jawbreakers.
As much as I liked Parisi the restaurant, I loved Parisi the deli even more. Both for the staff working behind the counter and the selection out front, this place is a treasure -- a culinary Avalon almost too good to be true.
"My wife, she calls this 'the road to perdition,'" Parisi's cheesemaker said as he walked me between the cold cases and dry stock, his thick Italian accent coating every word with honey. No doubt spotting the starved, fanatical gleam in my eye (and probably the drool on my collar), he'd stepped out from behind the counter to guide me on a brief tour through the cornucopia.
"This cheese, I made this," he said, pointing. "Just two hours ago. Try it? And these. Potatoes, yes? With a little mascarpone? Add some milk to freshen them. And this. The scaloppine chicken. You need these for lunch. Two pieces. Maybe three, yes?"
Yes. Everywhere he pointed, yes. Plus the sausage and some speck. Frozen veal stock? Why not? You can never have enough veal stock. Good thing I'd brought the Bite Me HQ platinum card.
In retrospect, my Parisi shopping trip was a fine illustration of why I needed to quit doing drugs when I did. I can be talked into trying almost anything. Want to be talked into it, as a matter of fact. And I shouldn't be allowed out of the office without a T-shirt with the words "Poor Impulse Control" scrawled across it in big, bold letters. You know, to clearly label me as the easy mark I am.
On the nights I wasn't feeding the monkey in north Denver, I was stuffing myself elsewhere in town in anticipation of the upcoming Best of Denver 2004 (as if I needed an excuse -- but in case you do, our Readers' Poll is on page 38). I dropped in for a late breakfast at Dozens -- a breakfast bar I usually miss, since it's just down the street from Johnny's Diner, my normal weekend haunt -- and now may have to start alternating my schedule, if only for the fact that Dozens makes its own corned beef hash. The kitchen does it in-house, shredding hash off a salty brisket, frying it up on the flat grill and serving it underneath two eggs over so easy that the yolks are barely cooked. In other words, done perfect. Dozens has killer French toast, too, stuffed with raspberry cream cheese, which got me wondering if there's anyplace in town that serves the stuff Lyons-style, with honey-sweetened summer-squash purée. Know of a spot? Then drop me a line.
My only problem with Dozens was the huge chunks of celery in an otherwise wonderful chicken salad piled thick on a fresh croissant. God, I hate celery. Unless it's in a Bloody Mary or diced for a mirepoix, nothing ruins a good lunch quicker than the Devil's tuber.
And no one ruins Chinese food quite like John Holly. Loosely affiliated with Charlie Huang (whose Little Ollie's got a well-deserved kicking in the January 8 "Remember Yen"), Holly's Highlands Ranch outpost, Little Holly's, is a showcase for everything that's bad and wrong about the Americanization of Asian cuisines. Sticky, goopy, nasty saccharine sauces; quote-unquote shrimp tempura that's actually just a flavorless, finger-long chew toy robed in a mushy fish-fry batter; sweet-and-sour chicken that isn't either; spring rolls that taste like kitchen scraps wrapped in wax paper. Ugh. I had some kind of bastardized shrimp and stringy bok choy stir-fry nightmare with shrimp that the kitchen hadn't even bothered to devein, coated in a pasty, damp egg batter that was so foul my cats wouldn't even eat the leftovers. The place couldn't even do barbecued ribs right, burning them so badly it was like I'd said something mean about the cook's mother. Ollie's is bad, but Holly's is worse. I hate both of these places -- with their copycat menus and cookie-cutter decor -- almost unreservedly.
In order to wash my brain clean of this rotten, faux-Asian taint, I took a spin by Clair de Lune -- where anti-celebrity chef/owner Sean Kelly may be in the running for a Beard Award this year. Early reports from dependable sources put him in the top twenty for "Best Chef Southwest," and I don't wanna jinx nothing (the judges still have to winnow that list down to five nominees) -- but seriously, guys, you could do a lot worse. On top of the fact that Sean is still doing his man-alone, Lord Jim routine in Clair's kitchen -- cooking every plate himself, backed up only by a roundsman and a dishwasher -- he's doing it better, cleaner and more purely than anyone else I know. I've never had a bad plate touched by Sean. What's more, I've never had a single bad element on a plate coming out of this kitchen. The sides are as good as the mains, are as good as the veggies, are as good as the desserts -- every time and without fail.
Last week, Kelly had Guinea hen on the menu, tender and juicy and browned on the bone with artichokes and potatoes; simple plates of serrano ham and shaved parmigiano with d'Anjou pears; wild salmon, pan-seared and served over whole fennel with a rich green herb sauce so buttery-smooth and well composed that it melted into every bite of the fish without ever smothering the delicate flavor.
The best trick in Kelly's bag is his almost preternatural talent for standing aside and letting his food taste like food. He doesn't twist or torture or impose his will on the ingredients, and at his best, his involvement in the cooking process is almost totally transparent. He leaves no fingerprints, no sense that his plates were ever anything but lifted whole and perfect from out of the ether and presented untouched.
His second-best trick? Meyer lemon tarts with preserved Italian cherries in a sweet, dark sauce touched with clove, topped with a fall of crème anglaise. It's worth the trip just to sit at the bar, have a tart and a glass of Bordeaux and watch the man work.
So luck to you, Sean. The list of Beard finalists comes out in March.
The son also rises: Brix, the first restaurant by Charlie Master, son of Mel and Jane Master of Mel's in Cherry Creek, opened two weeks ago in a nearby space at 3000 East Third Avenue that was last home to the doomed Aquarela. Charlie had been on the floor at Mel's for some time, uncorking bottles and pressing the flesh amid all the trappings of his parents' house, but Brix is his place. And the menu shows it.
"I wanted someplace comfortable," he says. "The kind of place me and my friends would want to go to, without having to go all the way downtown and then drive home after a couple bottles of wine." Envisioned as a spot for local foodies, off-duty cooks and anyone else looking for both food and fun in the same place without having to order through a giant clown head, the menu (and therefore, the soul) of Brix is the yin to Mel's yang. The kitchen, bossed by former Mel's sous chef Alejandro Sosa, staffed by his sister Fabiola and Mel's line veterans Alejandro Santo and Manuel Rosales, makes gourmet potato chips in-house, then serves them alongside white-trash beer specials like PBR and Schlitz in the can. Brix also has burgers and dogs, clam stew with garlic and chorizo, roasted chicken, fish and chips served in a brown-bag wrapper, and a wine list that scours the best of the world's vineyards without carrying a single bottle that breaks the thirty-dollar barrier.
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"It's going to be huge fun," Charlie says, and that's exactly the way he wanted it. This ain't his mama's house.
Leftovers: For more father-son action, look to the Beard House in August, where Ian Kleinman from Indigo and his dad will be cooking their fourth Beard House dinner. Not too shabby. Also on the young Kleinman's plate: the final showdown in the American Culinary Federation's regional chef-of-the-year competition, happening this Friday, February 27, at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. The three other finalists are Jennifer Jasinski, late of Panzano; John Broening of Brasserie Rouge and Chris Rybak from Alpen Stube in Keystone.
The spot at 727 Colorado that once held Phoenicia Grille (which, as proof of how bad things can get in this business, closed over something like a $700 tax debt) is once again occupied, this time by India Express. The space at 846 Broadway has gotten another facelift and another new set of owners. Most recently Parlour Bar and Grill -- and before that, Basil, and before that, the original Parlour -- it's now the Minturn Saloon, an offshoot of an eatery that's located, not surprisingly, in Minturn.
Paris on the Platte, the classic coffeehouse that served as a civilized outpost on Platte Street long before that part of town was tamed, is in the process of opening a wine bar. But across the street, La Taza Café closed its doors for good on Valentine's Day. If anyone out there needs some slightly used restaurant equipment, owner Regina Chavez y Sanchez has everything on the block available at fire-sale prices. And speaking of fires, by the time this paper hits the stands, Griff's on Broadway -- the drive-thru that caught fire the day my review of the joint came out ("Cheeseburgers in Paradise," October 2, 2003) -- should be open for business. Normally, I'm not a superstitious man, but since I seem to be swinging a bit of bad hoodoo with three recent review-day disasters at places I really liked, for safety's sake, that's all I'm going to say about Griff's for now.