Is a chicken wing without chicken even a wing?
When it comes to food, I am incredibly picky, demanding, a snob and a reverse snob, too — the kind of guy who will argue passionately for the bygone days of fine dining when all men wore hats and cravats and women all giggled when they drank champagne as though it was their first time. And then, just when I've gotten you to agree that, yes, things really were better when everyone was eating stuffed pigeon and entire lobes of foie gras and keeping the neighborhood haberdasher in business, I'll turn on you, accuse you of pretentiousness and say that no, things are much better now, when I can walk into any taquería in the city in flip-flops, Jams and a Nixon mask and get a fantastic spread of tacos al pastor, two beers and an Enramex phone card without ever speaking a word of English.
Actually, I'm a prick in pretty much all respects (ask my wife — she'll vouch for me). The truth is that I just love to fight. I'll say one thing, pick my hill, die on it, and then, five minutes later, turn around and argue the other side just for the pure joy of a good argument.
Needless to say, I get my wish a lot. I've argued long and hotly both for and against Colorado barbecue, Rocky Mountain sushi, cheeseburgers, robots and whatever else piques my interest on a given day. Chicken wings, for example.
Joel Warner, my ink-spattered comrade-in-arms, recently mentioned that his vegetarian wife had picked up some seitan chicken wings from WaterCourse Foods over at 837 East 17th Avenue, and that he'd not only eaten the "wings" (I have to use quotes because seitan is made from wheat flour dough, and bread doesn't have any wings) but enjoyed them. "If you don't believe me, try them," he said, pointing a tremulous finger at me, already shaky from meat withdrawal. "What are you, scared?"
As Warner well knows, that question is the quickest and easiest way to get me to do just about anything, because in addition to being a prick, I am also easily influenced by peer pressure, advertising, dares or even the bizarre requests of strangers on the street. And to compare the all-vegan, boneless seitan shrapnel served at WaterCourse to the holy of holies — the Buffalo chicken wing — was a challenge I could not resist.
But first we needed a control — a chicken wing that Joel and I could agree on as a sort of middlemark and against which we could judge the WaterCourse offering. Luciano's (1043 Broadway) was eliminated because it is the second-most Buffalonian restaurant in Denver (the first being the Old Fashioned Italian Deli, at 395 West Littleton Boulevard, which doesn't make wings) and would therefore be too close to my heart. Ditto Woody's Wings, 1740 South Buckley Road in Aurora, because I am convinced that this Woody's location does the best, most authentic (and certainly the best-smelling) wings in the city. So we decided to try the wings at the Fainting Goat (846 Broadway), the bar that took over the former home of Moon Time (which was the Minturn Saloon before that, and the Parlour long ago) and has recently become a personal favorite (see the Cafe Society blog for details).
The Goat's wings did the trick. Served by the pound and with the appropriate sides (celery sticks, carrot sticks and a cup of chunky blue cheese dressing), they earned points with me for their crispness and surprising size (most Denver wings are too small), although Warner claimed the sauce (Frank's RedHot and liquid butter, the only sauce that ought to be called Buffalo sauce) wasn't hot enough — and then drifted off into a dim reverie about how the chickenless chicken wings at WaterCourse were both punishingly hot yet still flavorful, tasting almost like actual meat, but without, you know, actually being made of any.
Here's the Wikipedia description of seitan: "Wheat gluten, also called seitan, wheat meat, gluten meat, or simply gluten, is a food made from the gluten of wheat. It is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves, leaving insoluble gluten as a gummy mass, which is subject to further processing."
Doesn't that just sound delicious? Because God knows, whenever I'm feeling peckish, I find myself longing for a gummy mass of insoluble wheat gluten.
After we finished the Goat's wings, we proceeded to drink a bit. Then a bit more. I'd promised to check out WaterCourse as soon as possible, but after a couple, three, four or five Wall Streets on ice, I wasn't in any condition to judge anything other than maybe a wet T-shirt contest. And since Warner wasn't wearing a T-shirt and no one else at the table seemed up for being hosed down and ogled, I went home.
But the very next day, I dragged myself out of bed at the crack of noon and — after six cigarettes, half a beer and a bowl of Frosted Flakes — proceeded directly to WaterCourse, where I ordered not just the "wings," but also the Buffalo tofu sandwich. I'll say this about the "wings": They did smell good. And as anyone who's ever spent any time in Buffalo will tell you, the smell of a box of wings cooling on the passenger seat on a cold winter night is one of the most comforting, most appetizing smells in the world. Getting the smell right (which has to do with a combination of fryer grease, the vapors rising off of heated hot sauce and damp cardboard from the to-go box) is important. But you know what's also important? The way the wings taste. And that's where WaterCourse's "wings" won't fly.
The kitchen does nothing to make them look wing-like; there's no bone — so critical with real wings, since it serves as a meat-handle for eating and dipping in blue cheese dressing. Then again, WaterCourse doesn't offer blue cheese dressing with its "wings," but rather a side of vegan ranch that tastes kind of like chive yogurt and in all ways is just nasty and wrong. Although the slabs of seitan are fried in an attempt to give them the proper texture, chicken skin is what gives real wings their beautiful, golden, crispy bite. Here the skin is replaced with breading, which (since seitan is made with nothing more than the protein goo left over from soaking flour) is rather like breading bread. And while, with my eyes closed, I could almost, kinda, sorta make myself think that a mouthful of gummy, insoluble gluten felt a little like a mouthful of chicken, even that lie lasted only for a second. After that, it just tasted like chewing clotted wallpaper paste.
The Buffalo tofu sandwich was a little better, because tofu is an actual food (as opposed to seitan, which is what's left over when the real food has been rendered down to goop), and WaterCourse put its tofu — again, breaded and fried — on an excellent roll. And the complicated, flavorful sauce that had Warner so hot and bothered worked well as a counterpoint, elevating fairly bland fried tofu to the level of an interesting sandwich. But with the "wings," the same sauce was where the flavor began and ended — because unlike chicken, seitan has no flavor. It just...is.
My order of breaded bread put me in the mood for some proper wings from somewhere that knows the best thing a chicken could ever be is dinner. And so, with that in mind, I headed straight back to the Goat.
Leftovers: Those of you (like me) still mourning the loss of Somethin' Else to the vicissitudes of the restaurant industry and its chef/owner Sean Kelly to the chain-exec lifestyle (he's been overseeing kitchen ops for Mark Berzins's Little Pub Company), take heart. I got news late last week that he's found a new house to call home.
It has no name yet and no solid opening date, but it's definite: Kelly will be moving into the former home of the North Star Brewery (3200 Tejon Street), where he's going into business with Joe Vostrejs and Jeff Hermanson of the Larimer Square gang. Together they'll create "the kind of place where, if you want to come in with the kids at five o'clock, that's fine. If you want to come in at nine with some friends for a drink, that's fine. If you want to just sit and have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper, that's fine, too," says Vostrejs. In other words, a real neighborhood joint, though one with a good wine list and (one would assume) exceptional grub.
I spent a long time talking with both Kelly and Vostrejs about the deal and the restaurant that will (eventually) come out of it. If you're interested in the nitty-gritty details, check out the post "Back in Business: Sean Kelly" on the Cafe Society blog at westword.com.
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