The Bite

If everybody enjoyed their jobs as much as Juanita Tool seems to, the world would be a much better place -- at least a much better place to eat in.

Tool runs the cheese department at Cook's Fresh Market (8000 East Belleview Avenue), a new grocery that purveys raw materials as well as cooked items in the Belleview Promenade, just a few doors down from Cool River Cafe. The market's owners, husband-and-wife team Ed and Kristin Janos, are both trained chefs -- he's a master chef, she used to work for Tony's Meats and Deli (151 West Mineral Avenue and 4991 Dry Creek Road, both in Littleton) -- and their dedication to quality cuisine is obvious by the foods they stock in their place, and the enthusiastic people they've hired to run it.

When I meandered over to the cheese section and started sniffing the wheels -- true to its name, Cook's Fresh slices to order instead of pre-packaging, which hastens the drying-out process -- Tool fairly leapt over the counter and began pointing out cheeses with so much pride you'd think she'd made them. But these cheeses are made all over the world; Tool's the one responsible for ordering them. "I've been given a lot of leeway as to what I get in," she says. "Then it's up to me to make sure that people try them. There are so many incredible cheeses out there."

Amen, sister. And Tool has several of them at Cook's Fresh, including a fresh, runny Brillat-Savarin ($16.99 a pound) and an olive-filled French goat's-milk cheese called Royale Province ($17.99 a pound). Shmears on a cracker were given freely and cheerfully; she also turned me on to an olive I'd never had before, a big, fat Austrian stuffed with fresh goat cheese ($16.99 a pound). But Tool was just as eager to point out goodies in other departments, including the baked goods that sit right next to the cheeses. Most of the pastries are made in house by Ed Janos; among the highlights in the display case were killer, chip-packed brownies ($2.25 for about a four-inch square), pecan diamonds that were sort of like cake-bottomed pecan pies (95 cents each), and little tarts filled with fresh fruits (priced from $1.95 to $2.50).

Compared with those delicacies, the cooked dishes were a disappointment -- largely because of overcooking. Since these items are supposed to be reheated at home, Cook's Fresh would do well to take a tip from the local mini-chain of Diane's Good to Go (now with five metro area locations, with about a hundred more planned) and cook everything just partway, so that the process can be finished at home. That way, the strips of London broil ($6.99 a pound) wouldn't be so dry, chewy and hard-edged -- and you could still microwave them without worrying that the meat would turn into shoe leather. And since the crabcakes ($9.99 a pound) had been thickly coated with parmesan cheese, it was impossible to sauté them on the stove -- but microwaving them made the exterior all soggy. The steamed veggie mix ($5.99) of cauliflower, red bell pepper strips and broccoli was fine, though, and my kids loved the chicken strips ($5.99 a pound).

Cook's Fresh also offers raw meat, poultry and fish that you can take home or have grilled, sautéed or steamed right on the premises. The seafood comes from M.F. Foley, a purveyor out of Boston that's highly regarded in the industry for its sound business practices (for example, it doesn't believe in "soaking" sea scallops to lengthen shelf life, because that changes the flavor, toughens the flesh and adds weight -- and thus value). There's also a full deli and shelves crammed with all manner of gourmet mustards, jams, sauces, olive oils and vinegars, as well as a regular selection of fresh produce. I was surprised to find the produce prices comparable to Safeway's, while the prices on the rest of the offerings were more in line with those at your average gourmet food store. Still, Cook's Fresh is a wonderful addition to this neighborhood, especially considering the lack of good dining options nearby.

Nosh: Over in the University of Denver neighborhood, the TreeHouse Cafe (2043 South University Boulevard) is just about ready to branch out. But first, owners Mike "Sal" Salvaggio and Benny Berman are concentrating on getting the business at hand back in hand. Good idea. Those who frequent the place -- and I'm one of them -- worry that the TreeHouse can seem very uneven. On one stop, everything's running smoothly; the next, I can't get my favorite, the scrambled-egg-filled Cubano ($4.95), because the kitchen is out of eggs. And sometimes, even though the TreeHouse is empty, it still takes twenty minutes to get a simple sandwich. Salvaggio says part of the problem is that the eatery is doing a lot of catering work and boxed lunches; another part of the problem is that good help is harder and harder to find.

"We've been talking since this past February about expanding into the building next door," he explains. "It's been so hard to take care of the stuff in the morning, the lunches and everything for the businesses in the area, that we envisioned setting up a commissary where we could take care of all the prep and the platters and to-go stuff, and then we'd just have the walk-in business run out of this building."

But until they smooth out staffing problems, Salvaggio says they'll keep things as they are -- even though they've already taken over the next-door space once occupied by Pioneer Travel and have all the equipment for the commissary.

"Some day we'd like to have a store in downtown and the Tech Center and Boulder," Salvaggio adds. "But we can't do that until it gets to the point that me and Benny don't have to work seven days a week."

I know the feeling.

Culinary Calendar

October 1: Wine dinner with Cecil De Loach of De Loach Vineyards at Roy's Cherry Creek. Seven-course meal paired with seven wines for $75 per person; reservations required. Roy's Cherry Creek, 3000 East First Avenue, 303-333-9300.

October 2: Bouchard Wine Dinner to celebrate the Savoy Restaurant's eighth year in business. Six-course meal paired with wines for $85 per person; reservations required. The Savoy Restaurant, 535 Third Street, Berthoud, 970-532-4095.

October 8-9: Governor's Symposium Celebrating Colorado Cuisine, hosted by the American Culinary Federation, with educational seminars, cooking demos, culinary competitions and an awards dinner cooked by ten chefs from across the state (and focusing on ingredients produced in Colorado), $100 in advance, Keystone, 303-308-1611.

Ongoing: "Hooked on Books" book drive at McCormick's Fish House & Bar. Bring in a new book through the month of October for Volunteers of America Brandon Center, a temporary residence for homeless women and their children, and receive a $10 gift certificate toward food at the restaurant. Books accepted from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. McCormick's, 1659 Wazee Street, 303-825-1107.