Sandwich Time

Last week I took a run out to the Montecito at 5970 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village, which is right next to Annabel's, the other new joint owned by Mel and Jane Master. Chef Adam Mali has handed over day-to-day ops at the original Montecito, at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, to his sous, Jeremy Wilson, so that he can watch over this second outpost full-time, and I got to sample Mali's special that night — a faro pasta that was very Californian, very brown and not my favorite thing in the world.

Much, much better was his new sandwich, the Eat a Peach, which replaced the Mac-and-Cheese sandwich — Macintosh apples and aged cheddar on brioche, so good you just wanted to eat seven and then die happy. Why the change? Easy. Apples aren't in season right now, but peaches are.

I'd had a bad experience with fruit in the pork sandwich at Cucina Colore (see review). It had looked so good on paper — slabs of pork loin, grilled pears, gorgonzola cheese and greens on focaccia — but every ounce of life had been cooked out of the pork, leaving it dry, tasteless and with all the savor of chewing on a new sneaker. An otherwise decent gorgonzola was smeared on thick as spackling compound, then topped with a few slips of pear, sliced paper-thin and grilled until they tasted of nothing but char and had the texture of a rubber spatula blade. The pears were so awful, I suspected that the kitchen had pre-grilled them, then held them either stacked in a cold table or perhaps in liquid on the steam table.

In contrast, the Eat a Peach was a phenomenal sandwich, simple — just sliced peaches, grilled lightly, covered with Vermont cheddar and a little frisée Afro and laid on excellent bread — but constructed with thoughtfulness, care, consideration and an understanding that the job of any chef is not to disguise flavors, not to muddle them up or to shock with jarring combinations, but to do everything in his power to bring out the best flavors from the fewest possible ingredients. I'd never seen a peach sandwich before. I'd never had peaches and cheese together. But after tasting Mali's sandwich, all I could do was wonder why no one had ever tried this before. Why hadn't I tried it back when I was still cooking? Why had I never considered how perfect, how idyllically seasonal, how sweet and dewy and slightly tart a single perfect peach could be with its sugars and captured sunshine offset by the savory bite of a good, hard-edged and aged cow's-milk cheese?

Because I'm an idiot, that's why. Because for the bulk of my career, I was more like the guys at Cucina Colore than I was like Mali — a shoemaker, knocking out the grub as fast as I could, taking tickets, reading tickets, cooking tickets with no thought, just hanging and banging. It took me years and years, failure after failure, epiphany upon epiphany, to learn to do things differently. More than two decades after I set foot in my first kitchen — a half-dozen states, thousands of restaurants, more than a million words later — I'm still learning to keep it simple.

What's your beef? Reader Matthew Brandon took me to task for dissing Texas barbecue in "Real Genius," my August 9 review of Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace.

"Jason, I dig your reviews," he wrote, "and I dig you gotta entertains the peoples. But what I can't figure out is why you be dissin' the 'Texas-style beef'? Opinions being like assholes, I figure that the difference between your asshole and mine is that you got a lot of experience in the kitchen. Me not so much. So when you say 'The beef itself is about halfway between a great desebrada and the best example of the worst style of barbecue in America: Texas-style beef,' I gotta say wait a minute. I've had some bad BBQ in my life but not often in Texas. I've had some damn near ecstatic moments munching on Texas beef BBQ. But hey, you're the chef. You have to know a lot more than me about the Texas beef BBQ. You must have spent years in Texas eatin' Q till you were ready to drop. Eating the beef of East Texas Pit Masters, Central Texas Artsy-Q, Cowboy Q, and on and on. God only knows how much time and effort you put in so that you could finally call it the worst. My compliments.

"On the other hand, you might know dick about Texas BBQ."

Actually, buddy, nowhere in that review did I say a specific purveyor of Texas barbecue was the worst. Such a statement would have required my eating my way through the Lone Star Republic, tasting the best efforts of all the pit masters who — through some cruel joke of fate or nature — have found themselves smack in the middle of one of my least favorite states in the union. Obviously, I haven't done that. I have spent some time in Texas — in Austin and around Dallas; in the dust of southwest Texas; in Amarillo, which is a place I only ever want to see again in my rearview mirror. And I have eaten a good deal of Texas-style beef barbecue.

I've also eaten a good deal of Kansas City barbecue (both in Kansas City and out), a good deal of Georgia and north Florida barbecue, south Florida barbecue, Carolina barbecue, Mexican barbecue, Argentine barbecue, Thai and Vietnamese and Chinese barbecue. I've eaten barbecue in Memphis and Memphis-style barbecue in Colorado. I've eaten backyard barbecue, church-picnic barbecue and barbecue served on fine china; barbecue smoked over old 2x4s and particle board, barbecue dipped in honey, barbecue soaked in 7-Up, and once had a pit man toss me up against a wall, spread me out like a cop and trace the various cuts of pig on my back with the tip of a fourteen-inch carving knife.

In short, yeah. I know me some good barbecue, Hoss. And when I say that Texas-style beef is the worst in America, that's because in my well-researched and considered opinion, the only thing worse than Texas beef brisket barbecue is having no barbecue at all. Of course you've had transcendent moments eating Texas barbecue. That's because all barbecue is wonderful. I have no doubt that you've got a list of joints scattered throughout the state where you love to go and eat smoky cow parts; I have no doubt that if I were to go with you, I'd enjoy it, too. But you know what I'd be thinking the whole time? What in the fuck do these damn people have against pigs? No matter how superlative a Texas-style pit, joint or shack, there isn't a damn one of them that can hold a candle to a proper pig barbecue. As I also said in that Centro review, the pig is proof that the food gods love us and want us to be happy.

A cow, on the other hand, is just a walking larder waiting to be turned into green-chile cheeseburgers. If I had to choose between a beef BBQ in Austin (the only part of Texas I can tolerate, and a great place for pancakes) and pork ribs anywhere else on the motherfucking planet, you know what I'm going to do? Hop up on that cow, slap it on the ass and ride it to wherever they're keeping the pork ribs.

Leftovers: I recently got word that Joe Garcia — ex of Alto — has been given the exec sous position at the new Sushi Den expansion, Izakaya Den, which opened last week at 1518 South Pearl Street. Going from Italian to Japanese? That's one helluva jump. But owner Toshi Kizaki has already got a French-trained chef in Patrice Beudeu, a contempo-Mexi-whatever-trained guy in Gabe Stallone (ex of Lola and Vesta), and himself handling the Japanese side of things. So I guess an Italian-trained chef was the next logical step.

Izakaya Den wasn't the only high-profile opening last week, either. Theorie (which was going to be named the Abbey until a restaurant of the same name in California complained) switched on the lights in the former Real World: Denver house, at 1920 Market Street. And this past Saturday, French 250 began welcoming diners (and their dogs) at 250 Steele Street.

There's new life in the old Beniamino's space. It's now Go Fish, a Japanese restaurant and sushi joint brought to us by the folks who own Spicy Basil in the same 1 Broadway development and have managed to make a go of that previously cursed spot. Good luck to them in this one. And finally, I hear that there have been some changes at Chi Bistro, the restaurant at 1066 South Gaylord that I gave a serious ass-kicking to six months ago ("Loveless," February 22). Justin Luebbers is now the kitchen manager, and Richard Glover, the sous chef, is running the line from that position. And at least according to Glover, all those bad things I said about the place no longer apply.

This I'm going to have to see for myself.