Encore, Encore!

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My friend and the waitress were still talking about recycling, about the re-use and re-application of found objects, cast-off materials. And though I was concentrating on the food, some of their conversation must’ve penetrated, because I found myself thinking about recycling, too. About the salvage and reclamation of forgotten things.

Cedar-plank salmon was a stroke of rustic genius in the '80s, when it started showing up on the menus of restaurants featuring “California Cuisine” before “California Cuisine” had officially entered the culinary lexicon. Like salads with Laura Chenel goat cheese or whole roasted garlic cloves, cedar-plank salmon signaled the start of a revolution in modern cooking. By the early '90s, this particular dish (done in all manner of ways, from simply roasted on a dry plank and served bare, to cooked on a wet board so that the rising, woody steam would do its thing to the fish) had insinuated itself onto the board at restaurants on both Coasts, as well as the prep schedule of forward-thinking, square-state bistros. I started making it in the mid '90s, first cooking it simply and honestly for a small joint, then doing it pan-seared and oven-finished, napped with an anisette sauce and topped with a scattering of chive sticks, in a humongous hotel kitchen. But by the time the salmon hit the radar of the Hilton and Columbia-Sussex executive chefs, it was already something of a gag dish among more respectable white-jackets; the kind of thing you’d use as a joke, making fun of a colleague who was cooking a less-than-cutting-edge menu: Like, what’s he got on the board there now? He still doing that duck-sausage pizza? That cedar-plank salmon?

Cedar-plank salmon started disappearing from menus shortly after that. Sure, there were some places that still served it – just like there were tribes of aboriginal people found decades after World War II who’d stamped flat runways and built rickety bamboo control towers in anticipation of the return of American and Japanese supply planes. But by the turn of the millennium, as chefs chased after new fads, cedar-plank salmon had passed into the realm of cargo-cult cuisine.

And yet, as I argue in this week’s review of Encore, the restaurant opened in the Lowenstein project last December by Steve Whited and Sean Huggard (who previously brought us Black Pearl), I think most chefs would agree that, in its day, cedar-plank salmon was actually a pretty good idea. So it was also a good idea for chef Huggard to recycle this plate back into rotation in his new kitchen -- to give it a solid and un-ironic place of honor among all the other dishes on his unusual (but mostly coherent) comfort-food-slash-Middle-Eastern menu at Encore.

It’s a good restaurant. I don’t love everything about the place, but I like it enough that I ate three meals there within ten days and never got bored. Plus, the kitchen serves fries that were good enough to pick up an eleventh-hour Best of Denver award.

Speaking of Best of Denver 2008, this week’s Bite Me column is dedicated to an explanation and defense of some of this year’s stranger inclusions and exclusions. And in Second Helping, there’s an explanation of what happened to Jerry Cheryl’s sandwich shop inside the Conoco gas station on Oswego Street, which won some best sandwich honors last year and this year, took home nothing.

Finally, for all of you who think your favorite taqueria/sandwich shop/steakhouse/ seafood shack got shafted unfairly this year, remember that we’re now taking online comments on any and all Best of Denver awards. The debate over Big Hoss Bar-B-Q is already shaping up into a major battle. So why not jump in and start swinging? Check out the melee at http://bestof.westword.com/bestof/. -- Jason Sheehan

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