Cafe Society

A Lobster Tale

I'm not going to order lobster anymore.

Or perhaps I'll just limit myself to lobster once a year. Twice, tops.

One of the quirks of this very strange job is that every food-related luxury, every delicacy, every rare and wonderful thing is now available to me pretty much all the time. I sometimes worry that this overwhelming access to everything good and delicious in the world is ruining me -- or at the very least, blunting the edge of my enjoyment of certain foods for which rarity constitutes most of their charm. And it's not just the proliferation of black truffles or o-toro or lobster, or my wanton, sluttish (and requisite) overindulgence in them that concerns me, but the frequency with which such dainties are used badly by kitchens as awash in high-end ingredients as I am.

There was a time when people -- even serious foodies -- only got to taste truffles maybe once in their lives, and doubtless at the hands of a master who knew exactly what he was doing with them. And even today, most normal people eat lobster maybe once a year, and then only on special occasions. On not-so-special occasions over the past month, I've had lobster spring rolls, lobster corndogs and puff pastry topped with a fall of cool lobster meat -- all at restaurants that don't specialize in seafood. Last week alone, I had lobster twice -- three times, if you count (and I don't) the shrimp-and-lobster sauce from the cheap Chinese takeout place down the street from my house.

But in the future, I will eat lobster only at a place where I know the kitchen will treat it with a little respect and prepare it with some skill. Not that a lot is required, mind you. Some quick knife work, a pot of boiling water, the ability to quarter a lemon without lopping off your own fingers. The only reason cooking a lobster is tricky is that it doesn't suffer fools or inattention very well. As with an expensive steak, a slip of foie gras or a soufflé, there's only one brief moment when a lobster is perfect -- blushing a burnished ruby red and steaming, tender inside its armor. Miss that moment by just a little on either side, and the resulting mess isn't just bad, tasteless, ugly and wrong, it's an insult. It's the waste of a thing that might have been divine, which is bad enough. Worse is the fact that some diner ordered the lobster, paid serious money for it, and waited in excited anticipation of its arrival -- only to be rewarded with bitter disappointment.

That diner will eat it, of course, because it's lobster, and lobster is supposed to be special -- but that hurts. I know, because my meals at Del Mar Crab House still sting. I could have forgiven one ruined plate, maybe even one botched dinner. But never a wasted lobster.

I'd come with a gang -- five of us, feigning special-occasion jocularity and slipping unnoticed among the tourists stumbling in off Larimer Square woozy from the altitude and now getting cheap-drunk on bad house wine. The dining room was half empty, which allowed easy viewing of the stereotypical model-sailboat-and-happy-crap-trap decor and dirty walls. After five years in this spot (owner/operator Michael Rios opened his restaurant in the old home of the Mexicali Cafe in 2000, when Larimer Square was far from the serious restaurant destination it is today), Del Mar is looking a little tired. But it still has legions of fans, both out of state and here at home -- people who seem to think that eating fish in a basement in Colorado is a good idea.

We'd come looking for nothing more than a good time, which we were having when I spotted the lobster tail, mounted proudly and regally on the surf-and-turf platter, making its way across the dining room toward our table. One woman in our group had never had lobster. She wanted to taste it, did, and said that it was all she'd ever imagined it would be. Which just means that she's either a liar or she has a very bad imagination, because the lobster was overdone, leathery, dry and desiccated from its boil and broil, and final death under the heat lamp while it sat on the pass rail. I've had krab-with-a-k that had more flavor, eaten leftovers with more life.

The chef who let this calamity out of his kitchen should be flogged, the cook who prepared it sent off to abuse the fucking clam strips at a HoJo's. Better yet, the hack should go sell used Volvos and never be allowed to see the inside of a kitchen again. Not just for the lobster -- although that was certainly bad enough -- but for everything else that came after.

We'd also ordered Alaskan king crab legs -- two of them for fifteen bucks, which strikes me as one hell of a markup even after watching that Discovery Channel special about the crab fishermen who are killed or crippled every year fishing for these monsters. But considering the amount of trouble people go to in order to catch them, package them up and ship them all the way to Colorado, you'd think that Del Mar's kitchen crew might take a little more care -- might keep an eye on the steamer between bong hits or brainstorming new ways to ruin potatoes -- and pull the crab legs out before the meat becomes so limp and waterlogged that it tastes like crab Jell-O.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

At an earlier lunch, I'd asked for a side of crab legs to go along with my shrimp po' boy. The waitress told me she wasn't sure whether the kitchen could do a side at lunch, went to check, found out that the galley was willing, then brought me two legs pulled off the Methuselah of king crabs, a crab so old that all the other crabs in Alaska were probably glad when he was finally caught so they wouldn't have to listen to any more of his stories about how much better life as a crab was back in the old days and how all these young crabs don't know how good they have it, with their rap music and their shells hanging halfway down their asses. The meat on this great-grandfather of a crab was shriveled, yellow and chewy. It tasted like an old boot dressed in aquarium water.

I know it's difficult to tell the age of a crab when all you have are its legs, and no cook can know the quality of the meat while it's still in the shell, but I'm pretty sure any cook who's spent more than, say, fifteen minutes on the line can differentiate between a good stalk of asparagus and a bad one. So why was it that on my surf-and-turf platter, I got three nice green stalks of asparagus -- along with one a little gray around the head, one that was emaciated and wrinkled, and one that was black and so far gone that the tip had already decayed to a rotten string? I can only conclude that Del Mar's galley has so little concern for the people they're cooking for that they think it's fine to serve rotten vegetables.

Smart move, fellas. Way to keep those food costs down.

The haricots verts were another waste, all skinny and withered and boiled to death. The creamed spinach tasted like a spinach smoothie, a godawful concoction like one you'd find at some old-school health-food restaurant where the cooks still believe that diners must suffer through their meals in order to gain any benefits from the vegetables being sacrificed. The garlic mashed potatoes had been turned to wallpaper paste in the steam table. And the romano potato "gratin" was really just the same garlic mashers browned on the flat grill and served tasting inexplicably of Swiss cheese.

I don't know what island Del Mar's "Island Style Mahi Mahi" was supposed to be from, but it's obviously one where the only cooking style is to crust something in macadamia nuts and then give it a good blast with a flamethrower. True, mahi mahi is a fairly resilient fish and will take a lot of mistreatment before it becomes inedible, and this piece had stood up to its defilement like a champ. But it still wasn't a dish I'd eat again unless I was being paid to.

And no one could pay me enough to eat another bite of Del Mar's key lime pie. I pray this slice was from a pre-packaged pie that someone on staff had picked up at some secret, back-alley discount pie warehouse down by the railroad tracks on his way in to work that night, because if someone in the kitchen actually made this, I can barely imagine what sort of terrible degradations he must have committed to make it this bad. Maybe if someone were to take a plastic bag full of limes, beat them with a pitching wedge, soak the resultant mess (bag included) in an ascorbic-acid solution for a week or so, then whip it up together with sour lemon yogurt, pour it into a damp pie crust and chill it in the fish cooler for a few more days -- that would come close. But it still wouldn't explain why the whole thing had the texture of the skin that forms on top of old pudding. Or why the whipped cream was chunky. That kind of awful takes real magic.

And speaking of magic, in the midst of all these terrible, lazy atrocities, every now and then the kitchen would put out something fairly good. Not great, but decent enough to imply that, if they wanted to, if they cared just a little, then Del Mar's crew might do all right. The crab-stuffed halibut -- although served with those nasty haricots verts and a stingy, loose béarnaise -- was tender, juicy and cooked just right, with the slightly greasy halibut meat acting as a nice complement to the fresh crab stuffing. While the fries that came with my shrimp po' boy were cold, limp and had obviously made at least two trips through the fryer before landing on my plate, the po' boy filling -- a creamy mix of fresh shrimp and sweet-sour pepper sauce set off with a spicy rémoulade -- was excellent, even if it did immediately soak through the bread and come tumbling out all over the table.

The wasabi mashed potatoes that came with a loin of seared ahi dressed in a restrained ginger miso were some of the best wasabi mashed potatoes I've had during my years of being forced to eat them every time a non-Asian restaurant wants to imbue a plate with a fusiony Tokyo kick. And there was also a bowl of well-handled steamed Manila clams swimming in a simple white wine and garlic broth, served with lots of lemon by a waitress who seemed bent on making sure my table had a good dinner experience despite the fact that plates kept going back half full. But she wasn't enough to stem the rising tide of horror. Nothing short of a time machine and reservations elsewhere could have done that.

So from now on, I think I'll just lay off the lobster. I've been disappointed too often, left wanting and feeling flat-out screwed by too many kitchens that have forgotten there was a time when a lobster was something special, something rare, something to be respected by a cook and savored by a diner.

At Del Mar, those days are long gone.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan