In advance of the Super Bowl, 104.3 The Fan morning sports commentator Joel Klatt declared that Denver was a chain restaurant town without a unique food culture. In the course of the subsequent Twitter barrage, chef Paul Reilly of the soon-to-open Beast + Bottle jumped to Denver's defense with this: "@joelklatt @mantonat Fair enough. I absolutely think DEN has better restaurants than KC or STL #culinarymovement#foodietown."
After that, I reached out to Klatt, hoping to educate him about the dining opportunities here. And he agreed to meet for dinner at the restaurant of my choice to discuss the Denver dining scene and, hopefully, experience culinary proof that this city can hold its own against other American foodie destinations — including New Orleans, Kansas City and Austin — that he'd named during his morning drive-time show. See also: - Is Denver a chain-restaurant town? 104.3 FM's Joel Klatt thinks so, but we disagree - Chef and Tell with Max Mackissock of Squeaky Bean - Johnny Ballen, the bionic man behind Squeaky Bean
After some deliberation, we decided that Squeaky Bean would be the location of our meeting, both because of its stellar reputation as a leader in Denver dining, and because I thought chef Max MacKissock's playful yet complex dishes would be just right for challenging Klatt's assumptions, without being too off-putting. After all, Klatt had admitted on the radio that more often than not he finds himself at steakhouses — either because he's entertaining athletes who gravitate toward beef-centric menus or he's exhausted from his travels as a baseball and college football commentator and needs comfort and familiarity that hometown steakhouses generally provide.
My wife and Cafe Society editor Lori Midson both joined us for dinner (we invited Reilly, too, but he was unable to attend).
For me, the Squeaky Bean's menu hit the perfect balance of adventure and familiarity. The opening soup — a borscht broth with a sour-cream sphere, tiny potato dumplings and sprig of dill — was an instant reminder of my Ukrainian grandmother's more robust and hearty beet soup. A bowl of clam tortellini at first hinted at an old-school Italian joint's best linguini and clam sauce, but veered into new territory with a fragrant, bright green sea urchin emulsion poured tableside by the waitstaff. Between this and the bison carpaccio with its sprinkle of crunchy barley, I think Klatt was a little taken aback.
But just as in his CU Buff days, Klatt was a great sport and took the challenge head on. His favorites? We all agreed that the deceptively simple but powerful flavor of the cauliflower couscous with vadouvan was a clear winner, as was the bite of butter-smooth beef tongue that came immersed in pho broth.
(Although tongue jokes made the rounds on the Evans and Klatt radio show the next morning, Klatt was clearly impressed.)
So were we successful in convincing a well-traveled ex-jock that Denver cuisine deserves a spot next to the legendary barbecue of Kansas City, the gumbo of New Orleans, and the Pacific salmon of Seattle? Maybe not, but I think we opened his eyes to a depth in the Denver dining scene where he'd only barely scratched the surface. While the Arvada native still believes that the majority of Denverites would probably pick a chain restaurant when asked to name a favorite, he also admits that a restaurant that maintains its own farm to supply vegetables, and in some cases even meats and cheeses, just seems like a Denver thing to do.
When looking for an explanation of why that might be the case, Reilly puts it well: "Very few ideas are reinventing the book these days. But all new concepts that sprout in Denver have a unique and pioneering overall theme to them. They embody the spirit of the West."
Many of Denver's top restaurants may be young and still developing character, but so much of what's happening now embraces that attitude. Chefs and restaurateurs can be innovative while embracing a sense of community. They can also, as Reilly says, "empower our guests with the knowledge of where great food comes from and how it is produced."
Maybe farm-to-table seems like it's already a played-out trend to some — but they're likely people who chase trends. Those restaurants that take their food seriously — but not themselves seriously, as the Squeaky Bean's Johnny Ballen put it — can bring enjoyment and creativity to the guest without seeming strident about what's important to them. That's when trends become more than just passing fads, and instead soak into the city and become part of its culture.
Maybe Denver has a ways to go, but at least the building blocks appear to be here — and nobody is skating by on reputation alone.
Some final words with Klatt revealed that he's more than just a steakhouse aficionado. While he doesn't go out much in Denver because of the constraints of balancing travel with family time, he became almost reverent when discussing a favorite food discovered in his many travels: a California-style burrito stuffed with carne asada, French fries and guacamole from a vendor in Phoenix. He apparently once drove non-stop from Denver to Phoenix just to get one of those icons of American-Mex ingenuity. He also confessed to learning a simple but mouth-watering trick from an offensive lineman: a thick layer of butter on top of an Oreo cookie.
Anyone with that kind of insight into quality eating must be capable of redemption. So our next goal is to help Klatt find the best California burrito in Denver. Suggestions?
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