Some food trends don't make much sense in Denver's dining scene. Take octopus, for example: While tentacles are wiggling their way onto more and more menus, much of the octopus being plated comes from halfway around the world, is difficult to catch without destroying delicate reef environments, and takes skill and knowledge to properly prepare and plate. Octopus should be a rare delicacy, but instead is becoming the new calamari — with all the culinary abuse that tag implies.
But there are trends that arise from the desires of restaurateurs to run more efficient kitchens while offering guests new and creative flavors and textures. Some chefs are seeing value in foods that, until recently, were considered scraps to be thrown in the trash, or, at best, added to compost.
Vegetable cores, peels and tops, for example, have nutritional value and bold flavors. With the cost of produce rising — especially from small family farms — the need to put more on the plate from each food delivery just makes good economic sense. And diners benefit, too.
When Jeremy Kittelson was named culinary director of the Edible Beats restaurant group (which includes Linger, Root Down and Ophelia's) in March, he told us, "We're looking at how we really walk the walk when it comes to sustainability." That approach is evident in the group's newest eatery, Vital Root, which opened last week. Since the restaurant is completely meatless, it makes sense that vegetables play a starring role. But for Kittelson, it also means making use of every edible part of each vegetable. On a beautiful dish of thin-sliced beets sandwiched together to make perfectly round "ravioli," delicate onion blossoms are scattered on the plate to add visual appeal and sweet/hot bursts of oniony flavor. There's also a chunky pesto made from root-vegetable tops that would get thrown in the trash at many other restaurants. The tops add an earthy bright balance that highlights the sweetness of the beets.
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At Grind Kitchen + Watering Hole in Cherry Creek, chef/owner Preston Phillips combines Southern elements with local ingredients in dishes that balance homey fare with sophisticated elements and distinct Colorado twists. The crew at Grind makes pickles and mustards from scratch — nothing new in terms of Denver restaurant trends. But Phillips uses draft beers from Grind's bar in his mustard, and the pickles contain a clever addition. Among the familiar strips of cucumber, florets of cauliflower and disks of radish, a bright purple wedge adds an artistic touch. Phillips explains that it's pickled cabbage core, something one of his cooks came up with while slicing vegetables. The core of the purple cabbage is sweet, crunchy and surprisingly pretty — making an excellent addition to a happy-hour plate of housemade sausage.
One of the byproducts of the brewing process is spent grain: the sweet barley hulls that remain after wort is made. While much of the flavor of the barley ends up in the beer, enough nutrients are left over to make a good supplement to livestock feed, so many local brewers sell, trade or give away their spent grain to farmers — and the rest ends up as compost. But the barley can be dried and ground to make an excellent addition to bread or pizza dough, which is just what the Crafty Fox Taphouse & Pizzeria does. The resulting pizza dough is soft and tender, with just a hint of background sweetness. A recent chef's special used the dough in baked mini-rolls filled with blue-cheese fondue. The Crafty Fox also incorporates hops and wort from Denver craft breweries in dishes that pair well with the extensive draft beer list.