Friday, May 22, 2009

Good eats in Phoenix & Denver

Spent a couple days in Phoenix, where fortunately, the weather cooled down to the mid 90s after 2 days at 105 & 106 degrees. Ate at a place in Scotsdale called Blanco, part of the Fox Restaurant Group, which is prevalent in AZ & CO. It's a modern Tex-Mex place; nice atmosphere, friendly staff. Was it the best Tex-Mex I've ever had? No, but it was decent. I had the Chicken Mole dish, and what I expected was a plate with chicken and mole sauce over it. What arrived was a very arty looking bowl with all kinds of stuff mounded on top -- shredded lettuce, pumpkin seeds, pico de gallo, corn, and underneath, was some chicken, a bit of rice, and a fairly thin mole sauce. It had decent flavor -- lightly sweet & savory at the same time, but not a lot of depth or substance to it. They fry their own tortilla chips, from what I am guessing are the day-old corn tortillas. They were really good -- thick, not greasy, and just enough salt on them, and the fire-roasted salsa accompanying them was quite tasty too. My friend got the beef enchiladas, and thought that my chicken was better seasoned than her beef (I didn't try hers though).

Arrived in Denver to lovely upper 50s and cloudy. Had dinner the first night at a little French place called Le Central. I guess you can call it a bistro; it's an old house near downtown, and they pride themselves on being affordable and non-snooty French food. All three of us started with a cup of the French Onion Soup....nice melty Gruyere on top, but not a ton going on with the broth. Le Central is well-known for their mussel bowls; their menu has over 10 different "sauce" options, from straight up white wine & garlic to infused with olives or bacon. Always being a sucker for bacon, I had the "Moules a la Moutarde" or mussels with shallots, white wine, garlic, dijon, bacon & cream. This isn't just a bowl of mussels. It's a BOWL -- about 35 - 40 mussels, with this lovely pool of sauciness at the bottom, just begging for some French bread to sop it up with. And, each mussel bowl comes with thinly cut pomme frites. Really lovely. And only $9.95.

I've never been the biggest mussel lover, but I've gotten more into them in recent times. These were really nice. The sauce was extremely tasty, though if I were to go again, I may just opt for a simpler sauce like shallots, garlic & wine. The bacon sort of got lost in translation.... a little too non-crisp after swimming in the cream & wine. Thursday night is also souffle night, and we got a chocolate souffle for dessert, as well as strawberry crepes. We agreed the strawberry goo with the crepes was too sweet, and quite possibly not made from scratch. I really liked the souffle. It was quite tall and puffy (as it should be!) when it arrived at the table. It had a nice airy consistency, and a light chocolate flavor. They're obviously not using a really high quality cocoa powder like the French Valhrona, but it was tasty.

Friday dinner was at a place in the LoDo district called Vesta. I had heard about this place after seeing some website that local chefs were naming their favorite spots. A couple of them mentioned Vesta, and a couple noted their housemade charcuterie plate. It didn't disappoint! I think the selection varies by night, and on our night, the plate had duck foie gras on toast points, bresaola, and pork sausage with sage.

Now, what Vesta is known for is their "schtick" is a huge menu of sauces. You order your salmon or beef or whatnot, and it comes with a couple of sides, and on the menu, it gives 3 suggestions for what sauces they think would go well with it, but you're welcome to choose your own. So I had a fig-glazed Colorado lamb loin, with goat cheese pasta and a cucumber raita. I picked two of the three suggested sauces, pistachio mint & dried berry chutney, and substituted the bacon aioli for the rose yogurt, knowing full well that I do not care for floral flavors in my foods. The lamb was grilled to a perfect medium rare, and had a touch of sweetness from the fig glaze. The pistaschio mint was my favorite of the sauces; the pieces of nut were chopped, so still big enough to figure out what they were, and the mint flavor not too overpowering. The chutney was also a nice choice, but the bacon aioli was a bit of a miss. Not really much, if any, bacon to speak of. (Helllo?? No bacon???) My friends both had the beef tenderloin, which I tasted with the black pepper aioli, which was a good choice. Really good meal!

For those who are Top Chef fans, you know that this year's winner was Hosea Rosenberg of Jax in Boulder. For a place that's no where near an ocean, it does a nice job. Thank god we had reservations, because even at 6 pm on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the place was hopping. It's a long narrow restaurant, with poor acoustics, so it was fairly loud, and they pack the tables close together. We made it in just before the end of happy hour, and along with a local beer, we rewarded ourselves with pork belly sliders and cheese fries. We then got an appetizer of calamari. This was nice lime aioli and a spicy mango chile sauce on the side. Both very nice accompaniments.

For my main, I had the cedar plank grilled steelhead trout, which was glazed with apricot preserves, and served with a goat cheese chile relleno and chorizo. The trout was cooked perfectly, still moist inside, with some dried apricots on top, for a nice flavor contrast. The relleno was underseasoned (probably the only "miss" of the whole meal), but fried nicely, and not greasy. The chorizo was nice, but at this point, I couldn't tell you much about it! Dessert for me was key lime pie, that's almost as good as mine, the exception being my crust is better! Theirs had a really nice tartness, and I am sure they are using real key limes, because there was no preservative taste that you ocassionnally get when using bottled juice. Friends had the banana beignets and the molten chocolate lava thing, both tasty. Service was outstanding. And as for Hosea, we of course had to ask. He apparently does still work there, 3 to 4 days a week, but was in New Orleans for a food event.

Again the place was crowded and loud, with lots of people both at the bar, which is right at the door, and waiting inside and out for a table. Tables are placed VERY close together, and we could hear all of our neighbors conversation, both with each other, and their extensive conversation with the sommalier/manager; fortunately, we were in a corner, so we didn't have to contend too much with the noise. Or as much. For those who like raw oysters, they had several varieties available; our neighbors had some, and the plate looked really nice. There is a Jax in Denver, and I wonder if the atmosphere is the same. Our waiter, who has worked at both locations, says the menu is different, but they are working to streamline the two operations. So even though they are a seafood joint nowhere near the sea, they do have very good quality product.