26 February 2011

The urban corner bistro is kinda weird, right?

I have never understood the corner bistro phenomenon.  It’s basically a cafeteria with nice lighting and OK food, right?  And even though the food looks pretty good, it’s always a little more dried out, or a little less flavorful, than you expect it to be from the view through the glass case.  So you schlep up to the counter--sometimes with an ACTUAL TRAY!-- and point to things that have been sitting under glass since they opened at 6am.  One person in a snappy little Land’s End-ish outfit takes your food and puts it in the microwave back in the “kitchen”/ staging area, and another one in matching snappy outfit takes your money.  When you get your food it’s not quite warm enough, not quite interesting enough, and thanks to the high rent they’re paying on that sweet corner space on a busy street, it’s definitely overpriced.

I’ll tell you why we go--it looks like the clean, bright, bustling city in our minds.  It’s the city scene from the movies, an optimistic, happy version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nighthawks   It’s like Starbucks on crack--scenic placement, beautiful furniture, languid pop music that would be vanilla if it had a flavor, and they serve actual meals.  Well, sandwiches, anyway.  It’s nice in there--no homeless people pushing carts around, no dirt and grime building up underneath your fingernails as you sit, and you feel like a sophisticated person framed by a picture window for all the passersby to see.  But the food kind of sucks.  I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s not fun to eat.

The corner bistro does serve a useful purpose (besides playing Queen Yuppie in the movie in your mind).  Their coffee tends to be quite good.  Sometimes the baked goods are also fine, but be careful of the dryness factor.  They sit around on display all day, so choose carefully.  But a cereal bowlful of latte with a cute little pattern drawn into your foam--while looking smart, while listening to the moody, of-the-moment tunes, while sitting under the most adorable Murano glass pendant lamps you’ve ever seen--can be a nice respite in a day otherwise filled with avoiding the loogies the dude in front of you keeps spitting on the sidewalk on a gray February morning.

A few that are OK:

The Corner Bakery in Chicago
Yes, it’s a chain, but they’re OK.  I like the one at 224 South Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park. (Really, my favorite place to get coffee AND great grub  is Yolk)

The Deli in the Alley in Columbus, OH, 72 East Lynn Street
Don’t pretend you’re not planning a trip to Columbus, Ohio soon--everyone is!

Mangiamo Pronto!  You look sexier in here.
Mangiamo Pronto! in Denver, 1601 17th Street
The coffee is great, and the pizzas are not bad.  The sandwiches are (bad, that is).

Gourmet LA Bakery in Los Angeles, 548 South Broadway Avenue
I love loving this place--family-owned; beautiful, handmade traditional Mexican pastries; and good strong coffee.
Aaw, isn't the cuuuuute?

Lyrik in Portland, 2039 SE 39th Ave
Bonus: they are sufficiently grungy to fulfill all of your Portland dreams without being bitchy if you took a shower before showing up.  Happy hour with booze, too.

Espresso Vivace in Seattle, 227 Yale Avenue North
They kinda love themselves, but the coffee sure is good.  Really good.

Join in, people! What are your favorite haunts?  

24 February 2011

It's Denver Restaurant Week, people!!!

In an effort to promote the Denver area's burgeoning restaurant scene, Visit Denver has taken a page from New York's playbook and created a huge, two-week advertisement for area restaurants.  Participants in Restaurant Week offer a 3-course menu for the fixed price of $52.80 for two, or $26.40 for one person.  Their site is a one-stop shopping center where you can search by cuisine or neighborhood (Denver and Boulder County) and view proposed menus, which generally offer two or three choices per course.  Some restaurants are also offering wine pairings for an additional cost.  

Of course, I am excited for the excuse to get out and eat, and I'm surprised by the breadth and depth of what currently exists here in the Front Range.  There are a few chain restaurants participating, but by and large, Denver really does have a lot of local, innovative cuisine to offer.  As a northerner, I am also glad to see a couple of gems in my neck of the woods (almost), like Terroir in Longmont (where I'll be headed on Saturday night)  and several great establishments in Boulder. And if you reserve your table through Open Table, you rack up a few points towards a free meal.     

Stay tuned for my exploits!

19 February 2011

Great French food in Denver--it exists!

Think French restaurants are out of your price range?  Let me introduce you to Le Central  in LoDo, Denver.  The food is great, the prices are right, and it’s a charming building in a charming neighborhood (parking kinda sucks during the week, but it’s Denver).

Le Central opened in 1981 with the mission of bringing authentic Provençal food to the little people (my wording, not their’s).  They have their own in-house bakery, make their own paté and sausage (eew), give cooking demonstrations the last Tuesday of every month, cater weddings and host small parties in the restaurant, offer special menus for holidays and Prixfixe menus as well as a constant menu that’s huge, and…and…oh, you’ll just have to visit the website.  It’s too exhausting to list everything they do.  Suffice it to say that if you live nearby, you could get away with never cooking again.

I have had brunch and mussels for lunch (yes, mussels have their own menu).  I’m glad that I live over an hour away or I would be very fat by now.

For brunch, the egg section of the menu (Oeufs) can’t be beat.  For $7, you’ll get so much food you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.  Oeufs Sardou is a take on Eggs Benedict, but with succulent braised artichoke hearts in lieu of meat and tangy Béarnaise instead of Hollandaise sauce.  (The Benedict is also delish.)  Each dish is served with a heaping pile of mashed potatoes and a roasted potato.  Try not to fill up on the beautiful, perfectly crisp outside, fluffy inside homemade bread they bring when you first sit down or you might not make it.  The mimosas and Bloody Marys are also $3 on Saturdays.  This place beats Yolk in Chicago, and that’s saying a lot.

Oh, I also got escargots en brioche at brunch.  Beautifully garlicky and buttery, my only complaint is that the perfectly nice bread that came with the escargots was not quite as amazing as the bread that came in the basket.

The mussels I had for lunch (this was on a different day--don’t worry) come in a big bucket--more beautiful garlic and butter, more perfectly chosen herbs and spices (really, check out the menu; the choices are mind-boggling).  And if you didn’t love Le Central enough for giving mussels their due on the menu, every order comes with unlimited pommes frites--thick-cut, golden, rich and crunchy--need I say more?

Oh, I can say more.  The atmosphere is cozy and welcoming, the service (always French waiters, it seems) is impeccable, and I dream about eating there every day.  Le Central teaches us about the best aspects of French culture: good food and drink, good manners, and joie de vivre!

12 February 2011

Beets, delicious beets!

I got back in touch with my Eastern European roots not long ago when I recorded an album of Eastern European flute and piano music.  Of course, for me that means eating.  And you know what?  I remembered that I love beets.  Do you think that's disgusting?  Well, you just don’t know how to appreciate them.  Here are some tips to lovin' the root vegetables that turn your poo blood-red.

1. Don’t buy them from a can.  You know how canned green beans and canned corn taste very little like their fresh counterparts?  Well, it’s true of all vegetables, dumbass.

2. Don’t buy they biggest ones in the store.  Size matters, but in this case, they are sweeter and more delicious when they’re a little bit smaller, rather than gigantic.  The big ones are either old from having been left in the ground for a while or just lacking in flavor.

3. Cook ‘em like this:

Nicole’s easy, delicious beet preparation

5-6 medium-size beets, with greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
3 garlic cloves, smashed and minced (you can use less if you don’t love garlic)
4 cups fresh spinach
2 cups beef or vegetable broth
1 heaping tablespoon Dijon or horseradish mustard
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Sour cream or Greek-style yogurt (optional)

Remove the beets from the greens, trim off the pointy roots on the end, and scrub clean.  Tightly wrap each beet in a square of foil, place all wrapped beets on a baking sheet or in a shallow baking dish, and bake in the oven at 450°F (no need to preheat) for 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim the greens off the stalks, clean, and tear into bite-size pieces.  Clean the spinach, too, and drain all the greens in a colander until you’re ready for them.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat; when the oil shimmers, add the onion and carrot.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and both veggies are soft, about 10 minutes.  At this point I usually throw in a pinch of salt.

Add the garlic, vinegar, and greens and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Stir the mustard into the beef broth and combine thoroughly.  Add broth to the pan, reduce heat to low, and cover.  Allow to cook gently for about 15 minutes.

When the beets are done, remove them from the oven and dump them, still foil-wrapped, into a sinkful of cold water.  This is to avoid burning yourself.  Unwrap each beet and remove the skin, which should almost slide off, with a pairing knife.  Chop beets (they should still be firm) into bite-size pieces and add to the greens that are cooking on the stove.  Stir to incorporate, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve with pierogies (I love the easy recipe from Smitten Kitchen), steamed potatoes, or rice.   Top the whole mess with sour cream or yogurt if you like that (I do).

This kid loves her some beets.

05 February 2011

Visit Greeley--we have a good restaurant now!

One day you might be headed to Greeley, Colorado.  Perhaps your grandmother lives there, or you have an underachieving nephew attending UNC (just kidding, I love you guys!!!), or maybe you are on a field trip studying sadness.  Until recently, your food choices would not encourage you to come back, but last month a fun little shop called RUMI House of Kabob opened at 1116 9th Street.  It’s actually a two-story Victorian house, so drive slowly once you cross 11th Avenue so you don’t miss it.

RUMI does not have a terribly varied menu--it really does specialize in kabobs and gyros--but everything is exceptionally good.  The hot black tea is lightly herbed and the hummus is remarkably well-balanced in flavor and a nice smooth, thickish texture.  Have the red lentil soup (they’ll give you a half order if you’re worried about getting too full--that’s what I did); it is thick, creamy, and amazingly delicious.  Like the hummus, it’s full of different flavors that blend together beautifully.  It’s served with ground cumin sprinkled on top, a slice of lemon on the side, and a little bottle of hot sauce.  It is close to perfection.

I tried kebobs made with chicken and ground beef (Koobideh).  Both were nicely grilled and spiced; the beef was more flavorful.  Kabob platters are served with a roasted tomato, Persian rice, and a relish-like little dish of salad made of finely diced tomato, cucumber, and red onion, dressed with lemon juice, parsley, and a little olive oil.

They were out of baklava, leaving only caramel flan on the dessert menu.  I had my heart set on baklava and couldn’t switch gears to get excited about flan, but that’s OK.  I’ll be back to try the gyro, anyway.

PS--There’s no coffee on the menu, so walk over to Woody’s Newsstand at 942 9th Street for a cappuccino and a leisurely peek at some magazines from all over the world.

That’s it.  That’s all I’ve got for ya if you come to Greeley.  But it’s good!