Saturday, June 9, 2012

Vine Street Pub

Talk about a place I wish were closer to my house. The Mountain Sun breweries have teased me for years with delicious beer and great food that is just a little bit too difficult to access. 

Mountain Sun operates three outstanding brewpubs along the front range. Their first two locations were both established in Boulder: Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery opened on Pearl Street in 1993, and Southern Sun set up shop in south Boulder in 2002. 

Most recently, Vine Street Pub opened near City Park in Denver in 2008. It operated without its own brewing facilities until April of this year. Now, its 5,000 barrel per year output capacity allows it to brew  over 50% more than the combined yearly capacity of both Mountain Sun and Southern Sun. 

Vine Street Pub & Brewery Exterior

Unfortunately, the three Mountain Sun locations don't jive well with our busy schedules and deep-in-the-south-suburbs living situation. Plus, even after the long trek to any of their brewpubs, they can be frustrating to eat at. Long, long, long waits are the norm at even non-peak hours, reservations are not accepted, and diners must pay in cash.

Several months ago, Mr. Oyster and I were super excited for a dinner (plus beer) at Southern Sun in Boulder. We were so excited, we took a picture of the outside:

Exterior of Southern Sun in Boulder

We had arrived just before 5 pm on a Friday night, only to find there would be over an hour wait for just the two of us. We had an event to attend later that night and couldn't wait around that long. Mr. Oyster had frequented Southern Sun in college, and had been looking forward to one of their hamburgers and a pale ale. Bummer. 

I visited Vine Street Pub for the first time this past February to meet up with some fellow bloggers. After waiting for over an hour, the five of us were seated. We proceeded to enjoy their (at the time) "imported from Boulder" brews, and I munched on a chicken burrito that was about as big as my head.

Since those two Mountain Sun encounters, I knew Mr. Oyster and I needed some time together at one of their brewpubs. We finally had the opportunity to head to Vine Street Pub on Memorial Day weekend, when we were in the City Park area for a visit to the Denver Botanical Gardens.

Vine Street Pub is located at 17th and Vine Street, just west of City Park. It made for a long drive from Highlands Ranch, but it was a holiday weekend and we were looking forward to a relaxing day of beer followed by flower-and-tree-ogling. 

We arrived right around noon on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Fortunately, there was no wait. In fact, although their patio seating was packed, indoors most of the tables were available. We quickly got situated and perused the drink and food menus.

It was noon, but beer was a priority. Vine Street Pub is generous in its "taster" sizes, serving up 8 ounce sample sizes for $2.8 each. We opted for a beer flight with the six most intriguing looking beers on the menu:

Beer Flight, clockwise from top left: Saison D'Ete, Bombshell Blonde, Pater's Pale Ale,
Colorado Kind Ale, FYIPA, and Nitro Old School Irish Stout

The FYIPA was my favorite; it was very similar to Odell's IPA, with an intense Cascade hops flavor but a smoother finish than Odell's brew. I also enjoyed the saison; it was very traditional, with a mild peppery aftertaste. 

The menu at Vine Street - as well as its sister restaurants in Boulder - offers typical bar food plus various vegetarian options. From my experience, the food has always been very tasty and reasonably priced. 

We started off splitting an order of chips and salsa ($3.5, not pictured) plus guacamole (additional $2). 

Since we were all about sharing that day, we also split a Black and Blue Burger ($7.75), which was blackened with seasoning and sprinkled with blue cheese crumbles.

Black and Blue Burger

The burger came with very fresh onion, tomato, and lettuce, as well as hand-cut French fries.The fries were particularly good, although they weren't as heavy on the salt as I would've liked.

The burger was juicy and perfectly cooked to medium, and its taste was highlighted with the tangy flavor of blue cheese and blackened seasoning. However, I should have paid more attention to the denotation of a 1/3-lb burger patty on the menu. It was just too small for sharing, even for a midget-sized portion-watcher like myself. 

Not sure when we'd have a chance for another visit, we loaded up on a couple last tasters of beer: their very fruity Blackberry Wheat, and the XXX Pale Ale.

Blackberry Wheat and XXX Pale Ale

The beer at Vine Street is easily on par with what's turned out at Colorado's best known breweries. However, you can only get it at their brewpubs or via growlers. 

Mr. Oyster remarked that if Vine Street were closer to the house, he'd be there multiple times a week. I don't doubt that, and it's too bad that we don't make more visits to their restaurants. 

Casual Dining

 (9 of 10)

Pros: Great food, beer, and service
Cons: Long waits, cash only

Vine Street Pub on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 1, 2012


I've been looking forward to a meal at Rioja for months now. The Larimer Square restaurant consistently wins "Best of" awards in a zillion categories, including being ranked #19 on 5280's 25 Best Restaurants of 2011 list. Besides being a hit on Foodspotting and Yelp, one of Rioja's sister restaurants, Euclid Hall, was the scene of an outstanding dinner we enjoyed last fall.

We made plans to meet up with a friend for 11 am reservations on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. Reservations were no problem, and I was surprised when I arrived to find that the restaurant was less than half occupied. We were quickly seated in their elongated dining room at a white tablecloth-covered setting.

Rioja brands itself as a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, although its brunch menu felt very New American.

I started off the morning with a latte, served in a unique mug.


While we waited, a server came to our table with a bread basket filled with orange fennel rolls, goat cheese biscuits, and lavender sourdough. I can't recall anywhere else in Denver I've had bread served like that at brunch before. I tried each of the baked offerings, with the goat cheese biscuits being my favorite.

After hearing glowing recommendations of the doughnuts, we chose to split a plate of "Eric's House Made Doughnuts" ($6) between the three of us.

Eric's House Made Doughnuts

The doughnuts were generously filled with tangy and delicious lemon curd mascarpone. On the side was a blueberry compote that I also enjoyed. The freshly made doughnuts were light and airy, and certainly lived up to the hype.

My husband and I opted to split the "Rioja Benedict" ($10.5). They were kind enough to serve us separate plates, so the picture below shows a half portion only.

Rioja Benedict (Half Serving)

The benedict consisted of a goat cheese biscuit, spinach, tomato and bacon, topped with the requisite poached egg and "Parmesan sauce." I'm not sure why Rioja opted for a Parmesan sauce instead of regular Hollandaise, but I really couldn't taste the difference.

A strip of crispy bacon was used in place of ham, which I absolutely loved. The spinach and the juicy tomato slice balanced out the richness of the biscuit, bacon, egg, and sauce very nicely. The goat cheese biscuit, while tasty, was the same biscuit I had been served out of the bread basket.

I really enjoyed the dish but Mr. Oyster was more lukewarm about it. He preferred the various permutations of eggs benedict offered at Snooze.

Our friend ordered the Raspberry Brioche French Toast ($11) and shared one of her squares with us.

Raspberry Brioche French Toast

The menu made this dish sound delicious. The French Toast was layered with raspberry mascarpone, encased in cornflake crust, and served with Chambord couli.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed in the execution. The raspberry mascarpone tasted too much like yogurt, and it made the bread a little soggy. While I enjoyed the crunchy texture created by the corn flakes, I wish the cereal had been applied more sparingly. The bland corn flake flavor dominated the taste of each bite. The high points of the dish were definitely the fresh raspberries and the sweet, fruity Chambord coulis.

Brunch at Rioja was tasty but not quite what I expected after the rave reviews. We all agreed that the doughnuts were our favorite item at the meal. Personally, I prefer Duo for brunch, and my husband prefers Snooze, so I have a feeling our next visit to Rioja will be for dinner instead.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Good service, excellent doughnuts
Cons:  Some dishes better than others


Rioja on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Inventing Room Pop-Up Dinner at Studio F

Molecular gastronomy is a widespread term in the foodie world that refers somewhat ambiguously to the use of science to change or enhance the flavor, texture, and smell of ingredients. In practice, that often refers to the widespread use of foams and liquid nitrogen baths, spherification of just about any food, and cooking techniques that highlight the effect of temperature and time on ingredients.

For me, the term molecular gastronomy brings one thing to mind: the famous foodie episode of the Simpsons, where Marge, Lisa, and Bart become the "Three Mouthketeers" and blog about their fancy dining experiences.

The Simpsons episode pokes particular fun at molecular gastronomy with dishes like pine needle sorbet and "deconstructed Caesar salad." You can check out snippets of that episode here.

Image from

Anyway, all that leads me to the events of last Thursday evening, when we attended a pop-up dinner at Studio F by The Inventing Room. The Inventing Room is a food science and dining experience headed by chef Ian Kleinman. The pop-up dinner series he hosted involved eight nights of dinners focused on molecular gastronomy and an interactive dining experience.

We soon found ourselves in the midst of a completely unique and wonderful dining experience that did not involve test tubes filled with deconstructed Caesar salad.

Interior of Studio F

We arrived for our 6:30 pm reservations last Thursday and were promptly greeted by Studio F's owner, James Mazzio. He started off the evening by mixing bruschetta popcorn into a bath of liquid nitrogen in front of us. The chilled temperature of the popcorn made it uniquely crunchy and airy, although it had to be consumed quickly as its transition to room temperature ended the fun of eating it.

We were then seated and started the meal with a couple of cocktails. My husband ordered the "Maple Mark" cocktail with Maker's Mark, lime juice, and ginger beer poured over maple syrup, served with cotton candy on the side.

Maple Mark

I normally can't stand the taste of anything with whiskey, but I loved this drink, especially the hint of maple in every sip. The cotton candy dissolved in it quickly to add a hint of sweetness and a green color. 

I ordered the "Untraditional Pimm's No. 1 Cup," which had a strong mint element to it but was otherwise too mild for my preference.

Untraditional Pimm's No. 1 Cup

As an appetizer, we ordered the Lump Crab Creme Brulee.

Lump Crab Creme Brulee

This dish was prepared with an ample helping of crab, a sweet creme brulee sauce, ginger poached pears, and habanero tobiko. It amounted to a tasty pile of complimentary flavors and textures, but lacked structure in the presentation, and relative to everything else that night it was fairly forgettable.

Next up were two palate cleansers, the Chile Relleno Space Foam and the Strawberry Yuzu Sorbet. For preparation of both, we were called up to one of the chef's tables where Ian Kleinman prepared the items in front of us.

The Chile Relleno Space Foam was really just a blob of whipped cream and chile spice that was turned into a ball of frozen sugar, fat and air. It was fun to eat but otherwise very simple.

The Strawberry Yuzu Sorbet was far more exciting and it made me wish I remembered more details from high school chemistry.

Chef Ian Kleinman preparing Strawberry Yuzu Sorbet

Chef Kleinman prepared the sorbet in front of us (with liquid nitrogen, of course). Also concocted with his superchilled favorite ingredient was pelletized olive oil. It was poured atop the sorbet along with a dollop of "goat cheese jelly," and added a remarkable smoothness to the sorbet.

Strawberry Yuzu Sorbet

We also ordered a couple more drinks: the Jalapeno Cucumber "Rita" and Rosemary Greyhound.

Jalapeno Cucumber Rita

Rosemary Greyhound

The Jalapeno "Rita" was refreshing and spicy; the rosemary greyhound had a lovely citrus smell but lacked in taste a little. Both drinks were topped with foams that looked beautiful but ultimately didn't add any flavor to the drink.

Whew, all these words and pictures and I haven't even made it to our main dishes yet.

My main dish was Ian's Fried Chicken.

Ian's Fried Chicken

The chicken was drizzled in a mild-tasting coconut gravy and a "corn pudding," which was more like a thin sauce. It was served with an elongated rectangle of potatoes, which was one of the few things I didn't care for that night as it tasted undercooked.

The fried chicken itself was well cooked, richly breaded and perfectly seasoned. However, the portion was a little too large. I liked the home-style feel of the dish, but it didn't really seem to embrace molecular gastronomy.

My husband enjoyed the Sous Vide Spiced Beef Shoulder.

Sous Video Spiced Beef Shoulder

This was his favorite item all night, and my second favorite (see the carrot cake below).

The beef shoulder, as with most sous vide prepared meats, was extremely tender. It had been seared on the edges to add texture and flavor to the meat. The sous vide cooking technique was a perfect way to display the chef's molecular gastronomy skills. The dish also contained candied shallots and potato-filled mushrooms that were delicious.

At chef Kleinman's recommendation, we opted for the Carrot Cake for dessert. As with the palate cleansers, we were invited to watch the preparation of the dish.

The cake was tossed in a vanilla cream sauce, and then rapidly cooled in a bath of liquid nitrogen. Next, it was torched like a creme brulee.

Carrot Cake Preparation

Carrot Cake

The cake was topped with a scoop of blood orange caramel ice cream, and was complimented on the side by a blood orange caramel sauce, orange cream cheese crisps and buckwheat honey almond cubes. It made for an outstanding dessert. Each bite contained crunchy, warm vanilla coating; airy, light cake; and cold, smooth ice cream. I absolutely loved the combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures. The carrot cake was definitely one of the best desserts I've eaten in many months.

The evening at the pop-up dinner was fun and entertaining, and the food was very unique and for the most part absolutely delicious. My husband and I enjoyed talking with Ian Kleinman and some of the other chefs about what they do.

I'm not sure if molecular gastronomy has widespread appeal in Denver right now, but that gives The Inventing Room a unique niche to bring to the Front Range dining scene.


The Inventing Room

Friday, May 25, 2012

Denver Beer Company

I've often driven along Platte Street and watched enviously as the beer-sipping patrons at Denver Beer Company lounged outside and enjoyed beer at long tables on the brewery's patio. 

Denver Beer Company could serve the worst beer in the world, and Denverites would probably still flock to their sprawling outdoor seating to drink brews, soak up the Colorado sun, and people-watch along Platte Street.

Fortunately, as I discovered last weekend, their beer is pretty good. 

I have no idea why it took me so long to check out Denver Beer Company, and even my inaugural visit last weekend was unplanned.

On our way to House of Commons but needing to kill 30 minutes ahead of our reservation time, my husband and I couldn't pass up the allure of Denver Beer Company on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Denver.

The Denver Beer Company apparently used to be some sort of garage, or it certainly looks like one. Good weather brings the opening of the large doors and use of the patio along Platte Street in downtown Denver.

On the Sunday of our visit, we arrived at 12:30 pm to a moderately busy brewery filled with beer drinkers and plenty of sunbathing dogs. 

Beer List at Denver Beer Company (5/20/12)

For only $8, we enjoyed a beer flight with all seven of the brews listed in the photo above.

I loved the Kaffir Lime Wheat. The lime taste was wonderfully intense. Every plate of Mexican food I eat now will feel like it's missing the proper fermented beverage accompaniment without the Kaffir Lime Wheat to wash it down.

Mr. Oyster went crazy for the very unique Misseur Flaneur, a saison flavored sharply with basil and lavender. According to him: "this tastes like a meadow." However, I wasn't crazy about the meadow taste or smell, and I felt the seasonings were overwhelming in the beer.

The other brews were decent but not nearly as memorable as the Kaffir Lime Wheat or Misseur Flaneur.

We had to get going - it was time to meet up with my mom for afternoon tea - so there was no time to sip anything beyond the small volumes in our flight.

Nonetheless, my husband loved the Misseur Flaneur so much, he picked up a growler on our way back from House of Commons.

Growler of Denver Beer Company Misseur Flaneur (Saison)

The Denver Beer Company appears to rotate through beers regularly, so I'm glad we were able to try the Kaffir Lime and Misseur Flaneur while they were available.

Denver Beer Company doesn't brew up the best beer in Denver, but it offers excellent patio seating and unique local beers that are worth a try.


Denver Beer Co on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

House of Commons

It was all about my mom this past Sunday at afternoon tea at House of Commons, an English Tea Toom in the Riverfront area.

Our trek to House of Commons was a week-late Mother's Day celebration, as my mom was out of town last weekend. My mom loves all things British, and after reading many rave reviews, I've been wanting to take her to House of Commons for afternoon tea.

House of Commons lies in the Riverfront area at 15th and Platte. This particular afternoon, my husband and I met up with my mom after a quick trip to the Denver Beer Company just up the road.

I had made afternoon tea reservations for three about a week ago. The restaurant normally requests at least 48 hours notice for afternoon tea; otherwise their menu consists of an assortment of sandwiches, salads, and pastries.

Walking into House of Commons from a bustling Platte Street, we were immediately greeted by one of the women who worked there and seated at a table near the window. The restaurant is small, with space to seat maybe 20-25 people indoors, and a few additional tables outside.

Not surprisingly, House of Commons has a very feminine feel to it, with pastel walls and floral decor. The customers at the time of our visit were overwhelmingly female, including a bridal shower that occupied half the restaurant.

As my three readers know, my husband is a big tough guy, and I had to reassure him that he would end the meal with his masculinity intact.

We started off perusing the very long tea menu. House of Commons offers over forty teas, including many iced teas. My husband, at the waitress's recommendation, selected a white tea with lavender; my mom opted for a white peony tea.

I stuck with simple green tea. I have a hard time getting excited about tea since it's not coffee and it's not beer.

Green Tea

The tea was served loose in the respective pots, with filters provided to strain into the cups.

To nibble on, we were soon presented with this dainty and and beautifully arranged tower of fancy British tea staples.

Afternoon Tea Sandwiches, Scones, and Sweets

On the bottom tier were curried chicken salad and roast beef sandwiches. The curried chicken salad sandwiches were creamy and flavorful, with a sweetness from raisins thrown into the salad. I wasn't nearly as impressed by the roast beef sandwiches, which were a disappointing and boring combination of nothing more than a thin slice of roast beef and mayonnaise.

The second tier included classic cucumber and chive cream cheese sandwiches, as well as Irish cheddar and apricot jam sandwiches. I loved the sharp taste of the Irish cheddar, particularly combined with the sweetness of the jam.

Atop the third tier were bite-size scones served with Devonshire cream, jam, and lemon curd. I didn't care too much for the scones, though I generally think that traditional English scones, including these, are bland and too chewy. Fortunately, the tangy lemon curd and sweet jam contributed enough flavor to make them enjoyable.

On the top plate were sugar cookies with a chocolate center, lemon poppyseed cake, and chocolate cake. The lemon poppyseed cake was layered with a delicious citrus frosting that I loved, especially combined with the airy poppyseed cake.

Overall, the afternoon tea was tasty but it was extremely simple. For a pot of tea and a sample of finger foods and sweets, it felt too pricey. I would've been much more excited about this meal if it had cost $15 or so per person instead of $20.

Service was very good and very prompt. The waitress was particularly knowledgeable about the wide selection of teas available.

Afternoon tea at House of Commons was a lovely experience, but I don't get the urge to partake in afternoon tea very often, so I'm not sure if I'll be back.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Wide tea selection, excellent tea, great service
Cons: Very expensive for the type of food served


House of Commons on Urbanspoon