Monday, December 26, 2011


Well, we finally made it to Linger. About six weeks ago, we had made two different dinner reservations at the restaurant: one for Saturday, November 27, and one for Saturday, December 17. Yes, getting into Linger on a weekend currently requires booking about four weeks out. That means the restaurant and I at least have one thing in common: we both have very busy schedules.

We ended up cancelling our first reservations at the last minute due to the irresistible appeal of craft beer at Hops & Pie. We stuck to our December reservations though, and met up with another couple for dinner last weekend to figure out why everyone's so excited about Linger.

Linger occupies the space of the former Olinger Mortuary, and plays on that history throughout the dining experience. In fact, the restaurant's name derives from Olinger with a simple subtraction of the "O". As a genius advertising maneuver, the "O" on the giant sign atop the restaurant that bears the former mortuary's name has been unplugged, leaving the brightly lit letters "linger" looming over downtown Denver.

Besides its influence on the restaurant's name, the "dead people" theme pervades Linger, from the decor to the menu to the beer options.

As the sister restaurant to Root Down a few blocks away, I had high expectations. Root Down is one of my absolute favorite dinner spots in Denver. Both restaurants advertise a commitment to environmental responsibility and good food, but Linger certainly seems to be the trendier, hottest-place-in-town restaurant of the two.

Linger specializes in a dizzying array of international street food, divided into world regions on the menu. They claim to be a "tapas-style" restaurant and they mean it. The menu offers only small plates, with each dish costing roughly $6 to $16.

The restaurant makes a point to cater certain dishes to food allergies, vegetarians, and vegans, although no one in our group had any dietary aversions.

The waitstaff recommends two small plates per person, a suggestion I completely disagree with. We ordered six plates between the four of us, and that was maybe one plate too many. Keep in mind that much of Linger's food is fried or at least very greasy, so it's hard to eat large portions.

Our meal started with complimentary togarashi-flavored popcorn. While I like the idea of popcorn as a light meal starter, I thought Linger's popcorn tasted stale and flavorless.

Our six small plates consisted of one "Asia" dish: Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef; three "Americas" dishes: Scallop Ceviche, Strongbow Cider Mussels, and Maple Leaf Duck Wings; and two "Europe" dishes: Devils on Horseback and Crispy Risotto Arancini. Though we hadn't necessarily intended them to be so, our selections were some of the most pedestrian offerings on the menu.

The dishes were served in two rounds of three plates each.

First up were the Devils on Horseback ($10):

Devils on Horseback

Linger's Devils on Horseback were comprised of goat cheese stuffed Medjool dates wrapped in bacon. These packed quite a sweet-and-savory punch, with an intense sugary taste from the dates.

While I enjoyed the little devils, Root Down offers a different interpretation of the dish - made with sweet-and-spicy peppadew peppers - that I prefer over Linger's.

Next was the Scallop Ceviche ($11), served with avocado and chips:

Scallop Ceviche

The scallops were fresh, light and citrusy, and were balanced with the creamy avocado and salty corn chips. The dish was apparently prepared with habanero peppers, but I tasted no spiciness whatsoever. This was good ceviche, but many other restaurants in town offer something comparable. For $11, I prefer the scallop ceviche at Vesta Dipping Grill or LoLa (just a block away).

Finishing up that round of small plates were the Strongbow Cider Mussels ($13):

Strongbow Cider Mussels

Besides the obvious Strongbow Cider component, the sauce included garlic, thyme, celery, and grain mustard. The shellfish were accompanied by grilled spicy cheddar bread. The mussels were tasty, but like the ceviche above, they were not terribly memorable.

It was time for our second round of tapas, starting with the Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef ($10 + $5 for Wagyu beef).

Pad Thai with Wagyu Beef

The pad thai tasted a little oily for my taste but was authentically prepared. It wasn't very spicy on its own and needed more heat from the chili sauce served on the side. The Wagyu beef was perfectly cooked, but it had simply been thrown on the side of the dish, with no attempt made at meshing flavors.

We also couldn't resist trying the Maple Leaf Duck Wings ($11):

Maple Leaf Duck Wings

I've had a million chicken wings in my life, but never duck wings. I was concerned that they might be too tough and chewy, but the meat was actually impressively tender. The wings were drenched in a sweet and tangy blood orange hot sauce, which made them extremely messy. I realize wings are supposed to be messy, but Linger felt a little too upscale for me to drench my face in wing sauce.

And finally, Linger's menu held one of the high points of my many 2011 dining experiences, the Crispy Risotto Arancini ($11 for three, we added a fourth for an additional $3):

Crispy Risotto Arancini

Arancini are apparently a traditional Sicilian food, comprising of fried rice balls filled with meat sauce. I'm afraid the above "as-served" photo makes them look more like the world's most confused donut holes and does not do justice to the their delicious innards. Let's take a closer look at a severed arancini:

Crispy Risotto Arancini

There it is: a creamy risotto exterior with a crisp, fried shell, filled with a delicious bolognese sauce. The meaty bolognese sauce was particularly rich and well-seasoned. Every bite of the arancini was outstanding, and they were one the few things I ate at Linger that didn't bring to mind a similar-but-better dish somewhere else in town.

Timing of our various small plates was a bit too fast; we were rushed into relocating food to different dishes and juggling too many items on the table. Also, our individual plates quickly became covered in sauces and straggling bits from various dishes. With the extreme array of foods served at Linger, these turned into a flavor hodgepodge that blended unfavorably with whatever subsequent item we tried to throw on the plate.

We finished off the meal with the dessert trio ($10), which included mini versions of the Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup, the Ovaltine & Oreos, and the Mississippi Mud Pie.

Dessert Trio. Left to Right: Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup, Ovaltine & Oreos, and Mississippi Mud Pie

Linger offers a couple more exotic dessert options, but they stuck to close to home with their dessert trio selections (so much for international street food!). The Peanut Butter & Jelly Cup tasted overwhelmingly of peanut butter. Similarly, the Mississippi mud pie was basically a very one-dimensional chocolate cake. The Ovaltine & Oreos dessert was a little more exciting, comprising of a very strongly Ovaltine-flavored Bavarian cream atop an "Oreo" made of chocolate cookies and mascarpone.

I'm disappointed and puzzled that Linger veered sharply away from their international street food theme and instead offers these very tame, all-American desserts. The world flavors that influenced their small plates menu could have easily produced a half dozen interesting and delicious sweet treats, but instead Linger serves boring mud pies.

Other than being underwhelmed by their desserts, Linger basically delivered on an ambitiously diverse menu. All the small plates were tried were well-executed, though only the arancini stands out as a superlative dish. I commend Linger for their commitment to environmentally responsible, quality food, but some of that backbone of substance gets diluted with distractions of the restaurant's trendy feel and the pervasive dead body motif.

Linger felt reasonably priced considering the quality and quantity of food served. As I mentioned earlier, one to one-and-a-half small plates per person is probably the ideal ratio. Visiting Linger with a large group will give you the best opportunity to sample multiple dishes.

As a side note, 5280 Magazine recently published an excellent Linger review in their December 2011 issue. The article discusses Linger's background in depth and reviews many of their small plates. It's well worth reading for more information about the restaurant, and I found myself in complete agreement with the author regarding Linger's food and service.

There are still a dozen or so dishes on the menu that I'm curious to try, and I need to check out the amazing patio views that everyone raves about. Linger is certainly worth another visit, but it may be another couple of months before our busy schedules can align.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Good food and service, reasonably priced
Cons: Dessert was boring, hard to get reservations


Linger on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 19, 2011

Park Burger

About a month ago, Westword published a list of "Denver's Ten Best Burgers." Of the top ten, I had only tried one: the insanely good burger at Larkburger, ranked at #7.

So I was curious to discover just how good any of the burgers ahead of Larkburger on the list might taste. That led me to Park Burger, which took the #2 spot. We were able to get a few other friends to join us for the hamburger frenzy.

Park Burger is located at Pearl and Jewell in the Denver University neighborhood, just down the road from the rapidly-proliferating restaurant empire of the Den Family Restaurants (think Sushi Den, Izakaya Den, Ototo, and whatever else opens between now and when I post this article to blogger).

Park Burger was packed with a mixture of families, college students, and boring workerbees like my husband and me.

Their location reminded me a lot of Hops & Pie in the Highlands: small, way too narrow, brightly lit, and packed to overflowing.

Despite the crowds of hungry people waiting for a table, we were able to snag a spot for six with only a 15-or-so minute wait. Unfortunately, where we were seated was very close to the door, and even closer to where waiting patrons were milling about and trying to stay warm. We spent much of our dinner being cold and elbowing people out of our way.

Keeping things simple, we ordered a regular Park Burger ($6.25 + $1 for cheese), which comes with a 1/3 lb patty, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and "Burgersauce." We added on cheddar cheese for an additional $1.

Park Burger with Cheddar

So what does this locally-reknown Park Burger taste like? Basically, it tastes like "ehhh, I've had much better."

We had ordered the burger "medium," but it was more like medium-well. While a little overcooked for my preference, the patty otherwise seemed to be made of fresh, high-quality meat. One thing I didn't care for was that the meat had been flattened a la Smashburger. What is the deal with the popularity of flat burgers? Their flavor tends to be equally flat; I prefer a thicker patty over the bland pancake shape.

And Park Burger cheats a little bit when it comes to making a tasty burger: the buns were clearly coated with plenty of butter and greasy burger sauce. Tasty, but fattening.

The buns were light and fluffy, which was mostly a good thing, except they got soggy quickly with the above-mentioned grease absorption. The veggie toppings were fresh and crisp, and helped just slightly to balance out the fattiness of the burger.

All that left me scratching my head over Park Burger's supposed #2 spot on "Denver's Best Burgers" list. Granted, their high ranking seems to be based on their plethora of delicious-sounding burger toppings. Although not terribly unique for Denver, Park Burger's toppings include options like Brie cheese, guacamole, fried eggs, and even sauerkraut. I love a fried egg on my hamburger as much as the next overzealous food blogger, but I expect the burger to hold its own without distraction from its tastier toppings.

I definitely prefer the delicious simplicity of Larkburger.

We also ordered a basket of Sweet Potato Fries ($4) to share. And by share, I mean my husband and my friends nibbled on a few and I inhaled most of them.

Sweet Potato Fries

The sweet potato fries were tasty, although I have to say I'm very, very easy to please when it comes to sweet potato fries. They were fried up very nicely and had the perfect dusting of salt. However, I'm not convinced that they were homemade.

Service was friendly and very speedy, although the waitstaff was clearly needing to keep up table turnover to make room for more patrons. There was a mix-up with our waiter or the bar staff about our beers, leaving our table with duplicate beers (that's not really a problem for us). We were only charged for one beer each, which was appreciated.

I was underwhelmed with Park Burger, but to be fair I did try only a limited sliver of the menu. Nonetheless, my search for an amazing Denver hamburger continues.

Everyday Dining

(6 of 10)

Pros: Fast, great service, cheap
Cons: Watch out for tables near door, average hamburgers


Park Burger on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 17, 2011


It's a little-known fact: the tasty yet humble hamburgers at Larkburger's many front range locations actually have their roots at the high-end Larkspur restaurant in Vail, CO. Cashing in on the popularity of their Larkburger served at the bar, the management of the mountain restaurant decided to spin off the burger concept with a proliferation of fast-casual restaurants across the state.

And thus it was that our love of the Larkburger brought us to Larkspur during a recent winter fun weekend in Vail.

It was a big step up for us to go from stuffing our faces with the $5 amazingness of Little Larks and Truffle Parmesan Fries on the front range to the fine dining, ski-slope atmosphere of Larkspur, but we were prepared for the challenge.

Larkspur is situated at the extreme east end of the base of Vail mountain, making it close enough to the slope to ski up to for lunch. Except that during our early-season visit, the lifts near the restaurant weren't open, and Larkspur was only offering dinner service.

We had dinner reservations for 7:15 on a Friday in early December. Getting into Larkspur after exiting the cab required trekking through the deserted Golden Peak Lodge, with the restaurant tucked into the back corner.

Larkspur is spacious, beautifully adorned, and upscale. The bar area where the Larkburger was born lies at the very front as you walk in, and behind it in the main dining area is ample seating, including plenty of space for large parties. The restaurant was mostly full when we arrived and filled to near capacity by the end of our meal.

For those of you who have never been to Vail, it's a beautiful ski town bustling with an international assortment of some of the most beautiful and ritzy people you've ever seen. The top echelon of those beautiful people appeared to be dining at Larkspur during our visit.

We were greeted by our waitress and began the meal with drinks and complimentary multigrain bread and butter.

I should point out that Larkspur offers an impressively long wine list. I would elaborate on this point more except I'm completely ignorant about wine.

As an appetizer, we ordered Larkspur's take on a Shrimp Po'boy ($9.5), which was sort of a deconstructed po'boy served with cornbread slices and a mustard sauce.

Shrimp Po'boy

This dish is an unusual choice for a fine dining establishment in Vail, although we certainly enjoyed it. I couldn't find any mention of it in Yelp reviews, so I assume it's new to the menu.

The fried shrimp tasted just like the ones that my mom, a Louisiana native, uses in po'boys. The use of cornbread and mustard sauce is certainly not traditional, but it was very tasty and a pleasant sweet-and-savory compliment to the shrimp.

As my main dish, I ordered the Snake River Sturgeon ($28):

Snake River Sturgeon

The sturgeon was presented with a crispy crust and served on a bed of red beans. The fish was delicate, light, and perfectly seared. The red beans were extremely tasty; they were very well seasoned, and like the fish, expertly cooked.

My husband ordered the Veal Scaloppini ($32):

Veal Scaloppini

Veal scaloppini is a traditional veal dish prepared with floured, flattened veal cutlets. Larkspur's version was accompanied by creamed spinach, twice baked potatoes, and "lemon buerre fondue." It was an excellent, comfort-food type dish.

The twice-baked potatoes were particularly memorable; they were crisp on the outside and incredibly soft and creamy on the inside. They were served as slices rather than potato halves, with no additional toppings, which was unexpected. As far as the lemon beurre sauce, there's no reason to call it "fondue," it was just a cream sauce. The tartness of the sauce nicely balanced the rich flavor of the veal.

We finished the meal with the Brooklyn Blackout Cake ($11.5):

Brooklyn Blackout Cake

The cake was a simple, almost brownie-like chocolate rectangle. It was topped with what Larkspur referred to as "Fudgesicle Sorbet" and "Fox's U-Bet Froth." I have no clue what the froth flavor was supposed to be referring to, and the sorbet had a deep chocolaty but still light flavor.

Service was very good. Our waitress was helpful and friendly but seemed relatively new.

Larkspur was expensive, but so is everything else in Vail. For comparable food in Denver I would expect to pay about 10-20% less. That being said, I generally felt the food and drinks were appropriately priced for the quality and location. One exception was the dessert, which, for $11.5 seemed a little steep for such a simple preparation.

The food and ambiance were lovely at Larkspur, although for fine dining in Colorado I prefer Opus in Littleton. Larkspur is definitely worth a visit for a nice dinner in Vail.

Fine Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Excellent food and ambiance
Cons: Expensive, may be hard to get to without skis


Larkspur Restaurant & Market on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 12, 2011

La Loma

In the mood for a quick Mexican food lunch last weekend, we strolled into La Loma on our way back from the north suburbs. La Loma is basically a Denver staple. They must be doing something right, as they've thrived in their spacious location on 26th Avenue for over thirty years.

Anyone seeing La Loma's location for the first time ma be surprised by the residential-looking abode in an otherwise commercial area just north of Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Operating out of a former Denver home built in 1887, La Loma looks and feels more like grandma's house than a giant Mexican restaurant.

La Loma

We've been to La Loma a few times before, always either for dinner or just before heading over to a Broncos game.

On this particular visit, we arrived at a not-ideal-for-Mexican-food hour of 11 am on a Sunday, just after the restaurant had opened for the day. The dining area was pretty empty due to the early hour and a simultaneous Broncos away game.

The interior is filled with homey decorations, including plenty of Christmas decor during the December day of our meal. We were seated next to their tortilla maker, which pops out fresh tortillas on a heated conveyor belt to the joy of nearby diners.

Our server quickly brought us complimentary chips and salsa:

Chips and Salsa

My husband proclaims this to be his favorite chips and salsa in Denver. The homemade salsa is fresh, spicy, and rich in tomato flavor. I prefer a thicker, chunkier salsa, but the flavor of this salsa was excellent.

For my main dish, I ordered the Chile Rellenos ($9.95):

Chile Rellenos with Green Chile

This dish was described on the menu as "Green chile strips with melted aged cheddar and jack cheeses in a crispy shell, served with green or red chile, refried beans and rice."

Relleno is Spanish for "stuffed," but there was clearly nothing stuffed about the chiles used in this dish. Instead, inside the crispy, fried wrapper was a giant log of sizzling, oozing cheese and a small sliver of green chile.

This might make an ideal bar food, but it was too greasy and cheesy of a dish to be a good main meal. To call it "Chile Rellenos" on the menu is a bit misleading, although the menu's description exactly depicted how it was served.

Alongside the chiles were large helpings of rice and refried beans. I have yet in my lifetime to enjoy the sad pile of boring, bland Spanish rice served with so many Mexican-American dishes, so I was similarly unimpressed with the rice at La Loma. The beans, however, were well seasoned and not too mashed up, which I liked.

The chiles were served with a large helping of green chile. La Loma makes a big deal of its green chile, and apparently 5280 Magazine awarded La Loma Denver's "Best Green Chile" title. It's packed with small pieces of pork and has a bit of a thick, floury texture. I found it very tasty, although I wish it had a little more heat.

My husband ordered the Tacos Dorados with ground beef ($9.75):

Tacos Dorados with Ground Beef

The tacos were stuffed with ground beef and topped with cheddar and jack cheeses, lettuce, and tomatoes. Like my chile rellenos, they were served with refried beans and rice.

They were simple and quite tasty, although not particularly special. The ground beef was very well seasoned, but the tacos would've needed more depth of flavor to really stand out.

Service was friendly and extraordinarily prompt.

La Loma offers some decent but not amazing Mexican food for a reasonable price, and it makes a great spot for a reliably quick lunch.

Everyday Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Cheap, fast service, great green chile
Cons: Some dishes to greasy and/or one-dimensional


La Loma on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hops & Pie

Let me break down the sequence of events that led us to Hops & Pie last night:

3:13 pm: My husband receives a photo of last night's Hops & Pie "Beers on Tap" list from one of his friends. The beer menu includes his beloved - and extremely hard to find - "Supplication" by Russian River.

3:14 pm: Unable to turn down the immediate potential for Supplication on tap, we cancel our reservations at Linger that we'd made a month earlier.

3:33 pm: My husband calls one of his beer aficionado buddies and informs him that he and his wife must join us on the journey for some craft beer on tap.

4:30 pm: We leave our place down south to head 35 minutes away for Supplication on tap. Sorry, Linger. Your international street food menu will have to wait.

5:06 pm: Hello, Hops & Pie.

And that is how we ended up at Hops & Pie, and not at Linger, on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving.

So Hops & Pie offers just about the best craft beer selection in Denver. And they sell pizza. It's really the simplest, most genius, and most inevitably successful business model imaginable for a front range establishment.

Located at 38th and Tennyson in the historic Berkeley neighborhood, Hops & Pie lies off the beaten path of Denver's main restaurant and bar scenes. Alongside Hops & Pie on Tennyson street are an eclectic mix of restaurants, coffee shops, a yoga studio, and an antique store that my mother would be happy to spend all day in.

Hops & Pie's location is small, really too small to accommodate the beer-loving Denver public. It comprises one long, narrow room, with the bar area taking up half the space.

Despite our early arrival just after 5 pm, the restaurant's tiny space and the fact that three groups of people had monopolized all available tables meant we were in for a bit of a wait. Half an hour later, after squeezing the four of us around a small table sandwiched between the bar and another table, we were all seated.

The beer menu at Hops & Pie is really unmatched by any other bar in Denver. They have managed to offer - either on tap or in bottle form - some of the absolute highest regarded and hardest to find craft beers in the country.

Unfortunately, this being complete beer-snob territory, the menu was extremely sparse on the light, "girly" pilsners and wheat beers that I prefer.

My husband enjoyed a 375 mL bottle of Pliny the Elder, an IPA from Russian River ($11), followed by a 375 mL bottle of Consecration, also by Russian River, a barrel-aged ale ($19). I drank water and longed silently for a Michelob Ultra.

Pliny the Elder IPA by Russian River

Consecration Barrel-Aged Ale by Russian River

For dinner, we started with their IPA Mac & Cheese ($7.5), made with cheddar, smoked ham, peas, herbed bread crumbs, and of course, IPA.
IPA Mac n Cheese

Think of an outstanding home style mac and cheese, made even better with the use of beer. The rich, cheesy sauce had subtle, pleasantly bitter IPA undertones. The addition of sweet green peas and large, smoky ham pieces further improved the flavor. The four of us ate every last bite.

The mac n cheese was followed up with one of their 16" Artisan pizzas, topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, sauteed spinach, banana peppers, cherry tomatoes, and roasted garlic ($17).

Artisan Pizza slice

After our excitement at Hops & Pie's beer selection and delicious mac n cheese, this pizza was a letdown. Basically, it was bad. The crust was bland, and there was no sauce. While I enjoyed most of the toppings, the banana peppers were straight from a jar, and their briny flavor overwhelmed everything else on the pizza.

Good pizza should be pretty easy to crank out, right? Especially by owners who are smart enough to tap into Denver's palate for craft beers, and who have enough kitchen skills to put together the incredible IPA Mac n Cheese we had just consumed. So I was perplexed that the pizza would be so completely disappointing.

I did notice, however, that surrounding diners had stuck to the "create your own" pizza selections made with hand-tossed crusts and served with their house-made tomato sauce and cheese blends. They looked much tastier than our pizzas, but of course I have no way to verify how they tasted.

Anyway, we couldn't walk away from Hops & Pie without trying some of their cereal-based marshmallow treats.  We ordered their Super Treat, containing Cocoa Puffs and Peanut Butter Captain Crunch ($3), and a Crispy Treat ($2), made of traditional rice crisp cereal.

Super Treat

Crispy Treat

Not to brag, but I'm pretty much a cereal-and-marshmallow-treat connoisseur, and I must say that all such treats should be evaluated based on the following criteria: 1) Ratio of marshmallow cream to cereal, 2) Ductility, 3) Butteriness

Both treats were a resounding success in all three categories, although I must say the butteriness of these treats was extreme, and some people may find them too rich.

The service at Hops & Pie was very good. Our waitress removed one of our beers from the tab when we notified her that it tasted basically awful (likely on the brewer's end and not Hops & Pie's).

By the time we got ready to leave, which was only about 7:30 pm, the small restaurant was packed with patrons mulling around the bar area as table and bar seating had long ago filled up.

If Hops & Pie can upgrade its pizza offerings, it will rule Denver. Otherwise, its still worth the long drive if you love craft beer, mac n cheese, and cereal treats.

Casual Dining

(5 of 10)

Pros: Unmatched craft beer selection, excellent IPA Mac n Cheese and Cereal Treats, good service
Cons: Not crazy about pizza, crowded

Hops & Pie on Urbanspoon