Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nescafe Dolce Gusto Event @ Root Down

There's a huge part of my life that I can't believe I've actually never mentioned on the Rocky Mountain Oyster.

I am a major, major coffee addict.

From the time I wake up until the time my body has absorbed a significant quantity of caffeine, everything around me is an irritating, blurry, unbearably complicated and exhausting trainwreck. Coffee is the backbone of my existence, and I'm very happy with that.

So I couldn't pass up a recent invitation to combine coffee with incredible food from Root Down, which is one of my favorite restaurants in Denver. See my review of Root Down (9 of 10 stars) from April.

The event was a "Foodie Feed Up" organized to promote Nescafe's Dolce Gusto line of single-serve coffee makers.

Prior to this event, the only other blogger I'd met was Ms. Sizzling Cupcake, so it was great to meet a bunch of fellow bloggers and not feel like a self-conscious dorkface when I took pictures of all the food.

We started out with wine and five of Root Down's standard appetizers.

Seared Colombian Arepas:
Seared Colombian Arepas

These arepas, made from corn flour, were filled with mozzarella and topped with poblano-pistachio pesto, something they call achiote crema, and pico de gallo. In other words, its a corn-based grilled cheese. They were good but nothing special.

Sweet Potato "Falafel":
Sweet Potato "Falafel"

I guess they put "falafel" in quotes because it's a falafel in looks alone. The sweet potato base is mixed with a variety of spices and vegetables, fried to perfection, and topped with lemon-tahini Yogurt, Israeli salad, sesame seeds and chile oil. I've had these at Root Down before and they're very tasty.

Lamb Sliders:
Lamb Sliders
The mini burgers were topped with aged cheddar, harissa aioli, and arugula. They were outstanding, with a much simpler and more delectable flavor profile than the Buffalo Sliders that I've had before at Root Down. The lamb was incredibly rich and well seasoned. The giant helping of organic sweet potato fries and mint-garlic yogurt dipping sauce disappeared fast. 

Organic Butternut-Ricotta Gnocchi:
Organic Butternut-Ricotta Gnocchi

Besides the gnocchi, this plate contained mushrooms, spinach, black currants, shallots, chile flake, brown butter, sage pesto and pecorino. While the gnocchi itself had a lovely creamy-sweet flavor and perfect texture, I really didn't care for the appetizer as a whole. Everything was a bit greasy and there were too many flavors and textures on the plate.

Devils on Horseback:
Devils on Horseback
The name "Devils on Horseback" isn't very descriptive; the small bites are comprised of date and goat cheese stuffed peppadews, wrapped in serrano ham, and served with smoked paprika-sherry gastrique. Peppadews, by the way, are a variety of small, sweet-and-spicy peppers native to South Africa.

I wrote about my love of the Devils on Horseback on my previous Root Down review, and they were just as insanely good at my second taste. Hands down my favorite appetizer at Root Down, and certainly one of the best in Denver overall.

While we were enjoying the appetizers, Root Down's Kitchen Manager, Daniel Asher, spoke to our group about Root Down's philosophy and practices in sourcing the restaurant's ingredients.  He encouraged us to understand where our food comes from, and to make informed choices about sustainable and local produce and meats.

It was then time for dessert:

Almond Fluffernutter. Flourless Chocolate Cake, Cashew Caramel Creme Almond Corn Flake,
Bruleed Fluff, and Candied Citrus
Banana "Creme Brulee" Pie. Peanut butter-chocolate crispy crust
and sweet whipped sour cream
Croissant Bread Pudding. Whiskey Butter Sauce
& Sour Cream Ice Cream
Apple & Butternut Squash Cheesecake. Ginger Anglaise,
Black Tea Reduction, and  Walnut Ice Cream
I only tried a very small bite of each; the decadent banana "creme brulee" pie was my favorite.

We then had a coffee demonstration for the Dolce Gusto:
Dolce Gusto Coffee Presentation
Nescafe's Dolce Gusto machines are a line of single-serve coffee makers that appear to have more versatility and a much wider range of beverage options than many other single-serve coffee makers. I had no idea, but most coffee-house espresso machines operate at around 150 to 215 psi; the Dolce Gusto operates at 215 psi (for reference, that's about seven times the pressure in a car tire). The machine makes both hot and cold beverages, including espressos, cappuccinos, chai lattes and iced teas.

I tried the Cappuccino Skinny, which had a smooth and mild flavor, a nice froth, and came in at only 50 calories per serving. My husband tried the Mocha, which he enjoyed, and the Nestea Peach Iced Tea, which was very sweet (though Nestea is normally very sweet in all forms its sold in). Also keep in mind that the Nestea Peach Iced Tea is sweetened with sugar and aspartame, and contains artificial flavors and vegetable oils. All the coffee-based flavors had a much simpler ingredient base.

Nescafe also sent each of us a Piccolo, which is one of five of the Dolce Gusto machine varieties.

For more information:

Nescafe Dolce Gusto:

Root Down:

Disclaimer: The event described above, including the complimentary coffee maker, was fully paid for by Nescafe to promote their Dolce Gusto coffee makers. All opinions are my own. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vesta Dipping Grill

Vesta has been a LoDo staple for an extraordinary 14 years, debuting when LoDo was just beginning to carve itself out of an industrial section of downtown Denver, and withstanding constant growth and turnover in the busy area since then. Vesta has long been considered one of Denver's best restaurants, and 5280 Magazine recently put it at the tail end of their 2011 Top 25 Restaurants list.

We made our way through the bar-hopping Lodo crowd to Vesta's location at 18th and Blake last Saturday night. The interior feels very urban and hip, with brick walls, high ceilings, and dark lighting.

My husband and I met up with a couple of friends (ok yes the same bunch we keep eating out with). We started off with drinks and complimentary bread served with roasted garlic; the garlic was an unexpected and unique touch.

If you're wondering about the restaurant's name, Vesta refers to itself as a "dipping grill" because all entrees come with three of Vesta's signature sauces.

But before jumping into entrees, the four of us started with several appetizers and small bites.

First up was the Vesta Roll ($12):
Vesta Roll
The menu claims the tuna is "sesame seared", but it tasted completely raw to me (which was fine). I enjoyed the large chunks of tuna in each bite and the crunchy exterior.

Their appetizer special of the day, Scallop Ceviche ($10):
Scallop Ceviche
The scallops were served with heirloom cherry tomatoes and saltines for serving. I wasn't totally impressed with the saltines, but apparently it is a traditional ceviche accompaniment. Otherwise, the scallops had a wonderful firm texture and citrus bite.

Next up were the Superior Farms Lamb Ribs ($10):
Superior Farms Lamb Ribs
The ribs were coated in a tangy yogurt sauce and a pistachio-mint rub that I absolutely loved.

We also had the Chinese BBQ Pork Belly (each $2):
Chinese BBQ Pork Belly
The belly pieces were topped with orange slices, yuzu mayonnaise, and sisho. The small portion made for a very tasty small bite, which was balanced out by the tangy citrus flavors.

As an entree, I ordered the Sofrito Braised Short Rib ($26):
Sofrito Braised Short Rib

The Southern-inspired dish included garlic rainbow chard, manchego polenta (in layman's terms, cheesy grits), and a bath of smoked paprika jus. The ribs were perfectly cooked to fork-tender.

The suggested sauces, which I had with the dish (not pictured), were green chili gastrique, bacon aioli, and Steuben's chimichurri. The aioli had all the creamy, smoky goodness you would expected from something called "bacon aioli"; the chimichurri was traditional and my favorite accompaniment to the meat. The gastrique had an unusual sweet-and-spicy flavor profile, but I felt it was just too sweet.

My husband ordered the Boneless Berkshire Pork Chop ($24):
Boneless Berkshire Pork Chop
This Southwest-style plate contained adobada pork chop served with pulled pork chilaquiles and jalapeno cabbage slaw. Every bite was just as good as it looks.

The chilaquiles had a very different flavor and texture profile than my chilaquiles at Salt a few weeks back, but it tasted even better. It included a base of soft corn tortillas instead of crispy corn chips. Like my short ribs, the pulled pork was incredibly tender.

The pork chop was very well cooked, and seasoned to allow the natural pork flavor to come through. The colorful accompanying sauces were the suggested salsa verde, mango poblano salsa, and roasted corn.

To finish off all that protein, we ordered the French Toast ($7) and the Dark Chocolate Boca Negra ($8) for desserts.

French Toast
The French Toast came with cinnamon ice cream, whipped cream, and fresh raspberries. The accompanying sauces were strawberry cointreau, hot fudge, and creme anglaise.  It was a disappointing dessert. The French Toast was soggy and bland, made with a plain white bread. The ice cream had an icy texture.

Dark Chocolate Boca Negra
The intimidating-sounding Dark Chocolate Boca Negra - a rich, dense dark chocolate cake - was outstanding. Every bite was decadent hyperglycemic bliss. The cake came with the same dipping sauces as the French Toast, which were all very good but not necessary with the cake.

The only problem with the sauces for all our entrees and desserts? The dishes were already so well seasoned that they didn't need a lot of extra punch; I felt a little overwhelmed with the flavors of so many sauces.

With all the dishes we tried, every bite of meat or seafood at Vesta was high quality, perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned. Keep in mind, however, that between all the food we ordered and the various drinks we washed it down with, our meal at Vesta ended up being fairly expensive.

Vesta seems to suffer from a perception of becoming outmoded among a burgeoning Denver restaurant scene, but their fantastic food should withstand the test of time.

Casual Dining

 (8 of 10)

Pros: Overall great food
Cons: Didn't care for one of the desserts, expensive


Vesta Dipping Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pho 95

Needing some pho this past weekend and intrigued by the positive reviews that Pho 95 received on Yelp and Urbanspoon, my husband and I headed over for lunch.

Normally for a Vietnamese food fix, we head to Pho Saigon in Englewood, so everything at Pho 95 was judged relative to its south-suburban counterpart a few miles further east on Arapahoe.

Pho 95 is situated in the 'burbs at Littleton's SouthGlenn development, which is a totally different environment from its Pho 95 predecessor off Federal. Nonetheless the restaurant seems to do extremely well in suburbia.

We arrived on a Sunday around 1 pm to a brightly decorated, mostly-full restaurant, and were immediately seated at a booth near the window.

We began with our usual starter, the Shrimp and Pork Spring Rolls ($3.95):

Pork and Shrimp Spring Rolls

The rolls contained high-quality shrimp and pork, but otherwise were stuffed with only rice noodles and lettuce and were a bit bland. The peanut sauce tasted too much like overly sweet peanut butter.

Our main dishes were small bowls of Pho Tai or Beef Pho ($6) for my husband and Pho Bo Vien or Meatball Pho ($6) for myself.
Pho Bo (Beef Pho)

Meatball Pho

The soup was accompanied by a giant plate of veggies:

Pho Vegetables

You really can't tell from the photo above, but the plate came with a mountain of bean sprouts that were a bit brown and not particularly fresh tasting.

Other than the dreary bean sprouts, however, the pho was fantastic. The broth was light and pleasantly salty. The meatballs and beef slices in our respective bowls were comprised of thinly sliced, high quality meats. The soup was packed full of meat and noodles, and we threw in handful after handful of veggies on the side.

Service was ridiculously fast, efficient, and friendly. I'm pretty sure we only had time to blink between placing our orders and seeing the spring rolls delivered to our table.

Overall we loved the pho (minus the bean sprouts), but the spring rolls were disappointing. Worth another visit.

Everyday Dining

(8 of 10)

Pros: Great pho, cheap, fast service
Cons: Some aspects of food below average


Pho 95 on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 15, 2011

5280 Dines

Denver's 5280 magazine hosted its first-ever 5280 Dines event last Wednesday to celebrate their annual 25 Best Restaurants rankings. On the menu were small plates prepared by chefs of six of the top 25 restaurants: Mizuna, Edge, ChoLon, Table 6, Colt & Gray, and Barolo Grill. The event was hosted at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, which opened only a few weeks ago at 15th and Curtis.

Le Grand was shut down for normal dinner service to host the event. The brand-new restaurant wasn't in 5280's Top 25 list, but they offered a few nibbles alongside the restaurants that made the list.

The moderately-sized restaurant was packed with tables for each of the participating restaurants, a few makeshift bar areas, a silent auction display, a DJ, and lively crowd of ridiculously attractive and well dressed attendees.

And I must not forget to mention: open bar!

For its small bite sampling, Mizuna served a light seafood salad:
Mizuna - Insalada Frutti Di Mare

This light salad contained calamari, shrimp, mussels, crab and lobster with celery, fennel and onions tossed in vinaigrette. Mizuna certainly didn't skimp on high-quality seafood. This was one of my favorite plates of the evening, a pleasant surprise after our not-so-great dining experience there several months ago.

Edge offered Blueberry Venison Sausage:

Edge - Blueberry Venison Sausage

The sausage was topped with a fall root vegetable hash, brussel sprout salad, and huckleberry sauce. The sausage was wonderfully rich in flavor and had just a slightly sweet taste.

ChoLon offered a "Banh Mi" bite (not pictured) containing duck terrine, foie gras, chicken liver mousse, pickled vegetables, and tarragon-Chinese mustard aioli. My husband loved it but I thought it had too intense of a meaty flavor.

Table 6 served Pho Duck Dumplings:

Table 6 - Pho Duck Dumplings

This miniature sample of pho contained a giant dumpling filled with duck meat. The dumpling was fantastic, but the soup was otherwise a bit average.

Colt & Gray stuck to its traditional "offal" offerings by serving Grilled Grass-Fed Beef Heart, below, and Crispy Long Farm Pig Trotter (not pictured).

Colt & Gray - Grilled Grass Fed Beef Heart

Accompanying the beef heart were roasted beets, greens, and a lemon horseradish vinaigrette served on grilled bread. The meaty, chewy beef heart and sweet beet cubes complimented each other perfectly.

The trotter, on the other hand, was disappointing. It was served as a miniature fried cylinder filled with something that vaguely resembled meat mixed with gravy. It reminded me of the mystery-meat-filled krokettes I've tried to force myself to like during travels to the Netherlands. I didn't know what pigs feet should taste like before taking a bite, and I still don't know.

Barolo Grill served Vitello Tonnato, a traditional Italian dish of cold, sliced veal. It was topped with tuna aioli, microgreens, and roasted pepper caper tapenade.

Barolo Grill - Vitello Tonnato

And finally, Le Grand may not have been in the Top 25, but they certainly seemed to deserve a place among the restaurants at 5280 Dines.

Le Grand - Seared Salmon, Pickled Oyster
Their two-part dish contained a pickled oyster with star anise, foie gras mousse, and butternut squash, as well as seared salmon with beurre blanc sauce atop a potato chip. Both bites were incredible. The potato chip - salmon combination, in particular, was a very satisfying combination of flaky salmon, salty and crunchy chip, and creamy beurre blanc sauce.

Unfortunately for my sweet tooth, dessert was limited to this little guy from Mizuna:

Mizuna - Fruit Tart
Very tasty but plain.

For its first go, 5280 Dines was extremely well organized and executed. Le Grand seemed to be a perfect venue. The atmosphere was lively and busy but not overwhelmingly crowded. The participating restaurants served some very tasty and high-quality small bites, especially considering the makeshift preparatory area.

My only complaints? Some long waits for drinks, and the protein-heavy dishes could have used some balance with starchy sides and a more adventurous dessert.

Hope to see you all next year!


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Colt & Gray

Before ever even visiting the restaurant, the husband and wife owners of Colt & Gray were my heroes. A few years ago, they quit their "day jobs" to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant. Their impressive story, plus a million glowing reviews and being a participating restaurant with lured us in for a visit last weekend.

Colt & Gray lies immediately between the Platte River and I-25, just between the Highlands and downtown Denver, and among various other restaurants and shops on Platte street. Their corner location allows for quite a bit of outdoor seating and a small vegetable garden.

I was expecting Colt & Gray to be a bit like Euclid Hall, but the similarities end at pub-style food and unusual animal parts on the menu. Colt & Gray is a bit more swanky, offers overall lighter food, and makes a big deal of their cocktail offerings rather than the beer list.

Mr. Oyster recently signed up for, which includes Colt & Gray as a participating restaurant, so we enjoyed a 30% discount on our meal.

We were fortunate enough again to be joined by the same friends who joined us at Euclid Hall and dealt patiently with our obnoxious food photography.

Anyway, we ordered a ton of food, so I need to get started on that.

Westword awarded Colt & Gray the "Best Bone Marrow" award for 2011 (since so many places in Denver serve bone marrow?!?!).  Anyway we were all over that and of course ordered the Roasted Marrow Bones ($16).

Roasted Marrow Bones

The three marrow bones were served with caramelized onions and grilled country bread. Per our waitress's recommendation, we ate each bite of marrow atop the bread with the onions and a pinch of salt. The marrow had a meaty flavor and a gelatinous texture and was basically very tasty. Each bite had a perfect balance of sweet onions, savory marrow, crunchy bread and salt.

Next were the Steamed Mussels ($14):
Steamed Mussels

While this had a wonderfully seasoned sauce, the mussels themselves were disappointing. All of the mussels were very small, and many unfortunately had a very gritty texture. For $14 for a small bowl of mussels I would really expect better quality.

I also had the House Made Spaghetti ($12):
House Made Spaghetti

This was served with a runny egg yolk much like the Open Faced Ravioli at Strings. The dish had way too many capers; their flavor was overwhelming and too salty. Even without the capers I felt this would have been too simple of a dish to be paying $12.

Next was the Braised Pork Shoulder ($21)
Braised Pork Shoulder

Yum. The highlight of the meal was definitely this plate. The pork shoulder complimented by a "summer pistou" (green smear in photo) and herb salad. The dish also contained "corn pudding", which was a lovely cube of  what I would call cornbread. The sizable pork shoulder was perfectly cooked and seasoned.

We went a little crazy with dessert and decided to order three selections recommended by our waitress.

First was the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($8):

Sticky Toffee Pudding

How could we not order this stuff after some celebrity-ish woman raved about it as the "Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network?  I don't know who Claire Robinson is, but she was dead on about how good this dessert is. Comprised of sticky sponge cake made with dates, three layers of toffee sauce, and Bourbon ice cream, it was absolute sweet perfection.

Next up was the Potted Cheesecake ($8):
Potted Cheesecake

No no, that's not a Yankee Candle. That's what Colt & Gray considers "cheesecake", but my dining companions and I beg to differ. It was extremely light and airy, almost more like cheesecake-flavored marshmallow fluff. Not that it wasn't delicious, but to call it "cheesecake" was a bit misleading. It was topped with a rich salted caramel sauce that was just too intense; it was both very salty and extremely sweet.

Our final dessert was Olive Oil and Thyme Cake ($8), served with blueberry compote and lemon-buttermilk ice cream.
Olive Oil and Thyme Cake

The cake had a perfect texture and a mild but pleasant flavor; I really didn't get a strong olive oil or thyme flavor. The compote was lightly sweetened and contained fresh, large blueberries that were balanced by the tart citrus flavor of the ice cream. Overall a very good dessert, but not as stellar as the Sticky Toffee Pudding.

I must also mention that we certainly acquainted ourselves with the cocktail menu and bartender's skills during our dinner. Everyone enjoyed their drinks, although I'm not sure any of the cocktails were exceptional. And it's a good thing we had 30% off our meal, as the mixed drinks cost $10 each. Even beers - and this was for only about 10 oz - were $8 each.

Service was excellent through the night; our waitress was extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and attentive.

We had a great time and enjoyed our cocktails and some good food at Colt & Gray, but the restaurant needs some of its dishes to be more polished for the price.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Some great food, very good service
Cons: Expensive, some dishes not worth the price

Colt & Gray on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 7, 2011

5280 Dines

5280 just published the The 25 Best Restaurants of Denver in their October 2011 issue.

They are hosting 5280 Dines this Wednesday, to celebrate the unveiling with dishes from chefs of 6 of the winning restaurants.

The Top 25 list contains a striking number of newcomers, a trend that I'm sure will only continue as Denver's restaurant scene matures.

Of note on the list: Mizuna (at #3), Duo (#17), and Opus (#21) have reviews here on the Rocky Mountain Oyster. Colt & Gray (#10) review is coming very soon.

I'm amazed at how many restaurants I haven't been to on the list, and disappointed that Root Down didn't get a place among the top restaurants.

See you all at 5280 Dines!