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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar

Le Grand just opened in June of this year, and soared to the top of my wish list ever since I tasted their pickled oyster and salmon-on-a-potato-chip small bites at 5280 Dines a couple months ago.

Le Grand claims it offers "everyday French comfort food," but it also prides itself on serving a variety of fresh, raw oysters.

Styled like a Parisian brasserie, Le Grand is a large, roomy restaurant, with numerous tables and booths, and a banquet room in back. The interior is a bit darkly lit, with tile floors and deep-red walls decorated by whimsical farm animal drawings.

We arrived with another couple on a Saturday night, with reservations for 6:30 pm. Their dinner menu was extensive. Diners can choose between six different oyster varieties, numerous other seafood bar options, small plates, large plates, charcuterie, and cheeses. Oh, and desserts.

We started with two each of the Kumamotos ($3.5 each) and Malpeque ($2.5 each) oysters.

Oysters: Kumamotos and Malpeque

They were served on the half shell with lemon, horseradish, mignonette sauce, and cocktail sauce. If I were along the coast somewhere, I'd have guessed the oysters were plucked from the ocean earlier that day. But clearly I was actually in Denver, and I just have to marvel at how fresh the oysters tasted that far inland.

We also split three different charcuterie: Head Cheese ($4), Rabbit Rillette ($4), and Foie Gras Mousse ($9).
Head Cheese

Cooked from pork cheeks, the head cheese was packed with a multitude of ingredients and flavors. It was flavored with garlic, shallots, and many other herbs and spices, including what tasted like allspice. I am by no means a head cheese expert, but I felt it was just too many flavors in each bite.

Rabbit Rillete

The rabbit rillette was made of rabbit confit and duck fat, and flavored with chives and sea salt. It had a texture like a thick gravy, with tiny pieces of the rabbit confit throughout. Spreading it on the toasted bread made for a rich, satisfying bite of saturated fat.

Foie Gras Mousse

The Foie Gras mousse was made with Hudson Valley foie gras, Sauturnes (yeah I had to look that up, it's a sweet French wine), and heavy cream. Like the rillete, it was extremely rich, with a smooth, velvety texture. More saturated fat heaven.

We split the Jarret D’agneau Braisé ($25), which basically translated to braised lamb shank.

Braised Lamb Shank

The lamb was served alongside parsnip puree, baby carrots, and pearl onions. The meat was cooked perfectly to very tender, and easily fell off the bone with some help from a fork. The lamb was complimented with the flavors of the starchy parsnips and sweet carrots and onions.

Unlike Le Central and Pierre Michel, which both serve giant, American-sized portions, I was pleased that Le Grand stuck to more traditional French serving sizes. The small quantities were perfect for the rich, flavorful food offered.

While the food was very good, service was generally slow and disorganized (I seem to be echoing a million Yelp reviewers on this point). Our waitress was often hard to track down, and we had multiple servers bringing bread, plates, drinks, and food to the table.

We had sat down at 6:30, with plans to head to Comedy Works a couple blocks away for an 8:30 show. Our entrees didn't arrive until about 7:50, and that was after notifying our waitress that we had a dinner deadline. Fortunately the waitstaff kicked into high gear when we told them about the show, and we made it to Comedy Works without issue.

Regretfully, having to rush out for our show meant we couldn't try the intriguing-looking Foie Gras Creme Brulee dessert.

Le Grand was a great spot for authentic French food, but they need to work on the clunky service.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Excellent food, loved the ambiance and decor. Oysters were extremely fresh.
Cons: Slow, disorganized service


Le Grand - Bistro & Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Well, that didn't take long: after opening only a year ago, ChoLon impressively debuted on 5280 Magazine's Top 25 Restaurants List at number 5 this year. Operated by chef Lon Symensma, the Asian fusion restaurant has received praise from both critics and just about everyone we've known who's eaten there.

Oh, and ChoLon is a participating restaurant on, meaning my husband and our friends we dined with enjoyed 30% off our tab.

Our reservations were at 6:30 last Thursday evening, during an eerily quiet downtown evening due to a Broncos game on the other side of I-25. ChoLon lies at 15th and Blake Street, between H Burger and the Rio Grande. Like many downtown restaurants, diners can look out the restaurant through floor-to-ceiling windows, although the surrounding street view isn't particularly interesting. I was surprised that the restaurant was only about two-thirds full that night, but maybe everyone was too caught up in Tebowmania to be eating out that evening.

ChoLon feels modern and trendy, with high ceilings, simple decorations, and dark lighting.

We started with drinks and this very impressive complimentary starter, a rice "cake" with black sesame seeds and salsa.

Rice crisp with black sesame seeds

The rice crisp was beautiful but really had no flavor.

Most of the small bites consisted of upgraded twists on traditional Asian street food and dim sum.  We ordered the following:

Pork Belly Pot Stickers with Ginger Mustard ($8)
Pork Belly Pot Stickers

Curried Duck Spring Rolls with Cilantro Yogurt ($9)
Curried Duck Spring Rolls

Rib Eye Satay with Hong Kong Steak Sauce  ($11)
Rib Eye Satay

Soup Dumplings ($8)
Soup Dumplings

While the meat-heavy dumplings, spring rolls, and satay were all excellent, the standout among the small bites was definitely the soup dumplings.

Inside each dumpling was actually a small helping of French Onion soup. The dumplings had to be handled delicately; I learned that the hard way when I ignored our waitress's request to use our hands and squashed mine with chopsticks. They were incredibly unique and had a delicious pop of savory, salty soup in each bite. 

We split the Pork Tenderloin large plate ($25), which came with butternut squash puree, Chinese bacon sauce, and Chinese broccoli.

Pork Tenderloin
The pork was absolutely perfect; it was incredibly tender and balanced with the flavor of the sweet-and-savory Chinese bacon sauce. The butternut squash puree was sweet, creamy, and rich. Overall an outstanding  dish.

We also ordered, from their "Wok" selections, the Stir Fried Brussel Sprouts ($9).
Stir Fried Brussel Sprouts

Unfortunately our picture turned out blurry and it certainly doesn't do justice to how good the brussel sprouts were. They were chopped into small pieces, cooked to the point of slightly caramelized, and served in a rich sauce with pork and mint.

And finally, for dessert we enjoyed the "S'mores" Tart ($8).
"S'mores" Tart

The tart comprised of a flat, chocolaty cylinder with a runny vanilla-marshmallow goo inside.  It was topped with toasted bananas, and sat alongside cinnamon-spiced chocolate ice cream on a bed of crushed graham cracker. I'm not sure that there was much Asian influence in this dessert, but it was perfect anyway. Mr. Oyster and I agreed this has been our favorite dessert in Denver so far.

I'm sure you can tell by the pictures, but presentation is taken very seriously at ChoLon. All the dishes were served beautifully, particularly the pork tenderloin and dessert.

Service at ChoLon was outstanding, with excellent timing between the various courses.

ChoLon was the best dinner we've had in Denver yet. The food, service, and presentation is on par with any of Denver's fine dining establishments, but with lower prices and a more casual atmosphere. Add on a 30% discount, and it feels like a tremendous bargain. It was nearly perfect, and easily earned our first 10-star review.

Casual Dining

(10 of 10)

Pros: Food nearly perfect. Outstanding presentation. Very good service.
Cons: A little bit loud and dark inside (I'm being picky)


ChoLon Bistro on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Wooden Table

Our insatiable desire for delicious food brought us to the Wooden Table in Greenwood Village for a recent dinner. The Wooden Table is an Italian restaurant that opened just this past September, and it lies sandwiched between a couple of other shops in a pretty average shopping area at University and Orchard. We showed up to a mostly-full restaurant for reservations at 6:30 pm on a Friday night.

Despite the low-profile location, The Wooden Table boasts a co-owner who is the former Executive Chef of Osteria Marco downtown. 

Wooden Table may seem isolated in the suburbs, but it's probably appealing to the nearby residents of Cherry Hills and Greenwood Village, as there don't seem to be many comparable restaurants nearby. It filled to capacity shortly after our arrival and there was a lively atmosphere.

I rarely get worked up about restaurant decor or ambiance, but the Wooden Table seemed a bit weak on interior design. The restaurant occupies a large, sparsely-adorned single room, with white walls dotted with random black-and-white photos of trees. It felt a little empty. Also, the restaurant windows face directly out to glowing TJ Maxx and Sally Beauty Supply signs across the parking lot, so it's not a place to go for a nice view.

We started with a couple drinks and a disappointingly boring baguette with olive oil:

Bread and Olive Oil

(Yep, after that photo we decided we needed a flash. We're amateurs.)

As an appetizer, we ordered the Frutti di Mare Crudo ($13):
Frutti di Mare Crudo

Crudo is a raw, ceviche-like seafood preparation that is typically marinated in a combination of olive oil, salt, and an acid component (normally lemon or lime juice). In this case, the crudo included baby octopus, shrimp, and scallops, arranged on a layer of tonnato and chili oil. It was similar to the Insalada Frutti di Mare we enjoyed at 5280 Dines a month ago. It was light, citrusy, and loaded with tasty, fresh seafood.

We also split a half portion of the Ravioli ($10):
Ravioli (half portion)

The ravioli was stuffed with ricotta, and topped with shaved Parmesan and red sauce. The pasta was perfectly cooked, with a rich and creamy ricotta filling. The red sauce tasted a bit sweet for my preference, but was well seasoned and flavorful.

Now, let's back up a second here. Why exactly did I track down this random shopping center Italian restaurant for a slightly fancy dinner?

I had been drawn in by the allure of this:

Westword's 100 Favorite Dishes: Pork Tenderloin with Bread Pudding and Green Split Peas from the Wooden Table.

From the Westword write-up, the pork dish looked ridiculously tasty, and Apple Ham Hock Bread Pudding sounded like something I shouldn't pass up in this lifetime.

Well, my husband is really the pork lover in the relationship, so I convinced him he needed to order it.

And here it is:
Berkshire Pork Tenderloin

That's Berkshire pork tenderloin atop apple ham hock bread pudding, with green split peas and braised red cabbage ($23).

It didn't exactly look like the photo Westword posted, and it certainly didn't live up to our elevated expectations. In fact, the pork was pretty dry and weak on seasoning. I enjoyed the bread pudding, the split peas, and the cabbage, but nothing tasted particularly special, and it wasn't nearly good enough to make up for the disappointing pork.

For anyone seeking a pork dish (or, more specifically, a Berkshire pork dish), my husband's Boneless Berkshire Pork Chop at Vesta Dipping Grill last month was much, much better.

Moving on, I ordered the Meatballs ($20) for my entree:


That may look like regular old spaghetti and meatballs, but it was so much more than that. Somehow, The Wooden Table has managed to concoct an incredibly perfect and wonderfully seasoned meatball using veal, pork, and beef. That spaghetti-looking pasta was actually bucatini, or in layman's terms, "spaghetti with a hole down the center." Like the ravioli, the pasta was cooked just right. This was the best thing I ate at Wooden Table, and certainly more deserving of any type of "Best Dish" nod than the pork.

I'm not sure if they do this on a regular basis, but the restaurant served complimentary dessert liqueurs to all its (over-21) diners that evening. I don't care for liqueurs in any form, but my husband was happy to polish off our Amaretto and Limoncello glasses.

We finished off the meal with the Pumpkin Cheesecake ($8):

Pumpkin Cheesecake

The cheesecake was topped with a praline and pumpkin seed brittle topping, and served with whipped cream on the side. It was a lovely fall dessert, but of course we may have been easily pleased, both of us being cheesecake and pumpkin lovers. It disappeared quickly.

Two months after its opening, The Wooden Table has a basis for a great restaurant. The food is mostly very good, and the location has easy appeal for the area's residents. I felt some of the dishes needed more polish, and there's room for improvement in the ambiance.

Casual Dining

(7 of 10)

Pros: Food was mostly good. Pasta was excellent.
Cons: Disappointed with pork dish, boring location


The Wooden Table on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pierre Michel French Bakery

Hidden just under my nose after all these years in the suburbs is Pierre Michel, an organic French bakery located in Highlands Ranch.

Pierre Michel lies in a very small space at the end of a Highlands Ranch strip mall, and stands out from its neighbors by not being a chain restaurant. This same shopping area houses an IHOP, Panera and Starbucks for those looking for breakfast fare.

Despite the generic surroundings, the interior of Pierre Michel was quaint and very cozy, with brightly colored tablecloths and fresh flowers at each table.

Diners order at a counter when they walk in, before taking a seat at one of only a few tables and waiting for their order to be served. Pierre Michel seats only about 20 people, and was nearly at capacity during the Saturday of our visit. It seems to be a welcome respite for those looking for a break from the standard suburban chain options in the area.

Pierre Michel offered a wide variety of delicious-looking French pastries on display, but we passed them up in favor of a more substantial meal.

I started off with a very tasty Cafe au Lait:
Cafe au Lait

My husband ordered the French toast:

French Toast
This simple presentation of French toast included homemade blackberry jam on the side. The jam was very pleasant; it was fresh and had just the right about of sweetness. Unfortunately, the French toast tasted bland and a bit soggy, and was just disappointing overall.

The French toast order included a side of eggs:

Scrambled Eggs
These were sort of half-scrambled and had a slightly runny yolk component. They were simple and very fresh, with a touch of salt and pepper on top for flavor.

I ordered the intriguing-sounding Omelette Sandwich, which included French baguette bread with a ham and cheese omelette cooked inside.

Ham and Cheese Omelette Sandwich - As Served

No, I didn't eat a giant loaf of bread for breakfast; let's take a look at the innards:

Ham and Cheese Omelette Sandwich

Whoever decided to stuff an omelette inside of French bread is a genius. It was good. The freshly-made bread, in particular, was excellent. It was coated with butter on the inside, and had a soft center and crunchy exterior. The eggs had a similar texture to my husband's scrambled eggs, with ham and cheese generously mixed in.

The downside of the omelette: Like Le Central near Capitol Hill, Pierre Michel aims to serve authentic French food, but its portions seem much more authentically American. I'm pretty sure this baguette-omelette hybrid would've fed a French family of four. For an entire day. Even with some help from my husband, I was able to finish off only half of it.

Service was friendly and attentive but slow. It was also fairly hot inside the restaurant.

We paid $21 for our meal, which is a decent price considering how much food we received and the fact that the restaurant is 100% organic.

This family-run operation completely shuts down on Sundays, so Saturday is the only day to visit on weekends.

We're interested in another visit to try some of the French pastries. While I loved my omelette sandwich, the portion was far too big for a French restaurant, and the French toast was forgettable.

Everyday Dining

(6 of 10)

Pros: Loved omelette sandwich, authentic French food in Highlands Ranch, good prices for being organic
Cons: Some portions too big, slow service, disappointing French toast


Pierre Michel Organic French Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuk Tuk Thai Grill - DTC

Needing a quick lunch last weekend on a drive home that took us past the Denver Tech Center, we decided to stop in to Tuk Tuk for some always-good Thai food.

Tuk Tuk lies near a very uninteresting shopping center (it's anchored by a giant Microcenter), in a standalone building immediately next to Quincy. The shopping center is just north of I-225, so while Tuk Tuk calls the location a "DTC" restaurant, I would actually consider it to be just north of the Tech Center.

I've been to the location a couple times before during the work week for lunch, and it's consistently been packed with office types looking for a quick, cheap lunch. I imagine with a more visible location it would be even more busy. The building doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's very welcoming, with bright lighting and colorful decor. Like Pho Saigon, office workers grabbing a weekday lunch should get there before 11:30 am to avoid a wait.

On the Sunday when my husband and I visited, however, it was nearly empty at lunchtime. During my work week visits, they took customers' orders at a counter up front, and brought food out to the respective tables. But for our quiet Sunday lunch, we were seated at a table and waited on during the meal.

Service has always been fast; this visit was no exception.

We started off with the Summer Rolls appetizer ($4.5):

Summer Rolls
These rice paper wrappers were stuffed with shrimp, chicken, lettuce and carrots, and served with peanut sauce on the side. They were just ok. Some of the lettuce had browned at the edges, and the chicken tasted tough. One bright spot was the peanut sauce; it was spicy and well flavored but not too sweet.

I ordered the Ginger Beef ($8) with brown rice instead of white rice:

Ginger Beef with Brown Rice
This was a solid plate of Thai food, although nothing amazing. The vegetables were fresh and crisp, the sauce was fragrant and had a slight heat, and the beef was well cooked.

And then there was the Panang Curry Chicken ($7.75) that my husband will not stop talking about:
Panang Curry Chicken

The curry had a coconut milk base, and was ordered spiced "hot". It included a variety of fresh, crispy vegetables.

My husband sipped at the curry a bit, tried a few pieces of chicken and vegetables, scooped the sauce over rice and gobbled that up, and then began babbling uncontrollably: This is sooo good. [Pause] Wow. You have to try this. It is just soo good. So good. This is just so good.

And it was.

The spice combination of the curry was perfect and the "hot" spiciness was just the right amount of heat for both of us. The chicken and all the vegetables tasted fresh and well cooked.

I neglected much of my Ginger Beef in favor of helping him out with his amazing curry (I'm nice like that).

Ok, now here's my disclaimer about my Thai food ignorance: there's a lot of things I don't know about food, and there's certainly a lot of things I don't know about Thai food. I can't speak to whether this stuff was authentic, I can only say that it tasted fantastic.

The only bad thing about the curry? If you've noticed from my last few reviews, Mr. Oyster seems to be on a streak of ordering a better meal than me. Yes, the guy who used to think Totino's Pizza was the best thing ever, who became nauseous over the very idea of eating sushi, who didn't know what an artichoke was...this guy now seems to nail down the best dishes at a restaurant with some sort of natural finesse. It is not cool, and it's got to stop.

Very good fast Thai food. Get the curry.

Everyday Dining

 (7 of 10)

Pros: Fast service, outstanding curry
Cons: Summer rolls were very average, slightly pricey


Tuk Tuk Thai Grill Dtc on Urbanspoon