Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Rioja, Denver
Local Colorado cuisine with a Mexican-Mediterranean flair

We heard about Rioja because the co-owners were featured at the James Beard house on the Culinary Media Network. It sounded great, and we were in downtown Denver, so we thought we'd give it a try.

The interior is modern, with old brick construction and modern art on the walls to add a splash of color. We arrived early and were greeted promptly by the hostess, who had us wait just a few minutes for our table. She came out and got us, remembering us from that brief conversation. Our waiter, too, was prompt and friendly, allowing us to hang out and wait for our fourth person to arrive.

The kitchen, at the back, is separated from the restaurant by a traditional counter, but that doesn't, of course, block the smells. We were seated right next to it, so we got to see the dishes come over the counter and go out to the restaurant, which just made us hungry. So we asked for bread, and as it turns out, there is a guy with a basket who brings around a selection of delicious bread. There was a lavender sourdough that we liked a lot, a black olive baguette that I liked a lot, a garlic rosemary cheese biscuit that was the consensus favorite, and a wheat berry roll with salt.

The rest of the food, when we did order it, completely lived up to the bread. The house salad with gorgonzola and dates had just a light tossing of almond vinaigrette, an unusual flavor that went well with the sharp cheese and sweet dates. The saffron fetuccine--house-made--absolutely stole the show. Good fresh pasta, especially with the delicate taste of saffron, with roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers, a savory pork and fennel sausage, and a soft cream cheese made it really hard for us to split the dish, as we both wanted to keep all of it. The other dish, the lamb chorizo pizza, was less remarkable, though still really good. It came with mozzarella cheese and mint pesto, an unusual combination that worked even though you couldn't really tell that the sausage was lamb.

We weren't going to get desserts, but then we kept seeing the cheesecake come over the counter with a tower of strawberry slices stuck together, and we were so curious about how the slices were stuck that we had to order it for an excuse to ask the waiter. We also, while we were at it, got the beignets with the fig paste and sweet goat cheese, with port wine reduction, just because it sounded so strange we had to try it. The cheesecake, soft and creamy, also came with a strawberry-basil compote. The aromatic basil really went well with the sweet strawberry and cheesecake, as it turned out, just like the fig paste and sweet cheese inside the fried pastry worked with the sweet port wine reduction.

That was our experience through the whole dinner. The unusual menu items all went together very well, and exposed us to new tastes or new combinations of familiar tastes. We'd go back again in a heartbeat, if only for the pasta and to watch the towers of strawberries come over the counter, defying gravity. If you want to know how they do it, well, you'll have to go and ask.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

City Grille

City Grille, Denver
Burgers and beer in the shadow of Denver's Capitol building

"Best Burgers in Denver," shouts the sign out front in big, bold letters. That's what our friends had used to entice us to City Grille, a small burger joint on Colfax Ave. and Grant, just northeast of the Capitol building. Upon entering, we saw that City Grille also has the best green chili in Denver and the best fries in Denver. Some say they have the best burgers anywhere!

It's a true "bar and grill." All of the testimonials decorate the bar area, where you wait for a host to take you back into the restaurant section. Somewhat more brightly lit, but with the same cozy old-wood feel, the restaurant offers booths and tables, and four TVs for sports fans who don't want to sit at the bar.

The menu's pretty basic. There are pastas and salads, but why would you look at any area but the burgers? You can get some specialty burgers, like the elk burger, which comes with its own trimmings, but most of the burgers are just basic patties: you choose the cheese. For a dollar, you can add bacon or mushrooms; for a buck and a quarter, you can add guacamole. Mark and I split the turkey burger, a double-decker that comes with a yogurt-dill topping, and a buffalo burger, to which we added mushrooms. We also got a couple salads and a cup of the famous green chili, a dish which is surprisingly rare in California.

We had fun chatting with the server, who was casual and friendly and didn't hesitate to recommend the turkey burger over the elk burger. He was knowledgeable and patient with us, and kept an eye on our drinks as they dwindled.

The green chili came first. Not having sampled the rest of Denver's green chili offerings, we can't attest to the "best of Denver" label, but it was pretty darn good chili. The pork was nice and tender, and the spices lingered without being too hot for me. It was the consistency of a stew, creamy and thick enough to eat with a fork. We spooned some of it onto the provided tortilla (warm and soft, a tasty flour tortilla) and saved some to put on the buffalo burger. We vowed to track down the recipe so we could bring it back home.

The burgers arrived in plastic baskets with fries, except for my buffalo burger, which arrived with mixed greens on a plate. They were cooked as we'd ordered them, the meat fresh and the buns soft with a light egg glaze on them. The green chili went very well on the buffalo with the mushrooms, but then, so did ketchup and mustard (my favorite burger topping). We have a great experience of turkey burgers, and these were among the better ones we've had. Both of the thin patties had a good grilled flavor, with the yogurt-dill complementing them well. The fries, too, were delicious: thin and crispy and hot. Mark ate about half of his before even thinking to pick up his burger.

We'll have to eat many more meals in Denver to confirm the "best of" labels, but we feel comfortable calling them the "best so far." And we're in Denver so infrequently that it'll be hard not to just keep going back to City Grille.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Coupa Cafe

Coupa Cafe, Palo Alto
Mediterranean/Venezuelan cafe off University Ave.

For our weekly writing nights, we're always looking for good places where we can eat, and also sit and write for a while. Coupa Cafe, on Ramona Ave. across from the Old Pro, looked like a likely candidate when it opened recently, and we got the chance to try it out for sure not too long ago.

They highlight their Venezuelan coffee and meals, but the bulk of the offerings would probably be more familiar to people if described as Mediterranean: hummus, pita, olives, panini, etc. They do offer arepas, which are traditional Venezuelan cornmeal griddle cakes, and an appetizer version called arepitas, which we tried. The light, tasty cakes came with cotija cheese and nata (Venezuelan sour cream), with chives sprinkled over them. Simple, but very nice. A little too much for an appetizer for one, but perfect for two to split. The Mediterranean platter appetizer featured a good hummus with crispy, warm pita bread, and a decent salad that could've used a little more dressing.

We were in the mood for crepes, which are also on their menu, so we chose crepes for the main course. The smoked salmon and nata crepe was also pretty simple but quite good, with thick salmon and irregularly distributed cream cheese. The crepe itself wasn't quite on the level of Ti Couz, but was a fine savory crepe, firm and light with good wheat flavor. The turkey and asparagus crepe came crammed full of turkey, asparagus, and sun-dried tomato, which thankfully did not overwhelm the dish. The asparagus, nicely cooked but not overdone, provided a good complement. We also sampled a serrano ham panini, which had nice flavor but was tough to eat due to the stringy ham.

If you're in the back room, the ambiance is a little more relaxed than in the crowded, coffee-centric front. Service is slow, but it's that kind of relaxing place. The people are unfailingly nice and there's a fireplace in the back, amidst the plaster, wood beams, and middle eastern rugs and curtains. And when you're ready for coffee, they will be happy to show off their Venezuelan roasts. For Tim, the attraction is a couple varieties of chai that do one of the best mixes of spicy and sweet that we've found in the area. They offer sugar-free options, but the artificial sweetener intrudes on the chai taste, so go for the Tiger Spice or Flamingo Vanilla. If only for the chai, we'd be going back to Coupa--the food is good but nothing really jumps it ahead of a dozen other Palo Alto places.

Salish Lodge

Salish Lodge, Snoqualmie Falls, WA
Upscale dining at a fancy lodge overlooking a thundering waterfall

You can't really beat the view as you approach Salish Lodge. Overlooking Snoqualmie Falls in western Washington, it's got trees, a river gorge, and of course, the steady roar of thousands of gallons of water pouring over a rocky cliff every second. Waterfalls are strange things, constantly in motion yet so stable that they almost seem to become static, a fixed roar that might almost be a snapshot. They are mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, and form great backgrounds for a pleasant meal.

The Salish Lodge's brunch came recommended to us, and once we saw the location we were pretty excited at the prospect of eating there. Perhaps a little too excited: as it turned out, the food was good but not amazing, and our expectations weren't quite met. You could argue that they were too high to begin with, and there might be merit to that. You could also argue that dinner there is a different experience (and the menu would seem to bear that out). Brunch seemed more focused on delivering quantity of food, as evidenced by their four-course "country breakfast" (pastries, oatmeal, pancakes, and eggs, any one of which we would have happily shared between two of us).

The interior is about what you'd expect from a lodge: nice wood trim, well lit, big picture windows. On our linen napkins, river stones were placed, as well as a nice flower. Though we didn't have a view of the falls, we did have a black and white picture of them at our table.

We settled on the wild mushroom frittata and the cinnamon French toast. The fresh-squeezed orange juice was delicious and quite fresh, and the biscuit that came with the frittata was an exemplary biscuit, with a nice theatrical drizzle of honey over top of it from our server. But the frittata wasn't all that mushroomy, and the French toast wasn't very cinnamony. They were both good, but there wasn't anything really special about either of them. The bacon that came with the French toast, again, had a nice crunch and a good salty bacon flavor, but wasn't as distinctive as bacon we've had elsewhere; the potatoes that came with the frittata were good as well but also standard.

Our server was very friendly and willing to make recommendations. We felt well attended throughout the whole meal. There were some gaps in knowledge, though; when we asked what kind of honey was being drizzled over our biscuit, and whether it was local, she said it was "SYSCO Organic Honey," which is not really what you want to hear from an expensive lodge's brunch.

We'd definitely go back, at least for the location, and perhaps with tempered expectations this time. If we brought two more friends, we could order the country breakfast.

La Strada

La Strada, Palo Alto
Fine Italian cuisine on University Avenue's restaurant strip

We've tried a lot of the restaurants in Palo Alto, and walked past a lot more. At any given time, there are probably five or six on our "must try" list. La Strada had actually been recommended to us by some people we met at a party who were fellow foodies, so it rose on our list until we finally got the chance to go there.

It's a narrow space, confined and hard to navigate, at least for the customers. The staff weave their way through it with practiced ease, and they do seem to be constantly in motion. The kitchen is a long area to one side of the restaurant separated by a counter, so you can always see when food comes up and the kitchen smells fill the small area. The bar is a small section of the counter that bends around at the front of the restaurant, and on University Ave., there's a small patio of eight or nine tables.

We were seated inside, almost in the middle of the restaurant. Our server and the was not just attentive, but friendly, making suggestions and asking us what we liked, clearly interested in making our dinner better. When he came to ask how everything was, he really meant it (or else he really sold it). The atmosphere inside was very communal, bustling and well-lit. With the understated wood and plaster interior, it felt like a neighborhood joint.

We all tried different things, sampling the specials for that evening as well as some of the standard menu items. It was hard to decide, because everything looked so good, and the warm, fresh bread they brought out, almost ciabatta-like, made us hungry for more. We settled on...

The buffalo mozzarella salad. I like fresh mozzarella, but this stuff was amazing. I mean, it could've just rolled down the street from the Stanford pastures. I am not a fan of raw tomatoes (though learning to eat them now), but the ones included here were small and sweet, the kind I do like, and the fresh basil over thin cucumber slices complemented the light lemon-flavored dressing. You can always improve a salad with good bread, and the crisp, thin, salty flatbread went well with this salad. High marks for freshness and flavor out of such a simple dish.

Another appetizer, the terrina al forno, was more complicated: clams, mussels, and shrimp baked over red rice. The rice was almost undercooked, but we decided it went well with this dish; had it been softer and stickier, it would have really changed the consistency and not necessarily been better. It also might have soaked up more of the flavorful broth, which we enjoyed slurping. The shrimp, oddly, had heads but no tail shells. All in all, though, the seafood was all cooked well, the flavors blending together very nicely, almost like a "paella lite" (with red rice rather than saffron rice).

For main courses, we got a house-made black olive pasta with lamb cheeks, accompanied by spring peas and fava beans. The wine sauce, smooth and rich, didn't overwhelm the subtle olive flavor in the pasta, nor the flavor of the tender lamb cheeks. The peas and fava beans were similar to the veggies included with the other main course in the "veggie round," and were just as crisp and well-done.

The "veggie round" was a molded round pile of veggies that came with Mark's rib-eye steak. The broccoli and peppers accompanying the peas and beans had the same great flavor and crisp tenderness. The steak itself (I'm told) was a little tough, as would be expected from the cut, but was probably marinated in something like the balsamic vinegar that was drizzled over it, to rave reviews.

Although we were pretty full, we couldn't turn down the dessert that came with the special dinner menu: an apple tart in the European style, flat and round, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla bean gelato. In the gelato stood a flat, dried slice of apple, and to top it all off, candied walnuts and a rich, buttery caramel sauce that was better than it sounds. It wasn't too thick of a dessert, especially for three to share, but it was a perfect end to a wonderful meal.

We've tried a lot of the restaurants on and around University Ave. in Palo Alto. At any given time, there are a select few on our "must go back to list." That list now includes La Strada.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


We're not much for linking on this blog here, but there are a couple articles we ran into today that deserve a mention.

First, the New York Times sent several restaurant critics out to (gasp) chain restaurants. They reviewed Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's, Chili's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, and T.G.I. Friday's, and found them "surprisingly decent."

And second, the always-entertaining Joe Posnanski recounts his trip to a Miami Italian restaurant.

My favorite part of Joe's blog post:

Look: I’ve long thought that there are two kinds of people in this world: There are people who go to eat on vacation. And there are people who go on vacation to eat. I am very much the second guy.

Mark and I totally get that.