Friday, January 29, 2010

Frasca Food and Wine (Boulder, CO)

Frasca Food and Wine
1738 Pearl St, Boulder, CO 80302
Fri 01/29/2010, 05:50p-08:00p

Frasca Exterior Frasca Exterior
After dining at Rioja in Denver the previous night, we were left wondering where we should venture to next. We queried Rioja's Executive Chef, Jennifer Jasinski, and she reassured us that Frasca was well "worth the drive" out to Boulder. And so it was.

Named after the rustic, local, convivial eateries of Italy, Frasca is the brainchild of Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Sommelier Bobby Stuckey. The restaurant is firmly Italian in essence, but focused on the northeastern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The area's proximity to Eastern Europe means that it's a place of immense culinary blending--the food takes cues from other parts of Italy, but also features influences from neighboring Austria and Slovenia. My first real exposure to the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was at Pasadena's Trattoria Tre Venezie, where I enjoyed the meal that really began to change my perceptions of Italian food. I thus looked toward Frasca to push me along further in that journey. And of course, the fact that the restaurant was chosen as one of Gayot's Top 40 Restaurants in the US piqued my interest even further.

About the chef: Lachlan began his professional culinary career at the Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, MO. He eventually moved to Paris in 1999, enrolling at the prestigious Ecole Grégoire-Ferrandi in order to obtain his Certificate d'Aptitude Professionnelle in the culinary arts. Lachlan apprenticed under Benoît Guichard at the legendary Jamin, the very place where Joël Robuchon first made a name for himself (Eric Ripert worked here early on, as well). Later, in 2000, the Chef moved to Pont-Aven, Brittany to work at Guy Guilloux's La Taupinière. The next year, Lachlan moved back to the States to join The French Laundry as a chef de partie. It was here that he would meet future business partner Bobby Stuckey (winner of James Beard's Outstanding Wine Service award), previously from Aspen's The Little Nell. In 2003, the duo moved to Colorado to create their version of an American frasca; the restaurant opened the following year to considerable critical acclaim.

Frasca Interior
Frasca Interior
The dining room is elegant, stylish even, but still recalls the warmth and friendliness of traditional Italian frascas. Diners should note the salumi bar off to one side, as well as the illuminated wine wall.

Frasca Menu Frasca Dessert Menu
Frasca's seasonally-adjusted, locally-sourced menu aims to present the understated elegance of Friuli-Venezia Giulia cuisine. My preferred way to dine is to order the four-course Quattro Piatti [$68], and tack on a few supplements. Click for larger versions.

Frasca Wines By The Glass Frasca Cocktails Frasca Cocktails
The wines by the glass list is short but sweet, focused heavily on Italian producers. Much appreciated is the offering of tajuts, basically half-glass portions of wine inspired by the tradition of drinking Tocai Friulano as an aperitif. Of course, there's also a more comprehensive list with over 200 bottles available. And although Frasca emphasizes the role of wine and cuisine, the restaurant does also offer an appealing assortment of cocktails. Click for larger versions.

Widows Kiss
And to start: a Widows Kiss [$12], with Busnel Calvados, Yellow Chartreuse VEP, Bénédictine, and Angostura Bitters. Described as an "essential winter cocktail," I loved its complex interplay of sweet, savory, and sour flavors.

Filone Bread
Bread was a solitary filone, a traditional, everyday Italian variety, served with a quenelle of superb, sweetish butter.

'Frico Caldo'
"Frico Caldo" [$7.00]
To begin, we split an order of the restaurant's famous "Frico Caldo." Think of this as the best hash brown that you've ever had, sandwiched with a layer of Montasio cheese. It's Frasca's version of the frico, a classic Italian cheese crisp endemic to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. I enjoyed the amalgam of rich, creamy cheese and starchy, firm bits of potato, perked up with a touch of onion and coriander. Simply superb--I could eat an entire plate!

Salumi [$16.00] | Prosciutto di San Daniele, Friuli, Italy; Speck, Alto Adige, Italy; Salame Biellese, Salumeria Biellese, New York, New York. Served with "Rafano" and "Grissini"
Our second shared course was this lovely smorgasbord of meat, all sliced in-house at the salumi bar. I started with the salami, a pork-based Piedmontese-style cured meat with a great, peppery kick. Next was the speck, the most strongly-flavored of the trio, imbued with a marked saltiness. The prosciutto, on the other hand, was softer and sweeter in savor. Finally, we had grissini (breadsticks), while the rafano referred to the accompanying creamy horseradish sauce.

Japanese Hamachi 'Crudo'
Japanese Hamachi "Crudo" [$13.00] | Blood Orange, Pinenuts and Olive Oil
The first course of my "Cinque Piatti" was a crudo, a dish of raw fish first popular in Italy's seaside towns. The fish utilized here was our old sushi standby: yellowtail. I liked the use of pine nuts, with their nuttiness form a fitting foil to the slightly fatty, dense character of the hamachi. Meanwhile, I also appreciated the tartish sweetness conveyed by the citrus, and the weight imparted by the olive oil. Very nice.

New Caledonia Blue Prawns and P.E.I. Mussels 'al Cartoccio' New Caledonia Blue Prawns and P.E.I. Mussels 'al Cartoccio'
New Caledonia Blue Prawns and P.E.I. Mussels "al Cartoccio" [$13.00] | Winter Vegetables and Lemon
Al cartoccio refers to a preparation in which food is cooked in paper. This really helped seal in the flavor of the mussels and prawns, resulting an intoxicating burst of briny aroma upon unwrapping the parchment! I adored how the natural sapor of the seafood was so deftly preserved, while the various vegetables really helped moderate the fish.

Birra Dolomiti
With my cocktail dispensed with, I turned to beer, specifically Birreria Pedavena's light, easy-drinking Dolomiti [$7], from Veneto.

'Riso di Valpolicella'
"Riso di Valpolicella" [$20.00] | Red Wine and Montegrappa
For my pasta course, I went with a risotto (natch), one made with wine from Valpolicella and Montegrappa cheese from Veneto. As expected, the rice was cooked to proper al dente consistency, with the wine adding a slight tang to the lush creaminess imparted by the cheese.

Crispy Heritage Foods Duroc Pork Belly
Crispy Heritage Foods Duroc Pork Belly [$28.00] | Roasted Cabbage, Bacon and Celery Root "Crema"
And now, for the "main course," we have a fantastic preparation of pork belly. I loved the interplay between the tender, yet fibrous flesh and its delightfully crisp, savory "crust". The flavor was also spot on as well, and I appreciated the use of the tart cabbage to offset the pork. The celeriac, however, was not necessary. Definitely one of the best pork bellys I've had in a while.

Domaine Wachau 2005 Gruner Veltliner 'Achleiten' & Adami 2008 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene 'Garbel 13'
A meal at Frasca just wouldn't be complete without some vino, so I ordered up two tajuts. First was the Domaine Wachau 2005 Gruner Veltliner "Achleiten," Wachau, Austria [$8], a crisp, mineral-laced wine with some juicy stone fruit and pepper notes. I also had the nicely dry and acidic Adami 2008 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene "Garbel 13," Veneto, Italy [$5].

"Bombolini" [$12.00] | Vanilla Bean Pastry Cream and Blood Orange Sorbetto
For dessert, I had the bombolini, basically fried bits of filled pastry--"doughnut holes," if you will. They were simply delicious, with a beautiful fried texture and an added luxuriousness courtesy of the vanilla cream. The sorbet, meanwhile, lightened things up with its bracing citrus smack.

So how did I enjoy my meal here? Very much, actually. Chef Mackinnon-Patterson really does the food of Friuli-Venezia Giulia justice here, effectively conveying the sense of rustic refinement inherent to Friulian cuisine. The flavors are straightforward, yet sophisticated, contemporary, yet true to the traditions of the region. I can understand why Frasca has received all the accolades that it has over the years--if I'm ever in the area again, I'd love to make a return visit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rioja (Denver, CO)

1433 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80202
Thu 01/28/2010, 09:10p-11:30p

Rioja Exterior Rioja Interior
Situated in the chic LoDo neighborhood of Downtown Denver, Rioja is the brainchild of Executive Chef Jennifer Jasinski and General Manager/Sommelier Beth Gruitch. Jasinski, a California native, began cooking at a young age. After working at a Taco Bell(!) and enrolling in the culinary program at Santa Barbara City College, she developed her interest into a tour at the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduating, Jasinski worked under André Rene at New York's famed Rainbow Room, where she would meet her future mentor, Wolfgang Puck. The Chef eventually moved back to Los Angeles, landing a gig at the Hotel Bel Air; here, Jasinski would again cross paths with Puck, who was consulting for the hotel's restaurant at the time. Puck ended up referring Jasinski to Chef Jody Denton, who recruited her to open his new restaurant, Eureka, in LA.

Over the next 10 years, Puck would move Jasinski around his various restaurants: Postrio San Francisco, Spago Las Vegas, Granita Malibu, and the now-defunct Spago Chicago. He even arranged a stint at the three-star Michelin Ledoyen in Paris. After all this globetrotting, Jasinski decided to settle down in Denver in 2000. She became the Executive Chef at Northern Italian eatery Panzano, where she would meet future business partner Beth Gruitch (then the GM). In 2003, the duo left Panzano (taking along Sous Chef/Co-Owner Dana Rodriguez) to create their own restaurant venture with Jeff Hermanson of Larimer Square Associates; Rioja opened the following year. The restaurant quickly achieved critical acclaim, and its success allowed Jasinski and Gruitch to purchase Bistro Vendôme, a French bistro located across the street, in 2006.

Rioja Dinner Menu Rioja Lunch Menu
Rioja's menu features a variety of Mediterranean-inspired fare, influenced by the bounty of local and seasonal ingredients. Click for larger versions.

loca hot
To drink, I started with the Loca Hot [$10], made with Fresno pepper-infused Sauza tequila, Agavero liqueur, house made sour, and a splash of orange and lime. I loved its spicy, sweet, almost suan mei-esque sapor, finished with a delightful, lingering heat.

Goat Cheese-Rosemary Bread, Lavender Sourdough
Our first round of bread consisted of a lavender sourdough and goat cheese-rosemary bread. Brioche was later offered.

Special: "naan" [$10.50] | cous cous, dates, cucumber, honey yogurt
I began the meal with a special, described by our server as a naan (Indian flatbread) dish. It was somewhat of a misnomer, as the bread was a bit too thick and lacked the consistency of proper naan. Nevertheless, the flatbread did go quite well with the cool cucumber and yogurt, which reminded me of raita. The dates, meanwhile, gave things a marked sweetness, and, along with the cous cous, added an apt Middle Eastern flair to the dish.

fresh bacon
fresh bacon [$9.50] | cardamom spiced Kurobuta pork belly, Madras curry scented fresh garbanzo bean puree
Next was the belly of Kurobuta pork. Unabashedly fatty, amazingly tender, and brazenly decadent, it was all that you'd expect from a good pork belly, tempered by an accompanying chickpea purée. However, I did feel that the cardamom did render things a touch too sweet.

ginger fizz
My second cocktail was the Ginger Fizz [$11], comprised of Jim Beam, Canton ginger liqueur, and ginger beer. It had a great, subtle, almost medicinal ginger tinge that reminded me somewhat of Chinese-style ginger tea.

hand made mozzarella
hand made mozzarella [$9.50] | wrapped in smoked prosciutto, grilled bread, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula, green olive pistou
A classic, but effective interplay of flavors here: the mozzarella itself was very good, with a light, salty creaminess that was superbly balanced by the smoky, savory prosciutto. At the same time, the tomatoes added a distinct sweetness to the dish, while the whole amalgam was perked up by the astringency of arugula.

paella gnocchi
paella gnocchi [$12.00] | rice crusted saffron gnocchi, PEI mussels, Hawaiian blue prawn, calamari, orange scented chicken sausage, artichoke hearts, smoked paprika tomato broth
The "paella" aspect of the dish instantly piqued my interest. I loved how the essence of the seafood was preserved here--the prawn, squid, mussels, all were wonderfully distinct, yet well-integrated in a briny mélange. But as good as the seafood was, my favorite item here was actually the delightful chicken sausage.

Rioja Dessert Menu
Desserts come courtesy of Pastry Chef Eric Dale. Click for larger versions.

coconut mango risotto 'stack'
coconut mango risotto "stack" [$7.00] | Thai sticky rice napoleon, crisp tuiles, fresh mango slices, coconut sorbet
On our first dessert, I really appreciated the subtly saccharine, ricey goodness of the "stack," and how that played with the distinct, juicy sweetness of the fruit. Very nice.

chilled s'mores pot de crème
chilled s'mores pot de crème [$7.00] | chocolate custard, house made graham crackers, brûléed house made marshmallow
Think of your classic campfire treat, but refined. The sugariness of the chocolate was nicely tempered here by the melty marshmallows, and I liked the subtle spice of the crispy graham crackers. The only problem was that the marshmallow could get a bit overwhelming at times.

Though I found the fare here far from perfect, I liked the Mediterranean tinge of the victuals, imbued with simple, but effective flavor combinations. The food is largely vivid, balanced, and interesting--no wonder Rioja is one of Denver's hottest reservations.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Oyamel (Washington, DC)

401 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004
Sun 01/24/2010, 04:15p-05:30p

Oyamel Exterior
Every year, millions of monarch butterflies leave their homes in the US and Canada and migrate south, spending their winter in Michoacán, a state in central Mexico. Upon arriving, the butterflies seek refuge in the oyamel tree, a "sacred" fir native to the region. They swarm the oyamel forest en masse and shroud the trees in thin, undulating veils of amber, an awesome sight to behold. Such is the inspiration behind Oyamel, José Andrés' pan-Mexican eatery.

Prior to the restaurant's debut, Andrés embarked on numerous visits to Mexico, even meeting with noted Mexican cuisine expert Diana Kennedy at her home in Michoacán, in order to better understand the vast culinary heritages--pre-Hispanic, colonial, contemporary--of the country. Oyamel opened its doors in October 2004, not in DC, but in Arlington, VA. It wasn't until January 2007 that Oyamel relocated across the Potomac to Downtown's Penn Quarter (in a space formerly occupied by another Mexican eatery, Andale). Interestingly, the old Oyamel space was eventually taken over by Roberto Donna's Bebo Trattoria (which has since shuttered).

Oyamel is currently helmed by Chef de Cuisine Joe Raffa, along with Sous Chefs Luis Montesinos, Omar Rodriguez, and Georgi Yanev. It was Yanev who came out to greet us on this particular night, which, coincidentally, happened to be his very last with the restaurant. Yanev is, in fact, moving to LA to work at Andrés' Saam/The Bazaar--I'll be sure to look out for him next time I'm there.

Oyamel Interior
Crafted by design firm Adamstein & Demetriou, Oyamel's interior space is fun, festive, and inviting, shaded in hues of monarch orange. The ceiling is home to oversized metallic butterflies, which flutter overhead in two giant swarms, a more obvious nod to the source of the restaurant's name. One side of the room houses the bar, while the other features the main dining area, as well as the six-seater ceviche stand. In the back, there's a more sedate, more formal red-hued dining room, which can be used for private events.

Oyamel Menu Oyamel Menu
The menu features a wide array of graze-friendly Mexican-inspired fare, mostly in small antojito-sized portions meant for sharing--think Mexican tapas. Click for larger versions.

Oyamel's Ponche Mexican Gin and Tonic
Cocktails, natch, to drink. I went with Oyamel's Ponche [$8.50], the restaurant's twist on the traditional Mexican libation, made with white wine, Siembra Azul, Patron Citronage, Partida agave nectar, and a blend of tropical fruits. It was a delicious, refreshing, fruity, saccharine concoction that recalled sangria. My dining companion had the Mexican Gin and Tonic [$11], comprised of Bombay Sapphire gin, Q-Tonic, cilantro, epazote, orange peel, and a dash of elderflower liqueur--think of your standard G&T, but with added layers of complexity thanks to the citrus, epazote, and elderflower.

Chips & Salsa
We were quickly brought the ubiquitous combination of chips and salsa. Oyamel's tortilla chips, seasoned with chiles, salt, and tequila, were tasty, but unremarkable. The salsa was far more interesting; made with chipotle chiles, onions, and tomatoes, it was much smokier that your typical condiment. Refills of either chips or salsa can be purchased for $2 a pop.

Guacamole Making Guacamole
Guacamole [$13.00]
One of Oyamel's most well-known dishes is its guac, and for good reason. Created tableside from an amalgam of green tomatillo, serrano chile, onion, and crumbled queso fresco, it was easily one of the best versions I'd ever had. I loved how everything just worked together so seamlessly--the spicy kick of the chile, the weight of the cheese--it was fantastic.

Ceviche de Marlin Azul con Toronja y Coriandro
Ceviche de Marlin Azul con Toronja y Coriandro [$12.00]
The first of our two ceviches was based on Hawaiian blue marlin, a fish that I don't see on menus all that often. Served in rolled form, and accompanied by suprêmes of grapefruit, coriander, serrano chile, and mint, it was a light, bright dish that really perked up my taste buds. The delicate, clean sapor of the marlin went surprisingly well with the sweetness of the fruit, while the chile added delightful pricks of heat into the equation, tempered by the sprigs of mint.

Ceviche Verde 'El Bajio'
Ceviche Verde "El Bajio" [$10.50]
Next up was a wahoo ceviche (inspired, apparently, by El Bajio restaurant in Mexico City), with avocado, tomatillo, green olives, and jalapeños. This was a weightier presentation of fish, with the firm, dense wahoo playing beautifully with the luxuriousness of the avocado. The jalapeños, meanwhile, added some levity to things, making for quite a stellar dish overall.

Trucha Alpina a la Plancha en Mole Verde de Cacahuate Estilio Pánuco
Trucha Alpina a la Plancha en Mole Verde de Cacahuate Estilio Pánuco [$11.00]
Hailing from the city of Pánuco, Veracruz, our first cooked course was the grilled Arctic char, served with a mole of peanuts, tomatillo, and green chiles. Here, I really enjoyed the fish's delightfully rare flesh, fantastically crisp skin, and how its oily, briny, salty essence was not only preserved, but highlighted. The char was delectable on its own, but the nutty, zesty mole was a superb complement.

Cordoniz con Sikil P'ak
Cordoniz con Sikil P'ak [$10.00]
This was grilled quail with an ancient Mayan sauce of toasted pumpkin seeds, cilantro, tomato, and habanero chile, stuffed with a cactus salad. I couldn't help but compare this to the quail dish I had not too long ago at Rivera. The bird itself was superbly done--flavorful, tender, and succulent--just like at Rivera. Its accoutrements, however, were what made it better: the interaction between the quail, the earthy sikil p'ak, and the zesty cactus was phenomenal.

Costillas de Res con Salsa Verde
Costillas de Res con Salsa Verde [$9.50]
The last course before our taco gauntlet was this chunk of slow-braised beef short rib, with a green sauce of cilantro, parsley, and garlic. As a good preparation of braised beef should be, the rib was demonstrably soft, yet slightly fibrous, making for a fabulous chew. Its taste was characteristically beefy, dark, and delicious, beautifully countered by the light, piquant sapor of its accompanying salsa verde.

Lengua Guisada Taco
Lengua Guisada [$3.50]
First up was tongue: braised beef tongue with radishes and a sauce of roasted pasilla chili, tomatoes, onion, and garlic. I found the meat surprisingly tender, and subtle in flavor. The key here, thus, was the taco's earthy, yet delicate dressing, a superb complement to the beef.

Carnitas con Salsa de Tomatillo Taco
Carnitas con Salsa de Tomatillo [$4.00]
This was confit of baby pig with green tomatillo sauce, pork rinds, onions, and cilantro. Tender bits of pork here, served with a creamy, subtly spicy sauce. I really appreciated the crunch added by the pork rinds.

Cabrito a la Barbacoa Taco
Cabrito a la Barbacoa [$4.00]
Cabrito refers to goat meat, here specifically, Shenandoah Valley goat marinated in guajillo chiles and spices, served with sweet onions and cilantro. I quite enjoyed cabrito's prototypically gamey flavor, wonderfully balanced by the veggies, as well as its tender consistency.

Pescado Mexicana Taco
Pescado Mexicana [$4.00]
Next we have Oyamel's version of the omnipresent fish taco, with salsa Mexicana and a cilantro pesto. Think light, mildly-flavored fish, perked up by a tangy pico de gallo.

Cochinita de Pibil con Cebolla en Escabeche Taco
Cochinita de Pibil con Cebolla en Escabeche [$3.50]
This was my favorite of the sextet, a taco of Yucatan-style pit barbecued pork, with pickled red onion and Mexican sour orange. The slow-roasted meat really possessed a profound depth of flavor, beautifully cut by the unabashed tartness of the pickled onion.

Chapulines Taco
Chapulines [$5.00]
And here we have what we came for: chapulines, the legendary Oaxacan specialty of sautéed grasshoppers, served with shallots, tequila, and guacamole. The 'hoppers had a fascinating flavor: simultaneously smoky, sour, salty, and earthy, all with a bit of raisin-y sweetness. Not fantastic, but certainly not offensive either.

Passionfruit Soup
Passion Fruit Soup
Desserts, in addition to the tacos, were comped, courtesy of Chef Yanev. The first was a cold passion fruit soup, with yogurt ice cream and mint. It was a light, refreshing dish, with the richness of the ice cream forming a fitting foil to the bracingly sweet soup.

Coffee Ice Cream
Coffee Ice Cream
Finally, we were given a coffee ice cream, topped with lime zest, and accompanied by toasted bananas, espresso powder, and cookie crumbles. I'm no fan of coffee, but I certainly didn't mind this dessert. The bananas didn't quite make sense to me, but I did like the zestiness imparted by the lime, as well as the crunchy texture provided by the crumbles.

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time at Oyamel. One may complain that the food is too gentrified, and it may be, but the flavors here really work for me--largely light, bright, and bold, with pronounced hints of acid and spice to cut through and complement heavier, darker notes. If I lived in DC, I could see myself making this a return-worthy destination.