Mediocre Mexican (but not in Colorado of course!)

I'm in Chicago for the holiday and we sometimes go out for dinner the night before Thanksgiving with friends. This year was not an exception. We headed to Topolabampo (weirdly, we sat at the booth that's in the picture you see on that link). Rick Bayless (if you're not familiar) is another celebrity chef (via PBS) with a retail empire, but as far as I know, only two restaurants, both in Chicago (connected, in fact). His focus is on authentic regional Mexican food. We chose the more upscale of the two restaurants for dinner.

We had a drink at the bar. I'm assured the margaritas are delicious. I thought they were way too boozy, but then again I'm more of a wine drinker. Too boozy might be a good thing if you're not me. We were then seated. Every table in the place was full. I was anticipating a wonderful meal.

I have to pause to share their culinary philosophy with you, as I think it's awesome and it's what every restaurant should be striving for...

'Our goal is to serve you seasonal, sustainably-raised vegetables, meat and poultry; fish from sustainable fisheries. We support local, artisanal farmers.'

THANK YOU, Rick Bayless.

Five of the six diners at our table ordered tasting menus. They averaged about $90/person for a 5 course meal. Three people ordered the 'celebration menu' and two of us ordered the 'mole menu'. The last diner had a ceviche appetizer and a sea bass risotto. May I just say I was not said last diner, and I'm sorry for it.

The celebration menu consisted of a ceviche, mini tacos, lobster, lamb chops and a granita for dessert. I'll try to be brief. The cevice was tuna and it had all sorts of bits and bobs in it....pine nuts, dried berries and all sorts of stuff. It sounds weird (and I wish I'd brought a notepad to write stuff down, but I didn't so you'll have to bear with me), but it really was brilliant.

Next came the mini tacos. They were really more rolled than your traditional (or at least to Americans) u-shape. Theywere filled with huitlacoche, parsnips and black truffle, served with an organic tomato broth and topped with crunchy pickled vegetables and avocado. These were a hit with everyone. I know huitlacoche is sometimes strong and freaky (though my experience with it is limited) but this dish was perfectly composed and disappeared fast.

Next was the lobster. It was nicely presented but the flavor profile was very, very heavy on vanilla. I understand what he was trying to do, but this was literally 1/2 of a lobster doused in vanilla butter. It was too sweet and it just didn't work.

The lamb on the other hand was delicious and perfectly cooked. It was very nicely trimmed and it just melted in my mouth. It was served with local, roasted fall vegetables which were perfectly done. The pumpkin-chilisomethingorother sauce however was not terribly well matched with the lamb and I wish it wasn't on the plate at all.

Dessert on the celebration menu would be best left in the kitchen. I was so distressed by the granita (which can only be described as a sickly sweet grenadine syrup icee) that I don't even remember what else was on the plate, which was a shame. The presentation was beautiful, but the enjoyment ended there.

On to the mole menu. I'm not going to go through each dish, as it will just get repetitive. Mole is a wonderful tradition and a very complex sauce to make (not that I've been brave enough to try!) and I respect it tremendously as well as enjoy it in moderation. That said, five courses of mole in a row is just excessive and stupid. For something this complex, do you really think a diner can appreciate the nuances of five different mole sauces served one after the other after the other? No, Rick. They can't.

The highlight of the mole menu was the savory red chile-chocolate tamal filled with wild mushrooms, mole poblano, homemade goat cheese (indescribeably good), muscovado "jellies" and watercress salad. This dish knocked my socks off. I'm guessing any of the dishes individually would be enjoyable, but again, five moles in a row? Dumb.

Service was pretty chilly and efficient at first. It eventually warmed up, but I think that was after we were $350 in to the wine list (probably by the third course...!). The space is nice; elegant and understated. The servers are competent, though I have to say there were a few occasions where I would ask about some specific aspect of the dish and they would not know the answer. (I should point out that I asked a LOT of questions, and many if not most of them were answered with confidence, but the price point at which we were dining should demand intimate and thorough menu and dish composition knowledge).

In all, I was disappointed (despite a few highlights). The ingredients were exceptional but the execution and the marriage of courses was not. The service was only average for a restaurant of this caliber...or maybe I should say cost. We went to Charlie Trotters the night before Thanksgiving a few years ago and spent almost exactly the same amount of money per diner and it was the most memorable meal (and service) I have ever had in my life. I would like my money back for this one. Or at least half of it.

If you want Rick Bayless food, buy a cookbook or go to Frontera Grill. Topolabampo is better left alone.

Duffywich city

Rather unusually I've eaten out another three times since last week. I remember hearing a statistic that Americans eat something like 1 of every 3 meals 'out' (whatever that means) and I thought 'what the hell?! Doesn't anybody cook?', then have found myself eating out a TON in the last week.

In the last week, we twice went to Duffeyrolls. They now have a new location right near the Louisana Pearl lightrail stop. It's cozy and has free wireless and when I went in Thursday morning for a breakfast sandwich, I was pleasantly please to see how bustling it was. We ordered egg sandwiches and sat to wait. Very quickly later, we were brought our sandwiches and each came with a mini Duffeyroll (I always try to remember to ask that they not give me one as it always seems a bit over the top, but it conveniently slips my mind almost every time).

I had an egg sandwich that they let me customize without so much as a blink. Scrambled eggs, fresh tomato, sprouts and cheddar cheese on lightly toasted focciaca bread. I'm not a person that often eats a 'breakfast sandwich' unless you count some greasy concontion at the Breakfast King (or worse yet, a morning patty melt which is very telling of the previous night's activities), but I was pleasantly surprised by this particular breakfast. It was light, yet filling. The vegetables were very fresh and the service was efficient and friendly. My companions had sandwiches with eggs, ham and cheese and reported the same enjoyment. Breakfast disappeared pretty fast.

Oh, and those mini Duffeyrolls? They were gone. Perfect size. Well, maybe the giant ones are the perfect size, but I feel better about myself eating the small one.

I won't go in to details on the next visit, except to embarassingly admit that it was only about 56 hours later (what?? Don't I cook??) and we had a bit of lunch...well sort of had lunch. My husband had the same breakfast sandwich he had two days before, which is a testament to its goodness, as he's someone who finds something he loves then settles in on it never to budge. I had a veggie sandwich on multigrain bread (WHY can't people serve WHOLE WHEAT bread...ok, another day, another post) and it was delicious. Same good service, same good food. Though I'd rather have a side of chips than another mini Duffeyroll. And you have to pay extra for chips.

Extremely minor complaints aside, I think Duffeyrolls is great. I've only been to the LP lightrail location, so I can't speak to Happy Canyon, but I'm guessing it must be just as good!

Tired but full

So, Osteria Marco is a gem. I shouldn't even tell you because it will just become overly popular and will be impossible to get in.

We started the evening at Cru in Larimer Square to have a glass of wine before dinner. Our waiter was very friendly and helpful, but not everyone wase satisfied with his recommendations. Oh, was only one drink. We were in the lounge downstairs, which is a very cool space. Now, I have to point out, I didn't realize this was a chain until today. Worse yet, it's a chain based in Texas. I try not to eat or drink at chains with any frequency (exception sometime being Colorado based eatries). Ah well. Now I know.

We headed across the street to a pleasantly crowded Osteria Marco in the basement. Our server was knowledgable and attentive...and patient as it took us ages to order and get through our food. The prices are very reasonable. We started with a bunch of appetizers. We did the chefs selection of house made cheeses. They were served with grilled bread and each one was excellent. There was a ricotta, a gorgonzola, a triple cream and a mozzarella. The ricotta was mild and creamy; it had a wonderfully light texture and spread on bread like soft butter. The mozzarella was soft and had just the right amount of salt. The triple cream was decadent and wonderfully flavorful. Last and maybe least (but still very good), the gorgonzola was really quite mild for a blue; very tasty.

We also got some marinated olives, proscuitto (parma) and the ciccioli (braised pulled pork...I believe it was braised in duck fat). Okay, I realize this is excessive for three people for starters, but it was really hard to decide. The proscuitto was devine. Salty and creamy and simply presented folded on a plate. I have to mention that 5 pieces or so for $8 seemed a bit steep, but it was very good nonetheless. The olive marinade was a bit strong for my taste, but my sister in law ate them with gusto, so it's just my palate that didn't agree. The pork had been recommended by our waiter and maybe pork isn't our thing, but it was just too rich for me. A bite was enough. If you're a pork fan though, I'd jump on it if I were you.

On to dinner...we had so much to start with we ended up ordering two pizzas and a salad. The salad was a bit diminuitive, but utterly delicious. Arugula perfectly dressed and sprinkled with golden raisins and pine nuts lightly mounded on a small plate. Then (yes, more proscuitto) a proscuitto and fresh mozzarella pizza topped with arugula. Utterly delicious (and a LOT of proscuitto). And finally a wild mushroom and robiola pizza. I am a devout lover of all things mushroom and this pizza did not disappoint (though a few of the mushrooms left something to be desired texturally). My mushroom pizza was so popular, there was only one slice left upon departure.

Somehow we were talked into dessert. I blame my sister in law. So we had a molten chocolate cake with chocolate gelato. Perfect in every way, except that in her gusto to dig in, my sister in law burned the roof of her mouth. Probably why it's 'molten'. Oh, well.

Wine selection is extensive and wonderful. Our server steered us towards a very moderately priced red that was perfect with our food.

All in all it was a wonderful meal. Hell, there's a chance we may go back to Osteria Marco within the week.

Happy eating.

Italian...and local

So I've read two books set on Italy in the past week and I have a hankering for a bit of Italy in my tummy (since I won't be there any time soon). Tonight we're going to try the quietly touted Osteria Marco in Larimer Square. I'm really looking forward to it and to quenching the Italian craving that's been eating at me. Looks like they're fairly casual, which is what I'm in the mood for tonight. They make many of their cheeses in house and they also locally (and where possible organically) source many of their ingredients. Well...except for the imported Italian meats (YUM - guilty pleasure!).

I'm always more willing to give a business my hard earned cash when they in turn support local farmers and food artisans. Not to mention I think that it shows a deep appreciation for food and very often a deep commitment to the environment. I'm ahead of myself on Osteria Marco, but certainly there are a lot of restaurants in Denver that are making the extra effort. Two I think of immediately are Black Pearl and Gaia over in Platt Park. Black Pearl does it's best to buy sustainably raised meats and fish and also buy locally when possible. Gaia goes even further and grows many of their vegetables and herbs in their back yard, bakes their own bread (well, one of the owners also owns Pajama Baking Co which provides their bread), gets eggs from a smaller producer in Boulder and they're even taking a stab at growing grapes to make wine. Can't wait to see how that turns out.

Want more local food in your life? Check out these websites to learn more or find a farm in your area: (this is the CSA I belong to. Great eggs and great veggies!)

Another website I *have* to mention is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My brother introduced me to it back when we actually had an aquarium in Denver. Remember Ocean Journey? And now a restaurant chain owns it...well anyway. This website can help you to make sustainable seafood choices when you eat, which is more important than you might realize. More on that later - that's a subject best explored on its own.

Will report back on Osteria Marco soon.