Italian to die for...

We went to Il Posto for the second time recently. Our first visit was fantastic, but a bit hazy due to a wait to be seated (our fault for showing up late for our reservation) and a subsequent deep exploration of the wine list (it was our second destination that evening and the first involved cocktails). This time, it was just two of us and we were on time.

We were seated at a decent two top. It's a small room with high ceilings and Friday night it was (almost) warm enough to have the garage doors which make up the front of the restaurant thrown wide open. The high ceilings make for crap acoustics, so you do have to yell a bit to have a conversation, but ultimately it's worth it. There can't be seating for more than 50 people, but it's loud enough that it sounds like 100.

How is it 'worth it'? I'd sit in just about any room to eat the food that comes out of this kitchen. The menu changes daily; it's posted up on chalkboards high up on the walls. The focus is on fresh, seasonal ingredients melded together into a perfect representation of the foods that Italians are so passionate about. There is an ever changing selection of starters, primi and secondi. It all looked so good, we had to have a bit of everything.

I started with a warm baby red chard salad. It would not even occur to me to use chard in a salad as it typically requires a bit of heat and love to make it delicious, which doesn't make me think 'salad', but after eating this, I need to broaden my definition. The chard was slightly wilted, then tossed with trumpet mushrooms and some soft, creamy Italian cheese that melts so completely that it turns into a lush, silken dressing. I was stupefied by the marriage of flavors and textures and tried to eat it slowly to savor every delicious bite. I'm afraid I'll never have a salad this good again.

My husband had a stuffed calamari dish. He's a guy that dearly loves your classic fried calamari when it's done right; crispy batter and tender inside, maybe with a bit of lemon. Well, this isn't like that at all. It's a big calamari steak stuffed with all manner of things; breadcrumbs, parsley, capers...I have no idea what else, then sliced into perfect rings, heaving with goodies. Suffice it to say, the dish really works. The calamari was cooked perfectly and the tang of the capers added a nice element of interest to the stuffing. The portion would have easily fed three or four.

A great start, so on to the primi. I would eat risotto any day of the week, but my husband was up for pasta and he chose one that looked very delectable. It was a homemade orichette, cooked al dente. None of that thumb-sized dried pasta here. These were substantial; nearly silver dollar sized, with a slightly chewy texture. It was tossed with a light tomato and arugula sauce that worked perfectly. Thank heavens we split it or we couldn't have eaten our secondi.

We split the secondi as well. It was a perfectly grilled hangar steak, sliced and fanned out on our plate. It was gorgeously red with a charred exterior and a tremendously flavorful, chewy interior. Hangar steak is a cut that's gaining popularity in restaurants; I'm guessing because it's still a bit cheap and it's lean and very delicious. It was served with a milk braised baby fennel. I'm not mad for anise, but fennel has taken root and grown on me like a weed. Braising is one of the best ways to prepare it. It makes it soft and creamy, and mellows out the sharpness of the licorice flavor. It's a lovely, simple dish to accompany something rich like a steak.

The wine we chose was a serviceable, though not inexpensive Valpolicella. The wine list is heavily if not entirely Italian and getting a recommendation from the sommelier or your waiter is probably a good idea unless you are a real Italian wine buff. The service is excellent and subtle, which is what I want when I'm enjoying a meal as much as I did this one. We were allowed to take our time and enjoy every minute of the evening.

I know I've somehow missed a few delicious details of this meal; but that's what happens when you don't sit down to write about it immediately. I was just too busy basking in the glow of Il Posto's food to be bothered with capturing the finer points in writing. Perhaps I'll do a better job next time. Or the time after that. Or the time after that. Or the time after that...

North Restaurant

Last night we went to North in Cherry Creek at the behest of some friends. We met our friends and their two kids for an early dinner that ended up stretching for about three hours. The impetus was their half price wine on Monday nights deal, however we made up for the savings in quantity.

Upon arrival, I was instantly blinded by the unfortunate angle of the sun into the foyer, but soon found our friends and joined them at a sleek booth near the bustling kitchen. We asked our waiter for a white wine suggestion that wasn't too acidic and wasn't Chardonnay, as the list was heavily Italian and didn't have many familiar vintners. He immediately suggested the most expensive white wine on the list ($59) that was in fact a Chardonnay. Last time we ask his opinion on that subject.

We settled on an '05 Groth Sauvignon Blanc ($38 - but remember all the wine is 1/2 off so suddenly it's a smokin' hot deal) and were quite satisfied. By the time we shut up long enough to order starters, we were ready for some red wine and ordered (our first) bottle of '04 Mauro Molino Nebbiolo ($52 pre discount). It was just right for the evening; a bit light, not too complex, but the right amount of flavor to keep you interested and not overwhelm your food.

The starters showed up and we dug in. A tossed caprese-esque salad and the fried calamari were both good choices. The tomato and mozzarella salad came tossed with smoky grilled bread, super fresh basil, and an eye opening drizzle of rich, aged basalmic vinegar that brought all of the flavors together. The calamari was served essentially in a salad of fresh spinich and arugula in a citrusy dressing, topped with grilled lemons (which later were eaten by one of the kids - yum!).

We split salads (which I didn't even know you could do!). Our caesar showed up without anchovies (despite my husband's specific request that his have some) and it took until he was nearly finished before a small bowl of them arrived. The salad was perfectly dressed, by which I mean not drowning in dressing, but a very light coating on each leaf. The greens were crisp and refreshing.

For entrees, I ordered the fresh fish of the day, which was some sort of Canadian snapper (which I hope to God was sustainably harvested - I'm fairly certain our waiter didn't have a clue. He tried telling me that the sea bass was Canadian, too). I should know better than to order something that had been described by the waiter as 'a bit oily', as that's really not my kind of fish, but he swayed me when he said how nicely the fish flaked. He also had steered me away from the sea bass, saying it wasn't a very successful dish. The fish came and I realized that my waiter needed a lesson in what 'flakiness' means when referring to fish. It was well prepared and very flavorful, but as I said, not my cup of tea. It was served over a bed of mushroom orzo, which was positively heavenly. The pasta was slick with a lemony oil and was peppered with rich, earthy mushrooms. I frankly could have had that and the fennel shavings atop the fish and been perfectly satisfied.

Our dining companions also had the fish and seemed to enjoy it (their plates were clean, anyway). My husband ordered the shrimp fettuccini. It was meant to be served with broccolini and a spicy garlic sugo. It came instead with broccoli and a very light sauce (which was not very spicy, nor very similar to what the waiter had described this sugo to be, nor did it taste as though many hours cooking effort had gone into it). Now, I'm the kind of person that gets extremely frustrated having an ingredient substituted without being told first. Broccolini and broccoli are damn different. If you're changing the dish because you're out of something, TELL ME. But frankly I don't think my husband gave a hoot (or perhaps even noticed). The dish was good, but for $21, I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Overall, North was pretty good. It's a great location and has fabulous ambience. I think it's kind of expensive for decent but unremarkable food, and the service is average and not terribly knowledgable. But all that said, it was a really fun evening and the 1/2 price wine didn't hurt a bit.

Exotic ethnic

Well, not that exotic; it's only Indian. Little India's opened an outpost in South Denver off of Downing a few years ago, and while for me it lacks the ambience of their other locations, it's nice to have good Indian food close by. Tucked into the back side of a building near Porter Hospital in a not very exciting little business district, the space has been a number of restaurants, most recently a not very notable Italian joint. They seem to do a decent amount of business in a spot that has been challenging for restaurants to succeed in.

We have eaten in many times and occasionally get take out. Our most recent dine there was of the take out variety. I ordered the chicken tikka masala (I know, how boring, but I just can't resist!) and my husband ordered dal makhani (a vegetarian lentil dish). We rounded out the meal with a few orders of regular and garlic naan.

The portions for take out are terrific. A medium-ish styrofoam (shame, shame!) container absolutely heaving with perfectly cooked and lightly spiced basmati rice, accompanied by medium sized plastic containers filled to the brim with each entree (I wonder if you actually get a larger portion when you order out??) were enough to feed four rather than two (as evidenced by what I ate for lunch today...and will have again tomorrow!).

My chicken tikka masala ($13.99) was exactly what I've come to expect from Little India's; slightly dried out white meat chicken in the most creamy, heavenly masala sauce I have ever come across. I put up with the dry chicken solely so that I may enjoy the sauce. Honestly, they could just give me a container of sauce, some rice and some naan and I'd be perfectly set. I suppose at some stage, I could branch out and try one of the seafood masalas or the channa masala (chickpeas) and see if having a different protien improves the dish...maybe next time.

My husband's dal makhani ($9.99 - lentils cooked with garlic, ginger, tomato and spices) was delicious. Spicy and thick, you don't miss having meat as your entree for a moment. The sauce is very substantial and totally satisfying to mop up with the hot naan. My husband is an avid kebab eater in Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants and isn't exactly hankering to become a vegetarian (can I tell you how much he wants to grill in this weather??), but I would bet he never orders a meat dish at Little India's again. Hell, he doesn't need to. This dish will do quite nicely, thank you!

Overall, Little India's is tasty, reliable Indian food. All of the 'standard' dishes you'd expect at an Indian restaurant are on the menu and are well executed. The prices are very resonable, and if you're dining in, the service is just fine. I'm glad they are in the neighborhood!

'Sample' is right!

We spent the weekend up skiing in the mountains. We stayed in a condo in Keystone and it felt like the good old days as the lift lines were short to non-existent, the snow was good and the road traffic was utterly absent. Divine.

We decided to cook one night and eat out one night. For our cooked dinner, I must compliment my husband's culinary skills with meat - perfectly cooked bison burgers with a dripping, melted cheddar on top. That accomplished without the grill promised in the condo description.

Saturday, I booked us in to Samplings, a wine bar and tapas restaurant in Frisco. I had wanted to go there for ages as I'm a total sucker for tapas as well as wine bars. We had peeked in once before and the room looked really neat and the menu delicious so we decided to go.

Three of us were seated promptly at a table near the fireplace (welcome on this chilly night) and we were greeted reasonably quickly by our server, Melissa. We browsed the menu and the wine list and my husband, a total savant at choosing fabulous wines, even from unfamiliar vintners, made his selection. The sommelier (perhaps one of the youngest in this kind of job by the looks of him) gave the obligatory 'good choice, sir' (or some variant) and went off to retreive our wine. He came back with apologies that the wine was out of stock (something he should have known, not to mention that should have been updated on the wine list. The only forgiveness here was that it was the end of the ski season, but still).

Mistake number two - rather than offer a comparable bottle or slightly better for the same price (which any good restaurant or wine bar would do), he merely made a few suggestions for a few similar wines (and a few not so similar) at a similar price point. We tried one that was available by the glass and ultimately selected another altogether. The wine service was adequate, though after the opening, tasting and the first pour, my husband did most of the service - again, something that I wouldn't expect from a wine bar.

We dove into the menu. We started with the Samplings Caesar, the Mixed Olives and Marcona Almonds and the Grilled and Smoked Artisan Sausages. The salad came out in a cute little bowl, and by cute, I mean small. I know what tapas are, I know they are designed to be small, to share. I also know that the prices at Samplings were over the top.

The flavors in the $9 Caesar were wonderful, with a few, small slivers of blood orange, toasted pumpkin seeds and the garlic and black pepper dressing (though a little less of the latter would have been welcome). I would say that for three people, we each got 3 or maybe 4 bites of salad. For $9.

The sausages were divine. The plate was segmented into little divots and there were three different, tiny, diagonal slices of sausage. With three little dollops of different mustards. Total. The taste was wonderful, one sweet, one smoky, one rich. The mustards were as diverse as the sausages. But at $8, I'd expect more than a few slices of sausage. Really - picture a silver dollar. They were that big (though a bit thicker).

The olives and almonds were the hit (and they lasted more than four minutes). Another neat serving piece arrived with three compartments, one filled with kalamata olives, one with pepitas and Marcona almonds and one with picholine olives accented with fennel. All delicious and at a more reasonable portion size (for $8).

So far, not great. The food itself was delicious, the presentation lovely, the waitstaff service excellent, but we were not ever going to get full at this rate. We ordered more. Proscuitto and asparagus ($8) and a grilled olive bread bruschetta ($12).

The asparagus dish arrived first. Five perfectly grilled, thin pieces of asparagus on a light bed of folded proscuitto and shaved Manchego cheese, drizzled with an olive tapenade vinegarette. A perfect marriage of flavors. The proscuitto was salty sweet and paired with a bit of the crumbly cheese and the grilled veg, it was a match made in heaven.

The bruschetta was also terrific. French bread slices topped with a dried chorizo, manchego cheese, pesto, olive tapenade and a few dots of syrupy basalmic. The flavors blended perfectly and made for a complex package of deliciousness. Four slices if you're counting. $3 each.

So for $100, we had a large snack and a nice bottle of wine. We enjoyed ourselves, but I have to say that I've been to a myriad of tapas restaurants in Denver as well as in larger cities like Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. Across the board, they were less expensive, much better value, and had more diversity in their ingredients (we had a lot of dishes with the same cheese, olives, sausages, pumpkin seeds, etc at Samplings).

The food at Samplings was great. Our server Melissa was great. The room was beautifully designed and had great ambience. The wine that we eventually chose was great. The portions were skeletal relative to the prices. The dishes could do with a bit more diversity of ingredients. The sommelier was not as experienced as I would expect. The wine service was underwhelming. I know there is a market for this restaurant in Summit County. Samplings is promising, I just think they can be better.

Beans -n- Greens

In my eyes, Jack Bishop is a god of vegetarian cooking. For a long time, I've been slowly reducing the amount of meat in my diet, but it's been an evloutionary process. Finding good, interesting vegetarian cookbooks has been half the battle, not to mention a struggle.

Let me back up. I've only been cooking for about 7 years, and when I began, I did as I so often do when I approach a new subject that fascinates me, I learn as much as I possibly can about it. So I grabbed cookbooks, nutrition books, health books...whatever I could get my hands on from the local library and dove in. My first real test was roasting a chicken in my cruddy little apartment electric oven. Thankfully, I was successful (despite not really knowing to take the giblets out -- or that they were even IN there), and a love of cooking was born.

Anyway, as I said, it's been an evolution. I'm not a vegetarian, nor do I (at this point) intend to become one. I enjoy a nice steak or a dripping, jucy burger with the best of them, I just don't do it as often. I would say my meals are 70%+ vegetarian at this point. That said, I do have a husband to feed, and I don't want him thinking I'm feeding him a bunch of side dishes (which has in fact happened on more than one occasion). We both grew up in meat, starch and veg households (happily, I might add - I have nostalgia for that kind of eating), but with conventional wisdom on nutrition and the environment as well as the staggering energy and caloric inputs required to produce meat, my health and my conscience have lead me to change.

There's a lot of vegetarian cookbooks and recipes out there with seitan, tofu, TVP (textued vegetable protien)...well the list goes on. I happen to like most of these products, however I don't love cooking with them. Also, I'm leaning more towards single ingredient foods (say like...beets) versus 'manufactured' foods whenever I can. Whole foods are always better for you and you don't have to wonder what's in there.

Here comes Jack Bishop. It started with his book Vegetables Every Day (which was invaluable during my first year of subscribing to a CSA!! More on that another time.) and most recently has segued to A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen. His recipes are all about the vegetables and showcasing their fabulousness. I never feel like I'm eating side dishes or that I'm missing my protein with his recipes. I just feel like I'm having a great, flavorful meal. Last night, I used a recipe in A Year to launch my own version of 'Beans n Greens'.

I had some really lovely rainbow chard in the fridge and was headed to the store anyway, so I picked up a bunch of lacinto kale just to shake things up a bit and get a few different textures going in the greens. Everything else I needed I already had or was in the pantry. The greens I treated as you always do - clean them, remove the ribs and chop them roughly. (You can save the ribs to use in another recipe). I sliced two medium, yellow onions thinly and sauteed them for about 10 minutes in hot olive oil. I added several cloves of garlic (up to you how much you like!) and let them go until they became fragrant, then added the greens, some salt and pepper, then covered the pot to let the greens braise.

In the meantime, I took two cans of white beans and drained and rinsed them then plopped them into the food processor. I heated a cup of chicken broth (it's what I had and as I said I'm not a veg. You could use any broth or stock here and flavor it any way you want, keeping in mind you'll want to continue or at least compliment the flavor profile of the greens) then poured the hot broth in with the beans and blended them until very smooth. Next, a minced clove of garlic in hot oil for about a minute before pouring the beans in to warm them up. The greens had been in for 5 minutes now, so I turned off the heat.

Assembly was easy. A low, wide soup bowl made for the best aesthetic. I put a thick, steaming layer of the bean puree in, then mounded a pile of the hot, fragrant greens on top, and voila! The credit goes to Jack Bishop of course, but I put my own signature on the dish. That's what I'd encourage you do to as well. Use a recipe for your outline or inspiration, then add your own personal touch.

My husband liked it. A lot. There would be a photo, but we were too caught up in eating it.

Happy cooking.