Monday, May 28, 2012

Ian Kleinman at Studio F Part I: Putting the Nitrogen Tank in Culinary Entertainment

Not too long ago, on a lazy Friday morning while busy not doing my wage-earning work, I opened my inbox to find an invitation to dine with Chef Ian Kleinman of The Inventing Room at the new Studio F. I continue to be genuinely surprised and flattered when I get invites to events like this, as I consider my contributions to the Denver food community questionable at best--so before the anyone had a chance to change his or her mind, I replied in the affirmative and marked it on my calendar.

A couple years ago I met Chef Kleinman-- smiling and with smoke coming out of his nose-- as he prepared nitrogen-laced sorbet for my wife and I tableside in the middle of an incredible multi-course meal. It was a most enjoyable evening: a pleasing mixture of delicious food, interactive chemistry-like cooking demos--and a cocktail-paired six-course feast. It was such an entertaining experience that I vowed I would eat with Kleinman again as soon as I was able.

Chef Kleinman

Studio F is a new venue that takes the place of the former Mise en Place cooking school. Chef James Mazzio re-opened the doors of this comfy and cozy home-kitchen-on-steroids this past March with the goal of hosting events that involve more than just sitting down for a meal in a restaurant. In fact he calls it a "Culinary Entertainment House"--and while I've never been a fan of fancy naming, its actually a pretty straightforward description of what he wants to do with this space. The best I could come up with is "James Mazzio's Fun-Time Dining Kitchen." (By the way I heard the "F" in Studio F stands for "Fun". For the record: I really, really wish he called it Studio Fun.)

But I digress. I can't think of many Colorado chefs better to dole out culinary entertainment than Chef Kleinman, so it makes perfect sense that he would be one of the first chefs to be featured at Studio F. Anytime a man travels with a five-foot tall tank of liquid nitrogen, something entertaining is bound to happen, and Chef Kleinman not only knows how to use his chemistry set, but he is also passionate about explaining and sharing his techniques with any and all of his diners.

We were part of the early crowd (we always are now) on a Saturday night and picked a prime seat in front of the television monitor relaying images of Chef Kleinman's burners to the small, open dining room. The TV was part of the original cooking school, which Chef Mazzio has gladly left mostly the same. It is a glorious open space with four large islands, glistening stainless steel everywhere, slick granite counters and glass-paned wooden cabinets lining the back wall. Pots and pans hang from the rafters and the space is at once modern and large, yet homey enough that you instantly want to grab a stool, sidle up to a counter and stay all night.

Before we were seated, we were given a freshly prepared bag of smoking popcorn lightly flavored with tomato--that is to say, Chef Mazzio poured liquid nitrogen into a bag of popcorn. It is always fun when smoke pours out your wife's nose as she eats across from you. Oh, and the popcorn was pretty good, too.

Muching on the bruschetta popcorn, we purusued the enticing list of cocktails. I chose the only whiskey-based drink in the bunch: a mix of ginger beer, Maker's Mark and lime juice. On the side was a shot glass full of bright blue maple-syrup-laced cotton candy.

Mixing the cotton candy in with the cocktail sweetened it slightly.

And when it all dissolved my drink turned green. The whiskey still came through and although I usually don't like anything else touching my whiskey, it was a tasty drink.

After I was done playing with my drink we turned our attention to the food. We ordered a seemingly simple appetizer of strawberries and tomatoes. Simple, however, is not in Chef Kleinman's vocabulary, as these sliced fruits were topped with a thin sheet of Mozarella spiced with a Tandoori rub, a cold, foamy balsamic vinegar and frozen, candied micro-basil. It might seem extraneous but the cold balsamic foam and the extra-sweet basil provided wonderful textural and temperature sensations. Together with the spiced mozzarella, it was a bright palate full of familiar flavors and classic combinations yet with Kleinman's distinct twist, making it all the fresher and more fun.

Even better than that was the lusicous lump crab served with ginger-poached pears, crisp bits of caramelized soy sugar and a creative, subtly spicy "habanero tabiko". Placed carefully on top was a small cilantro leaf. This was one of those plates where every flavor blended perfectly. It was my favorite dish of the evening.

As a palate cleanser, our server strongly urged us to order a sorbet, or some of the Kleinman's infamous Space Foam (this one flavored with chile relleno). The reason was clear. For this course, the chef came to the table and invited each guest up to his workspace as he whipped up fresh batches of the stuff with, of course, copious amounts of liquid nitrogen.

"Space Foam"

We had something similar at our previous dinner with Kleinman, but I was far from tired of it. Liquid nitrogen sorbet is delightfully creamy--something about the speed in which it freezes--and probably some other more smart-sounding reasons that I am not qualified to delve into. On top of this strawberry version were sprinkled chunks of frozen olive oil, which melted in my mouth delightfully with the sorbet, making it even creamier. And if that wasn't enough, a quenelle of creamy (and frozen) "goat cheese jelly" put this course over the top. As rich as a dessert, but wildly refreshing. Next course please.

sorbet, covered in smoke

My wife decided on the fried chicken. It sounded good: sous-vide potatoes, a corn pudding and a coconut gravy. It also sounded vaguely familiar. "Didn't we have that at our last Kleinman dinner?" I asked.

"I got so drunk, I can't remember," she giggled, bringing back the happy and hazy memories of that cocktail-paired meal, "I'm getting it either way."

It turned out we did have something similar then, but I was glad to sneak bites of her crispy and buttery-moist chicken. When I complimented the chef on such a fine piece of chicken he chalked it up to his 18 spices, "The Colonel only uses 12," he added. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that he also fried in a vacuum-sealed bag full of butter.

I ordered--surprise-- the pork belly, which was served over a bed of pork-laced Isreali couscous. The only thing better might have been serving it in the mouth of a pig's head so I could dig out some cheek meat to complete the pork trifecta-- altough it might be hard to find an immersion circulator big enough for a pig's head, and the perfectly poached egg was a good substitute for the pig's head. The yolk spread wonderfully over the couscous, the pork belly itself succulent and crispy-- and with its berbere spice-rub packed a respectable amount of heat.

The beer I ordered with my pork was the night's only disappointment. Advertised as the "World's coldest beer" it came out smoking like half of the kitchen was at the time. I realize I do not have the judicious sensibility of a Guinness Book of World Records official, but my home fridge does a better job. In fact a cooler of cold tap water would probably have worked better. There was smoke (which was again, pretty cool), but I am not sure the nitrogen got past the thick head of foam on top. World's coldest beer foam? Could be. Maybe I missed the fine print.

World's Coldest Beer foam

I realize I have gone on and on at this point, but it really was a great meal. And it wasn't done. Dessert was next and is worthy of a post all of its own. Please check back soon for Part II of my first Studio F meal.

By now it is too late to eat with Chef Kleinman at Studio F this time around but check in on the website to see what's coming up next. Chef Kleinman can be found on the world wide web and is even available for hire--keep an eye out and don't miss him if you ever have a chance to eat his food.

Stay tuned.

Click here to be taken to part two, the dessert. Studio F on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Denver al Pastor Take 15: Los Toritos

If you have read this blog for some time you might remember my former Chicago roommates, Michael, for his passionate, almost physical love of fried chicken skins; and Brian, for his ridiculous obsession with all food Asian. We had a lot of memorable meals together, but one thing that stands out in particular was a taqueria not too far from our home (though we never knew exactly where) that delivered tacos al pastor at all hours of the night. There was no weather too harsh, no hour of the night too obscene and most importantly for us--though horribly unprofitable for them-- no minimum order. 

It became our reason for existence. Our mantra. No night out was complete without at least one taco al pastor. Long nights of reveling ended with drunken chants for pastor as we stumbled home. It got so bad (or so good depending how you look at it) that we would summon our poor taco courier at 3am for a single taco just to help us sleep. The taco al pastor, it was strong in us. 

Brian has lived in Denver for some time now though for many poor reasons I rarely see him. For some time we have tried to make plans to eat pastor together, and we finally met at a place that I have been meaning to check out for a while: Los Toritos on East Colfax. 

Waiting to meet someone in a booth at the mostly-empty Los Toritos sipping a Victoria, one feels a little like he might be in a 1970s-era film waiting to meet some questionable character to plan some elaborate illegal scheme. Despite the direct sun hitting the restaurants large windows, the interior was dim, the dark blinds only partway open. What light entered was dramatic and cast long shadows across my table. The booths were tall and deep, and several faux-brick archways framed the long bar, which was mirrored and full of tequila bottles. The place was empty save for a couple in a booth near me--all I could see was a tall sombrero. I glanced out the window at the gritty corner of East Colfax and Chester only to see Brian walking by. My Hollywood heist-planning daydream was broken. Time to eat tacos and drink more beer.

Los Toritos does have pastor on a spit, like it should, but only on the weekends. During the weekday, one can indulge in two-for-one cervezas but the pastor is coming pre-chopped and is going straight to the grill. It was Friday at 5:30, a borderline time to be considered a weekend so I called ahead to confirm the spit setup. I got an affirmative, though I didn't see it when I came in the door so I asked again. I was assured that yes, at this moment they were carving al pastor meat from a spit and serving it on tacos.

Fair enough, though I did never lay my eyes on it. We ordered four tacos and set into two more Victorias. When the tacos came out I took one look and was already disappointed. The meat was in large chunks, was minimally charred, and the pineapple was canned. The salsas were average and the taco was decent for a pork taco, and much less-so for a taco claiming to be al pastor.

But people kept coming in and the menu was extensive so we decided to try something else. Brian had never had an alambre, and it isn't everyday you find one on a Mexican menu so we ordered one.

An alambre is a Mexico City tradition, made by grilling meats, onions and peppers and mixing in shredded cheese at the end. What results is a grilled, gooey pile of cheesy meat that can be eaten as such or heaped onto a tortilla. The dish that came out at Toritos was indeed a splendid mix of meat including carne asada and hot dogs, but the bright yellow cheese was not even melted in with the meat. I don't completely mind the crappy cheese-blend, but not being cooked in with the meat really shows a poor understanding of what an alambre is all about.

Needless to say it was pretty bad. I love a mixed-meat product like a hot dog to complement my single-animal meats as much as the next guy, but the hot dog ratio was high in this alambre, drowning out the other meats and dominating the dish both in flavor and texture. We polished off our Victorias and headed out the door.

On the way out I saw they were setting up for a Karoake night with an elaborate mixer and video system. I am starting to think that there is a connection between Karoake nights and poorly executed food at places like this. Spend too much time worrying about the music and the food suffers.

Brian is always up for a food adventure, and I felt a little like I let him down with Los Toritos. To make it up to him I dragged him down to Tacos Junior to have a much, much better taco al pastor. I was pleased to see the quality has remained the same here, as I consistently rank them high on my Denver taco al pastor list.

Thanks again, Tacos Junior

After that it was off to have another drink and call it a night. We reminisced quite a bit about those tacos al pastor in Chicago. We couldn't even remember if they were good or not. They were certainly good enough. And we will always share a love of the pastor that transcends never seeing each other. In fact soon after our night out, Michael called to say he was making a rare visit to Denver for a reunion of sorts. Coincidence? Doubtful. The pastor, as I said, is strong in us. 

Los Toritos on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cinco de Mayonesa: The 5th of May in Denver on the 6th

A few weeks ago a friend of my wife called asking for advice. My wife's friend had just been asked to throw a "traditional" Cinco de Mayo party for her entire office, and she had no idea what that meant.  My wife and her friend were both born and raised in Mexico--and as most of you know (especially if you read this blog), most Mexicans in Mexico do not give much more thought to the 5th of May than they do to the 4th or the 6th.

In fact, a “traditional” celebration would likely have to involve some sort of drawn out re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla itself, not unlike our country’s own tradition-clinging Civil War battle stagings—that is to say profoundly boring and a little weird. Or if in Puebla itself--where the event has been modernized over the years-- it also might involve copious fireworks and parades to rival our own 4th of July displays. Needless to say, unless our friend’s boss liked to dress up and play war (or wanted to shoot off fireworks from the roof of the office building), that is probably not what he had in mind.

Cinco de Mayo in the US is a great holiday—as good as they come no doubt-- a day to celebrate all things that might possibly be thought of as Mexican, Chicano or even just Latino. Of course there are one-too-many intoxicated frat boys in sarapes and sombreros (note: one is too many); and then there is the commercialization and arguable exploitation of an identity (or better, stereotype) by businesses and companies—some that on the other 364 days of the year might otherwise shun those for whom the holiday pretends to honor.

On Cinco de Mayo, giant inflated Mexican beer cans are a must

But I digress, and to clarify, I love the blurring of cultural lines, the questioning of tradition and the redefining of authenticity that holidays like Cinco de Mayo bring. And this year, like many others we found ourselves amongst the crowds at Denver’s own 5th of May celebration.

The Civic Center Cinco de Mayo celebration is much like any other event in our city center though with more Mexican music. There were also more luchador masks as well as an en masse Zumba class—vying to be the largest single aerobic-reggaeton gathering ever (if that doesn't sum up all the good and bad of a Cinco de Mayo event then I don't know what does).

The food is also slightly more Mexican than the typical Denver-fest, though there are still the omnipresent turkey leg and Kettle Corn vendors. This year I was thrilled to see El Divino on the list but was disappointed to pass by and find that they did not bring their spit.

We walked right by El Divino and headed to a place called Mama Tere. We got some pastor and carne asada. It was not pastor from a spit but the guy out in front of the booth kept yelling in my ear about how good it was—how it had been soaking in chiles all night. It was a nice, tender pork taco—but it could hardly be called pastor.

The carne asada at Mama Tere had a strange texture and was chewy. It might have fallen into the category of “not quite sure if that is beef”--and could enter into the meat debates I have been having as of late. My wife and I ate it (they weren't cheap) but were glad for the thorough salsa bath to make it more palatable. I gave some to my boys and after sucking off the salt, they promptly spit the meat into the grass. 

Next door to Mama Tere was a vendor selling elote, Mexican style. This corn-on-a-stick is a favorite of my wife's and is one of those nostalgia-inducing foods that bring a smile to her face every time she sees it in the US. The corn is roasted then lathered in mayo and dusted with chile powder and finely grated cheese. A clear step up from butter and salt, and it still counts as a vegetable.

Now feeling slightly healthier with a full serving of veggies in me, I needed our next bite to be a lot greasier and meatier. That was no problem, as just a little further down Bannock someone was selling Mexican hot dogs. Wrapped in bacon and grilled I could not think of many other better foods to represent Cinco de Mayo. This version came with grilled onions and a huge jalapo. I splashed some yellow mustard on top, sprinkled on a little cheese and bit into hot dog heaven.

Fatty, thick bacon is such a natural complement to a hot dog. It seems so obvious but took a Mexican-inspired culinary stroke of genius to realize it. Though a Chicago hot dog purist myself, I readily admit the Mexican hot dog is a clear step up for this processed meat treat.

Our last stop was at a Navajo Taco stand. The "tacos" didn't even look all that good, but in the spirit of Cinco de Mayo I thought I should support this culturally mixed-up food stand.

Indeed it was the silliest and least tasty of the three meals we had that day. The Navajo fry bread was great, as was the slow-cooked barbeque pork. But it combined so poorly with the chile con carne and the neon cheddar cheese that it was like three different meals all in one bite—not necessarily in a good way. Again, I love re-defining tradition and mixing cultures, but it isn’t always pretty.

Cinco de Mayo or not, any day is good when I end up eating tacos and hot dogs within a one hour of each other (the next day isn't always as good) and today was no exception. As for our friend's Cinco de Mayo party? She ended up giving her office just what they all expected (no fireworks and no staged battle scenes), though it was clearly her that learned the most about a new cultural experience. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tacos el Chorizo on East Colfax: Keep Going East!

If you are unfamiliar with East Denver or Aurora and are driving East out of downtown on Colfax in search of some really good tacos (like these, these or these) you will no doubt notice Tacos el Chorizo soon after crossing Colorado. Having myself lived many years in the heart of Denver I realize that being East of Colorado Blvd seems long trip and Tacos el Chorizo sure has the look of one of those tasty East Colfax taquerias you have heard so much about-- what with the crudely painted cartoonish pig and bright colored signs advertising tacos, tortas and the like. But do yourself a favor, don't stop.

Even inside one gets the tempting whiff of taco grease and with the smiling señora that is often there, the feeling that there is some good ol' casera-style Mexican cooking going on. There is even a simple wall menu with endearing mis-translations to English that let its Gabacho customers know that they can top their tacos with the "produce" and "chilli" of their choice at the salsa bar. Needless to say, the clientele is predominantly Spanish-speaking--hell there is even a poster advertising a Karaoke night with Chihuahua Charly. But alas, despite all these good signs, Tacos el Chorizo is well, not good.

I also have given Tacos El Chorizo more than its fair number of chances, having dined there at least five times in the past five years. Each time finishing my tacos and groaning, thinking, "Why did I finish my tacos?" I hate to write bad reviews. Especially of a mom-and-pop shop like this, but as a lover of many, many glorious tacos just a little further East down Colfax I don't want folks driving out here and thinking Tacos el Chorizo might be one of them.

My wife and I stopped in the other night for reasons I still do not know (I think I have a soft spot for cartoon pig logos--like my own). The reality was that we were quite hungry, headed East on Colfax and literally stopped at the first taqueria we found. We did debate crossing the threshold for a minute as not-so-special memories hazily floated in the backs of our glucose-starved brains. I eventually justified the entry by remembering that I wanted to check if they ever set up their pastor spit as they had promised a couple years back.

That spit of pastor on the sign is false advertising

When we walked in I immediately went to the second room to see if the shiny spit-roaster (that had never felt the weight of a full pastor spit) was still there and if so, if they finally stuck some meat on it. Alas, the room was full of other types of paraphernalia, apparently for Chihuahua Charly and his Karoake machine. Otherwise it was dark, void of any pastor potential.

Sad and foreboding as this discovery was, we still proceeded to order tacos. Pastor and carnitas for me; and for my wife adobada, carne asada and barbacoa.

The pastor was just as I remembered it. The marinade was acrid with tomatoes and had no depth or complexity that would make it somewhat salvageable. The canned pineapples were mixed in with the meat and grilled as such. There was, as I said, no spit.

The carnitas were decent in the way that thrice-fried re-heated meat is. What saved them both was the excellent and spicy smoky red salsa from the salsa bar.

My wife hadn't eaten lunch and absolutely devoured her carne asada and barbacoa before I had a chance to try them. She gave then a thumbs-down as she groaned through the last bite and like her husband so often rues, told me, "I shouldn't have eaten so fast."

Carne asada on left, adobada-like taco on right

Then there was the adobada. The adobaba would fit nicely in the meat debate I had in my previous post--that is, it was hard to say what it was. It was orange--presumably from the marinade though it was white meat (or carne blanca) of some kind, let's say pork. My wife refused to take a bite and being such a caring husband I consented. Not sure what flavor they were going for but I think it is safe to call it a failure.

To be fair I have tried nothing but tacos at El Chorizo, and while they might have some other good dishes, if tacos aren't a good measure of a taqueria then I don't know what is. So when headed out Colfax do yourself a favor and keep on going East--at least just past Syracuse where you will find your first taco pleasure fulfilled at Taco Mex. And don't stop there: Tacos Acapulco, Tacos y Salsas, Tacos Junior--they all await just further on down the road. And if you make it to Peoria--its like a whole other world.

Tacos El Chorizo on Urbanspoon


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