Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cart-Driver - Italian Market-Driven Restaurant

I love it when a restaurant's existence surprises me. I was walking past Work & Class to my car when I noticed the Cart-Driver sign. Lights went off, name recognition went on, and I burst up the stairs to check out this restaurant where I was greeted by Andrew Birkholz, the co-owner.
He explained the inspiration: Italian truck stops, the practiced concept: standard wood-fired pizzas and market menu items that change with recent market finds and why they have Chartreuse VEP: distributor confusion. It was an excellent first meeting, but I couldn't stay because we had already eaten.

Two weeks later I returned with my girlfriend. This time we were greeted by Ross. He explained the menu and highlighted the market items.
We asked a few questions like - what's rapini? Related to broccoli and mustard greens. What's grandma's pizza? Essentially their gluten-free pizza with chickpea flour. Is the cart-driver pizza too spicy with the chili flakes? Not at all.
You order at the counter and then have several seating options - outdoor facing 25th, indoor (high top(s) for 2-6 people and low), and outdoor in the shipping container shared space area (still separated slightly). It was quiet here in complete contrast with the packed and boisterous Work & Class. It was a good dinner date choice.
We sat down and were quickly served our market menu items starting with the prosciutto mousse. We flattened the mousse with our knives and bit into it. The basil hit our nose first, then we tasted the saltiness from the prosciutto and we finished going through the greens and bread.
Next was the egglant and burrata. The egglant was a charcoal gray, a dark relation to the white burrata drizzled with oil and dotted with fennel pollen. I recommend sampling both separately and then proceed from there. The fennel's licorice flavor did not come through for me, though I did not realize it was there and therefore wasn't attuned to it. When we inquired about the yellow substance, we got to sample some fennel seeds off the stalk.

Finally, the pizza came. Between order and sit down, it took nearly 5 minutes for everything to arrive. It looked delicious and came pre-sliced. The rapini's strong bitter flavor immediately hit us. The mild sausage and mozzarella did balance it out. The crust was gently doughy and elastic and lightly touched with charcoal. It was a delightful pizza. Everything was quite filling and we left with half a pizza.
Overall, it was a quite satisfying, memorable experience. I look forward to their ever-changing menu.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sugarmill - The Chef in Front

How can I explain the great time I had at Sugarmill? It begins and ends with Noah. The face of the restaurants, he's a maddening advertising force. You're only here to browse the take away dessert counter? Well, you might be tempted to stay with their "sex on a spoon" (not my words) pineapple cannelloni-looking dessert. Noah doesn't bulldoze your protestations, he merely slipstreams past them. And if you're only here for one purpose, dessert, he might tempt you with an amuse bouche comprised of a brandied cherry tucked inside an herbed cream puff with lightly sweetened whipped cream.
When you arrive, ask for seats at the bar. You want to glimpse the kitchen action. From Noahsphere construction to short rib tortellini plating, you'll indubitably love this food orchestra section. As we agonized over choosing a dessert, we were tempted many times by their savory selections.
We ordered their apple almond tart and chocolate jasmine bar. It was certainly fun watching both being prepared while jamming to great soul tunes.My girlfriend still daydreams over their muscavado ice cream that came with her chocolate jasmine bar, while I recall the constant balance between almond and apple as texture and temperature contrasted - almond meal against apple slices, warm tart against chilled diced apples.
And when Noah heard we were celebrating Valentine's a day early, he generously gave us raspberry truffles which were saved until the next day. Delicious! We swore we would return the following day early before the Valentine's Day rush.

Visit 2

V-Day brought us to an empty restaurant with staff bustling about with preparations. I misunderstood they were only doing a fixed price menu (makes sense for such a crazy day) as we sat down. Noah overheard us debating because we had wanted to sample their savory menu. He kindly excused us for another day and another attempt, but not before sharing champagne sorbet with us. Sugarmill - leaving impressive impressions. Go there.

Visit 3

Good thing I listen to and take my own advice. Our third visit placed us directly before Denver Restaurant Week's bustling madness and more fixed price menus. I'm not against fixed price menus, but when there are many things to explore on Sugarmill's regular menu, I want that experience. However, fixed menus are great for managing budgets and restaurants can focus on select items rather than two separate menus.

This evening's focus was dinner. We've done sweets, a tease, now savory awaited.
Again, we start with an amuse bouche, bagels and lox in miniature with house cured gravlax, pickled onion, and cream cheese. Small, yet potent flavor.

We took much time browsing the menu. We discovered the short rib tortellini was through and instead they featured a special with salmon, house made fettuccine, and parmesan mushroom sauce. The foie gras torchon had also been eliminated. Restaurant Week was a'comin' and they were starting a new menu March 1. We decided to begin with the hummus.
This $4 plate featured red and golden beet hummus topped with pistachios and beet cubes and accompanied by a lightly oil drizzled baguette. The hummus was substantive, yet light. The beet flavor was prevalent not dominant. The golden beet hummus was perhaps a touch sweeter. With these generous helpings, be prepared to generously top your bread and use your silverware as backup. 
We knew the main dish ending our meal, but we wanted a middle item. We couldn't agree, so eventually we asked our server. She suggested the roasted mushroom toast. It starts with a thick slice of earthy dark bread, topped with roasted mushrooms with arugula, julienned radish, and parmesan. Truffle is the first scent that arises. The parmesan was lightly melted, the bread easily cut and divided. It was a delicious mushroom treat.
Our finishing bite was crispy salmon atop their house made fettuccine, parmesan mushroom sauce and lemony 'chokes. I marveled at the salmon's richness and hunted down those 'chokes (arti- or sun-, I couldn't tell). Even with two splitting, we still had leftovers.
And... and... Noah tempted us once more with lemon and chocolate mocha macarons. These were not the airy macarons I know in France, but macarons with some heft. So good!

Their spring menu began March 1 and I will return. From my three visits, I have some overall impressions to share. 1. With generous portions and high quality food, Sugarmill could and perhaps should raise their prices $1-2. I never say this, but I am today. 2. It's rare to see a chef leave his kitchen, but Noah frequently does to encourage people to try his savory or sweet foods, find the restroom, and deliver a menu item. His open personality is found within his staff also. 3. He's made me into someone who wants to be a regular. That is extraordinary, but I'm a willing participant. With avidly writing reviews on Yelp, I always strive to find new places and rarely return to old ones. A few places make the cut, but I'm always drawn to the next bright thing. It seems that Sugarmill will continue burning bright on my horizon.

2461 Larimer St
Ste 101
Denver, CO 80205