Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Euclid Hall: Pigs' Heads and Baby Godzilla

Pigs' Heads at the Bar

The past few weeks have been a little rough.

Two weeks ago Matt got into a "fender bender," as he taught Roman to call it, with a telephone pole when his car slid out of control on the snow and ice.  They were headed to A-basin to go skiing in a big storm and had decided to turn around when it happened.  Nobody was hurt, except the car, thank God, but the absence of Matt's car and the lack of straight-forwardness regarding when it will be ready has created some crazy mornings with me driving both him and Roman into downtown Denver and then some exhausting afternoons picking them up.  On the one hand, Roman and I listened to the entirety of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, a favorite of mine from Mrs. Moses' 4th grade class (and perhaps one of the many reasons I viciously hate mosquitoes).  On the other hand, we are all also sick (wonderful mid-winter colds and coughs for the lot of us!) and exhausted and ready to have life back to normal.  All of this occurred just when we'd started to settle into the house and had begun to turn a corner with Alexander's horrible reflux and lack of sleeping at night, so I was literally at the end of my tether on Friday when I spent more than 4 hours in the car.

As if a direct answer to my unspoken-but-probably-telepathically-communicated-prayers, Matt's coworker and his girlfriend randomly offered to babysit the boys so we could get out.  It was nothing short of a miracle.  I went from facing a mediocre dinner while holding a crying baby and yelling at Roman to sit down, to a gourmet meal at an amazing restaurant in LoDo (lower downtown Denver) which I have not been able to stop thinking or talking about.  And what's odd is that the food was not perfect.  There were things I didn't enjoy about the meal much at all, in fact.  It was more that this is the first restaurant I've been to in Denver that I felt took real risks, and was successful with them.

So, our dinner at Euclid Hall.

I don't usually review restaurants but this one is worth the effort.  I truly loved it - which is more than I can say for almost any of the restaurants I've tried in Denver.  I'm not sure how to describe it; maybe modern American nose-to-tail eating with a twist?  First of all, we sat at the bar directly in front of the open kitchen (which is always my favorite place to sit) and right next to us on the elevated section of the bar where the chefs placed all the outgoing dishes were 3 partially cooked whole pigs' heads on plates.  That might bother some people, but it's literally what drew me in.  We found out that they were actually on sale to take home and cook for $60, something we'd like to do one of these days.  But I digress.

Our server was great, knowledgeable, thoughtful, timely.  He was interested in our experience and even had them split and serve our dessert on two plates without us asking.  The vibe was cool - it is a huge bar, actually - and their kitchen, I'm here to tell you, is nothing short of a perfectly orchestrated dance.  Their chef, Jorel Pierce, commanded and inspected and delegated quietly but firmly.  There was no chaos, no yelling, and if there was swearing - I mean, come on, there had to be swearing - it was done quietly enough that we couldn't hear.  The three guys in the kitchen with him worked quickly, efficiently and with skill.  I watched carefully at what they were doing and didn't order until I'd seen several different dishes come by me.  We almost got the chicken and waffles, but after we saw the composite-rectangular-chicken-y thing they serve there come by, we decided against it.  (Sorry guys, sometimes you've just got to leave a classic alone.)  We lingered, having our drinks, and enjoyed the show before us.

When, at last, we were ready, here is what we ordered.  First off, I recommend our approach: We decided to get several dishes - the menu does offer entrees but reads more like an American tapas menu - and just shared.  We skipped out on the homemade sausages and pickles (a great shame as they look fantastic), and the enticing roasted bone marrow (that was a tough call because it seriously looked perfect), and, to be honest, there were at least 10 other things besides that I would have happily tried.  But all that just gives me another reason to come back.

*  *  *

A Damn Good Meal at Euclid Hall
January 2014

First Course: Pig Ear Pad Thai; tamarind chili sauce, scallion, peanut, egg, sprouts, mint, cilantro
Pigs' Ear Pad Thai
This dish was literally incredible.  Pigs' ears are the hot thing right now so maybe ordering it was a bit trite (we've literally had them three times in the last two months and had never had them before that), but for once I don't mind being foody-mainstream.  This version by far surpassed anything else we'd ever tried.  Deep fried strips of pig ear that were just soft enough to be meaty but crispy enough for crunch, covered in a seriously spicy tamarind sauce and sauteed with peanuts and egg.  The garnishes were standard and perfect; the lime juice almost made the dish.  The serving size was more than enough for two people (though we greedily finished it and it took a lot of effort to agree to let Matt have the last bite) and rather reasonable at just $8.00.

Second Course: Manila Clams with Merguez Caldo Verde; braised kale, fried garlic, grape tomato, olive oil crostini, smoked malt and rye brodo
 This dish gets bonus points for creativity.  A riff on a Portuguese-style soup with the kale, sausage and seafood, it was good, but not great.  The presentation blew me - and everyone else who walked by - away.  I had a girl come up and ask if she could join us so she could eat what we were ordering.  It's odd that nobody else bothered to order the dish, but part of me wondered if maybe it had to do with them having tried it before.  The merguez sausage - a Moroccan-style lamb ditty - completely overpowered the clams and didn't marry well with the other components.  The broth lacked salt and was, well, almost too unique, too strange, being something like a "beer" broth with notes of sour and not-enough-savory, and yet, somehow...I liked it.  I added a lot of salt.  I would order it again just for the half baguette to dip in the soup when you're done.

Side 1: Brussel Sprout Casserole; garlic cheddar fondue, lemon, French fried onions
I am a self-professed Brussel Sprout fiend.  I almost always order them when I see them on a menu, and the winter is a perfect time to do so.  In this case, I enjoyed the combination of flavors, but after two bites felt that the cheddar fondue was just too rich.  It overtook the sprouts which are really the star of the show.  That said, it was a great combination of meaty, gooey and crunchy and a nice little dish to share with someone else.

Side 2: Wild Mushroom Poutine; porcini gravy, hand-cut fries, cheddar curds
One of the main reasons I wanted to try Euclid Hall was their Poutines.  I first tried this Canadian dish back in college during a very drunken trip with my roommates to go clubbing in a not-so-unique bordertown laden with bad casinos which we were all too young to enter.  It is a fantastic and almost-wrongly-decadent idea: to smother french fries in cheese and gravy.  It lured me in then just as it did last week.  I had seen that Euclid hall often offered a Duck Poutine, but that wasn't on the menu when we visited, so naturally I went for the mushroom offering.  The porcini gravy was definitely what I would call a super-umami food.  Delicious but almost too rich by the end of the somewhat-generously-portioned dish.  It all went well together and I enjoyed the cheese curds.  And maybe it's just the carnivore in me talking but I thought it was lacking meat of some sort. 

L to R: Brussel Sprout Casserole, Porcini Poutine and Clam & Merguez Soup

Dessert: Sourdough Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich; salted butterscotch ice cream, praline
Matt and I were so full - borderline food-coma-full - that we almost didn't order dessert.  But I'm glad we went for this.  One portion is the perfect size to share, and while I'm not a huge fan of sourdough, all the sour and salty notes worked well in this dessert.  I'd recommend it as a nice way to end the meal.

Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale: not much to say on the beer front except that Matt ordered two of these and was quite enamored.  Even I liked it and I'm not what you'd call a beer person.  Unique.

Me: Baby Godzilla!: This cocktail had me at hello.  I would wager that I'd order most things called "Baby Godzilla" just because it's such a fantastic name, but the fact that this concoction consisted mainly of gin and grapefruit reeled me in.  What a wonderfully perfect winter drink!  I am a gin-maniac, and have been eating the winter's ripest red grapefruits obsessively for the past few weeks, so this hit home.   There was sweetness, bitterness, and even some substance with the thickness that the grapefruit juice lends.  Give it a try.  Yes, it's pink.  But Baby Godzilla is anything but wussy.

*  *  *

In a city where the culinary scene is still slowly - sometimes too slowly, I think - clawing its way up the ladder to a status near some of the other big food cities in the US, it's hard to find a place that is less-flash and more-flavor.  Ironically, I'd been to one of Euclid Hall's sister restaurants - Rioja - about a year before and had the opposite experience: pretty, fancy, overpriced food that wasn't all that great.  Rioja is much-lauded while Euclid Hall seems to be the grungier, less ostentatious step-child content to sit in a dark corner and do his own thing.  But it is decidedly more unique, daring and, therefore, surprising.  And, despite not wanting to be - it's also refined.  Pigs' Heads, Baby Godzilla, and all.

Euclid Hall on Urbanspoon

Follow Me on Pinterest

Saturday, January 25, 2014

little old me with a little old blog: 2014

It has been five years, shy 3 days, since I started Aesthetic Dalliances.  I went back and read my first-post-ever, and laughed at how apt the description for my blog still is.  Though lots of things have changed about me in five years, almost nothing has changed in terms of the random and varied nature of my blog.  I have become, admittedly, a less prolific blogger, but then three international moves and two kids will do that to you.  On the other hand, I still thoroughly enjoy the process of photographing and writing about the "generally uneventful and exciting (in my humble opinion) dalliances I indulge in."

It's interesting to me to ruminate on the multifarious (what a great word :)) nature of the past five years since I started writing Aesthetic Dalliances. Back when I started this blog, in the first post, I closed with a quotation that was a hope, a wish for myself - something I feel I hadn't been able to embrace entirely at that point, but which the past few years have brought more into perspective:

"Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always."
Rainer Maria Rilke

2009 was a high.  The second half of my first and only successful pregnancy, a beautiful spring in Londontown, culminating in the birth of our first, and probably only, biological son.  The winter of that year was filled with discovery, travel, and marination into the feeling of being a family of three - a thrill unparalleled and unrivaled by any other experience to date.

2010 marked another wonderful era of friendship and growth: between Roman learning to be a person, and the fact that we suddenly had more friends in London than we knew what to do with, I remember that Spring and Summer in London as probably the happiest time we spent in the UK.  It came to a climactic halt as we dove into the Middle East, quite literally, and commenced the first half of the short but eventful 10 months we would spend in Abu Dhabi.

2011 was marked with equal parts sadness and joy with our goodbyes to the UAE and all the friends we'd made there, but a great hello as the USA welcomed us back into the fold and showed us the many splendors of Portland, ME, a place that, to this day, I am deeply in love with.  No more Arab markets and five star holidays; just lobster shacks and trips to the Eastern promenade in the car with my sidekick Roman, and proximity to family - which felt like a breath of fresh air after more than four years abroad.

2012 was readjustment and reverse culture shock: loving Maine but suddenly feeling that we somehow didn't quite fit in with our American counterparts, looks from people wondering why we'd ever choose to live in the Middle East, questions about just-strange-enough diction and endless nostalgia for the life abroad we swore we were ready to end, but actually kind of missed.  Halfway through the year we moved to Denver, and that half of the year flew by in a blur of readjustment and, finally (!), adoption paperwork.

2013 was particularly patchy.  It was a tough, stressful year for us as we fully settled into yet another new city and hunkered down into the quietly-but-intensely difficult reality of waiting to adopt a child. On the other hand, we made wonderful friendships in Denver and found ourselves in perhaps the most hospitable neighborhood - Stapleton - we'd ever lived in.  By November, two painful, failed adoption matches later, we'd decided to buy a house.  And then, as fate would have it, Alexander came.  And his adoption was finalized on the same day we signed on our house.  All of this left precious little time or desire to blog although I still came back to it when my heart felt it needed a little something that was just mine.

As we start 2014 I have several goals - the first, with a newborn and 4-year-old, being survival in a happy, healthy kind of way.  The second is to be more consistent in posting on Aesthetic Dalliances, and even slightly more thematic.  I will be trying out lots of soup recipes on here, for one.  I have also joined a couple of knitting groups in Denver and have completed some projects I want to share.  Once the dust storm of my life has truly settled, maybe I'll even get back to watercoloring.  Oh, and stay tuned for our grand return to Vacationland on our first-ever beach-cottage vacation as a family in August. :)

So, life is different, but not all that different.  And, mostly, it is good in all the same and a couple of new-but-welcome ways.  In the end, it's still just little old me with a little old blog.

As in 2009, I'll close with another quote by Rilke, one of my favorite poets, whose words do encapsulate one of my lifelong goals, and express a thought that seems particularly apt as we move into another exciting new year:

"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things."
Rainer Maria Rilke 

I sure hope so. 

Follow Me on Pinterest

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mycophagy, Man: Tales of Foraging and Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle

Boletis edulis; Porcini

Me and Mushrooms.  Mushrooms and me. 

This love affair has been going on for my whole life.  But it was in August 2013 that I officially began dabbling in the world of amateur mycology - that is, the amateur study and collection of mushrooms - because that was when Matt, as a wonderful anniversary gift, got us a Saturday outing on an amateur mushroom hunt in the Rockies together.  I've been meaning to write this post since then!

cross-section of porcini ready to dry in the oven

We left Roman with a neighbor that sunny Saturday morning and headed off into the mountains of Jefferson County, Colorado to an undisclosed location to hunt Porcini - or King Boletes - boletis edulis.  (And for the record, who the heck knew Porcini grew in Colorado?!  Apparently it's a big thing.)  But I had been dabbling in the world of mycophagy - that is, the practice of consuming fungi, or being fungivorous (love that word!), my entire life.  I've mentioned before that as a small child rather than having an imaginary friend I had an imaginary mushroom I chewed on all day.  It's odd.  Very odd.  But very me.

I love mushrooms.  I seek them out at specialty shops on a regular basis.  And now, instead of paying a hefty price for barely passable fresh chanterelles and dried porcini from central Asia, I know how to collect them myself, right here in Denver and the surrounding areas.  I also know how to dry them, prepare them, and even discovered how to make porcini powder from the dried and blended underpart of the cap.  So many new secrets, discoveries, delicacies.

findings from the forest in Evergreen
Mushroom foraging was something of a revelation for me.  As Matt put it, rarely in life does one come across something that is so true and inherent a passion.  Not only did mushroom foraging come naturally to me (I'm pretty sure I had all the characteristics memorized the first time around), but I also became obsessed with it instantly.  The weekend after our first forage, during which I found the largest king bolete of the group, Matt and I returned and looked for more mushrooms.  He had a very hard time pulling me out of the woods after 3 hours.  I was unstoppable with my Danish knife, paper lunch bags and backpack.  A few weeks later, I booked my next foraging excursion with the same company and guide - Graham Steinruck of Mycotours.  I became friends with Graham and began to get mildly connected to the semi-secret underworld / sub culture of amateur mycology and mycophagy.  I couldn't stop talking about mushrooms, drying mushrooms, eating mushrooms.  Everywhere I went, I was looking for them - even while driving.  My neighbors even started bringing mushrooms back from their hikes for me to identify.  It was a pleasant surprise to have a new and convenient hobby - one I'd always wanted to take up but never had the time or access to do so.

One of my favorite aspects of mushroom foraging is the traipsing-through-the-woods part.  Matt and I took Roman with us on a couple of other forays - to the original spot in Jeffco and to a new spot up in Evergreen where we encountered a Czech man who gave us a giant load of porcini he didn't want.  We had so much fun being disconnected from society - no cell phones or computers - and just letting Roman run through the woods and explore.  He became a gatherer like me and I gave him his own paper bag to fill with different specimens (none of which we'd ever eat, of course, given the possible cross-contamination).  He loved it.  And I couldn't help but revel in this shared experience of gathering food together in a way that had been done by families for centuries all over the world.  It was a bonding experience, and one I look forward to repeating when the season starts up again next summer.

Until then, here are some photos of some of my mushrooms and a quick and delicious recipe for one of my favorite ways to eat wild mushrooms: a simple white wine and cream sauce on tagliatelle pasta.  Yum.

Our findings on that first foray

 My Favorite Mushrooms of Colorado
so far
**CAVEAT: Please do not try to collect these without expert help or knowledge!**

On that first foray we found a great representation of some of the most common mushrooms to be had in the Colorado mountains.  Clockwise from bottom left, here is what we found and dined upon:

1. Suillus Brevipes or Sticky Cap Mushrooms: (the light cream colored ones on the bottom left) Many experienced foragers turn their noses up at Suillus Brevipes but they are one of my favorites.  They are a meaty mushroom in the bolete family that have a dark brownish-grey cap which you peel off in order to eat them.  They are abundant in the pine forests of Colorado.

2. Lycoperdon perlatum or Gem-studded Puffballs: These are the cute little balls that look exactly as their names would suggest.  They are some of the easiest to identify and Roman's favorites.  They have little tiny white "gems" that come off like powder when you touch them.  The key is to make sure they don't have a stem, and to cut through them from top to bottom to make sure they are 100% white in the center, otherwise you might risk eating rotton or poisonous variations.  They have a tender, fluffy consistency.  These are the miniature versions of the Giant Puffballs or Calvatia gigantea.

3. Sarcodon imbricatus or Hawk's Wings: (dark brown scaly ones in the center) These are some of the easiest mushrooms to spot.  They are also very abundant in the CO hills and mountains and have a dark, tell-tale collection of teeth on the underside of the cap.  For this reason they are also often known as hedgehog mushrooms.  These are some of Matt's favorites to eat - though I find their taste strong and strange.  Their texture is similar to that of a portobello, but stronger and, for lack of a better word, gamier.

4. Boletis edulis or Porcini: What you see in my picture are representations of both the King Bolete and the more commonly prized Italian porcini.  The King boletes, as the name implies, are much larger than the oft-pictured small, chestnut colored, fat-stemmed porcini.  Both are delicious but hard to find without any wormholes as they are also favored by insects.  When you can get them, they are wonderful fresh, dry, in pastas and soups.  There is still some debate about whether the North American variation is exactly the same as the European one but that is something I consider something of a ridiculous quibble - they are delicious no matter what.  We ate the small ones fresh and I sliced and dried the larger ones, worms and wormholes and all.  Nothing wrong with a little extra protein. :)

5. Lactarius Deliciosus or Saffron Milk Cap: (the bright orange one with blueish-green spots) These are also some of my favorite mushrooms and often overlooked by porcini / chanterelle obsessed amateur mycologists.  I love their texture and just think they're really, really pretty.  There are some mildly poisonous variations of these but as long as you see that they "lactate" a bright blue-green liquid when cut, you are pretty safe (assuming you've also checked off the list for where and how to find them as well).  I love their orange-saffron color and find their Latin name pretty fun to say as well. :)

6. Yellowish gray ones: can't remember what these are.

7. Auricularia auricula-judae or Wood ears:  We were very fortunate to find some wood ear mushrooms on our first outing.  They are not particularly common here and I love them.  They are commonly found in Asian cooking and have a cartiledge-y texture that I find unique and wonderful, especially in Chinese Hot & Sour Soup.  They grow on the bark of elder trees, most commonly.

 8. Little Brown ones at the bottom: can't remember what these were either.

*  *  *

Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle
Serves 2 good eaters


2-3 tbsp butter1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, chopped finely
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
~1/4 cup good white wine or dry vermouth
~1/4 cup light cream 
1/2 lemon, juiced
1lb wild mushrooms, sliced: you can use a combination as I did or just use porcini / whatever good wild mushroom is available at your local market
2-3 tbsps Italian Parsley, chopped roughly, for garnish
1lb tagliatelle (or pappardelle) pasta
Salt & pepper

Buon appetito!
Heirloom tomato salad with parmigiano and balsamic
to accompany lightly sauteed wild mushroom tagliatelle.


1. Set a pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.  When boiling, and about five minutes from serving time, add the pasta.

2. Add butter and oil to a large sautee pan over medium-high heat and allow the butter to melt completely.  Then add the shallot and garlic and allow to cook for 30 seconds to a minute, tossing them around.

3. To the pan, add the mushrooms and sautee, allowing them to brown on one side for a while before moving them around too much. If the pan gets too dry, add salt and pepper to draw moisture from the mushrooms.  2-3 minutes

4. Once mushrooms are sauteed, add the wine or vermouth and deglaze the pan.  In the meantime, make sure the pasta is going and almost ready.  Then add the cream to the pan and allow it to bubble and simmer for a minute or so in order to reduce. Salt & pepper.

5. Remove the pasta from the water before it is fully cooked (after about 5 minutes or so).  Add to the sautee pan, turn off the heat, and toss gently in the mushroom sauce.  Squirt the juice of half a lemon over the dish and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serve immediately.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

His name is Alexander.

Born November 16th at 13:25 - 7lbs 7oz, 19 1/2 inches;
forever-and-ever-ours as of November 22nd 2013.

And he's just perfect. :)

Follow Me on Pinterest