Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shells and Sauce for Brunch - Denver, CO.

Shells & Sauce on UrbanspoonWith Princess Rachael, the Duchess of Downing, now ensconsed so very well in the Queen City of Denver and enjoying the spreading of her own wings anew, Watson and I  have come to enjoy our days together when visiting and celebrate now perhaps more than ever the opportunity to sit for a Sunday Brunch afore heading off to DIA and the return trip to the flora and fauna that is  Florida.

And as part of that young wing-spreading, the Duchess has exhibited a strong penchant for seeking out the new and unique as a burgeoning 'Foodie' herself and so I thus  abdicated the role of choosing a location for our brunch on this February Sunday. However, I must admit developing a high level of concern upon the simple utterance of  the dining hall of choice: 'Shells and Sauce', an Italian restaurant on the southeast corner of 12th Ave. and Elizabeth St. near Cheesman Park and a few blocks slightly northeast of the Denver Botanic Gardens.
This left me in quite the English pickle! Shells and Sauce? Oh, Great Ceasers' Ghost! Please spare us all the fate of an Olive Garden meme or even a Macaroni Grille facsimile for I simply could not stomach such an exhibit! And with guests joining us on this visit including Lady Susan, Mystic Grand Empress of Taos and Mother of the Viscount of Iceland, the dilemma was this: Should one risk an uncertain dining result and possibly insult or offend those esteemed guests OR does one usurp the authority of the entirely capable and increasingly advanced Duchess of Downing and surely live with those unenviable consequences for what could be an eternity of familial purgatory?

In the end 'twas all for naught for despite the cuisine specificity the name of this grotto connotes, and a cheesy one at that, the variety of offerings was impressively diverse and in some cases downright astounding!

With a Sunday morning first floor packed elbow to elbow and jowl to jowl and the tightly condensed bar area also similarly posited, frets abounded quickly on the liklihood of our group even gaining a seat let alone a table for 7..... and yet just when all hope seemed lost and brow sweat began popping in earnest -*POOF*- A rear door opened up to a back staircase and then a fairly wide open second floor dining area magically appeared bringing solace and anticipation back to our group once again! ( that a Full Bar with the 'game' on it behind you there my good man? Splendid!)
Stranahan's Whiskey Coffee

Almost as astounding as this second floor surprise oasis was, we were doubly impressed with the rapidity of our table service for no sooner had we sat down than a deliciously hot Irish Coffee (with Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey) was seemingly envisioned and set down in front of Watson and I as though they were willed from the very depths of our parched consciousness... and it was so welcome on this cold February morning that I was willing to overlook the thermodynamically acute 'glass' mug it was served in; one could literally watch the heat escape thru it's cheap silicon membranes. But I paid it no matter for this inner treat would not be around to chill for very long at all I assure you that!

Duly sated with the 'Eye of the Colorado-Blarney' now swimming in my veins, further (nay, initial!) perusal of the Brunch Menu took me round the Horn of Hardart for I was greeted with all manner of choices from Panini's and Breakfast Pizza's to Omelettes and Egg Specialties and additional Brunch favorites (as well as a very healthy Sunday drink menu.) As we leafed thru the selections.....on and on it went, I was drawn not only to the wonderful diversity of the menu but to the pricing as well....something was troubling me....the food prices appeared to be too low! Trepidation reared it's ugly head again as I feared that this might portend diminutive tapas sized servings or perhaps worse....Italian Nouvelle!! 

Yet almost on cue our Gina Gershon looking waitress (ahem, indeed!) brought a visibly hungover adjacent party what looked like smorgasbord  on a plate smothered in cheese, chili, and all manner of vegetables and other accompaniments and set it down in front of a single diner who had ravenous looking eyes and a fork awaiting. Surely it MUST have been a special affair of some nature or perhaps the 'kitchen sink' of brunch items that I missed on my first menu read thru! (Where WAS it I asked myself?? How could I have missed it? OH?? Pardon me? Why yes, I WILL have another Irish Coffee, thank you! What a nice hostess!) Now, where was I again........hmmmmmm....
An upstairs bar even larger than the one downstairs in the main room!

Oh yes, the PORTIONS! In short order we soon placed our orders (our own hunger quickly becoming Guest #8 at our gathering!) and again I exhaled a potent Whiskey-breath elated at this remarkable FIND! This menu had much more to offer than it appeared to at first glance (or that one might 'believe' will be found from a place called 'Shells and Sauce')..even the SIDE dishes ran the gamut from French Toast or Biscuits and Gravy to Wild Boar Sausage or Parmesan Truffle Fries! This is NOT just 'Shells and SAUCE'!!

Watson's fine sensitivities were easily placated with many, many  a Vegetarian and Gluten Free option listed (with even a Gluten-Free beer staring us in the face!) and soon the plates started arriving post-haste with the V/GF Garden Omelette espoused by my partner as 'the single finest omelette I have ever eaten!' (And that's saying quite a mouthful!) So overtaken was I by this proclamation that, alas, I failed to get  proof of it's very existence.
The Vesuvio Skillet - $10.95

A Vesuvio Skillet appeared for myself - Onions, Peppers, Potatoes, and Buffalo Sausage (or Italian Sausage or mushrooms or.....) and with heaping spoonfuls of Pork Green Chile atop, a surefire Sherlock Magnet....the temptation to order such a behemoth was greater than any 'other' addictive draw I might fall prey to from time to time..... 
Smothered Green Chile Omelette - $9.95

The Duchess, wisely opting for the 'Bottomless Mimosa's' at $10.00, checked her daintiness at the door in ordering the Smothered Green Chile Omelette with Cheddar, Provolone, and Goat Cheeses atop shredded potatoes. One should not have been surprised for this was the same delightful creature who ordered AND finished a complete rack of ribs at the spritely age of 11... and yet not an ounce remains!

Southwest Buffalo Sausage Burrito - $10.95
Accompanying the Duchess on this visit was her suitor Lord William of Avon who carried himself well and remained true to his almost Deepak Chopra-esque affinity for only cool liquids and had an Iced Coffee aside his Southwest Buffalo Sausage Burrito - an amalgamation of eggs, onions, peppers, spinach, cheese, roasted potatoes, and (yes) Buffalo sausage....and smothered in Pork Green Chile and chipotle aioli. (Lord, I'm full just writing that!)
Fried Chicken and Waffles - $10.95 
Italian Grilled Cheese and Tomato - $7.95

The Viscount ordered the Fried Chicken and Waffles with Crumpled Applewood Smoked Bacon and Stranahan's Whiskey Butter which on it's own sounded delicious and was gobbled down almost as quickly as it was served. Lady Sierra, his lovely betrothed, delighted in the Vegetarian Grilled Cheese with Basil Pesto, Buffalo Mozzarella, Beefsteak Tomato and Italian Parmigiano cheese on grilled sourdough bread, roasted potato's on the side. On another occasion I noted that THIS might be a selection to make instead of the Schooner Anchor I had delivered...(and completely finished.........very happily too!)

And lastly Lady Susan, The Mystic Grand Empress of Taos and the esteemed mother of the Viscount of Iceland, selected the rudimentary sounding 'Breakfast Tacos', which turned out to be a well presented and completely overflowing platter of flour tortillas filled with eggs, roasted potatoes, shredded cheese and chipotle cream along with a choice of Italian Sausage, Bacon, or wild mushrooms....AND Avocados, JalapeƱos and Pico de Gallo. It was enough for the Empress to take back and eat for the next two meals!

Breakfast Taco's - $9.95

In the end, everyone was MORE than content with both fine food AND spirits and another notch was made in the investigative pipe of wonderful establishments! We look forward to many a good time at Shells and Sauce in the future......... or perhaps a more appropriate name might be 'MORE than Shells and Sauce!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mise en Place - The Grand Dame of Tampa

Mise En Place on Urbanspoon

After twenty-seven wonderful years working alongside the esteemed Ms. Watson, it was high time to celebrate our delightful partnership together and when one finds themselves in Tampa in search of that certain ambiance there is no other location that calls to mind the pure excellence and certitude of selection like 'Mise en Place'. 

Aptly named oh so many years ago, 'Everything in Place' shows honor to such a heralded occasion by being that locale that DOES have everything just so - whether it is inside the kitchen as is suggested by it's name or throughout the entire enterprise located in the Hyde Park area of Tampa, FL. 

With only the 22 (now 23!) outstanding visits to 32 East in Delray Beach, FL besting it, my current run at Mise en Place is well over a dozen with nary an askew scaloppine or tart Pouilly-Fuisse to show for it. The Proprietor's of this Grand Dame of all things elegant show such a reverential respect for the food, for their customers, for their wine selections....certainly for every aspect of their 'presentation' that to find fault in any area would be akin to harping on the minute.

Being immediately seated on a splendid Saturday evening, Ms. Watson's whistle was soon whetted by a 2010 Raul Perex Vico Mencia, a lighthearted little Red from Bierzo, in the Northwest of Spain, which was flowery and aromatic yet still sporting a rich complex taste, while I opted for my usual Bombay Sapphire Martini with three blue cheese stuffed olives (tight waistcoat be damned!) which arrived with the tiniest beads of ice within, normally an off-putting event in my view but in this atmosphere it was suddenly remarkably welcome!

Mise en Place proffers quite the extensive assemblage of world class wine concentrating on the unique and the artisanal giving one a sense of adventure when choosing. This would be all for the better if the stakes were not as high. Bottles range generally from the mid $30's to the $70's while half bottles are listed from the 20's to '40's but there is still a quite healthy offering at $200 to $300 per bottle and higher. Taken as a whole the care in which this assemblage has been constructed is dually admirable and almost varietal, if you'll allow me such a dextrous linguistic pun!

Blue Cornmeal encrusted Soft Shell Carb
The menu as well is as intriguing and eclectic as it's wine panoply with ten 'First Plates' including a succulent Ceviche, a Sous Vide Lobster plate, and a Tuna Carpaccio among others; twenty-one 'Second Plates' including Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, Kobe Oxtail, Licorice Powder Rubbed Foie Gras, and several more startling surprises, and Twelve 'Main Plates' as varied as Harissa Seared Tofu,  Fennel Crusted Veal Scallopine, Mustard Pecan Crusted Pecan Rack of Lamb, and Macadamia Coconut Crusted Seared Tuna. In fact, the Main Plates cover nearly all manner of delectable cuisine - Chicken, Veal, Venison, Snapper, Salmon, Tuna, Beef Tenderloin, Kobe Strip, Lamb, Duck and a Zahtar or Arabian Grilled Sea Selection of the day.....along with a Seared Tofu for good vegetarian measure!

While enjoying our early cocktails we selected the Hamachi Crudo with Pickled Serrano Chiles and Green Apple Pepita Salad drizzled with a white soy basil vinaigrette along with the Blue Cornmeal Encrusted Soft Shell Crab with Salsa Criolla, sweet potato causa with saffron aioli and a mango chili jam. 

Interesting that the chef chooses to use 'Hamachi', a Japanese Amberjack  or Yellowtail found in the Pacific Northwest ....alongside the word 'Crudo'.... strictly a Mediterranean manner of preparing 'sushi quality' raw fish, almost a double negative in description yet this endeavor results in the exemplary delivery expected.....a fresh and delightful appetizer with tart zing of serrano chile livening things up a bit....the apple slivers connecting them both wonderfully for a tight ensemble of flavor.

Yet it was the Blue Cornmeal Encrusted Soft Shell Crab that was so stunning as it was perfectly done with just the right hint of crunch and chew yet soft where it needed to be with a particular jab of tartness intertwined, attributed to the Mango Chile jam..... my mouth watering as I presently opine with the very thought, simply exquisite!

Surprisingly we were then treated to a 'taste test' of the Chef's latest soup creation. Now, I feel I must add an opinion on this increasing habit of fine chefs to 'sample' their latest creations connived eclectic soup entrant mostly but also other delicacies...which I've come to find devilshly ingenius particularly when served before any appetizers are brought for the simple fact remains that the hunger of the patrons virtually assures that said sample will be well received.....unless of course it misses the mark entirely! 
Grilled Free Range Chicken

A small ladle of a Saffron infused Cauliflower Soup with thyme encrusted pistachio crumbles was ceremoniously placed before us....a deliciously grand effort and one very well received and appreciated, however in this isolated case I found myself unsure of the melange and swirls of tastes and textures. The smooth creaminess of the soup, exquisitely done nonetheless, did not quite blend with the thyme pistachio 'granola' atop in my slightly percolated estimation....but taken as it experimental taste test with little downside to the patron (unless one is allergic to cauliflower or saffron of course) the effort should continue unabated!

Smiling and satisfied with the Soft Shell Crab and the Hamachi Crudo, I reminisced of a recently wonderful sensation with a Tandoori inspired recipe which thus drew me to the Tandoori Spiced Rubbed Salmon entree with Pistachio Saffron Basmati Rice, Tomato Masala Vinaigarette, Pomegranate Raita with Eggplant Tamarind Jam and Curried Wilted Spinach - which was remarkably still steaming when it arrived (a definite plus in my casework!)
Tandoori Spiced Rubbed Salmon

Watsons' choice was the Grilled Free Range Chicken Breast and Sous Vide Thigh with Root Vegetable Leek Fricasee on a Wild Mushroom Quinoa with a Sherry Vinegar Sage Jus, an assortment which had her head swirling and marveling at it's aromas. Not only were these entrees everything we had in mind when ordered, they exceeded our already lofty expectations which is a wonderful experience when we are gifted so!
Chocolate Pecan Toffee Mousse

With a decadently developmental buzz going on in my cranial cavity due to the infusion of a second helping of Bombay Gin, we both were soon slaloming into the after dinner world of desserts, apertifs, coffees, cordials, and the like with no rush assumed or warranted... determined to take a pace of our own choosing and happily met with reciprocal professionalism. 

Celebrating with a delicious Graham's 20 year Tawny Port, which sported the gravitas that a 10 year simply does not (and which is why a 30 year will be ordered on my next surreptitious visit!)

Admittedly drawn like a feline to a bowl of milk  I was captivated by a more than perfunctory Artisinal Cheese Board as an after dinner choice.........a most excellent appendage to the menu I must say! But it was the Chocolate Pecan Toffee Mousse with Creme Anglaise and Toffee Sauce that drew Watson's trained eye, an amalgam of textures, temperatures, and glazes that had Watson nearly in a tizzy and won her over easily.
Blood Orange Sorbet

For me I chose the Blood Orange Sorbet with its hint of spice...cardamom perhaps, which lent the coolness of the sorbet a lace of sophistication, although three scoops of the blood orange began to overwhelm my pallet a bit. Taking a page from the Tribeca bastion 'Odeon' perhaps a scoop trio of perhaps a tart lemon, a pungent blueberry, along with the intoxicating blood orange might allow for a less overwhelming infusion to the senses.... Three scoops, with three tastes, would move a wonderful dessert into the realm of the outer-worldly (but I harp on the minute! 

And to the delight and chagrin of us both, the signage said it all and sent us off into the next 27 wonderful years!