Thursday 6 May 2010

Around Boulder with a Paunch

Flatirons by Matt Dischner on Flickr Creative Commons

Nuzzling up to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and basking in over 300 days of sunshine a year, Boulder is a city that’s easy to become very fond of. If LA is a city defined by the glitz of Hollywood and veneer of celebrity and New York is all about the dark arts of money; then think of Boulder through the lens of brands like Patagonia, Trek, Whole Foods and by second hand bookstores, independent coffee shops and stores selling acres of beads. It’s an antidote to mainstream America where the people are thin, broad minded and the streets are cleaner than Mr Muscle’s whistles. You’re as likely to see a deer or a mountain lion on the streets as an item of stray litter.

Image from NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr Creative Commons

Thanks to the volcanic eruption in Iceland we stayed in Boulder for 12 days rather than the planned 7, which gave us ample opportunity to become familiar with most of the city’s restaurants. Here are my highlights from dining in Boulder:

The Kitchen

The Kitchen was our saviour. It was opened 6 years ago by Hugo Matheson who used to cook at the River Café before moving to the States. The food is as simple as you’d expect given this foundation and impeccably sourced, whilst the atmosphere balances a feeling of home comfort with the bustle and metropolitan style you expect from a restaurant. The menu is cleverly divided into a range of smaller dishes and then some larger plates so you are at liberty to construct a meal to suit your appetite. One of their defining selling points happens on Mondays where you can join in with a family meal where you don’t know what’s coming and just tuck in with those around you.

Of the smaller dishes mushrooms on toast were tremendous – the smokiness of the toasted sourdough made the shrooms taste even more of themselves and the dusting of thyme was well judged. Tomato bisque was as thick and bold as an Arsenal centre half from yesteryear. Beets with goats cheese were sweet and earthy with a tang from the cheese that brought the dish together. Pork terrine was just as good but we could have done with more of their excellent toast. They were so good that we often opted to have two of these smaller plates rather than indulge in a traditional main course.

Main courses were just as impressive. A simple orecciette a la Bolognese was as comforting as a mystery tax rebate and a duck salad was a welcome spa of healthiness in an otherwise calorie heavy trip. Plump wood fired mussels with chorizo were first class and made me wonder why people so often just stick to garlic and white wine and how the mussels had made it unscathed to the centre of a continent. Other main courses such as hanger steaks, rumps of lamb and tranches of trout looked fantastic as they shimmied past.

Indulgence beat restraint on more than one occasion when it came to desert. Their chocolate pudding was so gungy and decadently chocolatey that I had it again a few days later. And their home made chocolate bars with differing degrees of cocoa content should be missed either, although they could have been a grain more saline.

The Kitchen’s other great bonus is their mind boggling selection of beers which run to a whole side of A4 and are best enjoyed in the busy bar Upstairs. You can choose from Japanese beer made from toasted rice to myriad local brews. But rather than just dive in and pluck one out of thin air, you’d be best served by asking for some advice from the incredibly efficient staff who are more than happy for you to try a bit before you order – so long as they are on draft. This beer centric approach is pretty common in Boulder where there are scores of interesting breweries all encouraging you to drink a proper beer not a Bud Light.

The Kitchen is an impressively realised restaurant which balances informality with quality and a set of values that are very appealing. It must have been well ahead of its time when it opened six years ago.

Brasserie Ten Ten

Image from Brasserie Ten Ten's website

This is downtown Boulder’s most popular upscale French brasserie where people come to indulge and impress. The menu is extensive but well executed. There’s nothing unfamiliar except for a few fun twists and you could happily eat everything on it.

I couldn’t resist ordering lobster mac and cheese which read like a car crash but tasted amazing. God knows why I ordered shell fish in the middle of Colorado, or why I thought it was a bright idea to have some macaroni cheese in a French restaurant. But it worked. The lobster was juicy, soft and full of flavour. And the cheesey pasta was laced with truffle. I smiled as I indulged in such a basic dish that had been elevated to luxury status in a very American way. My only regret is that the whole dish couldn’t have been less colourful. Beige, yellow and vanilla are not a great trio! Fillet of beef with a red wine reduction and mashed potato and wild mushrooms was a big hit. As was hanger steak. And I was thrilled by the idea of the goats cheese profiterole that bobbed up and down on top of my tomato soup.

It’s a lively restaurant with a few fun surprises tucked up its sleeve that makes it stand out as being more than just any old brasserie.


Image from UHLMAN on Flickr Creative Commons

Jax is Boulder’s leading sea food restaurant that does a fine line in oysters from both the East and West coast as well as lobster, king crab and all the other luxury fish you’d expect if it was on the coast. I don’t know quite how they manage to source such a great range of fresh seafood, but it must be the sort of logistical nightmare that would give Freddie Kruger a hard night’s sleep.

One night I sat at the bar drinking a glass of white burgundy and slurped my chicken and crawfish gumbo with glee. It was thick, spicy and comforting. The lobster BLT that followed wasn’t quite as memorable, but it’s the sort of thing I find very hard not to order. Sadly the lobster lost the battle to the bread and bacon which makes me even more determined to try a lobster roll as soon as possible. Bantering with the bartender and trying to swat of a cougar or two made the whole experience even more fun.

On another evening we enjoyed mussels with a green thai broth that could have been a lot more bold and some calamari that passed muster. Halibut with a prawn and cream sauce sounded delicious but was sadly cooked for a fraction too long, but would have been a hit if it hadn’t. It was a shame to mistreat a piece of fish (even slightly) after going to such an effort to get it to Colorado.

When I return to Boulder I’m looking forward to guzzling oysters and gnawing at king crab claws at the bar with a glass of cold white wine in my hand. I think it’s best to stick to the simple things here which let the seafood shine. Their PR blurb says come to Jax and get hooked. I think I might well be.

Salt Bistro

Thankfully Salt is much more palatable than the undertakers it once was. Especially if you’re the kind of person who spots something on the menu called Give Peas a Chance and finds their heart murmuring in excitement. It turned out to be an emerald gem consisting of (deep breath) sweet pea ravioli, wood roasted hazel dell king oyster mushroom, glazed carrots, fava beans,asparagus, sugar snap peas, dried tomatoes and lemon beurre blanc. For a pea and a pun lover it was a pure delight. Rare rump of lamb from the grill with Moroccan spicing was excellent but ironically could have benefited from better seasoning. It’s a fun restaurant. But sadly they are incapable of making a good gin and tonic at the bar.

Trident Cafe

The Trident Café is joined at the hip to the Trident Bookstore which is a browser’s paradise selling a range of interesting second hand books. Meanwhile the café serves what many locals regard as the best coffee in town and a range of teas that would warm the heart of any Brit in need of a cuppa. Both the Ceylon and Assam were so good that I have decided to transition away from tea bags and into leaves fulltime. Free wifi brings crowds of students and writers. As well as a few characters who hold court like Vladamir in Waiting for Godot wearing weight lifting gloves and pontificating on the fauna of Mongolia to anyone with the misfortune to be in earshot.

The volcano turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It gave us the chance to really get to know Boulder and explore the mountains when otherwise we'd only have been there for a week. I'm looking forward to losing some weight and returning for round two.

PS Look out for Shreddie Kruger's breakfast posts from Boulder on London Review of Breakfasts. A little birdie tells me he's been quite busy.

PPS Sorry for the lack of photographs and thanks to everyone I've borrowed from.


Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

If you had to be stuck somewhere Boulder is not a bad place to be:D

Unknown said...

There is something about eating bolognase when in the mountains that makes it taste a thousand times better! An exotic place to be stranded for sure.

Krista said...

Lobster mac and cheese...I might have to add that to my list of distinctly American dishes. I've definitely seen it around Chicago, but never thought anything of its uniqueness til your post!

Hope you had a great time in the States. Have never been to Boulder, but I love Denver and Breckenridge. Did you get around at all?

Paunchos said...

@Bellini Valli - Very true. There are many worse places to get stuck. I wouldn't mind getting stuck there again actually!

@Gourmet Chick - Bolognese in the mountains works a treat. So comforting.

@Krista - I always write these American pieces with you in mind and love it when you jump in. It's one of those classic basic dishes that American chefs love to jazz up with a luxury ingredient.

Manggy said...

Geez, I didn't even know you were in the States. I'm glad you had a great time despite being stranded!

Paunchos said...

@Manggy - Fear not. I had a great time despite being stuck. Skiing and exploring the Rockies more than made up for a bit of ash disruption.


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