Monday Neighborhoods: 5th Ave. and Stetson, Scottsdale, AZ

The Phoenix metropolitan area is truly fascinating, rapidly becoming Los Angeles in everything from freeways and sprawl to a city so focused on suburbs that now has re-connected with its actual downtown core years later.

Often when people imagine Phoenix, they actually imagine the cactus and palm tree landscapes of the resorts in Scottsdale. Scottsdale interesting enough, is a virtual miniature clone of the entire Phoenix area, with diverse pockets from Old Town to luxury resorts to regular suburbia to rural Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s western home) to our focus today, the East 5th Ave. shopping neighborhood. East 5th, Stetson Dr., and Scottsdale Road create a three road ring of sorts with this region inside of it. The shops sell mostly upscale western gifts for the tourists who wander a few blocks from the much more touristy, over the top, western Disneyland-Cheesecake Factory excess of Old Town Scottsdale just to the east along Scottsdale Road.

This time of the year with Spring Training, the area seems like its San Francisco East with all of the Giants fans, including yours truly, in town. The E. 5th Ave Shopping Area is fascinating, with a touch of that touristy old west excess, combined with a little high class European influence, and some sleek cosmopolitan modern designs.

Fortunately for diners, food happens to be the heart of this shopping district.

Anchoring a prominent spot in the center of this ring at Stetson and E. 5th is the eclectic, funky, refined Cowboy Ciao, whose name is a perfect representation of the culinary mash-up served. The Stetson Chopped Salad and mushroom stir-fry are as legendary in the area as Chris Bianco’s pizzas. Along Stetson next door to Cowboy Ciao on both Stetson and E. 5th is the emerging empire of chef Charleen Badman and co-owner/wine guru Pavle Milic, anchored by the outstanding bistro FnB on the Stetson side. FnB’s braised leeks with mustard bread crumbs, and mozzarella, and a fried egg has acquired mythical status, and deservedly so, but I still can’t get the mussels in fish sauce with harissa or the homey chicken with spaetzle out of my head. On E. 5th, the team now have just opened  a new market called Bodega, a wine bar focusing on  Arizona wines called Arizona Wine Merchants, and a charming cafe for lunch, Baratin. The group reflects the neighborhood perfectly, with a focus on everything local, a touch of sophistication, and a slight flair for the old west.

Sticking with wine bars, Kazimierz World Wine Bar resides next to FnB on Stetson. Across the way on Stetson the Old West turns into the New West with the sleek, modern SouthBridge complex, including its Casablanca Lounge, along the riverwalk style revamped Arizona Canal. Continue the loop to E. 5th St., with gallery after gallery after shop, and you’ll find the Scottsdale outpost of the exceptional Tempe based coffee roaster and shop Cartel, who makes an espresso on par with the giants of Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This Cartel shop, one of 4 in Arizona, happens to also have a shockingly impressive wine and beer list (Oskar Blues, Green Flash at a coffee shop?!), and a very satisfying hot chocolate too on the two days of the year its cold like during my visit.

Kitty corner to Cartel is Citizen Public House, run by the former chef of Cowboy Ciao, Bernie Kantak. Everything is spectacular, particularly that same chopped salad from Cowboy Ciao that made the trip across the street to the pork belly pastrami over spaetzle (what’s with this area and spaetzle?) that marries German influence with barbeque to desserts by Tracy Dempsey, again formerly of Cowboy Ciao. Again, the atmosphere is charming with a touch of old west and Manhattan sophistication, like the neighborhood.

The stunning centerpiece of this neighborhood is just outside the ring at E. 5th and Marshall. The traffic circle there rings around a central fountain, just like you might find in Paris or London…except this being Scottsdale, instead of Napoleon or Charles V., the fountain boats sprinting mustangs. This is the Old West after all. Except the Old West never tasted as good as those braised leeks at FnB.

Le Plat du Jour: Monday March 26, 2012

Back from a weekend jaunt to Yosemite, taking my 86 year old grandmother (who doesn’t look or act a day older than 26!) for the first time. More on Yosemite dining later this week. It’s not Paris, but it’s also not like camping. O.k., well, you can camp at Yosemite and eat freeze dry scallops, but I’ll take the Ahwahnee route instead.

This final Monday of March, the debates over Julia Moskin’s excellent article two weeks ago on cookbook ghost writers. Many celebrity chef-“authors” have fiercely denied these claims including Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachael Ray. Then Moskin fires back in defense of her research. Back and forth we go. Today more and more sniping and griping. It seems to be we all sort of agree, the celebrity chefs don’t write all of their cookbooks.

When I first read the article I had no idea what controversy would follow. I figured that chefs did not always write their books, much like I’m sure they always cook what you see on TV. What, you don’t think Emeril cooks everything on his show? What is important is that the people who do the work, get the credit. If some intern really wrote half of a cook book and tested all the recipes for some celebrity chef, then that is every bit the intern’s book as the celebrity chef. It’s only right.

Here’s a list of the best restaurants in the world most of us will never go to. Generally any list from a private jet lifestyle magazine in conjunction with NexJets will probably be lavish and expensive. Interesting how similar it is to the San Pellegrino Top 100, except that latter’s #1 Noma in Copenhagen, isn’t even in the top 20.

It’s great to see Paul Kahan, the very talented chef behind Blackbird, The Publican, and other restaurants and markets in Chicago get some attention. Laboring behind the giant legends of Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter, Kahan was virtually unknown outside Chicago and the intense national food community until recently. I still am hoping to make it to Chicago soon to sample his restaurants, but I take my Dad’s word that Kahan is sensation. He describes his dinner at Blackbird last year as one of the best of his life.

Finally for this Monday, I will pass on my wisdom acquired from the weekend to jazz up the always exciting Monday afternoon.

Wine in eco friendly juice boxes ladies and gentleman. You can buy them at the Wawona General Store in Yosemite. I didn’t try any sadly. I can say though I am not the biggest Franzia wine out of the box fan, unless the choice at college party is that or Keystone Light.

Maybe they’ll be good…who says wine needs or bottle or cork? They’ve already proven the glories of screw tops…

Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix

Consider the humble pizza. Outside of hamburgers, it is the most consumed food by Americans each year. At its simple base, a pizza is a form of bread topped often with a sauce, some cheese, and maybe a vegetable or meat or both. That bread, the crust, can be changed into many forms, perhaps more puffy or cut square. The sauce can be tomato based or white sauce. The cheese can be velveeta or gorgonzola. The sausage could be artisan sopressata or Oscar Meyer pepperoni. The toppings can range from wild nettles to squid ink to poached eggs to canned artichoke hearts. Anything and everything can represent a pizza it seems. With all of these pizzas, there are very few truly spectacular pizzas that rise upon the competition. Amidst those dozen or two dozen per metropolitan area depending on if we’re talking about Billings versus New York, there is that rare masterpiece that sings like Paul McCartney and strikes you visually like a Monet Water Lilies.

New York and Naples are the capitals no doubt of pizza. One is pizza’s birthplace, the other is where pizza became a part of daily life worldwide. Phoenix, Arizona? The land of cactus as the land of pizza? When Chris Bianco moved out west from the Bronx, masterpiece level pizza followed with him. Pizzeria Bianco opened in 1994 then moved to its current, tiny location in an old charming machine shop at Heritage Square, an oasis of historic old buildings just east of the not so charming Downtown Phoenix. With just over 40 seats, the waits are as famous and necessary a part of the Bianco experience as the pizza itself.

It almost seems like an experience is truly necessary for this caliber of pizza. The legendary Di Fara in Midwood, Brooklyn requires a 45 minute subway ride from Manhattan, followed by a 2 hour wait in line to order, then another hour of waiting for the pie to be, then another 10 minutes for the pizza to cool to eating temperature. After two recent visits to Pizzeria Bianco, I have a system in place as well that makes this quite the experience. I arrive at 6 and put in the name. Then spend an hour across the way at the Rose and Crown Pub, perhaps watching some March Madness at this time of year. Then somebody goes to pick up my brother flying in to the airport and bring him back to Heritage Square. During that second hour, I continue the wait across Heritage Square with a glass of Arizona wine at Bar Bianco. Generally at the same time, that second hour ends with the arrival of my brother and the opening of our table. Perfect!

With that amount of planning, this should not be just another pizza. Indeed, the pies coming out of the wood burning oven imported from Italy are far from any other pizza. There is some sort of magic in the oven, in the ingredients, perhaps even in the Barbera to go with the pizza that makes Pizzeria Bianco truly the best pizza in the world. It’s a big proclamation said by many before, but there’s no other way to say it. This is transcendent pizza.

But whom of the pizzas to pick? This is part of why Bianco’s pies rise above the rest. The ingredients are thoroughly selected for quality and matching together like a 50 year old marriage. The Margherita is simple yet spot on with its San Marzano tomatoes, fresh pulled mozzarella, and a few snippets of fragrant basil. The Sonny Boy adds homemade salami and Gaeta olives, erasing the need for basil. I adore the Rosa that is in one bite crunchy, sweet, bitter, and funky with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, and finely chopped Arizona pistachios. It is a mystery why more pistachios are not found on pizzas. The Biancoverde thrives again with that Parmigiano Reggiano, but gains another edge from the silky ricotta, and biting freshness of arugula. However, my favorite? It once was the Rosa, but I have fallen for the Wiseguy this time. The smoky, sweet wood roasted onions, complimented by fennel sausage evokes campfire tastes and smells, while remaining elegant. If there was such a thing as a perfect pizza, this would be it.

Strangely enough, and indeed it would truly be a crime to do so, one could come to Pizzeria Bianco and have a terrific meal without even ordering a pizza. The epic antipasto platter of wood roasted vegetables, some Parmigiano Reggiano, and sopressata is a work of art. Possibly even more noteworthy than the pizzas are the spiedini, from the wood burning oven, delicate Italian fontina cheese carefully wrapped by proscuitto di Parma, as delicate as a ballerina’s step. Salads are perfect foils to the pizza, especially a caprese that beautifully teams the basil, local tomatoes, and handmade mozzarella together. Dessert? No need for that on the menu here, perhaps go to Sweet Republic in Scottsdale for some bleu cheese and honey ice cream afterwards.

As poetic as I can get with the spiedini, obviously the heart of Pizzeria Bianco are the six pizzas (there’s a marinara version too, which I’ve never sampled). Each time I put my name down at Pizzeria Bianco I think two things. With all of these hungry, impatient passionate food tourists and locals, how does the service staff stay so friendly and organized? Second, this pizza cannot possibly be as good as last time. Yet, the pizza continues to perform on an elite stage. The oven’s smoky perfume, the perfect ratio of yeast and flour to create a puffy yet slightly bready crust, the crunch of the pistachios, the exact right amount of mozzarella and basil, the sweet-smokiness of the fennel sausage, all add up to a culinary work of art.

Luckily you can now come for lunch at Pizzeria Bianco. The waits may be down then…or you might just be waiting two hours in the harsh afternoon sun instead of after sunset.

No matter the wait in the searing desert sun, Phoenix is lucky. Nearing two decades in Arizona, Pizzeria Bianco continues to make the country, possibly even the world’s premier pizzas.

Cocktails of the Week: El Presidente and the Moonraker from Bar Agricole, San Francisco

San Francisco’s now two year old Bar Agricole continues to break new ground, while remaining true to its heart as a modern urban tavern. Tavern? The James Beard award winning design inside and out on the patio where 350 days a year it’s too cool in the city to enjoy, are far from the taverns George Washington would imbibe in. Brandon Jew’s cooking, Andreas Willausch’s service team, cocktails by Thad Vogler and Eric Johnson, and the wine list from Mark Ellenbogen, combined to show that premier cocktails can be the center but also not the entire focus for an excellent restaurant. Though Bar is in the name, this is not just a bar by any means. On 11th Street, part of a block with a classic pizza by the slice parlor emitting the lovely scent of old grease and a nightclub, where the drink of choice of its visitors would be more like Four Loko than a Bobby Burns, Bar Agricole has been instrumental in making the western part of South of Market both safer and more relevant to the city’s overall culture fabric.

The bartenders stick to the classics done precisely with the highest quality ingredients. No foams, cosmos, spheres, and such here. This is home to a special old-fashioned or Ti Punch. Or even better, the Moonraker and El Presidente. The former, served up, is a handsome bronze color featuring both brandy and Denver’s Leopold Bros.’ Peach Brandy for a touch of sweetness. The fennel addition from absinthe and caramel notes of Cocchi Americano complete the magnificent drink. Perfectly balanced and not too strong, this is an idyllic cocktail pre- or even with dinner.

Not surprisingly with the restaurant name’s focus on rhum agricole, rum drinks are quite noteworthy here. El Presidente’s base is Demerara rum based, a 151 proof dark rum. Farmhouse curaçao adds a sugary depth for balance, with grenadine, and some citrus notes from orange bitters. Shaken and served up, this is a refreshing and thought-provoking cocktail. Not sure if it’s the favorite of Mr. Obama…

Le Plat du Jour: Thursday March 22, 2012

Just like how El Bulli and its molecular gastronomy became the fashion of last decade’s high end gastronomy, the “New Nordic” cuisine thus far has been the rage of the new decade since last year when Rene Redzepi’s hyper-local cuisine at Noma in Copenhagen supplanted El Bulli as the world’s “best” restaurant according to the annual San Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine rankings.

Best restaurant in the world or not, it is a fascinating place, almost a laboratory like El Bulli, just with fewer gels and foams. In fact, Chef Redzepi runs the new Nordic Food Lab on a houseboat in Copenhagen, discovering new scientific-gastronomic interactions between Nordic ingredients. At the same time however, there seems to now be the expected backlash against this philosophy of foraging, Nordic ingredients, and the ever-present “dirt” on your plate. The same happened with El Bulli and molecular gastronomy, where critics soon tried to play down the spherical olives at El Bulli, and detested the sight of any foams on a plate.

Despite Pete Wells of The New York Times‘ rave review of Noma co-founder Mads Refslund ‘s New Nordic cooking at Acme in New York last week, this week Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg was not a fan. The always sharply opinionated Josh Ozersky this week also played down the role of naturalism in cuisine that Noma is so passionate about.

On the other side, just to show the importance of Redzepi on overall global culture today, the chef on the cover of Time, though for some absurd reason not on covers in the U.S.

Is New Nordic cuisine the next molecular gastronomy where it is the worldwide phenomenon and then chefs soon start rebelling against it. In short, a little bit because the emphasis on foraging and preparations like “dirt” will grow quickly tiresome much like how El Bulli turned kitchens into labs. However, unlike molecular gastronomy which is merely a concept that can be concocted anywhere, New Nordic cuisine is meant for and can only be truly interpreted in the Nordic countries. It is a cuisine based on the ingredients available in the harsh climate of Northern Europe. If a New Nordic restaurant opened in L.A., it could not possibly be the same. That restaurant could interpret the preparations and even important Nordic ingredients, but no, it cannot be the same.

New Nordic cuisine is close, if not already a worldwide phenomenon, and its critics have already arrived with its spread. Really though, everyone should understand just what a phenomenal concept it is and the creativity behind it from Nordic chefs like Mr. Redzepi.

Le Plat du Jour: Wednesday March 21, 2012

Spring is here, which means it’s one of the best times of the year for seemingly everything. The snow will soon be melting. March Madness basketball leads to opening day for baseball. Movies? Ok, well this is the slow time for film season, so catch up on the classics or see the new season of “Mad Men.” Of course Spring means Spring Break, so perhaps off to Cancun or Key West next week?

But at the bistro, it means the end of root vegetable season and the arrival of bright, beautiful Spring produce. I was thinking this morning what will I be most excited to see at the Farmers Market tomorrow?

Strawberries: Already seen these at a few places. Nothing can beat a plump, as red as Santa’s suit strawberry. Plain, with chocolate, or better yet in my favorite chocolate-strawberry tart with walnut crust, the classic Spring fruit.

Asparagus: The classic Spring vegetable. The perfect side, steamed or grilled, or use the tips in rice and pasta stir fries. I particularly love them in an asiago based risotto with caramelized scallops. White asparagus in parts of the world reach their peak in about a month. I remember being in Munich right when the first white asparagus arrived. They thrive apparently in Bavaria and every restaurant insisted I try them. On their own they are sensational. Unfortunately most restaurants drowned them in hollandaise sauce. Nothing wrong with hollandaise, just that it completely covers up the wonderful asparagus below it.

Fava Beans: Perfect with a nice chianti…or in a puree or with the beans, shelled, and used in salads or pastas. Fava bean puree on a crostini may be the the single greatest hors d’oeuvres created.

Artichokes: Saw some fresh ones in the Artichoke belt recently (Watsonville-Castroville-Pescadero in Northern California). Perfect on their own, in salads, or like at the famed Duarte’s Tavern, pureed for a soup.

Carrots: FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale’s chef Charleen Badman is a wizard with vegetables. Last week she used the fresh carrots as a foil to dill, oil cured olives, feta and snap peas for a perfect spring fish heavily influenced by Greece.

Rhubarb: Under appreciated, great for desserts and sweeter sauces with fish or meat. Ray’s Boathouse near Seattle has an excellent recipe for salmon with a rhubarb compote and balsamic marinated strawberries. Very simple, very delicious, very Spring.

Peas: Eat your peas! Fresh, beautiful peas add crunch, color, and even a touch of sweetness to a side or sauce. I still vividly remember my lamb chop at The Kitchin in Edinburgh years ago with about 4 different variations of pea sauces and sides involved. The dish was as green as Ireland.


Also on this Wednesday, Marilyn Hagerty, America’s favorite food critic, reviews New York legend Le Bernardin.

I’m guessing Grand Forks doesn’t have any Eric Riper caliber chefs, but you never know.

Michael Bauer of The San Francisco Chronicle raises an excellent point that has already frustrated me: how inept restaurant websites can be. At least 25 % of websites make it impossible to find the hours and days of operation. Even worse, many restaurants feature flashy minute long introductions and exotic texts and graphics that make your computer crash. Keep it simple, most visitors just want to know who is the chef, what’s on the menu, where are you located, and when are you open.

Finally, the return of “Mad Men” tonight means a return to stuff whiskey drinks as The New York Times writes. Time for that Manhattan or old-fashioned!


Wednesday Wines and Beers: Arizona Wines? Yes, they Exist!

If you play word association with Arizona, chances are wine, vineyards, or anything in the subject of oenology would come up. It’s a desert, right? Grapes can’t grow in deserts!

Correct. Grapes cannot grow in deserts. Incorrect, however, because not all of Arizona is a desert. The Chiricahua Mountains of Cochise County, in the southeast portion of the state, create a climate conducive to vineyards, much like Mendoza in Argentina does with its intense heat mixed with high altitude, and enough rain to not look like Saguaro National Park. Last year John Mariani sampled several Arizona wines and I had the opportunity to try a few Cochise County glasses during my weekend trip to Phoenix for Spring Training. I had known all about Arizona’s excellent microbreweries (Four Peaks, SanTan…), but I arrived without an inkling of this burgeoning winery filled (not exactly California but maybe soon competing with Colorado or Texas?) state.

Bar Bianco, next to its famed big brother Pizzeria Bianco in Downtown Phoenix features a few glasses of Arizona wines. My sample of  the 2009 Dos Cabezas “Red” fell flat, with a pleasant texture but bland notes similar to an average chianti.

My hope sprang back though for Arizona wines a few nights later at FnB, a sensational, tiny restaurant (more on the meal itself later this week) in Scottsdale amidst shop after shop hawking knick-knacks of cowboy magnets and Grand Canyon postcards. Does anybody ever buy something at these shops? In this land of tourist overload, FnB is an oasis. Not only are the ingredients local and beautifully executed by Charleen Badman in the kitchen, the wine list created by co-owner Pavle Milic is entirely from Arizona.

Yes, an all Arizona wine list. And there are more than 3 bottles on it. There’s a little cheating here and there with one excellent red sourcing grapes from Mendocino, but made in Arizona. However, our bottle of the Pillsbury Wine Co.’s 2010 Viognier, was 100% everything Arizona and 100% an absolute treat. Aged 8 months in neutral French and American oak, this viognier avoids the soft, overly fruity stigma of most. It is very well balanced, almost like a slightly fruitier, full bodied New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Only 84 cases were produced and already 1 bottle I know has been consumed…so hurry!

An excellent wine crafted by Sam Pillsbury and an excellent suggestion by Milic. If the 2010 viognier is a sign of things to come, we may be seeing a lot more Arizona wines coming to a wine list near you.

Welcome to Trev’s Bistro!

On this beautiful first day of Spring, I wanted to welcome everyone into Trev’s Bistro! Reservations are not necessary though for peak times you probably should consider one.

I’m Trevor Felch, a former French major student at Claremont McKenna College where I served for 2 years as our newspaper The Student Life‘s dining critic and online food and drink writer. Trev’s Bistro is a continuation of what I set out accomplish with our coverage in Claremont. Like a cozy cafe in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, Trev’s Bistro will have a little bit of everything and serve multiple purposes, all with the goal of highlighting the achievements and exciting ideas of chefs, along with conducting our own reserch, making our own mistakes and learning from them, and sharing fascinating ideas to enhance meals on tables worldwide.

It’s a lofty aim but perhaps like James Stewart attempted to do in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we can lasso the moon too if we want to. Over the next few weeks I’ll be attempting to make the sight more exciting visually with photos and tweaking with the design. My professional experience lies not anywhere in food, but actually acting and sports and news broadcasting, so the dream is for audio and television to play a big part on Trev’s Bistro’s menu. Last year for my senior thesis La Déformalisation de la Restauration, the Decline in Formality in Restaurants since the Mid-20th Century, allowed me to examine our current culinary culture in comparison to our preceding decades of the fusion 1990’s, the Howard Johnson/Jacques Pépin 1960’s, the Moosewood/Chez Panisse 1970’s…I certainly hope to have fascinating features from myself and other food scholars as we dissect the past, analyze the present, and look forward to the future.

The central focus of Trev’s Bistro will each day’s “Plat du Jour,” where in the mid afternoon I will feature links or ideas or musings or major events that I have decided on from the earlier part of the day, much like a chef shopping in the morning and crafting his menu afterwards. Mondays will examine food and beverage rich neighborhoods and the personalities behind them. Tuesday is my turn in “The Project” to attempt to cook. That will be interesting. Wednesday’s Wine and Beer takes a look at an interesting bottle or vineyard or brewer. Thursday’s will bring the week’s formal review of an important, “destination” restaurant, along with the cocktail of the week to prepare you for the weekend. And Fridays will tie up the week with the best bites and sips of the past 7 days, along with a quick restaurant review wrap.

Of course, like at any decent bistro, there will be several daily specials. Articles by my friends and colleagues will certainly find air time, as will other restaurant reviews, cooking projects, and travel articles.

Please, pull up a chair, browse the menu, raise a glass, and enjoy your meal!


Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 20, 2012

Le Plat du Jour: Tuesday March 20, 2012

Yesterday, the much debated and I guess anticipated James Beard Award nominations were announced in New York. As many journalists like to describe them, the James Beards are the “Oscars” of the food world.

Indeed they are like the Oscars in terms of prestige and an excellent representation of where we are in the context of film and gastronomy today compared to history. Comparing David Chang to Câreme is similar to “The Artist” with “Wings”…well, in the case of the Oscars this year there certainly was a blast to the past. Any way you look at the James Beards, you must understand, just like with films, that there is truly no “best.” What they present to the world is a collection of very deserving chefs, mixologists, writers, restaurateurs, and anybody else involved in the food and beverage industry, who excel at this highest caliber of what they do.

I don’t use the James Beard Awards nominations list as a guide to which restaurants I must go to. I do certainly use them as a factor in the process, much like the Oscars for viewing films. I do attempt to view the nominations as an attempt to see how best we in the culinary community are doing in strengthening the vision half a century ago of the awards’ namesake. Mr. Beard loved the pizazz of life. It was in his personality to his love of myriad cuisines to his signature kimonos. He also loved simple, subtle purity in his food and his writing. Beard loved grandiose haute French cuisine feasts, but always appreciated simple fresh fish grilled over the campfire, like he often prepared in his Oregon youth.

This year’s nominations certainly show the wide spectrum of culinary ideas and platforms in 2012. Just look at the nominees for best outstanding chef.

David Chang, a chef known for his outspoken personality, unwavering love for pork, and cuisine where east and west mingle spectacularly, competes with the modern haute European vision of Daniel Humm, the dreamy pizzas and capreses from Nancy Silverton, modern Louisiana cuisine of Donald Link, the new American cuisine with Midwest influences of Paul Kahan, and the veteran of the group, Gary Danko, who’s menu hasn’t really changed in a decade and isn’t afraid to keep old French standards of butter sauces, souffles, foie gras, and truffles on nearly every table’s plates.

Right there are six deserving chefs who represent the passion for cuisine Mr. Beard always had, along with the state of restaurants in 2012.

After running through the nominations a few times, here are a few quick thoughts:

Big congratulations to Grant Achatz, Mark Bittman, Dana Cowin, Emily Luchetti, Wolfgang Puck, and Charlie Trotter. All of them have changed the way we eat for the much, much better. If it weren’t for Mr. Puck I would never have fell in love with food as a young boy in California and thanks to Mr. Bittman, I look at fruits and vegetables as ingredients that can be equally special as steak or chocolate.

For outstanding restaurant, Vetri was the premier dining experience I had in the United States in 2011 and the Blue Hill group are some of the hardest working, kindest people I’ve ever met. They all deserve the gold.

Rising Star Chef: After a visit 2 weeks ago to Flour + Water, I’d say it’s hard to consider Thomas McNaughton a “rising star” when his food is far more riveting and better executed right now than one of the outstanding chef nominees (see Danko).

Melissa Chou, Joanne Chang, and Dahlia Narvaez make dessert absolutely mandatory. Excellent to see Michael Mina honored for best service, something the rest of my dining party mentioned to me as we left the restaurant last month. Interesting to have Pierro Selvaggio’s Valentino group compared to receive so much praise despite every critic forgetting about it. My experiences there the past few years were far from inspiring.

I could never choose between Bar Agricole, Pegu Club, Aviary, and PDT for a cocktail. I can however certainly choose a Dogfish Head beer any day over Brooklyn Brewery. Frasca Food and Wine and A16 continue to revolutionize Italian wines to American diners.

AQ has shaken up San Francisco with its literal seasonal approach, but if Next doesn’t win best new restaurant, I’ll be more shocked than seeing Lehigh beat Duke. Then again, is Next even a restaurant? Or is it a show?

Excellent as always to see a John T. Edge writing piece honored. Seeing Jonathan Gold go up against Alan Richman is like if you pitted Humphrey Bogart versus Clark Gable: the legends with their own distinct unique style and voice, love them or hate them, they have changed the landscape of food journalism.

Lastly, very interesting to see all three nominees for best restaurant design and two of the three for best restaurant graphics are from New York. Is it that the architects are more thought-provoking in Gotham or just like why the Yankees and Red Sox always get more air time on ESPN? It’s probably a combination of both, though Bar Agricole in San Francisco did win last year’s best restaurant design price. It’s so spectacular it should win again this year.

Speaking of the aforementioned literally seasonal restaurant AQ in San Francisco, where the entire restaurant changes the menu, decor, and even the waiters’ uniforms each season, what happened today?

Winter became spring. No menu yet however on the restaurant’s website.

The first major review is out of Danny Meyer’s North End Grill with Floyd Cardoz, formerly of Meyer’s Tabla, behind the stove.

And nobody ever said it was easy to be a dining critic…eating out every night, sometimes even twice. How about when you’re a critic with a focus on “food crawls?” I usually limit my crawls to 2 or 3 places. Try 16!

Indeed these are great tips by Carey Jones. From my experience, the most important rules are the two bite rule and the walk/public transit route, which was impossible when conducting taco crawls in Los Angeles. The two bite rule is a must. The first bite tells if it’s worthy of a second bite. The second bite is for investigation. Then doggy bag and bounce.

Happy Spring everybody!

ChoLon Denver

A city of tremendous contrasts, Denver has officially entered the big leagues of dining cities. Colorado’s capital resides physically at the intersection of the Midwest and the eastern slope of the great Rockies and its personality reflects that meeting point of being an old cowtown and a cosmopolitan major city with the highest population between Chicago and the West Coast. As Denver natives like to remind television broadcasters, there is indeed a mountain time zone that exists. Two things are for certain when I visited the end of 2011 version of Denver, Colorado: the city is certainly not just the major airport on the way to skiing paradise in the mountains and this is not just a meat and potatoes town.

In fact it’s hard to say whether TebowMania could even compete with the region’s obsession with its newfound wealth of destination worthy restaurants and microbreweries. It seems walking the streets of Denver there are as many microbreweries to sample as Tebow (or maybe soon Peyton Manning?) jerseys to be found.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Colorado at least a hundred times in my life since much of my family lives on the Felch ranch in the foothills west of Denver. Through my childhood Denver was nothing except the airport and where we’d go sometimes to see a Rockies game. In fact, the transformation of Denver into a more sophisticated urban city may very well be credited to the 1995 opening of Coors Field, home of the Rockies. The ballpark brought people downtown, a trend Denver pioneered with Baltimore and Cleveland, that has revitalized previously desolate warehouse areas. In Denver, that area is Lower Downtown. Post 1995, “LoDo” has seen an incredible transformation that has now crossed the entire city and the Platte River across from Downtown.

The dining scene in Denver certainly started transforming as well from beyond the steak, lamb, and elk world, though still many of those old establishments are still deservedly thriving. My family has celebrated nearly every special occasion dinner at Morrison’s famed “The Fort,” where you can feast on rattlesnake, buffalo, and elk in an adobe hacienda setting that takes you back to before Colorado was a state. The Buckhorn Exchange, home of liquor license #1 in Colorado, does the same in Denver, and you can’t get much more classic Colorado than the 63 year old Bud’s Bar in Sedalia where the choice is hamburger with or without cheese, and Coors or Coors Lite. Fries? Not here.

Kevin Taylor’s formal dining room made waves during the Clinton years, long before the dot com bust fizzled out formal dining. The new millennium brought Frank Bonanno’s excellent cooking at Mizuna, home of the lobster mac n cheese, a dish that represents haute comfort food if I’ve ever seen one. His mini empire including Luca d’Italia, Osteria Marco, Bones, Lou’s, Wednesday’s Pie, and the speakeasy Green Russell single handedly made Denver a dining destination. Jennifer Jasinski’s Italian cooking at Panzano caught nationwide attention and now she’s on fire with her more contemporary Mediterranean style at Rioja in Larimer Square. A few years ago at Rioja my Dad, a lamb afficionado, enjoyed the greatest lamb dish of his life. Nobody remembers what the preparation was sadly, but he has had lamb dishes at Michelin 3 star temples in France, and still says about every lamb dish, “It’s great, but not Rioja lamb.” Rioja is now an adjective in the family for describing high caliber meat preparations instead of the inside temperature of the meat.

2007 brought the Rockies to their first World Series ever (who were swept by my  beloved Red Sox), Carmelo Anthony brought the Nuggets to relevance for the first time in decades, and of course a year later in the summer of 2008 Barack Obama made his famous outdoor acceptance speech at Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Broncos, for his nomination at the Democratic National Convention.  Denver had made it into the national spotlight. Despite the ever present existence of Aspen and Vail, the emergence of Boulder in the culinary community thanks to numerous revolutionary craft breweries, Frasca Food and Wine and The Kitchen, Denver was a major player finally in American cities for business, travel, and of course dining.

2010 was a magical year bringing Alex Seidel’s Fruition, where the pasta carbonara trumps any version I’ve had in Italy or the U.S., and several gastropubs in this city of premier beer including Ms. Jasinski’s Euclid Hall and Colt & Gray on the other side of the Platte River from Downtown. Yet, 2010 brought also the restaurant, that after a recent dinner a little over a year into its existence, represents the true arrival of big city sophistication to Denver. Of course that arrival had to come from the much bigger city of New York, courtesy of the exotic, refined new wave Asian cuisine cooking by Lon Symensma, formerly of the Jean Georges Vongerichten Asian-French cuisine empire and Manhattan’s gigantic part sushi, part new style Asian cuisine palace Buddakan. His sleek bistro ChoLon at the corner of Blake and 16th Street could easily fit in and win rave reviews in New York, London, or Paris, yet it is a perfect representation of its spot in Denver. The location is right in between the more microbrew-baseball centric nightlife of LoDo and the more nightlife-nightlife centric Larimer Square. Right by the 16th Street Mall, Denver’s pedestrian only street with a complimentary tram-bus, ChoLon and the 16th Street Mall reflects Denver’s new sophistication. Not to mention that Blake Street is maybe the greatest culinary street in the city and the namesake of the “Blake Street Bombers” with Coors Field residing on the street 8 blocks from ChoLon. ChoLon’s sophistication carries inside with a handsome, almost sexy bar, and an airy, warehouse meets nightclub interior with an open kitchen and a striking row of  bamboo-like plants in the center that makes the inside feel 80 degrees even when it’s 5 degrees outside in December. The tall wrap-around windows give the restaurant an open feel looking at the critical intersection of Blake and 16th, but the tinted black color lends an exclusive air and the candles everywhere makes this a perfect date spot. This is not the Denver I remember when growing up…this is the big city.

And the flavors from Mr. Symensma’s kitchen dazzle. Start to finish, not one dish or cocktail was short of a hall of fame contender. Symensma’s imagination and execution is best represented by the soup dumplings filled with sweet onions and gruyere. Here, Shanghai’s iconic dish meets Paris (interesting concept considering the major French quarter of Shanghai), with xiao long bao dumplings made famous by Din Tai Fung, a chain based in Taiwan that has branched out to L.A. and Seattle, and are usually stuffed with a pork broth filling, this time are replaced by what is essentially the greatest French onion soup you’ll ever have. Diners must swallow everything in one bite for a sensation that numbs the body. No diner should be forced to share an order of four of these.

Paris met Shanghai via Denver there, perhaps Malaysia and Mexico come into play with the excellent chile crab rolls along with a charred corn salad and an addictive sriracha mayo. Pork belly is indeed so 2010 but should remain on every menu if served in the potstickers with a ginger mustard like done here. Even the mandatory beet salad becomes special, spiked by lemongrass, and so does the bread plate, which actually is an enormous black sesame rice crisp with a sneakily spicy salsa.

Small plates are the soul of the menu but the larger dishes and sides are not to be missed. The second best dish, if possible to rank, is mint heavy stir fried brussel sprouts with almost a pound of diced ground pork amidst them. The black pepper marinated short rib could be tournedos rossini by Escoffier, except here with house made chow fun (imagine Escoffier making chow fun!) and Chinese broccoli. Colorado may not be near an ocean, but the Australian sea bass is blessed with a perfect flaky texture and spice from spicy wok tossed bok choy and the funk of water chestnuts.

The hits keep coming at dessert, in particular spiced doughnuts with a Vietnamese coffee ice cream so vivid of flavor there’s no need to get an espresso afterwards. The chocolate cake remains moist and rewarding, especially with the addictive salted peanut ice cream. Symensma really should open an ice cream parlor too. The bland toasted marshmallow with the chocolate cake was the only missed note of any dish for the evening. And that’s being really picky.

Did I mention that ChoLon happens to do that other favorite urban thing, a bonafide bar program, extremely well? As in some of the best cocktails I’ve ever tried, period, not kidding? To make an outstanding margarita even better, ChoLon’s Full Moon Margarita adds smoked tamarind and mezcal to the party. The Zen Master puts everyone at peace with its cucumber, sake, mint trio, accented by gin from Denver’s own Leopold Bros. The best, however? Ginger and beets mingle with vodka in the Royal Garden, a drink deserving of royalty. Even the wine list is long and thorough, and shockingly reasonably priced. Yes, bottles of high caliber wine, can be purchased for less than twice the retail price, under 50 dollars a bottle. Imagine that! Dessert wines should especially not be missed, stage a tasting session like our table to debate the merits of port vs sauterne vs moscato d’asti (sauternes wins).

Service follows suit with excellent recommendations and a vibe that makes you feel like they know this is a special place. Indeed it is, with nothing over the high 20’s in prices and many small plates under 10 dollars. I keep using the buzzwords of urban sophistication and big city dining, but there certainly aren’t big city prices for this caliber of a dining experience

This is a destination restaurant in what is now a destination dining city. Lon Symensma has taken the Mile High by storm and stands in the center of this new gastronomic excitement gripping Denver.