Birthday dinner...count them three of them.


Since I was turning thirty-nine this year, I decided that the prevalence of the number three in this year's anniversary of my birth required three birthday dinners. Really, it just happened to turn out that way. As usual, I was away from home for my actual birthday weekend, attending the National Council for the Social Studies in Denver this year. I have to express my thanks to Littleman on the Chowhound Mountain States Board who recommended both Rioja and Colt & Gray for dinner in Denver. I decided to go to both. Why miss the chance at a good meal while away?

The first birthday dinner was at Colt & Gray, a couple days before the big day. I joined my friends Kim and Donna--who celebrated with me last year in Atlanta as well--and we tucked in. First, what a cozy, fun restaurant. With a table right next to the fire place on a cold night, I
was primed for a good meal. I could not resist starting with the foie gras rillettes with toasted raisin brioche and apple gellee, and a little green salad. One of the things I like about the menu was the fact that there was a offal selection that included marrow bones, sweetbreads, head cheese, and blood pudding in addition to the foie.

For the main course, I had the pork three ways, because three pigs is always better than one. First was a butter poach tenderloin that was luxurious and almost unctuous. This was joined by a house-made that nicely highlighted the porkiness of the link without burying it in spice. Finally, the piece d'resistance was a braised pork cheek served on grits. This gorgeous little bite melted in my mouth, offering a flavor explosion that reminded one why pork is on of God's gifts to humanity. For dessert, a tasty olive oil-thyme cake with blueberries and lemon-buttermilk ice cream. I love olive oil cake, because savory as sweet is so unexpected and wonderful. The buttermilk ice cream was an
eye opener and capped off the evenings fun.

Rioja, I'm quite sure, has to be the best restaurant in Denver. Chef-owner Jennifer Jasinski is a super star. A disciple of Wolfgang Puck, she uses local ingredients in her culinary palate to create bold flavors and unexpected delights. Mine began with the Water Buffalo Cheese Plate. Starting with traditional buffalo mozzarella combined with a tomato bruschetta, the plate progressed to a light and creamy Casatica de bufala with honey and pear. Next was Quadro di bufala served with olives and finally a blu di bufala with a fig tartlette. The progression of cheese, all starting from the same exact, if unusual, milk was something of a revelation.

One the night though, the next dish was probably as close to perfect as possible. Referred to on the menu as "fresh bacon," this is pork belly at its finest. Starting with Berkshire pork from Japan, the belly is rubbed with cardamom, my favorite spice (because it works in both sweet and savory) and cooked low and slow, rendered out all the fattiness to flavor the meat. Served over a Madras curry garbanzo bean puree, this is certainly the finest pork belly I have ever had, and I've had my share. It was a perfect plate; I cannot think how to make it better, except to have one waiting for me at least weekly, if not daily. My entrée, though almost unnecessary after the pork belly, was something I had never sampled before, veal cheeks. These slow-braised beauties were simply delicious. For dessert, we had the lemon yuzu sabayon tart; with pine nuts, cornmeal, confit lemon and accompanied by pine nut brittle ice cream and a pucker worthy lemoncello granita, how could this not be the beyond expectation?

Finally, my last dinner was at one of my favorite restaurants, Pigalle in Boston, with two of my favorite people, Tori and Be. We opted for the tasting menu, which is never easy, as Be is the pickiest eater that I am still friends with. I mean dear God the boy won't eat fish! Any way, five courses was the way to go.

The meal began with a wonderful amuse bouche of duck liver mouse with the traditional accoutrement. Nothing innovative, just boldly delicious. My first course was the Fromage Blanc Tart, Pumpkin Confit and Taste of Pumpkin Soup. The shot glass filled with warm, creamy pumpkiny goodness was perfect on a cold November night and the tart was exquisite. Tori of course had the tuna tare tare, but she has that everywhere we go. Next I had gnocchi with chanterelle mushrooms and duck breast. There was even a few leaves of brussel sprouts that I survived. The broth was deep brown and powerful good.

Be sat out the third course; it was all Tori and I, so we dug first intoSeared Sea Scallops with Blood Orange Reduction, Exotic Mushrooms, Artichokes and Salsify Ragoût which were so beautifully caramelized it was hard not to love them, but the Halibut ‘en croûte’ with Braised Bok Choy, Steamed Jasmine Rice and Curry Emulsion was possibly the dish of the night. The halibut was as good as any steak and the complement of the jasmine and curry transported me bite by bite to another land.

The meat course was hearty and filling. Tori and I had the Pork Wienerschnitzel with Herbed Spaetzle, Braised Purple Cabbage and Caper Lemon Sauce, which reminded me of my trip to Vienna. It was not the most refined plate I have ever had at Pigalle, but it was more than satisfying. Tori loved the cabbage. Be enjoyed the Roasted Sirloin, Aligot Potato Ring, Red Hubbard and Short Rib Hash. Finally red meat he could appreciate.

Dessert was a wonderful ending to the whole meals, each of us getting something different. Be had the Vanilla Panna Cotta with Strawberry Trio while Tori and I had the Chef's Whim, which escapes me now, weeks later. Needless to say, it was a good celebration of my birthday, three times over.
with Red Wine Sauce



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