Call it a food writer's gift or curse but after a great meal, I sometimes find myself reviewing each plate in my mind as if watching a highlight reel. Textures and flavors resurface, and as with a smell that evokes a long-forgotten memory, an image of the dish reappears.
On my drive home from Pueblo's Restaurant Fifteen Twentyone last weekend, I was haunted by two edible visions in particular: glistening miso beurre blanc under a shrimp rice cake, which itself rested beneath a crispy, skin-on, pan-seared Australian sea bass filet and elegantly thin cuts of grill-branded zucchini; and a starkly simple ramekin-round goat cheesecake next to a slender fan of pear slices.
The two dishes show chef Duy Pham's penchant for both complex gourmet and restrained presentation. He knows what to let speak for itself and what to doll up for a night on the town.
Pham's dark-wood-dominated dining room, adorned mostly with black-and-white French photographs, falls into the first category. The floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls create an open, inviting atmosphere that's matched by fair menu prices, especially considering Pham's reputation from Denver's Aqua Oyster Bar and prior ventures.
Service inside the Main Street fishbowl is what I call relaxed fine dining professional and friendly, not stiff. Silverware in need of more attentive polishing and replacement between courses proved the only lapses in otherwise seamless fine dining.
Our meal began with a Bibb salad ($7) and mushroom-stuffed escargot ($10). The salad arrived as a half-head, resting cut-side open, with thick blue cheese dressing creeping down its crevices. Generous chunks of Maytag blue nearly outnumbered red onion rounds and walnuts. Needless to say, the salad was the Blue Cheese Show, starring blue cheese great if you're a fan.
Warm mushroom and oregano flavors dominated the snails, which were topped with a thin cap of melted, smoked gouda, scant bread crumbs and a drizzle of garlic-herb butter. In a bite, it was pleasantly difficult to distinguish between fungus and shell dweller.
Along with the sea bass ($22), we ordered the grilled Colorado lamb ($21), served a blushing medium rare in a thick puddle of lamb demi-glace and rosemary oil alongside a goat cheese potato cake and beets. The dish pointed to Pham's classical French cuisine discipline, and married the multitude of flavors beautifully.
The same can be said for the sea bass, but Pham deserves extra marks for the miso beurre blanc (fermented rice or soybean paste with white wine and butter). When tasted with the meat, it caused a momentary euphoria. The Japanese word umami, meaning "delicious" or "yummy" and referring to the fifth taste beyond sweet, sour, salty and bitter rushed to mind. Pham has nailed it with this dish.
Dessert brought neighboring Solar Roast Coffee's espresso into a crme brule ($6). A strong hit of the espresso made for a looser but delicious custard. Meanwhile, that goat cheesecake ($6), made exclusively for Pham by nearby Hopscotch Bakery, fuses just a hint of goat dairy flavor into the rich cheesecake body, bringing a more mature and simply exquisite taste. Pham is brave, beyond wise, for letting this outside item star on his sweets list.
Then again, Pham's own dishes have so much going for them, he need not worry about sharing the spotlight at meal's end.