Arugula Ristorante- Fresh, Local, Seasonal Fine Dining

A few years ago an extremely successful Boulder businessman entered into a conversation with me about my then-nascent culinary tourism business Local Table Tours. He told me that successful businesses re-evaluate and re-invent themselves in seven year cycles. Over the years I held on to that insight as my third, fourth, fifth and sixth years of business came and went. I was eager to fast-forward to see what happens around year seven. Well, I’m now in my seventh year of owning and operating Local Table Tours, and there are undeniable changes that started with coordinating large group corporate events in year number six. I think it’s time I meet up with this man again over some wine to discuss the second seven-year cycle… but this blog post isn’t about me. It’s about Arugula, a seven year old Boulder restaurant that’s NOT located downtown and that is relaunching itself this year and doing extraordinary things for our local food and beverage scene.

I mention my discussion of seven year business cycles because the owner of Arugula, Alec Schuler, invited a dining room full of food writers to taste some new spring creations and to see his recently remodeled space. Course after delicious course came out with a bit of a description of what was on the plate, what it was paired with, and why. Shortly before the last course he mentioned this was his seventh year owning Arugula and he had decided to freshen up the dining room and re-vamp the menu. My ears perked. Seven years sounds like just about the right time to do that.

Chef Alec is undoubtedly passionate about his craft. Tangerine, his breakfast/brunch spot right next door, is one of the busiest places in town and folks line up to wait for his food. Arugula, open for dinner at 5 and serving lunch Wednesdays through Fridays, provides a fine dining experience that is fresh, local, and seasonal. This is one worth driving to, folks. It’s sometimes worth leaving downtown Boulder and I assure you, the corner of 28th and Iris offers free parking in addition to excellent food.

I’m including some photos I shot at our dinner, but I’m not inspired to write a typical food blog post where I tell you how great each thing was. Know this: everything I ate was worth eating again, but the twice-weekly changing menu means that’s not likely to happen any time soon. I’d more prefer to suggest straying from Pearl Street every now and then and discover a taste of Boulder not explored by tourists or the majority of locals. There are some fantastic chefs and restauranteurs in North, South, and East Boulder, but many are over-looked or ignored because the draw of Pearl Street and downtown Boulder is sometimes a force to be reckoned with. I for one know the next time I decide where to go for dinner it will be Arugula.

 

Zoës Kitchen Brings a Taste of the Mediterranean to Colorado

I had the honor and privilege to be invited to a Zoës Kitchen pop-up dinner at Black Eye Coffee in the LoHi neighborhood of Denver to introduce some local media to incredibly delicious food that is about to be served throughout the front range of Colorado. I’d never heard of Zoës Kitchen before, but it’s now a restaurant name I’ll never forget.

Zoës Kitchen is a wildly popular, healthy, fast-casual concept from the south, and is just starting to open a handful of establishments here in Colorado. As someone who seldom visits “chain” restaurants, I arrived at the pop-up dinner with an assumption it would be OK at best. I was completely wrong. This was one of the best dinners I’d enjoyed in a long time.

Zoës Kitchen threw a pop-up dinner party for us in the carefully curated space that is Black Eye Coffee LoHi. A reclaimed wood table that could easily have been set for forty was decorated with a table runner of fresh herbs and candles. It was stunning. We were greeted with cocktails and wine and some small passed plates. Among the hosts was their lead chef, Antonio Iocchi, who led us through a guided olive oil tasting before serving dinner.

Olive Oil Tasting

Our dinner that night was delicious and delightful. The company was very welcoming, with food bloggers and food writers in the mix, the food was fantastic, and the wine was freely poured. To me, that’s the setting for a great dinner party.

We were introduced to the Lupini bean, and I’m pleased to know that when Zoës Kitchen opens in Boulder later this year, I’ll have a place to enjoy my newly found protein-rich snack. Good bye edamame, hello lupini.

Lupini Beans

Upon taking our seats, the Mediterranean Baked Feta and the Hummus Trio were served on large platters to share, family style. These beautiful dishes were fresh, delicious, and memorable. The baked feta was a creamy yet still slightly firm presentation of feta that I’d never tasted before. I helped myself to seconds.

Mediterranean Baked FetaHummus Trio

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next came a demonstration by chef Iocchio on his Live Med Salad, with zucchini ribbons and spinach, topped with farro and lupini beans. It was a perfect salad, in my opinion. I replicated it at home the next night.

Live Med Salad

Entrées came next, and I was starting to fill up, so I didn’t taste everything that was served. I did have a Rosemary Ham and Mozzarella Piadina. I’d never heard of a piadina before, and I’m glad that’s now changed. I can only describe it as a quesadilla-style sandwich with a savory pastry-like dough.  I also had a chicken kabob, and had to then call it quits.

Rosemary Ham and Mozzarella Piadina

Chicken, Salmon, and Veggie Kabobs

 

 

 

 

 

 

…Until dessert came. I ate the whole thing- Ya Ya’s Chocolate Cake- a family recipe that apparently is never quite the same from batch to batch, yet always a favorite.

Ya Ya's Chocolate Cake

Throughout the evening we heard inspiring stories from the Zoës Kitchen team, telling us their philosophy on fresh foods and what it means to live the Zoë lifestyle. Zoës Kitchen is run by a group of people who genuinely love their jobs, love the food, and are excited to share fresh, healthy, convenient, and fairly priced cuisine with the front range of Colorado. They’re a welcomed addition to our burgeoning food scene.

Lotus of Siam, Las Vegas

Over the past few years I have heard so many people tell me that if I wanted truly authentic Thai food I needed to go to Lotus of Siam– a James Beard award winning restaurant in a mini mall in Las Vegas. As someone fortunate enough to have spent a few months in Thailand in my early twenties, I’ve had a hard time enjoying Thai food here in the US ever since. So, 2015 was the year to go to Vegas and try it out.

And, like most things that have been overly hyped by your friends, it was a bit of a disappointment and I wouldn’t go back. Don’t get me wrong here. The food was good, the service was good, and we had a good dining experience. But, I had expected so much more. I was expecting it to be more of an “authentically authentic” Thailand-type-of-food than we experienced. They did, however, have an excellent wine list to accompany their cuisine.

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Lotus of Siam frequently has a two+ hour wait to get in. We got there as soon as they opened to avoid their infamous line, which was definitely a good idea given the mini mall scenery and the dessert heat.

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While Sean perused the wine list, I started perusing the very large menu. This is where I first got weary. The menu is long. There are so, so, so many options. It’s the type of menu that covers everything and often has the same dish in a slightly different iteration on the next page. That was my first red flag. Right away I thought of the classic Southeast Asian saying, “Same Same but Different.” Over there, it’s like a joke amongst backpackers going through so many neighboring Asian countries. Over here, it felt like I was in a nondescript Chinese restaurant with a menu item that aimed to please everybody. In Thailand, however, menus are brief. Lotus of Siam claims to be northern Thai. There’s no way acclaimed restaurants in northern Thailand offer such an eclectic menu. It just doesn’t happen.

We ordered some egg rolls, tempura veggies and shrimp, and a bottle of wine to start. The wine was excellent, the egg rolls were fine, and the tempura veggies and shrimp were very unimpressive. There was so much breading, so little flavor, and it’s really not a traditional Thai dish in the first place. Nor were the egg rolls. In hindsight, writing this, I wonder why we ordered them? We were hungry.

We ordered a cup of spicy veggie soup, which was good. We ordered a vegetarian mushroom dish, which was absolutely terrible, and we sent it back. It was a mound of cold mushrooms in the middle of a plater of raw sliced vegetables. They took it off of our bill, which was expected, but we were glad to confirm that upon receiving the bill. I enjoyed my catfish curry, but the highlight for me was the sticky rice I ordered in addition to the curry. It was almost identical to the Chiang Mai region’s sticky rice, minus the presentation.

sticky rice

In northern Thailand, sticky rice is served in dried bamboo grass. At Lotus of Siam, it’s in plastic inside a basket. Which brings me to my main point here- I’m not just trying to write something negative for the sake of complaining. I’m simply not convinced that Lotus of Siam is all that amazing. If and when you get yourself over to Thailand, you’ll say to yourself, “OMG this food is so amazing! I can’t believe how much better it is than the Thai food we eat in the US.”  Stay there long enough and you try all kinds of cuisines from Bangkok, to Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, Sukhothai, Kanchanaburi or Mae Hong Son. For Lotus of Siam to be such an acclaimed establishment seems ludicrous to me as eating there offers very little of a truly Thai dining experience.

Hillside Farmacy, Austin

After a hot, sunny, Texas-summer-time bike ride on b-cycles, we gave up our quest for the BBQ joint we planned on visiting and ducked into the nearest restaurant we saw: Hillside Farmacy.

Hillside Farmacy

The Hillside Farmacy is a New American restaurant and specialty grocer housed in the old Hillside Drugstore building, and has been beautifully restored using the original pharmacy cabinetry. Walking inside feels like taking a step back in time, and can taste like that, too. The beverage menu features homemade fountain sodas, such as a traditional Brooklyn Egg Cream as well as punch, which you can order by the glass (1 cup) or bowl (20 cups). We opted for a couple glasses of this refreshing concoction of gin, bubbles, hibiscus syrup, and grapefruit juice.

Hillside Farmacy Punch

A salad and sandwich sounded perfect to me, so I went for “the beets” with fennel, chévre vinaigrette, red onion, arugula, and radish.

the beets

Familiar flavors I’ve had many times, yet always one of my favorites. For my sandwich, I tries something a little more unique- the “Thank You.”

Thank You Sandwich

Roasted chicken, mozzarella, strawberry jam, sprouts, and aioli. I have one word: YUM.

Hillside Farmacy works with a number of local Austin farms, and sells a nice selection of hand crafted food items such as hot sauces, jams, and Texas rice. This sophisticated yet unpretentious eatery was a pleasant surprise.

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