Joel Klatt gets schooled in the Denver dining scene over dinner at Squeaky Bean
In advance of the Super Bowl, 104.3 The Fan morning sports commentator Joel Klatt declared that Denver was a chain restaurant town without a unique food culture. In the course of the subsequent Twitter barrage, chef Paul Reilly of the soon-to-open Beast + Bottle jumped to Denver's defense with this: "@joelklatt @mantonat Fair enough. I absolutely think DEN has better restaurants than KC or STL #culinarymovement#foodietown."
Lori Midson Joel Klatt, Mark Antonation and Squeaky Bean owner Johnny Ballen.
After that, I reached out to Klatt, hoping to educate him about the dining opportunities here. And he agreed to meet for dinner at the restaurant of my choice to discuss the Denver dining scene and, hopefully, experience culinary proof that this city can hold its own against other American foodie destinations -- including New Orleans, Kansas City and Austin -- that he'd named during his morning drive-time show.
- Is Denver a chain-restaurant town? 104.3 FM's Joel Klatt thinks so, but we disagree
- Chef and Tell with Max Mackissock of Squeaky Bean
- Johnny Ballen, the bionic man behind Squeaky Bean
After some deliberation, we decided that Squeaky Bean would be the location of our meeting, both because of its stellar reputation as a leader in Denver dining, and because I thought chef Max MacKissock's playful yet complex dishes would be just right for challenging Klatt's assumptions, without being too off-putting. After all, Klatt had admitted on the radio that more often than not he finds himself at steakhouses -- either because he's entertaining athletes who gravitate toward beef-centric menus or he's exhausted from his travels as a baseball and college football commentator and needs comfort and familiarity that hometown steakhouses generally provide.
My wife and Cafe Society editor Lori Midson joined us for dinner (we invited Reilly, too, but he was unable to attend).
For me, the Squeaky Bean's menu hit the perfect balance of adventure and familiarity. The opening soup -- a borscht broth with a sour-cream sphere, tiny potato dumplings and sprig of dill -- was an instant reminder of my Ukrainian grandmother's more robust and hearty beet soup. A bowl of clam tortellini at first hinted at an old-school Italian joint's best linguini and clam sauce, but veered into new territory with a fragrant, bright green sea urchin emulsion poured tableside by the waitstaff. Between this and the bison carpaccio with its sprinkle of crunchy barley, I think Klatt was a little taken aback.
But just as in his CU Buff days, Klatt was a great sport and took the challenge head on. His favorites? We all agreed that the deceptively simple but powerful flavor of the cauliflower couscous with vadouvan was a clear winner, as was the bite of butter-smooth beef tongue that came immersed in pho broth.
Lori Midson The borscht at the Squeaky Bean.
(Although tongue jokes made the rounds on the Evans and Klatt radio show the next morning, Klatt was clearly impressed.)