Saturday, October 30, 2004

Flying High and Mile-City Eats

View from my seat, Frontier Airlines flight from Denver to Washington, D.C., early this afternoon.

Once again I’m in a plane, flying high over cirrus clouds blanketing Iowa. I’m heading back to Washington after three days in Denver, a city I almost moved to in the mid-1990’s.

Denver or D.C.?: I was just out of grad school and was either going to take a media relations internship in Washington or find my fortunes in Denver. On a brief trip in 1995 to see my brother there, I found the Mile-High City to be sunny, quirky, laid-back and independent.

I opted for Washington, even though I didn’t know a soul there and didn’t have a place to stay. I felt there were more career opportunities in D.C. I don’t regret the decision, though sometimes I still play around with the idea of moving back West – to Denver (where I can buy a house easily) or to California (my SO keeps pushing this).

It was incredibly sunny in Denver the past few days. My SO, who is in Los Angeles for a business trip (we’re the continent-commuting couple), said LA was also sunny, and quite warm. He said he felt rejuvenated there. I understand how he feels; the gloomy weather on the east coast can make one slightly dyspeptic, with an inordinate need to hunker down with strong ale and C-SPAN (thank god we canceled our cable).

Denver eats: You know me; when I travel, I make it a point to scope out some of the best restaurants, whether they’re Michelin-starred establishments or holes-in-the-wall.

On Wednesday evening, I ate at Bistro Vendome in posh Larimer Square. Think ocher-yellow walls, high-backed cherry booths and jazz great Dinah Washington crooning over the sound system. Very intimate. I ate a monkfish bouillabaisse that was slightly too salty but very silky, almost lobster-like in texture. I paired that with a panisse of tomatoes and cheese. Dessert was a classic crème-brulee.

It would have been a fine meal if I wasn't all but ignored by my waiter. Being ill-treated happens sometimes when one dines solo. The waiter might think that the solo diner doesn’t need much attention and will rack up only a modest bill (meaning a modest tip), so why bother?

I find this very irritating. So I tipped 10 percent, less than half of the usual gratituity I leave. I would have stiffed him had it not been for the attentive maitre’d (who served me a dish or two) and busboys who scrupulously filled my water glass every time I took a sip.

Dinner on Thursday night was a better, though noisier, experience. I ate at the Fourth Story, the restaurant on top of the Tattered Cover bookshop, a Denver institution. Despite its name, the restaurant is on the third floor, and has a wide-open feel though it’s modest of size: Picture windows cover three of its walls.

I’d been there once before, in mid-1995, the year the restaurant opened. I remember I ate a late lunch as sunlight poured into the room. However, on this night, the restaurant was very dark, lit only by flickering candles. A celebratory mood enveloped the restaurant. All around me were couples or small groups laughing, conversing, eating, drinking wine. I felt a bit silly bringing a notebook with me. But I had a deadline the next day, so as I sipped Prosecco and waited for my meal, I outlined my story.

I dined on lobster ravioli in a light butter sauce (very good) and sautéed spinach with lemon. Dessert: a tiny scoop of ginger ice cream and another of pumpkin ice cream, dotted with fresh raspberries and served in a martini glass. It was both whimsical and elegant.

My waiter was friendly and attentive. He tucked my check into a little brown book, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was actually a small comment book, and in it were the scrawled notes of former diners. A nice touch. His tip: 25 percent.

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