When I discovered Chowhound—back at the turn of the millennium—it was a bare-bones message board for gastronomic misfits who subscribed to the front-page manifesto of its founder, Jim Leff: “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote. “Chowhounds blaze trails.” I was just starting out as a food writer, and it read like a call to arms.
Today, Leff’s scrappy sanctuary for geeks “who know where the good stuff is” has morphed into a slick CBS-run resource for, you guessed it, foodies. And I’ve become all too aware that writers viewed as gastronomic trailblazers from one angle may look like cultural interlopers from another. Yet the Chowhound in me still yanks the leash: I’ll always believe that sniffing out the smallest hole-in-the-wall is a more critical mission than splurging at the latest hot spot. At the very least, I might taste a dish I’ve never tried. At best, I may actually learn something from a new (to me) experience—about the cuisine in question, about the part of the world it comes from, maybe even about myself and my own assumptions, good or bad.
So come with me on this web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver.
Not all hidden gems are outlying holes-in-the-wall you’ve never heard of serving unfamiliar dishes with names you can’t pronounce. Some are right there, waiting, when you turn the corner and see the signage and remind yourself, yet again, that you’ve been meaning to check the place out forever…or return for the first time in ages.
Red Square Euro Bistro falls into the latter category. At 15 years old, it has inhabited its shelter within Writer Square for longer than most of the restaurants defining the LoDo dining scene today. Yet most people seem to know it only from vague memory, as that place where they used to have a blast doing vodka shots, a long time ago, when they were young and free.
You may have changed, but the opportunity hasn’t—age and wisdom notwithstanding, you can still have a blast doing vodka shots at Red Square. The selection of brands and house infusions is as delightfully extensive as ever: Bottles from Ireland, New Zealand, and El Salvador supplement the more-common imports of, say, Finland, Poland, and Russia, while flavors range from mint and black currant to garlic and beet. My personal favorites are dill, horseradish, black pepper, and red pepper—each purer and more piquant than the last, with the added advantage that their savoriness tends to whet the appetite in a way that their sweeter counterparts don’t.
Because you do want to eat, as well as drink, at Red Square. Despite its share of chef shuffles, the kitchen has remained remarkably consistent over the years, its menu reflecting a commitment to balancing Western and Eastern European influences both traditional and contemporary, season in and season out. (And yes, I’m considering Russia as part of Eastern Europe here—what’s complicated from a geopolitical standpoint is pretty well accepted from a culinary one.)
The resulting dishes juxtapose the homey and hearty with the haute: rustic in essence but refined in execution (with the exception of humble “golubtsi,” or beef-stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce, a comfort that just can’t—and shouldn’t—be elevated). Take the tiny, tender beef dumplings called pelmeni, which come dotted with sour cream and chives bobbing in a fragrant beef broth that demands to be sopped up with some good crusty bread. Or the latkes on the bar menu, more like lacy wedges of potato pie than pancakes. Other staples include pierogi—which could contain ricotta, leeks, and wild mushrooms in white wine–butter sauce one visit and sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pecans in sage brown butter the next—and schnitzel, which also morphs with the market; now it’s cauliflower schnitzel with veggies in horseradish-honey yogurt, then it’s pork loin with fried wild rice in Cambozola cream.
Other recent hits include creamy, tangy, warm-yet-weirdly-refreshing dill-pickle soup, brimming with potatoes, carrots, and onions beneath a garnish of hard-boiled egg and crumbled bacon. And pickled herring gone graceful with walnut purée, marble potatoes, and zucchini ribbons. Also airy, crisp, roe-topped profiteroles filled with luscious salmon mousse alongside pinches of herb salad. And these are just appetizers—move on to the likes of that schnitzel or the signature Stroganoff and you may not have a speck of room for dessert. Which is probably just as well; a parting sip of honey or fig vodka could be the only prompt you need to come back much, much sooner rather than later.
1512 Larimer St., 303-595-8600