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MOUTHING OFF

California, here I come: After Barbara Lane, Westword's first food writer and then-restaurant critic at its partner paper in San Francisco, the SF Weekly, visited Denver this past summer, she returned home to tell her readers that it takes a trip to another city (and a truly bad meal at Zenith) to appreciate the food in your own.

Back at you, Barbara. You can have your overpriced, nationally known eateries and your celebrity chefs. I'd rather have someone who cares more about the food he's putting out than whether there are enough pictures on the wall of himself with famous people.

Case in point: Stars, oddly seated at the edge of the Tenderloin district. There's nothing like a homeless man hitting you up for change before you eat a $100 lunch. That's what we spent for two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts and one six-glass set of two-ounce wine tasters. Other than a few of the wines (from a daring weekly offering of little-seen bottles, in this case a selection of Radikon wines from Italy's Friuli area), the only thing I'd pay for again was an appetizer of two spring rolls split open over cucumber salad. The rest of the meal was so boring and flavorless I thought I had wandered into a Red Lobster: fried calamari with aioli; pasta with Gruyere, fennel, leeks, radicchio and veal that tasted like watery noodles; lackluster halibut that had been pelted with tomatoes (we would have done it if the kitchen hadn't); and desserts my one-year-old could have thrown together. One was a poor ripoff of bananas Foster that wasn't saved by the decent piece of shortbread floating in it; the other was just a mess of chocolate. Haughty chef/owner Jeremiah Tower paced about the dining room the whole time looking down his nose at everyone (sorry, none of us appeared to be rich and famous). Maybe he should have been in the kitchen.

We shelled out the same number of bucks for dinner at Ristorante Firenze by Night, in North Beach, and walked away with the best meal of the trip. We'd heard about the place from a friend of a friend who'd been told that five guys from Italy visited the Bay area, stopped in at Firenze for their first dinner and returned every evening thereafter for the duration of their trip. I can see why. Firenze wasn't our first choice that night, but a more casual North Beach spot, Caffe Sport, had been packed, so we stumbled in without reservations after a long day of sightseeing, dressed in Grateful Dead T-shirts and towing our filthy toddler. The staff at Firenze didn't miss a beat--from the maitre d' on, they treated us like royalty. And once we tried the food, we wouldn't have cared if they had spit on us. One entree, pappardelle with rabbit (a classic Tuscan dish), made the best possible use of domestic rabbit (in Italy it would have been wild hare), with a dense, meaty reduction coating each noodle and plenty of rabbit bits. And the gnocchi with tomato cream sauce was one of those dishes I will dream about, talk about and try to duplicate for the rest of my life. The dumplings were as airy as feather pillows and covered with an unbelievably light, rich-tasting sauce that was so not-heavy I managed to take on a heavenly ricotta cheesecake for dessert.

We squeezed into Caffe Sport the next day, and we were sorry we did. The teeny, narrow, charming dining room was overflowing with bric-a-brac, which was one reason we had stopped by; the other was the wallpapering of reviews about the place, several of which called it one of the top ten pasta restaurants in the country. You can't convince me of that after the meal we had. We arrived at 6:25 p.m. with a child in tow and reservations, but we were told we couldn't be seated until promptly at 6:30 (they have only two seatings, 6:30 and 8:30). We were the second party to check in, and we had to stand in this unbelievably cramped aisle as the space overflowed with all the people who had 6:30 reservations. Then the waitstaff called out all the Italian-sounding names--I am not kidding--and began seating them. When one of the waiters realized people were having trouble climbing over our child gear, he sighed and said, "You're going to have to sit in the back." So we did, practically on top of the kitchen door. We almost had to knock the waiter down to get a bottle of wine; he rolled his eyes at our questions and responded, "We have a chianti, a pinot grigio." "What vineyards are they from?" we wondered. "I don't know," he said. "Good ones." We went with his recommendation. Some bread was thrown at us, two platters of food were thrown at us, the check was thrown at us, and then the waiter said, "We only take cash," an important bit of information that hadn't been revealed anywhere that we could find. This time, $100 got four of us one bottle of wine, one platter of penne with pesto and one of penne with four cheeses, shrimp and scallops. No appetizers, no soup, no salad, no dessert, no class. The pesto was exemplary, but the seafood sauce was amateurish. The pasta was out of a box. The wine was okay. We felt like victims of a drive-by dining.

At least at Rubicon we were treated as if the staff wanted us to come back. The service was flawless and the food mostly wonderful. This conservatively decorated spot--describing it as understated would be an understatement--is owned by Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, but, of course, they don't eat there. We paid double the money we'd spent everywhere else but were treated to such exquisite dishes as foie gras in a caramelized rhubarb sauce and duck with pears in cognac sauce. The desserts didn't match the complexity of the appetizers and main courses, but the wine prices didn't require loan applications, and we were lucky enough to be seated so that we could see into the kitchen to watch chef Traci Des Jardins do her stuff. I'd fly back to San Francisco for her foie gras alone, but it's still good to be home.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: If there's anything I like as much as duck liver, it's truffles, and anyone who feels the same should stop by Aubergine Cafe this week. Through the end of October, chef Sean Kelly is offering a daily menu of specials (with appropriate prices) using black and white truffles in forms ranging from grated to oil essences...Another of my favorite Colorado restaurants, Mel's Bar and Grill, has distinguished itself by being the first Denver restaurant to make the Esquire list of the Top 25 Best New Restaurants in America. It's about time somebody besides Sam Arnold and Zenith's Kevin Taylor got some national ink, and since Westword gave Mel's its Best New Restaurant award this past summer, obviously I couldn't agree more with the magazine's choice.

Many good area restaurants, unfortunately too many to list here, will participate in the Angels for Samaritan House fundraiser on Friday, November 3. More than fifty establishments will donate a percentage of the day's receipts for breakfast, lunch and dinner to the shelter. Check with your favorite eatery, and if they're not on the list, ask them why. And a tip of the toque to another good Samaritan, Hospitality Consultants' Tito Christensen, who was honored this month with a "special friend award" from the Volunteers of America for her good work.

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