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FAD CHANCE

It may have been the Year of the Pig on the Chinese calendar, but in Denver, 1995 will go down as the Year of the Restaurant. Through official announcements, phone calls, word-of-mouth tips and simply stumbling into places, I counted no fewer than 67 new restaurants in the city alone. (It seems like they all opened in Cherry Creek North, but that area actually accounts for only about twenty new spots.) And that's not factoring in chains, which have been multiplying like rabbits, especially in the suburbs. In fact, the success of the chain gang was one of the most obvious--if lamentable--restaurant trends this year. Fortunately, there were other noteworthy developments:

Fast can be fresh. Denver's top trend is the Mexican grill craze. At least seven of these ventures--some chains, some not--have opened in the last year, with most of them promising just-diced ingredients and quick takeout. So far, though, the grill of my dreams is the locally owned Zuma (550 Grant St.), a snazzy Mexico-meets-the-Mediterranean shop that rapidly assembles enormous burritos filled with such innovative combinations as pesto made from roasted poblanos and cilantro mixed up with al dente black beans, cilantro rice and juicy chunks of tangy grilled chicken. Low-fat ingredients and fast, friendly service are a grill's best friend, and Zuma dishes out both.

Mexican glop is a has-bean. Grills aren't the only things fueling a new interest in south-of-the-border cuisine. In January Kevin Taylor (of Zenith American Grill fame) opened up his Cafe Iguana (300 Fillmore St.), intending to turn all of Denver on to the subtle yet powerful flavors of Oaxaca and the Yucatan. But it was tough converting a population that for decades has swallowed cheap-cheesy, runny-bean, slick-greasy Mexican food, and the lizard has had to shed its more exotic fare. Today Cafe Iguana has settled (favorably, I think) into a zippy, casual Mexican spot with Southwestern leanings, and while a few items miss the mark, the kitchen offers some incredible takes on old favorites. One such winner: the spicy, salty onion rings, for which confetti-thin strips of onion are fried and then dusted with New Mexican red-chile powder as fine as talcum.

It still pays to use the old noodle. If any country's cuisine can rival Mexico for sheer number of Denver-area joints serving it, that's Italian. Sadly, the majority of new restaurants featuring this oft-abused cooking style are either large chains with no soul or large family-style local operations with no soul (and some, like Mama Mia!, have already shut their doors). In the meantime, though, a quartet of mom-and-pop-type places continue to dish up a real taste of the Old Country--yes, heavy on red sauce and entrees alla parmigiana--in the 'burbs, of all places: Geppetto's (699 W. Littleton Blvd., Littleton); Marsala's Ristorante (12041 Pecos St., Westminster); Cafe Jordano (11068 W. Jewell Ave., Lakewood); and Viaggio (10253 E. Iliff Ave., Aurora). They offer excellent variations on the theme perfected at one of 1994's best restaurant developments, Carmine's on Penn (92 S. Pennsylvania St.)--cooking that combines garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and cheese and comes up with sheer bliss.

Fusion is far from cold. Italian ingredients figure heavily in another kitchen trend: fusion. Some foodies turn up their noses at this fad, sniffing that fusion has as much staying power as pet rocks. But that's what they said about nouvelle, too, and look what kind of long-term effect that little aberration had on culinary styles. What is fusion? Well, it's really a word stolen from the arts to describe what's been going on in kitchens since the first conqueror returned to the home fires bearing gifts from a previously unexplored cuisine. The tastes mixed and matched--and the melding was fusion. While today's fusion experiments sometimes result in dishes reminiscent of nouvelle at its silliest (stir-fried coconut curry chicken stuffed with goat cheese and pine nuts, in one frightening recent example), they also have a lot of potential. One local eatery taking full advantage of the possibilities is Papillon (250 Josephine St.), brought to us by Radek Cerny, late of the European Cafe and Al Fresco. Cerny's specialties are infused oils and spiced vinegars, and he marries these with all manner of Asian and Italian food. The results? Such innovations as lobster ravioli with saffron ginger sauce and maddeningly good mashed potatoes alongside seared tuna in a pink-peppercorn sauce.

Specializing can be special. Don't look for every restaurant to take on the flavor of the month, though. Some places do just fine concentrating on one cuisine. This year I was fortunate to find a few restaurants that feature my favorite things: Aubergine Cafe (225 E. Seventh Ave.), which cruises the Mediterranean and nets such catches as saffron-stewed mussels and creamy polenta with roasted portabellos; Taste of Thailand (504 E. Hampden Ave., Englewood), whose name says it all (and whose picture should be included beside the dictionary definition of "fresh"); the teeny Matoi (11020 W. Alameda, Lakewood), where the tempura is as light as the banter you'll be coaxed into by the super-friendly owners; and Anastasia Vieux Carre (5946 S. Holly St., Greenwood Village), a jewel box of a dining room that serves up delightful New Orleans-style fare, including a killer Creole marinade on Gulf crab claws.

Something's brewing. Denver has become the brewpub capital of the country, and beer is only part of the reason why. The city's brewpubs have gotten serious about their grub as well as their brews--and none more so than the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery (1735 19th St.). The atmosphere at this converted Union Pacific headhouse is classy yet comfortable, and the menu offers something for everyone. I'll drink to the mussels in a vermouth-touched tomato broth, the pancetta-wrapped shrimp and any of the big, floppy pizzas.

Man does not live by beer alone. While microbrews are Denver's drink of choice, the city is making significant inroads in wine country, too. A number of specialty wine boutiques opened in the past year, as did a few restaurants touting their devotion to the grape. The one that really pops my cork is Napa Cafe (2033 E. Colfax), a smartly appointed space seemingly overflowing with vino, if the incredibly extensive (several hundred names strong) cellared-wine list is any indication. A quaint wine bar smashed against the kitchen offers interesting insights into just how chaotic running a kitchen the size of a two-quart stockpot can be. And it can be particularly chaotic when the chef, kitchen magician Tyler Wiard, combines strikingly odd ingredient pairings (bold flavors, with lots of fusiony marinades and crusts) for lean but magical results. Wiard's complex food is the wave of the future, and it takes fusion to a higher level--one where cuisine is no longer identified with a single country.

Grease is still the word. But the simpler foods in life continue to enthrall us--and no better example can be found than in the vittles at the venerable Yorkshire Fish & Chips (7275 Pecos St.), which qualifies not as a new restaurant but as a recent rediscovery. This is grease at its finest--peanut oil oozing from cheap cod sheathed in crisp waves of batter, or meaty oysters the size of your fist, covered in the same great, greasy batter, deep-fried and shipped out in thin cardboard rectangles that barely contain the sopping stuff inside. Along with two fellow food writers, I shoveled an unspeakable amount of this heart-attack material into my mouth during one recent lunch. Despite all the wonderful, sophisticated fare we've sampled this year, Yorkshire's fried fish and oysters are what we talk about the most and what we dream of the most.

I guess it was the Year of the Pig, after all.

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