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A Rare Pair

Another opening, another show-biz eatery. With all the big chains linking their way across Denver, I sometimes worry that these warehouse-sized "concept" restaurants are going to overwhelm the small, locally owned places that have already mastered the only important concept: good food.

And that's when I hurry to south Denver and one of two favorite spots: Hugh's New American Bistro, the former Greens that's now solely owned by its chef, Hugh O'Neill, and Coos Bay Bistro, the Cal/Ital/Pacific Northwest eatery that was so popular it had to expand its dining room to accommodate additional loyal customers. The beauty of these bistros is that not only do they have good food, they have character.

When Hugh's was Greens and still located on Colfax Avenue (from 1985 until 1994), the owners were trying to turn Denver on to the California notion that vegetarian didn't have to be all about lentil burgers and rabbit food. Although Greens wasn't entirely vegetarian, it picked up that reputation, which moved right along with it to the new location on South Pearl Street, despite the restaurant's more sophisticated look. (The many-hued dining areas are so warmly colored you'd think there was heat coming from the walls.) But to this day, the name and image change notwithstanding, scads of Denverites still think of this spot as a mecca for meat-haters. In truth, Hugh's is a mecca for much more than that. It even serves meat--and serves it well.

A year and a half ago, O'Neill, who'd been with Greens from the beginning, took over from his partners, Claire and Michael Nolting, who wanted to fade into the background and pursue other interests, as they say. O'Neill was interested in pursuing ever-better kitchen creations, and he's succeeded admirably.

Of course, he still does vegetarian dishes, and he does them better than just about anyone else in town. Two cases in point: the polenta "lasagne" with spinach and portabellos ($12), and the butternut squash and goat cheese enchiladas ($11). The lasagne layered soft polenta with asadero, goat and smoked mozzarella cheeses, interspersed with enough spinach and mushrooms to give the dish an earthy, pit-of-your-stomach feel--ideal for comforting, cold-weather dining. The enchiladas were appealingly soft and smooshy inside, with a zippy red chile on top to counteract the rich goat cheese and a lime-drenched cabbage salsa for crunch.

Goat cheese makes frequent appearances at Hugh's dinners, where it gets put to good use. (The restaurant recently stopped serving lunch; O'Neill's family was forgetting what he looked like, he says.) The appetizer fritters ($7) were actually deep-fried goat-cheese cakes, crusty and dark brown on the outside, with a pillowy center and a pool of red-pepper sauce for extra flavor. The goat cheese salad ($7) featured little blobs of the tangy cheese tossed with baby greens, toasted hazelnuts, tiny roasted red chiles and dried cherries--a mix at once rich, sweet, spicy and sour. Fortunately, I tried that salad before I took on the Caesar ($6), a potent version that left my mouth tasting of garlic for days. Caesar aficionados should seek this one out: In addition to the garlic and crisp romaine, pungent white anchovies, shaved Asiago and sourdough croutons add up to a strong, bold taste.

Asadero cheese is another Hugh's favorite. A buttery, tangy Mexican queso, asadero has a texture similar to provolone, and it melts just as well. The cheese gave the smoked-duck-and-mushroom enchiladas ($12) a luxuriant quality that the mellow meat and mild mushrooms might not have had on their own.

Proving that not everything at Hugh's has to contain cheese to taste good was the pan-roasted sea bass ($15), a dish so deceptively simple that at first I didn't get it. Then I started noticing how the fish's flesh was almost liquid, it had been so precisely cooked, and I remembered how wonderful sea bass can be when it isn't dolled up in disguises. The fish's richness was cut with intermittent jabs of sharpness from cured lemon slivers, kalamatas and white wine; a side of plain basmati rice and broccoli gave me all the excuse I needed to also order dessert.

And what a dessert. There's only one dessert I always eat at Hugh's, and I've been eating it ever since the restaurant moved to South Pearl: the tiramisu ($5.50). Oh, I've tasted other confections there--the multi-layered chocolate cake ($4.50), the dried-fruit cobbler ($4.50)--and they're excellent, no doubt about it. But that tiramisu, with its gingerbread cake and caramel sauce--whoa. You're just not going to get that at the Cheesecake Factory.

At Coos Bay Bistro, what you'll get is an overwhelming sense of community. Right next to the University of Denver, near Washington Park, a few miles from Cherry Creek and only a few more miles from downtown, Coos Bay is a meeting place for all types. And they meet there frequently. Since Brett Davy and his partners opened the restaurant four years ago, it's expanded from its original 65-seat space into the building next door and can now accommodate around a hundred. The expansion also took some pressure off the bar, which sits in the back of the main dining room and has a tendency to get sardine-packed.

In fact, Coos Bay is almost always swimming with customers, and there's often a wait on the weekends. Diners have a tendency to really settle into the comfortable setting--contemporary Italian, filled with dried vines, stone archways, ocher lighting--and the menu is designed for leisurely dining, with tapas-like appetizers and share-with-me pizzas among the seafood and pasta dishes.

Occasionally those dishes can get a little too fussy, a little too fusiony. For example, the Thai pasta ($14.90) paired fresh lobster, crabmeat and shrimp with fresh tomatoes and a curry sauce, all over angel hair pasta. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, depending on which components shared the same forkful. The coconut-laced curry sauce was superb, however, and the seafood was definitely fresh. The seared ahi tuna ($14.90) was a much better matchup. The fish had been wrapped in chopped wild mushrooms, then sliced and cooked; risotto provided both starch and a complementary base, and the smooth red-pepper sauce brought the dish together.

Coos Bay has a way with pasta, as it proved with the pasta gorgonzola with shrimp ($12.90) and the aptly named "to die for" ravioli ($7.90). Both preparations involved intensely concentrated sauces: The gorgonzola was infused with the acrid edge of asparagus; the feta- and ricotta-stuffed ravioli were submerged in a pesto-punched tomato concoction. And the portions were huge.

At lunch the mood is more subdued and the servings are smaller, but the meals are every bit as satisfying. The pasta pomodoro ($5.50) was garlic-on-angel-hair-pasta heaven; the fresh tomato-basil pasta ($5.50) was even more vigorously flavored, with a spicy sauce that lurked in all the crevices of the farfalle. There was more pasta in the vinegary salad that came with the sandwiches, a chubby, smoky grilled portabello ($6.90) swaddled in Gruyere and a hefty grilled chicken ($5.90) on an unusual spicy herb bread slathered with lemon-caper aioli.

After a few glasses of wine from the well-chosen list assembled by Coos Bay manager J.R. Parsall and a rousing conversation with our comical waiter--who was quite knowledgeable about food--we were ready, as Dr. Laura would say, to go take on the day.

And a few chains.

Hugh's New American Bistro, 1469 South Pearl Street, 744-1940. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.

Coos Bay Bistro, 2076 South University Boulevard, 744-3591. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday.

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