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The Spanish tradition, which calls for serving up little tidbits of food meant to be snacked on with drinks, enjoyed another wave of popularity in Denver during the last year or two, then receded back into restaurant-trend oblivion.
But one survivor remains: Ilios. Owned by Dee Diamond, who's now free of former hubby Bobby Rifkin (of Diamond Cabaret fame) as well as original Ilios chef and part-owner Sean Brasel (both of whom moved on to open Pacific Star), this Mediterranean-themed eatery is still going strong.
And with good reason: Ilios does tapas right and serves them in the right setting. The exterior of the place is bright blue and brighter white; the inside is even more cheerful, with groovy suns hanging all over the walls and appealingly busy upholstery. Warmth comes via the bold color scheme and the wood-fired bread oven, and the staff is remarkably cheerful. So are the diners, particularly if they're taking advantage of a great happy-hour deal: two-for-one tapas from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays.
But at any hour, these tapas make for some serious snacking. I've tried nearly all of Ilios's two dozen offerings and have yet to encounter a loser. My favorites: the spicy barbecued lamb ribs ($4.25), with a thick layer of succulent fat and toothsomely sticky-sweet sauce; the calamari ($4.50), a generous portion of thickly breaded squid mixed with a tart tomato relish; the phyllo, feta and spinach bundles ($3.25), which came four to an order and were nestled in a cinnamon-enhanced tomato sauce; and the smoked salmon with lemon yogurt ($4.95), three slices of top-quality fish layered with caper-studded yogurt and served with slices of cheese-crusted crostini. Not as exceptional but still noteworthy were the hummus ($2.95), lemony and served with pita triangles; the fried olives and capers ($3.25), which were sometimes heavenly crispy-shelled bites and sometimes disappointingly soggy; and the spicy shrimp ($4.95), four large crustaceans tossed with buttery bits of leek and marbles of feta.
Since the dining room doesn't open until 5 p.m., if you hit happy hour early and want to stay for dinner, you'll have to go through the machinations of tipping your bar server and transferring everything to a table (go for a booth, if one's available). But that's a small price to pay for such cheap treats -- and the bargains continue at dinner. An order of the Moroccan chicken pasta ($10.95), for example, brought a sizable portion of penne combined with spice-heavy grilled chicken, roasted red bell peppers, olives, roasted garlic, onions and feta, all awash in a mildly spicy tomato sauce enriched with cream. The pastitsio ($9.95) put more penne to good use, mixing it with eggplant, ricotta, ground lamb and veal and then gluing everything together with a thick, nutmeg-enhanced bechamel sauce. Ilios also offers respectable pizza, thanks to that wood-fired stove; I tried the Sicily ($8.95), with its ricotta and pesto "sauce" topped with arugula, tomatoes and shrimp. (For kids, there's a make-your-own deal, with Ilios providing the dough and ingredients so that pint-sized diners can design their own pizzas.)
So far, though, the best dish I've tried at Ilios was the sesame-encrusted sea bass ($16.95), which came slicked with a black-olive pesto and was further moistened by lemon-caper butter; saffron rice and oregano-dotted zucchini rounded out a solidly Mediterranean meal.
So should the tapas trend resurface (as all food fads eventually do), I've got two words of wisdom for all would-be tapas spots: Top this.