By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
When Napoleon said, "An army marches on its stomach," he was referring to the soldiers who did the actual fighting -- not the sympathetic sublimations of folks sitting on their sofas watching it all unfold via videotape. This nation is at war, all right, and if we keep eating the way everyone says we are, we're going to be fighting the battle of the bulge right after we're done with bin Laden.
Americans crave comfort in these trying times, which means we want comfort foods -- and lots of them. Witness some of the stories that have popped up in national publications recently: "The Meaning of Mashed Potatoes," "How We're Cooking and Eating Differently These Days" and "Nation Turning to Comfort Food: Many munching in midst of post-attack anxieties." Last month, the Washington Post reported that sales of Oreos, Kraft macaroni and cheese, doughnuts, snack items and frozen pizza were up significantly compared with the same time last year; Newsday announced that New York chocolate shops were experiencing record transactions. Even Koko (the famous gorilla) would reportedly eat only peanut-butter sandwiches after she found out about the terrorist attacks of September 11. (I'm not making that up -- although I wish I were.)
But as I think back over the meals I enjoyed in Denver this past year, I recall many dishes more worthy of praise than mac and cheese and a stack of Oreos. They may not have been good for you, but, oh, were they good. Combined in a hypothetical year-end meal, these dishes constitute an unbeatable dream-team repast. Hey, if we're going to declare war on our waistlines next year, we might as well live it up now.
All together now: Left, left, left, right, left.
1039 Pearl Street, Boulder
Bet you can't eat just one at Triana, which knows the true meaning of tapas -- the snacks from Spain that elevate grazing with a glass of wine to a noble pastime. Named for the barrio in Seville that's credited with the invention of tapas, Triana offers a roster of tidbits that never fail to tempt: shoestring French fries coated with salt and sugar and served in a paper cone; deep-fried clam strips; an oniony salmon "margarita" spiked with tequila; thin slices of eggplant layered with goat cheese; shrimp wrapped in smoked bacon. They're all good, and they become even better when paired with one of Triana's Spanish wines or sparkling cavas.
225 East Seventh Avenue
This is my dream meal, not yours: If you don't like foie gras as a course, come up with your own fantasy food. Chances are, though, if you're not a foie gras fan, it's only because you haven't eaten the duck liver cooked up by Frank Bonanno, chef and co-owner of the charming Mizuna. Bonanno sears a generous slip of organ meat until the center starts to gel but is still soft and supple, while the well-salted exterior forms a thin, fragile crust that mixes the salt with the sweet, caramely juices of the liver. The velvety meat (are you getting the idea that this is pretty luxurious?) is then paired with a faintly tangy balsamic reduction that's part syrup, part dressing. When spring onions pop up, Bonanno might even pair the foie gras with an onion tart made from sweet, flaky pastry for the ultimate liver-and-onions dish.
1400 Larimer Street
Okay, if the duck liver didn't grab you, maybe mold is your thing. Tamayo, a funky, upscale Mexican restaurant that debuted in Larimer Square this year, makes a mean mold soup, although Tamayo actually calls it sopa de elote, or soup of maize. A dreamy, creamy roasted-corn concoction, the soup gets its real flavor from huitlacoche, a fungus that is Mexico's answer to the truffle. The black smut grows on corn, and so huitlacoche's sugary, earthy undertones echo the corn sweetness that's already present in this soup. Chef Sean Yontz not only drizzles a vinaigrette form of the shroom across the soup for decoration, but also transforms the powdery mold into plush dumplings that float through the rich liquid.
3472 West 32nd Avenue
Bang! moved to a new home this year, and the groovy new surroundings seem to have inspired the kitchen to groovy new heights of flavor. The bold salad of arugula, peppered goat cheese and toasted walnuts, for example, combines fresh, baby-sized greens, creamy, tangy cheese and walnuts cooked until their insides become melty and their outsides turn golden brown. Tying everything together is a lemon-lime vinaigrette so oily that it resembles a soothing elixir from the gods, so tart that your tongue wrestles with the flavor explosion. Bang!
909 17th Street
Chef Jennifer Jasinski may have grown up in Santa Barbara, but she's an Italian at heart. At Panzano, her pasta dishes are inspired by both tradition and innovation, with taste and texture carrying equal weight in the final product. Case in point: Mezzaluna pockets of pasta filled with the sweet flesh of roasted kabocha squash, a winter squash that's sweeter and more tender than acorn. Mixed in with the squash is mascarpone for extra creaminess; a nutty brown butter provides the only moisture these pliant little half moons need. Fried sage leaves, slightly oily and crackly-crispy, add an exotic flavor edge, their musty, minty taste toned down enough to make them something to savor.
7923 South Broadway, Littleton
The best fish course that I encountered over this past year was really shrimp, heads and all, served tappan style at this bustling Malaysian restaurant. Singapore Grill puts seven huge shrimp on a metal-lined platter and turns up the heat, both on the stove and in the sauce, a sharp, garlicky black-bean mixture teeming with caramelized onions and green peppers. The sauce has a reduced, concentrated quality that calls to mind the finest French techniques, and the pairing of the succulent shrimp meat with syrupy onions makes for some, um, heady eating. Don't forget to suck out the super-sweet skull.
1469 South Pearl Street
>Micole is one of the few restaurants in town that knows how to cook venison. Chef/ owner Eric Roeder takes medium-thick slices of the deer tenderloin and gently grills them so that they take on a thin, crusty edge of char while remaining buttery soft inside. The key is the cut -- not so thick that the outside gets too done, and not so thin that the inside gets too done -- as well as cooking the meat over high heat, quickly, so that the low-fat flesh doesn't have time to dry out. But even if it did, Roeder's Pommery sauce, made from France's other mustard (in Meaux instead of Dijon, by the Pommery family), offers a rich, zingy way to wet things down.
1518 Washington Street, Golden
Just thinking about all the garlic mashed potatoes we've consumed this past year whips us into an overfed frenzy. But the Hilltop Cafe, a wonderful eatery in Golden, does something truly different with its spuds. Chef Ian Kleinman whips the potatoes until they're delectably fluffy, then imbues them with the sweet, deep flavor of the love bulb that's been not roasted, not toasted or sautéed, but...candied. The process, which involves boiling the cloves in a simple syrup and then baking them until they're light brown, gives the garlic a mild, slightly sugary quality that prevents it from turning bitter or overpowering. The result is whipped potatoes that are slightly akin to a controlled substance.
719 East 17th Avenue
Speaking of things that ought to be illegal, Aix's double-chocolate torte qualifies. All of the most obnoxious modifiers apply: sumptuous, spectacular, stunning, dazzling, heavenly, to-die-for, divine, decadent. Better than sex. Well, maybe. For a marvelous way to end a dream meal, Aix marks the spot. Made to order each time, the double-chocolate torte is a round mound with a pudding-like texture holding in a hot gusher of thick, dark chocolate goo that pours forth the second a fork breaks the chocolate shell.
It's enough to make you swear off Oreos for good.