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It's My Party

And I'll dine if I want to.

All through the run-up to this holiday season, people were asking what I'd be doing for dinner: on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, on New Year's Eve and the day after. They asked expectantly, assuming that I'd be doing something fabulous. Maybe they thought that, as a restaurant critic, I had a secret "in" somewhere, a code word or special phone number that would grant me entrance to some epic shindig where everyone would be dressed to the nines in their best penguin suits and served glasses of Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve and Beluga triple-zero off the bellies of naked virgins. Worse, they may have expected me to be doing something myself -- loading up the thrift-store table in my quiet little suburban apartment with treats and delicacies, serving a long parade of guests only the best from local markets and the finest boutique purveyors.

And sure, maybe I told a few of them that this was exactly what I was doing -- but I lied. The fact is, holidays are usually quiet affairs around the Sheehan household. No grand plans, no parties, nothing but the wife and I, our two cats, and whatever the four of us feel like knocking together at the last minute. I spent more than a dozen years eating my Christmas dinner while standing over a prep table in some trashed kitchen, passing around a bottle of warm Stolichnaya with a gang of grumpy cooks all missing their families, and I saw too many Times Square ball drops on the tiny black-and-white screen of a busboy's portable TV set on top of the dish machine. Cooks -- like bartenders, cops and cabbies -- are generally at work while the rest of the world is out having a good time, but now that I no longer have a kitchen to call home, I find myself craving the easy pleasures: a simple meal, good company, peace and quiet.

Still, all those people asking me what I'd be doing got me thinking about the ultimate holiday dinner party. If I could pick from all of the tables where I'd been seated in 2002, what would I eat? If I could snatch from any kitchen in town an all-star, ass-kicking lineup of gastronomic True Believers, who would I choose?

Someone's in the kitchen: Vesta's Matt Selby leads off this culinary rotisserie league.
Anna Newell
Someone's in the kitchen: Vesta's Matt Selby leads off this culinary rotisserie league.

Rather than sugarplums, this was what I dreamt of as the season drew nigh: the best of the best from the abbreviated year I spent eating my way through Denver, one meal in nine courses prepared by some of the city's finest. So without further ado, let's kick this party off with...

Mojitos. No party that begins with mojitos can end badly; that's just a fact. And at my party, I want them muddled and mixed up by Franklin Buist, bartender at Cuba Cuba(1173 Delaware Street, 303-605-2822). Prepare one of these high-test highballs wrong, and it'll taste like grass clippings soaked in rubbing alcohol. But do it right (and Buist does it right) and what you get is an instant good time in a glass. Begin with mint-infused rum; add sugar, a splash of lime, some rum and a little rum for flavor; serve generously to eager guests with empty stomachs -- and the next thing you know, people are laughing and talking together, folks not aerodynamically designed for it are doing the limbo, and all of your lampshades are being worn as hats. Keep serving them, and it's almost guaranteed that by the end of the night, some inebriated little scamp will have done something terrible to the family pet or on one of the houseplants.

Which is pretty much why I'd never host this party at my place. My cats can take care of themselves, but I only have one houseplant, and I'm rather fond of it.

Passed hors d'oeuvres. Chef Matt Selby and crew man the town's most ambitious kitchen at Vesta Dipping Grill(1822 Blake Street, 303-296-1920). These guys have balls, and that's one of the best compliments I can give any kitchen -- which is why I'd pick them to lead off my all-star team. In particular, I've got a hankering for Vesta's spiced-potato-and-corn samosas and the beef tenderloin skewers. Yes, I know: The tenderloin skewers are an entree, not an appetizer, but this is my party, so I can do what I want. And what I want is to have those two dishes passed around the room on nice trays, so that their opposing tastes set the tone for the courses to come. The complicated, exotic spice of the samosas, paired with Vesta's smoky yellow curry, will introduce my now-drunken guests to off-the-scale high notes of flavor, while the buttery-soft grilled tenderloin will lay an unshakeable foundation on which to build.

Like an acid-fueled jazz composition, any great meal should begin with boundaries: yin and yang; high, shrieking sax over thumping bass; the sweet, razoring bite of yellow curry above the thick solidity of grilled meat. It should begin with an introduction of extremes, leaving a broad space between that's just begging to be filled. It's in these juxtapositions that Vesta truly excels.

Plated appetizers. After such a start, it's going to take a lot to coax people into sitting down and behaving in a civilized manner, but Michael Long, chef at Opus(2575 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-703-6787), is up to the challenge with his ahi tuna PB&J appetizer. Although it's no longer on his menu (which changes according to some mysterious calendar known only to Long), in its time this dish had everything. It had humor and restraint; it poked fun at the pretentiousness of over-intellectualized cuisine while drawing on food memories from everyone's youth. But mostly, it was just plain good, with flash-seared slabs of prime, purple ahi, sashimi-raw in the center and sandwiched between thin, soft rounds of bread, stinging green wasabe jelly and a sweet peanut butter reminiscent of both a Thai satay sauce and that sticky jar of chunky Jif tucked away in the back of all of our cupboards. I'd pair this with a fat slab of gravlax as prepared and presented at the former Bistro Adde Brewster(250 Steele Street, 303-388-1900, and soon to be just Adde's), baskets of dark rye or pumpernickel from Michael Bortz at the Paradise Bakery and Cafe(105 East Seventh Avenue, 303-832-6300), and an expenses-be-damned wine list decided on by dueling sommeliers Karin Lawler of Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue, 303-831-1992) and Ken Fredrickson, formerly of Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street, 303-534-2222). Champagne corks at ten paces, winner picks the first bottle...

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