By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Sean Kelly is one of the best cooks in town. His menus are beautiful, his plates spare, elegant and well-balanced. His tastes are somehow simple and majestic at the same time, and he cooks with an unaffected expressionism that would be the perfect foil to Radek's extravagant hubris. For his spot in this lineup, Sean could cook almost anything -- a plate of seared sea scallops with celery-root rémoulade, scallions, capers and preserved lemon; one perfect filet of sea bass. But his plateau de fruits de mer is still the ultimate in grace without commotion: a half-dozen sea critters, harvested in their prime, cooked (if at all) with bare minimum intervention by human hands, then presented simply, on ice, with no fuss or bother. In the zen of line cooking, Sean has reached a different level than most of his contemporaries. He breathes different air. He has come to understand that all the garnishes and sauces and funky fusion nonsense in the world don't mean anything unless the food at the center of the plate is, in itself, divine. And if it is, why do anything to detract from its rightness? So for fish this year, we shall have Littleneck clams and mussels and powerful oysters that were alive not a minute before they hit the table, giant deep-water shrimp served whole, and Japanese spiny lobster.
For a final kick, I'll bring in Duy Pham's sea urchin three ways, from his old menu at Opal, to balance warm with cold. Don't like sea urchin? Don't come to my party. That's just more sea urchin for Duy and me.
Soup course: Goose Sorenson from Solera.
I don't want Goose Sorenson at my party to help Brian Klinginsmith, his partner at Solera. I want him there cooking the potage queue de boeuf -- the oxtail consommé -- that he made for the Les Amis d'Escoffier dinner earlier this year. That soup, filtered through three different rafts (a kind of egg-and-veggie mush that strains out protein solids and purifies the consommé), took ten hours to prepare, and my guests deserve to taste something that requires that sort of effort to compose, that singular dedication to purpose. I'd serve it less as a soup than as an example of the sort of pride that drives the best cooks -- an edible lesson in the potential of simple things.
Besides, a consommé would be the ideal palate-cleanser for a spread in which we're skipping the sorbet-or-green-salad intermezzo course in favor of continuing flights of Denver's finest. This soup is no placeholder. It offers no pause in the gustatory action. Rather, it leads us straight into...
Second main, from the land: A group effort by Ian Kleinmanfrom Indigo, Frank Bonannofrom Luca d'Italia and John Broening from Brasserie Rouge.
Three very different houses, three very different chefs, one plate. Frank Bonanno's rabbit three ways nearly killed me when I tried it at Luca a few months ago. In Frank's capable hands, this dish was a riot of flavors and textures, a deconstructionist's platter of bunny leg, loin and body prepared in three styles, with truffle's dirty, powerful musk as the defining, combining, overarching sensation that held it all together. It was a wondrous dish, as bold and deeply complex as any plate in town, and I want it -- as translated by my three mercenary wise men -- as the centerpiece of my table this holiday season.
Frank can take the center of the plate, handling the shredded and braised rabbit meat mixed with slivers of cremini, porcini and shiitake mushroom, all swimming in a tarn of reduced and black-truffle-infused rabbit gravy. Indigo's Ian Kleinman can have the loin, taking what was a simple fan of juicy, tender meat on Frank's original plate and subjecting it to the kind of smart-ass, borderless fusion for which he is becoming so well known. I would love to see him do the rabbit loin the way he handles hanger steak -- giving it a rub, a tickle and a place to sit. Ancho-rubbed rabbit loin, perhaps? Glazed loin mounted on a bed of white-bean purée? Lapin beurre mont au sang? And to John Broening -- the true traditionalist in this crowd -- I leave the confit fore and back leg, trusting that he'll create an earthy, salty, strong, blood-rich flavor to match.
Dessert: Robert McCarthy from Mel's and Sean Yontz.
As quick as the onslaught of meat arrived, I would want it now to vanish, with servers swooping down in a coordinated ballet, removing plates and replacing each one with a crystal martini glass filled with the "cosmopolitan" -- apricot sorbet, shreds of dry lime and little cubes of clear vodka gelee that melt the instant they touch the tongue -- created by Robert McCarthy, Mel's pastry chef.
And then I'd bring everything full circle with a spread of amuse gueule desserts, again from Sean Yontz. A touch of Scharffen-Berger chocolate, perhaps, a final sip of champagne.
But at this point, the band would be playing its last waltz and the bus crew would be breaking down the tables. It would be time for everyone to gather their coats, find their dates and move along. We'll meet again next year -- but for now, it's a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.