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Bite Me

The Rest of Denver

Ten days ago, my faithful staff here at Bite Me HQ and I were giving the Best of Denver 2004 its final tuneup, a last polish before sending it out into the world. There were still eleventh-hour additions and subtractions being made -- awards sneaking in under the wire, awards being yanked from the suddenly undeserving. And then, the blessed quiet. The abrupt realization that it was done, fini, over and out. Months of eating six days a week, sometimes twice a day, everywhere from Caro's Corner to Clair de Lune, eating everything from steaks to tacos, from sea urchin to crème brûlée -- done, just like that. It was a relief. It was also oddly disconcerting. Because with the Best of Denver finished, there was only one question left to ask: What next?

Well, Mao for starters. The restaurant that I first talked about in this column on January 8 finally gets its proper treatment -- half confused love letter, half kick in the ass -- on page 65. But even sitting at Mao on official reviewing duty two weeks ago, I couldn't escape those nagging worries about Best Of. The "who did we miss" and "what were we thinking" neuroses that are par for the course when you're condensing thousands of restaurants into a tight roster of a hundred or so that do at least one thing really, extraordinarily well.

And I had those nagging worries even before the letters started arriving from pissed-off locals accusing me of blindness, bias or just plain stupidity, before I'd seen the "How could you have forgotten..." e-mails or taken my first call from some little mom-and-pop outfit surprised that we'd even noticed its wonderful tamales, great burgers or what have you.

By the time the Best of Denver was on the press, I was already hunched in my favorite booth at Breakfast King, trying to write about my meals at Mao but really just thinking about how much weight I'd put on during this year's exertions (one full pants size, at least) and second-guessing every award I'd made. So I finally set Mao aside and pawed through the twelve-pocket accordion folder full of notes and menus, Post-Its, cryptic messages from myself to myself scrawled on cocktail napkins and the backs of credit-card slips, that represent the culmination of this year's research. And I vowed that no matter what the temperature, I'd go home that night, light a fire and burn it all.

But in the meantime, the notes brought a little trip-down-memory-lane perspective to the project. Like why didn't Solera make this year's list? I love Solera -- love the food, love the space, love the wine and think Goose Sorenson is a great cook -- and yet...nothing. Solera won Best Place to Eat on Colfax last year, and had we given out that award this year, Solera would have gotten it again. But Best Restaurant on Colfax isn't exactly a gotta-do category like Best French, and Solera didn't give me a reason to repeat it this year. Nor did it rise to new heights that would have inspired me to honor it in a new category. Goose has a great menu -- has always had great menus -- but I thought Ian Kleinman's at Indigo was better. Solera has a great wine list, and Brian Klinginsmith is an excellent and well-educated sommelier, but in that category, it's up against Adega and, well, come on. Bill Murray was fantastic in Lost in Translation, but the Oscar went to Sean Penn this year. Didn't mean Billy sucked, just meant he was up against someone pretty much unbeatable. Solera is consistently one of my top five overall favorite restaurants in the city, and that's an achievement in itself -- but Best Of awards go to the best, so there you go.

Another conspicuous absence: Opal. Last year's long-shot winner for Best New Restaurant (beating Adega, Clair de Lune and a host of strong comers) dropped like it had put its jet-pack on upside down with the departure of its chef, Duy Pham, about the time the plaque went up on the wall. After a series of complaints from diners who'd gone there for a fabulous dinner on my recommendation, after I'd gone back myself and been disappointed by lackluster food and service that was schizophrenic at best and sometimes just plain awful, I wanted nothing so much as to sneak in and yank that award off the wall. This year, Opal got nothing.

City Grille? Not on the list for 2004. It's a good spot for lunch, a nice place for drinks after work, a fine address for seeing elected officials getting into slap fights over whose turn it is to pick up the tab, but I didn't see it as the best of anything this time. Taquería Patzcuaro? Love it for the snaps of the Mexican revolutionaries on the walls, used to love it for the cheek tacos, but after two in a row came out spongy, gooey and gross, I need to find a new place to get my fix. Jus' Cookin's was in the can for Best Fried Chicken, but then I found out the owners are about to close their Aurora restaurant and move the operation to Lakewood (to the corner of Eighth and Simms), so in slid Pierre's Supper Club.

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