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Eat me:If the NBA All-Star game doesn't put us on the big-league map, how about Denver Restaurant Week?

Eighty-three local restaurants are participating in the event, which runs from February 26 through March 4. They each paid $250 to be included in the deal, which involves offering special prix fixe menus meant to showcase the best that Denver has to offer. It's a step in the right direction, sure. But only a step. Organized by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Eat Denver committee -- which is made up of "all the usual suspects," according to the bureau's Jill Strunk, including consultants, chefs, owners and PR flacks -- the week is really a coming-out party for the Mile High City's new culinary publicity push.

"Our sole purpose is to elevate the dining scene in Denver," says Strunk. And they're starting by elevating it with the folks at home, who'll benefit most from the promotion. For $52.80 (for two), you can dine on apple-marinated beef shoulder with blue-cheese béchamel at Adega; trout amandine with caviar and potato croquette at Bistro Vendome; veal with Grand Marnier sauce and herbed polenta at the new, improved Three Sons; freshwater bass over wasabi gnocchi at Mao -- the list goes on and on. Even Bastien'sis getting in on the action, putting its sugar steaks and skillet pies up against Elway'sNew York strip. Talk about the old West versus the new.

Most houses are offering three courses for the price, with a couple of choices in each course. Some have wine specials, and all of them are also cooking their standard menus throughout the festivities. So all you, the dining public, need do is walk in, ask for the Restaurant Week special and enjoy. Also on tap for the week are TV cooking demonstrations by local chefs, a lot of fawning praise for our hardworking guys and girls in white who are going to get bent over the cutting board and screwed if this thing goes half as well as the Eat Denver folks are hoping, and a contest for coming up with a new recipe for the Denver omelette. My suggestion? A tall glass of Coors spiked with a raw egg and topped with a sprinkle of cilantro. What's more hometown than that? For more details on participating restaurants and menus, go to www.denver.org.

Once Restaurant Week is over and done, step two in the Eat Denver plan for Total Culinary World Domination is to send four of our best white-jackets -- Frank Bonanno, Jennifer Jasinski, Matt Selby and Bryan Moscatello -- off to the Big Apple to cook a four-way showcase dinner at the James Beard House. The hope is that the big-city food press will become so enthralled with the talents of us overall-wearin' yokels that they'll immediately book themselves passage on the first flight out of JFK and come drop some of that New York expense-account money out here in the boonies before returning home to write odes to the wonders of our town's mad galley skillz.

And you know what? With this lineup of chefs (which, to be honest, I had a hand in choosing, along with my colleague critics at the Denver Postand the Rocky Mountain News), it could work. At least the city can't be accused of never doing anything to help our guys get to the national level.

The Colorado Beard House dinner is scheduled for May, provided the Beard organization hasn't totally crumbled under the weight of its own growing scandal by then. And while I have no particular love for the way the House has handled itself over the years (essentially becoming a clubby little culinary tree fort for the East Coast-West Coast big money movers and growing fat on its own hubris), I wish the four musketeers nothing but luck and sharp knives.

Leftovers:Although it's been open for several years, Aztec Solfinally got around to throwing an opening bash last week. This joint is as close as you're going to get to Mexico without actually going there (in fact, you only have to go to 2219 West 32nd Avenue), with its easily hosed-down cement floors, easily thrown-down authentic fare (including two kinds of "pork lining" tacos), and more than 200 kinds of tequila poured by owner/tender Jose Lara. His knowledge of tequila is in his bones; his family still makes the stuff in Jalisco, although not in large enough batches that Lara can serve it in Denver.... Just down the street, at 2257 West 32nd, there's more south-of-the-border flavor at Rincon Tropical. After doing business on East Colfax for a decade, Sylvia and Jose Calderon closed their restaurant there in December and moved to west Denver, where they're now serving Salvadoran fare six days a week. (On Sunday, they rest.)

Finally, good news for night owls. Capone's Hideaway -- a Chicago-style, Northern Italian eatery -- should open near the end of this month at 5 East Ellsworth Avenue. And once it does open, the place will damn near never close. Chef Mike Mastro and owner Jack Mastro (Mike's dad) are planning on daily service seven days a week, with lunches starting at 11 a.m. and dinner hours stretching out to 2 a.m. on weeknights, 4 a.m. on weekends. "Like a late-night speakeasy spot," says Mike. "There's nothing else like that in the neighborhood."

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