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Five in 2005

For restaurants, this was a very good year.

I consider it one of the great fortunes of my life that, for as long as I have been my own man, I have never had a normal year -- one that could be anticipated, seen through end to end, navigated on an even keel. All of my years have been strange and stormy, filled with unexpected, terrible, wonderful adventures, midnight phone calls from unknown area codes, death threats, fistfights, big loves, petty hatreds and fun. I have the restaurant industry and all of its vicissitudes to thank for this. For seventeen years now, my life has been governed by its ups and downs. I've lived according to its weird rhythms of punk rock and the seasons. My sleep schedule is tuned to the post-midnight vibe of vile debauchery that I so enjoyed while making my living with the knife, and if these days I don't debauch quite as well (or recover quite as quickly) as I did in years past, I still find it difficult to go to bed while the moon is up. I feel for the guys on the line when the temperatures soar, miss desperately the warm, humid comfort of a bakery when there's frost on the grass.

Now that I'm a restaurant critic, my life continues to be bordered and defined by food -- by meals, more or less.

For the past three years, I've marked this gimpy week between Christmas and New Year's (a week when cooks, chefs and restaurateurs are concerned with nothing so much as prep and recovery from back-to-back holidays and with me not at all) by putting the final wrap on a year in The Life. It's an efficacious ritual for ending the year, I think, a chance to look back fondly and create fantasy dinner parties thrown in my mind by my favorite staffs, or to take one last, solo jaunt through my favorite houses of the year.

These past twelve months have been strange ones for the restaurant business in Denver. Births and deaths, battles and reconciliation, profit and loss -- the dining scene has seen them all. On the one hand, great restaurants have been shuttered and good ones have gone bad; villains have grown rich and decent folk have lost their shirts. But on the other, the industry is healthier now than it has been for some time. There are young turks on the rise doing fine work, and old dogs contemplating new tricks.

This has been the year of North; of Rioja and the resurrection of Larimer Square; of Highland and Belmar; of the reinvention of Jim Sullivan, the reinterpretations of Marco Colantonio and the rediscovery of Denver by all those glossy-press fuckers in their Ugg boots and ski parkas who came here to taste our balls and bison and stumbled on a restaurant scene in the throes of a vigorous recovery, propelled by scores of white-jackets who've finally concluded that they don't need the validation of the New York or California cognoscenti to complete them, anyway, and one diminutive Mick restaurant critic giving the one-finger salute to those coastal types as their planes depart from DIA, returning the interlopers to whatever foul rag spawned 'em.

It's been a year of great eating. But I hold too tight to love affairs, allow too many remembrances of past sweetness to color my view of the present. To cleanse my palate for the new year -- as The boss advises Rob Gordon in High Fidelity -- it's time to say goodbye and good luck to my top five of 2005. Five restaurants, five courses, one fantastic meal.

There's a table at Nine75(975 Lincoln Street) that's been named after me. It is, of course, the worst table in the house -- directly across from the kitchen door, in a hallway running between the front dining room and the bar/lounge in the back -- and anyone willing to sit there gets a slice of meatloaf (my least favorite Nine75 offering) on the house.

I want to begin this year's grand tour at the Jason Sheehan table, sliding in early and unnoticed and alone, ahead of the Golden Triangle hipsterati and beautiful people who are finally flocking here, snagging an obscene 5:30 reservation so that I might eat among the early birds unmolested and sample the best of Troy Guard's cockeyed, retro brilliance. I'll start with the ceviche shooters, shot glasses full of fish set proudly atop dishes of neon-lit ice. Then a long plate of deep-fried wonton tuna tacos and the house's seafood ravioli washed in cream sauce -- one of the best dishes I've had not just this year, but ever.

Besides the Jason Sheehan table, there's another reason that Nine75 is a good spot to embark on my culinary retrospective. When I reviewed the restaurant four months ago ("Magic Time," August 25), I was disappointed that it was not as close to perfect as it could have been and should have been and wanted very badly to be. It was a restaurant walking a thin line between cool, à la minute disaffection with its fancied-up comfort foods, slick decor and Breakfast Club soundtrack, and outright parody. I thought Deluxe down on South Broadway had pulled off the same gimmick better and with more historical pedigree, since chef/owner Dylan Moore had actually been in California for the beginnings of the '80s-style cuisine that he was mimicking. Rioja, in Larimer Square, had a much cooler look and location; even the venerable 240 Union served its lobster corndogs and shredded-duck cigars with a sense of humor that seemed lacking on Lincoln Street.

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