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Best Wishes

Fun with food

Next week's Best of Denver 2006 will mark the end of several solid months of eating and note-taking, list-making and writing -- but mostly eating. I have no idea how many dollars and how many hours I've spent scrambling around the city in a desperate fever to find the best cheeseburger, the best sushi and the best desserts, but I've spent plenty. I've also put on about ten pounds and gone through two large boxes of green tea and three bags of Ting Ting Jahe ginger bonbons from the Asian Deli in futile attempts to settle my stomach. My doctor has put me back on Prilosec for persistent esophageal ulcers, and I have passed more than one day flat on my back, staring groggily up at the ceiling and wondering what the hell I was thinking when I got into this bizarre line of work that can make me dread an eight o'clock dinner reservation like it was a court date.

But it's all been worth it. Because while I was eating, I could see just how far Denver has progressed, and how fast. True, we've lost some fantastic houses, but we've gained even more. True, there have been moments of absolute suck -- lunches and dinners and sometimes whole weeks all proving that without a constant, merciless striving for excellence with every single plate, Denver can slip and fall quicker than any city I've ever known -- but these have been more than balanced by moments of utter bliss in the unlikeliest of places.

One of the best recent developments has been the sloughing off of some of the heavy anxiety and seriousness that had been a hallmark of years past. In many cases and at many of the best houses, food is fun again -- something it most definitely was not a few years ago, when it seemed like everyone in town was going broke and good news was when someone was going broke just a little more slowly than his neighbors. But from the easy sensuality of Cafe Star, Z Cuisine and Duo to the goofy brilliance of Nine75, the sexy flood of booze and tapas at The 9th Door, the reinvention of Somethin' Else and the placid joy that attends every meal at Sushi Sasa, this has been a year for excess and innovation, for gleefully turning old stereotypes (New American, comfort food, small plates, deconstructionism and nouvelle everything) on their ears and committing bold acts of revolution across dozens of menus.

Not long ago, I was asked by a company that assembles information for travel and tourism websites to submit a list of Denver's ten best, sexiest, most cutting-edge restaurants. It didn't want descriptions, it didn't want reviews -- just my opinion of Denver's ten best and brightest as a handy guide for travelers. I figured the job would take ten minutes, tops. Several hours later, I had a list of 34 restaurants that I felt were Denver's best, sexiest, most cutting-edge restaurants. And that was a trimmed-down list. Trouble was, these 34 were about equal in my eyes. Sure, one had better cassoulet, one had a better bar, one did a dessert that I would gladly eat every night of my life, another had the hottest waitresses anywhere.

But the point was, this city -- my city -- had more than thirty contenders for a top-ten list. And that's rare. If you live in a place that has three or four truly excellent restaurants, you're doing well. If you're somewhere with ten great restaurants, you're in a foodie wonderland. And when twenty or thirty or more joints are vying for the crown? Well, you must be in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco -- or Denver, Colorado.

Eventually, I whittled my list down to ten and fired it off, but that larger list of 34 eventually came to form the backbone of my Best of Denver lineup. Next week, one will be named Best New Restaurant, another will have the Best Chef, another the Best Crew. Come March 23, you'll get to see the whole thing for yourself. And in the meantime, I'm taking a few days to cool down and not think -- at all -- about food or restaurants or chefs. I'll be back in the saddle as soon as I can fit into my pants again.

Adios, Adega: One of last year's big Best of Denver winners was Table 6, at 609 Corona Street. Exec chef Aaron Whitcomb has since left for Chicago, and now sous chef Scott Parker has taken over the kitchen. When I got Parker on the phone last week to find out what he's done in his first few weeks with the big hat on, he was somewhat reticent to talk up his new menu (explaining that there were a lot of changes happening, sometimes day to day), but he did say that the new board is all his and that a lot of it is reinterpreted classics and bar foods (like chicken wings stuffed with blue-cheese mousseline) jumped up with a fine-dining touch.

"I'm just trying to have fun with it," Parker told me. "I'm doing stuff I've wanted to do for a long time but never had the chance. Taking bar foods and classics and just fucking it up. It's fun. You gotta come down and check it out yourself."

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