By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
The farewell dinner at the original Mel's was a night I'll remember forever. Not because of the food (although the food was excellent) or the crowd (although the dinner was certainly well-attended) or the bar pouring champagne like water for anyone ambulatory enough to stick out a glass, or the general naughtiness in all the alleys and bathrooms, but because of the kitchen. During a break in service, I poked my nose in and saw a half-dozen of Denver's best chefs — including Frank Bonanno, Goose Sorensen, Tyler Wiard — who were all veterans of Mel's, working together in a perfect psychotic ballet on that tiny, cramped, historic line, literally climbing on each others' backs to put dinner on the rail. Denver is a rare city in that we have a big scene that feels like a small scene because everyone knows everyone, has worked above or below or with everyone, or has connections that in retrospect seem to border on the prophetic. No one comes up alone in Denver. No one comes out of nowhere. Everyone who gets anywhere does it on the back of someone else.
At Fruition, I finally tasted the promise of haute comfort food that had been augured by every food writer, every newspaper and every magazine for years, and that, to some extent, had always left me cold. But at Fruition, I tasted chicken soup done just better than chicken soup should be reasonably expected to be done. Beet carpaccio with goat cheese that wasn't just a way for the kitchen to charge fifteen bucks for vegetables no one really wanted to eat. Duck and simple lemon sole and risotto that were all exponentially more excellent than comparable dishes attempted anywhere else, said excellence born out of an almost pathological commitment to doing everything perfectly every time.
Then at O's Steak & Seafood, I sat out on the front patio after dinner smoking a cigar, drinking vintage port and trying to wrap my head around the paradigm shift going on in the dining room behind me. Chef de cuisine Ian Kleinman had just cooked me one of the most affecting meals of my life. I'd stood beside him in the kitchen for hours — watching him measure his methylcellulose, turn grape juice into caviar and grin like a bald-headed stage devil from behind a boiling fog of sublimating liquid nitrogen — and I still didn't understand how he'd done half of what he'd done. Ian is not the first guy to go all Star Trek with his food. He's certainly not going to be the last. But for me, the dining room at O's was where all this sci-fi cuisine became real, began to make sense. Not a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about what I experienced at O's, but there on the patio, the impressions and the emotions were still fresh and raw. After fifteen years in the kitchen, everything I'd thought I knew about food and cooking and prep and presentation had just been rendered moot. I'd tasted honest-to-God magic, and after that, nothing was going to be the same.
From my somewhat elevated perch in Midtown, I thought about big dinners and small dishes. About the green-curry-and-potato soup at Uoki and the bananas Foster pancakes at Toast, about pho for breakfast at Pho 79 and pork buns and shumai for brunch at Super Star Asian, about the miraculous lobster boils at Cherry Crest Seafood and about how, after eating the raw beef and cottage cheese at Arada for the first time, it immediately became one of my favorite foods in the world. I thought about the fire-breathing craziness of the cooks at US Thai making the best Thai food I've had in Denver or anywhere else, and the sublime and overwhelming beauty of every little thing at Izakaya Den. I thought about all the hours I've spent slouching around like a crazy person in booths and at bars eating hot dogs and barbecue and churros and chelados.
I thought about what I love about Denver, and what will always draw me back. Even after more than five years, I know that every single night has the potential to be amazing, mind-blowing, life-altering and strange. I've seen the Vietnamese Elvis sing love songs to gangsters, had a woman at the bar at Gennaro's demonstrate how she stabbed her boyfriend in the neck. I've eaten the offerings of the God of Ramen, drunk wine that was bottled before I was born and whiskey that was put in the cask before this country was born. I've been poisoned near to death by dimwits who ought to be spitted on their own steel and run up tabs higher than what I've paid for some of my used cars. I am one lucky sonofabitch.
And now, in Manhattan, my knishes are growing cold and Laura is digging into the chocolate cake, so I'm going to stop thinking and start eating. I'll be back in the saddle soon enough, eating too much and behaving badly. I can't wait to see what next year brings. I can't wait to see what I know tomorrow that I didn't know today. And as happy as I am, right here and right now, I really can't wait to get back to the city I've come to call my own and to start all over again.