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Best of Denver: They coulda been contenders

So here we are...another Best of Denver issue in the rearview mirror, and it's all over but the shouting. The real blizzard wasn't last Thursday's snowfall, but the avalanche of calls and e-mails from restaurant fans and owners wondering why their place (ahem...Root Down) didn't get the notice they thought it deserved, just because it's popular. Seriously, if volume of trade were the main criterion I used in granting awards, can you guess who'd win everything? The motherfucking Olive Garden — no doubt with McDonald's reigning supreme in the Best French Fries category, as it did for so many years (in the readers' poll, anyway), before people got smart and started eating the fries at Bistro Vendôme and Steuben's.

Fact is, I pay absolutely zero attention to how many butts are in the seats when I'm making my picks. If I did, this year's Best French Restaurant winner, chef William Wahl's Indulge (which was also in the running for Best New Restaurant, and didn't miss by much) would've gotten nothing. Because that place is desolate as a graveyard much of the time, despite serving the best French food in the city. And during one of my review meals at Coleman's Soul Food, winner for Best Fried Chicken, besides the cook/owner, the only people there were an old man sipping a soda and a hooker in the booth behind me. Damn it, I dig that place...

So what do I pay attention to? Quality. After quality, it's quality, then weirdness, then back to quality again. Do my own biases play into the process? Absolutely. Pho shops, noodle bars, sushi restaurants, burger joints and solid diners get more play from me than they might from someone else, but if you've been keeping up with my reviews over the past six years, this should come as no surprise. Still, it's quality that hooks me. I love that Oshima Ramen has its own freaky, anthropomorphic moose-blob mascot and that Griff's Burger Bar has a psychotic three-color clown named Griffy to pimp for its burgers, but those two places won their awards because I crave their noodles and burgers, respectively.

Speaking of burgers, yes, Bud's Bar won the Best Burger award for the sixth year running. But readers opted for the excellent Cherry Cricket burger, and that's one of my favorites, too. The green-chile cheeseburger at Steuben's gets better every time I have one, and Smashburger remains strong. I'm even a big fan of the burgers at the Fainting Goat — cooked rare, topped with horseradish havarti and bacon. For barbecue, I'm no longer such a fan of Big Hoss, last year's darling, which has slid precipitously. Last time I was there, the ribs were almost inedible. This was the first year I almost gave the Best BBQ award to a chain, Jim 'N Nick's. It's all about the consistency, and Jim 'N Nick's has yet to disappoint me; it was just barely edged out by Yazoo. And as for the readers' pick of Brothers BBQ? That ain't never gonna happen. Not on my watch.

There are a few other considerations beyond quality and consistency. The calendar, for example. I wait at least two months after a place opens before I review it, and I generally impose that same time frame on any Best of Denver awards. Katie Mullen's would have been a lock for an award had it opened a month or two earlier than mid-February — maybe not as Best New Restaurant, but certainly for having the greatest Guinness pour in the city. And Dave Query's Happy Noodle House might have given Bones a run for its money — but Happy Noodle opened six weeks after Bones, whose late-December opening put it in line to win Best New Restaurant.

I heard that Justin Cucci, owner of Root Down (see page 35), seemed to think his place got cheated out of the Best New Restaurant award. And this only punctuates the point of my review: that Root Down has some serious issues with delusional thinking. Not only was Root Down never close to Best New Restaurant, but it serves a strong contender for Worst Single Plate. Tofu pot pie with pomegranate syrup? Cucci, what were you thinking? Root Down did win the prize for Best Contemporary Cocktail, though, and it was well deserved; I love the bar there, as well as the guys and girls working behind it.

But while Root Down was never in contention for the big prize, there were an unusually large number of places that were. In addition to Indulge, Beatrice & Woodsley and Delite, there was D Bar Desserts, which might've won in a walk any other year. Consistency issues knocked Bistro One out of the contest, but Venue put in a strong showing, as did Star Kitchen and Cracovia, the Polish restaurant. Masterpiece Delicatessen was in the running. So was twelve. Even Shazz had a shot, on the strength of what? The quality of the food coming out of the kitchen, including that braised oxtail I had one review dinner.

By all rights, this past year should have been a disaster for the food-service industry and, by extension, those who report on the food-service industry. But Denver came through in a big way, with an amazing number of commendable new restaurants, and older ones stepping up their game.

I can't wait to see what next year brings.

 
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