Best Of :: Food & Drink
What makes an Indian restaurant good isn't just the quality of the spices it uses or the touch of its tandoori -- although those things are very, very important indeed -- but also the way the proprietors welcome diners, treating them as if they were a significant part of the transaction. That attitude is very much in evidence at the simple but elegant Star of India, an amiable Indian eatery in an Aurora strip mall that not only serves beautifully prepared and luscious Indian food, but does so with a friendliness that makes dining there a pleasure. Owners Paul Gill and his parents, mom Kapoor and dad Gurmukh, worked with chef Balwant Singh on the menu, so the recipes are a collaboration that benefits from Singh's culinary background and the family's down-home Indian sensibilities. The resulting dishes pair meats so tender they seem almost unreal with pungent, deeply layered sauces that rely on tranditional Indian spicing methods. The lamb korma and shrimp vindaloo are knockouts, and Star of India's tandoori wings put Buffalo's versions to shame. The restaurant's naan sense is sound, too, because the flatbreads are the best in town, especially the sweet, raisin-studded kabli. All in all, this Star's future looks bright.
Readers' choice: Little India
The Mercury Cafe is the ultimate Zone zone -- not just because it offers nutritious dishes that pull from all of the food groups in ways you can easily regroup to fit your ideal zone, but because after you eat, you'll likely be pulled into some swing dancing that will take you straight to your ideal heart-rate target area. For 25 years now, the Merc has been a hip-hoppy, snap-happy spot that serves great food for carnivores and vegetarians (vegans, lacto-ovo, macro-micro, you name it) alike, in a fun atmosphere filled with dancing, music theater, poetry and any kind of art you can think of (and then some). Ponder life's possibilities as you put away an order of Susan Jane's tofu chop with rice and veggies, or a Santa Fe breakfast of beans, rice, corn, cheese and green chile, or shrimp fettuccine tossed with hot peppers and olive oil. Naturally, everything's homemade from whole grains, natural sweeteners and cold-pressed oils; owner Marilyn Megenity even makes her own soda pop. Get with the program at Denver's zone away from home.
Tired of living off the fat of the land? Need more meat in your diet? Get yer sloppy carcass over to the Denver Buffalo Company, which has been hooking hungry cowpokes up with buffalo for eleven years now. The Western-themed eatery has seventeen ways to eat the ornery creature at high noon, and that many more through happy hour and dinner; a recently added bar menu features a few favorites, such as the buffalo stroganoff and the club steak, for cheap. The DBC even sells uncooked buffalo so you can satisfy the good doctor's meaty requirements in the privacy of your own home. Since buffalo's been around since before the concept of ketosis was even created, you can bet this ultra-lean meat will treat your body right. And if it just so happens you have a hankering to cheat on Dr. Atkins, there's no better way to get a carbo load than a side of hearty hand-mashed potatoes.
Sometimes a plain doughnut just won't do -- and that's when Henderson's Long Johns go a long way toward filling any craving. Instead of forcing sugar fiends to dig through two inches of dough before they get to the creamy center, Henderson's makes all of its Johns plain. After you order one -- chocolate-coated, sugar-powdered or glazed -- they'll take it to the back counter, slice it lengthwise, and then slather in your choice of fluffy whipped cream or Bavarian custard. With that sinful two-inch-thick mortar in place and the lid back on, these confections look more like hoagies than doughnuts, and the first bite can send a load of creamy filling shooting out the back. But, oh, what a glorious mess.
Some of the Cherry Tomato's neighbors put up a fight when the restaurant wanted to open in Park Hill; now no one can imagine the neighborhood without this adorable, welcoming spot. Pasta is the specialty here, and the lasagne is truly something special. This is one of the densest, heartiest versions you'll find, a meat-filled, cheese-packed wedge smothered in a smooth, tomatoey marinara that's a little bit sweet and walks the thin red line between runny and too thick; one order easily serves two. In a restaurant overflowing with abundant humor and good tastes, this dish is a real cherry.
Any Italian restaurant that offers more than the standard spaghetti, linguine and fettuccine is using its noodle -- but Cucina Colóre, a casual Cherry Creek joint, really displays some smarts. Not only does it serve up fusilli, tagliatelle and conchiglie, but it does so in the best way possible: by coating the properly cooked, awesomely al dente pasta in skillfully crafted, classically themed sauces. The white bean and roasted red pepper raviolis, for example, come slicked with a sweet, heady combination of browned butter, sage and balsamic syrup; the penne comes "al arrabbiata," with chile peppers, kalamatas and ricotta salata all angrily fighting for attention; and the conchiglie, or "little ears," arrive napped by a light but rich cream sauce sparked with roasted garlic. Even the veal bolognese on the tagliatelle is noteworthy -- thick and chunky, but still possessing a tomato-rich flavor. One bite, and you'll be pasta point of no return.
Want the real thing? Go to the source. Or as close as we get in Denver, which is the restaurant run by Florence native Simone Parisi and his wife, Christine, who's originally from Boulder. Christine met Simone in Italy, they fell in love, and she convinced him that Denver needed a really good pizzeria. She was right. Their love Italian-style is evidenced in Parisi's offerings: More than just a pizzeria, this is an Italian market where Parisi makes his own mozzarella-like fior di latte. He smokes some of it into scarmorza, the cheese that he puts on his medium-thick, crackly-crunchy-edged crust, then tops with Parisi's sauce, which isn't really a sauce at all -- it's more like a bunch of tomatoes melted down with garlic. Not content to offer just traditional pizzeria pies such as rustica and vegetariana, Parisi also takes advantage of the current abundance of white truffles by piling them on a sinfully delicious, oil-drizzled pizza, which fills the shop with musky perfume for days. Now, that's amore.
Readers' choice: Beau Jo's