Best Of :: Food & Drink
Rioja is not a cheap restaurant, by any means, but it offers two of the best meals in the city for under twenty bucks each. The first is the Rioja picnic. Just $14.50 buys you a big plate filled with everything necessary to make an antipasto freak smile: Spanish chorizo; shaved, dried duck breast; speck; a little goat cheese; a little gorgonzola; olives and nuts; a bit of truffled fennel salad -- as well as really good bread (you can choose from three kinds, and if you ask nicely, the server will let you try them all). That leaves enough cash for the cheapest glass of wine on the menu, a 2004 Louis Latour Chardonnay d'Ardeche, and a well-deserved tip. The second meal is more complicated: Start with a small plate of the bar's garlic- and citrus-marinated olives, then move on to the baked, housemade mozzarella, wrapped in prosciutto and served on toasted bread with oven-dried tomatoes and olive spread. Finally, ask for a half portion of the artichoke tortelloni, one of the best pasta dishes in the city. Now, hope that you have a little change left from parking, because your tab actually comes out to $21 before tax and tip -- and you'll want to be generous there, because a meal this good is worth much, more more.
The very name "Chocolove" sounds like the title of a bad '70s blaxploitation flick. This chocolate is embarrassing to buy, tough to develop a taste for, and every bar comes wrapped with a love poem that's almost unforgivably cheesy. But still, we've got nothing but love for what's coming off the small-batch production line at this Boulder-based company, which reflects founder Tom Moley's dedication to sourcing the best international cocoa and combining it in surprising ways. It may not have been love at first bite, but it was close -- and now we're committed to Chocolove's dark chocolate and candied ginger bar.
Big John doesn't cook at Elway's. Although this Cherry Creek steakhouse boasts Elway's larger-than-life name over its larger-than-life doors, John isn't flipping your burgers, grilling your steaks, assembling your s'mores or bringing your order to the table. Those tasks fall to the excellent kitchen crew and floor staff overseen by manager extraordinaire Tom Moxcey, who works hard to translate Elway's vision for the masses. And while Elway may sign a few autographs when he stops in for a drink, the real draw here is the food: In a city constantly struggling to slough off its meat-and-potatoes reputation, Elway's has not only returned some value to our classic cowtown image, but it's also made the steakhouse model fun again. Score!
There was a time when the West was a new frontier where anything was possible and everything was for sale. It was a time of risk-taking and big gambles, of catastrophe and payoff. And though venture capitalists have taken the place of cowboys, and captains of industry now live where cattle barons once kept their herds, that Wild West spirit is still alive at Vesta Dipping Grill, where chef Matt Selby keeps showing that any damn fool idea can work, and that sometimes, any damn fool idea will. The "dipping grill" concept (prepared meats and seafoods, served with a choice of thirty or more sauces) was both innovative and brilliant when he and Josh Wolkon launched Vesta a decade ago, and both descriptions still apply. The concept (often copied, almost never well) has been kept fresh by constant tinkering with both menu and preparation, and rewarded by a posse of wildly loyal fans.
Over the past seventy-odd years, few modern influences have slipped into Bonnie Brae Tavern to mess up the place. Since they opened the onetime roadhouse right across the street from the headquarters of the Denver Temperance League in 1934, members of the Dire family may have slapped on a few coats of paint and changed some menu items, but otherwise they've left well enough alone. And so today the restaurant is like a culinary time capsule under the submarine glow of lights that have been shining down on the same tables and turquoise vinyl booths, the same beer signs and aging regulars, for generations. The food is American Classic -- pot roasts and T-bones, mac-and-cheese and burgers and fries -- but with a twist: Bonnie Brae was one of the first spots in town to offer pizza, back when the dish was still an exotic novelty rather than a trite American mainstay. Don't mess with success.
"New American" has come to mean many things. The words are applied to cuisines as varied as the obsessive food geekery of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, the chem-lab weirdness of molecular gastronomy, and the burgers-and-beer rosters of a thousand neighborhood taverns daring enough to use leaf lettuce rather than iceberg. But what New American really means is a menu written by a chef informed by all of this but not constrained by it; a chef who understands the influences of French and Asian and Mexican and Italian immigrant flavors on American cookery, but is not limited by canonical recitation. New American means America as it is today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. And in Denver, the best definition of New American is offered by Tyler Wiard at Mel's. His ever-changing menu is a season-by-season accounting of what America tastes like and America's tastes.