Best Of :: Food & Drink
Since the moment it opened two years ago, Luca d'Italia has turned out Denver's best high-end Italian food, no contest. Since its very first day of service, since the first plate hit the rail, Luca has been doing the most overdone cuisine in the food world better, smoother, sharper and with more obsessive precision than anywhere else in town. Even the least of the plates on chef/owner Frank Bonanno's discursive menu -- the pappardelle or the bricked chicken, say -- beats out the competition. And Bonanno's best? Well, Luca's "Rabbit, Three Ways" is a wonder of excess, its mozzarella tasting plate the definition of three-note simplicity, and we're just waiting for him to get his call to appear on Iron Chef so we can watch him school Mario Batali and then do a victory dance around Kitchen Stadium, waving Batali's clogs over his head like a trophy.
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.
Founded by the same guys -- Angelo and Jim Karagas -- who gave us My Brother's Bar, and now part of the Wynkoop family of restaurants, the Wazee Supper Club has been a favorite destination for Denver's night owls since 1974. The space is classically art-deco, with black-and-white tile floors and a beautiful long bar that's served as a second home for many of Denver's booziest movers, shakers and downtown makers. And while the menu is mostly bar food and American standards (wings, artichoke dip, homemade chili, burgers, sandwiches, stromboli and no fewer than seven salads), it has two standout features. One, the kitchen serves that food until 1 a.m. six days a week, shutting down early (at 11 p.m.) on Sundays. And two, the Wazee makes some of Denver's best pizzas, and makes them late.
Sometimes you really want ricotta pancakes at three in the morning. Sometimes you need a panini-pressed breakfast burrito and a strong cup of coffee. And sometimes all that's required is a plate of cocktail wieners and a Rice Krispies treat. No matter what you're hungering for, there's a good chance that owners Monique Costello and Amy Rosewater will have exactly that -- or something even better -- at Monkey Bean. While the 4 a.m. breakfast is generally the province of the all-night diner or the dismal greasy spoon, Monkey Bean offers quality culinary options for putting a cap on a good night -- or for keeping a bad one from getting worse.
Give and take, back and forth, yin and yang -- Zengo's menu, concept and even its design are structured around the idea of taking something good and pairing it, topping it or mashing it together with something even better. Technically, Zengo bills itself as a Latino-Asian fusion restaurant -- which is strange enough -- but what it really does is take the entire fusion gestalt and push it to its logical conclusion. There's sushi on this menu, but the sushi is a fusion of classical Japanese and nouvelle styles. There are chiles and mother sauces, sesame seeds and hoisin. And each category on the menu -- from the tiraditos, antojitos and dim sum to the noodles, mains and desserts -- is meant for sharing over drinks and good conversation. At its best, Zengo's notion of fusion infuses everything from food to service to seating arrangements. In a crowded field, Zengo is great because it never saw any reason to stop at being just good enough.
A "family-style" restaurant is almost always synonymous with a very, very bad restaurant. Not so with Carmine's on Penn, where gigantic plates and pastas served by the pound receive all the care and attention normally seen only at very fussy, regular-size-plate restaurants. Here, tables groan under deep bowls of linguine with white clam sauce and gigantic platters of pasta Montana with chicken and asparagus drenched in gallons of cream sauce. Carmine's is so popular that there's usually a line and service can suffer, but if you come with a big appetite and are willing to wait, dinner here can be a very fulfilling experience.
In adopting -- and adapting -- the theme of drunken, lazy, artistic Spanish dining, the 9th Door has deliberately painted itself into a very good culinary corner, forcing the kitchen to stay true to the influences of Spanish cuisine and the bar to the ideal of fully tanked Spanish drinking habits. The menu was designed by consulting chef Michel Wahaltere, but after he left last summer, the crew took his concept and ran with it, offering real tapas in a city already awash in small plates. The menu is broken in half -- cold plates on one side, hot ones on the other -- and includes such wonders as cold Spanish potato salad with asparagus and egg; roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, rosemary and Serrano ham; albondigas in tomato gravy; pork brochettes and grilled shrimp marinated in olive oil, garlic and chile piquin. For small plates, these are the tapas the town.
Omakase. That's the magic word at Sushi Sasa: Cook for me. When you say this at the sushi bar, you free chef Wayne Conwell or a member of his talented crew to assemble a unique, adventurous, individual feast (priced at $60, $80 or $120, depending on the number of courses). And once the food arrives, there's no doubt that you're in the hands of a master displaying both classical chops and a wild flood of creativity. Dinner one night could be a pyramid of inside-out and right-side-in maki accented by delicate slips of chile, the best noodle soup you will ever taste, a fan of seared Kobe beef and dried mushroom, fried shrimp heads exploding like a flower from the center of the plate, or one perfect uni hand roll like a sea-urchin ice cream cone. And the next night, the offerings will be completely different -- but just as astounding.