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A rearview look at the year in food

James Rugile makes a meal at Venue a stirring experience.

It was the year of the gastropub, the year of the gourmet hamburger joint and cupcake shop, the year of the noodle bar. For me, it was the year of the book, the year I lost my father, the year I found out it was to be my last year in the Mile High City after already having put seven of them in my rearview mirror in what felt like record-breaking time.

In the wider world, it was the year of so many things — but I don't cotton much to the wider world. It's a big place, and scary. Full of too much I don't know and haven't seen. Which is why I think I find myself turning more and more inward with each passing season, attempting only to inhabit more fully the small worlds I know best, the vistas and landscapes wherein I feel some small measure of control.

I eat. It's what I do. It's how I make my living, what I do to find adventure, how I achieve rare moments of solace. Food is my history and my ease, the way I connect, how I time and temper my days. Food is the lens through which I view the world (wide or narrow) and my defense against its more bitter realities. My mouth has gone places the rest of me likely never will. My nose has sniffed scents that mean home in dozens of different languages. And while my lumpy, heavy, often exhausted, occasionally ravaged, sometimes joyous corporeal form has sat slumping around teahouses and dive bars, palaces and shacks, my brain — that inconstant organ, that rebellious, perennially unsatisfied knob of addled goo — has gone a-coursing, finding fun and excitement, intrigue, connection, diversion, division and comfort in the annals of momo, the stories of pho, the language of cooks, beer's ancient religion, sashimi's terrible arrogance and the secret strength of grits on the plate.

This was, as far as years go, one of my best and one of my worst. It wasn't that different in the restaurant world, a year born in assumptions of implosion and decline, penury, disaster and everyone sitting around eating cold Dinty Moore out of the can, huddled around a fire kindled by worthless Wall Street stock certificates and old back issues of Travel & Leisure magazine. But as the year progressed, all the penny-pinching and doomsaying became...dull. And when we pulled our heads up out of the sand, we saw that maybe things weren't so bad after all. Denver recovered faster than most places, maybe never suffered quite as badly. The restaurants were mostly still there when we needed them, the chefs standing patiently before their stoves, ready to do what they do best. In relative calm and something like quiet, we ended the year roughly where we'd begun it — in a growing food city, surrounded by some of the greatest chefs anywhere, all of them struggling, none of them willing to quit.

I reviewed fifty restaurants in 2009. I wrote and talked about countless more in the paper, on the blog, on Twitter and wherever else I could find some space or someone willing to listen. From all of that, I've come up with what amounts to one perfect meal, assembled from all the disparate parts of the hundreds of meals I ate throughout the year, made with the assumption that all those little niggling details like reservations, number of courses, credit limits, seating capacities and time and space don't matter, and taking for granted that little things like blood-alcohol limits, obesity, potential gout and access to a helicopter would all work themselves out in the end.

Any proper meal must start with cocktails. Preferably several of them. And because this is my fantasy dinner and my fantasy lineup, I'm going to be hitting a couple of different places. First, the Fainting Goat (846 Broadway), because over the past year it has become my neighborhood bar, and because it serves the best of the worst whiskeys known to man: Wall Street. This year, more than any other, a fine finger or two of Wall Street over ice just seems like a smart way to start things off.

After the Goat, I'll head to Colt & Gray (1553 Platte Street) for one of the best of the best whiskeys around: Stranahan's, served with C&G's special giant ice cube. Nelson Perkins's quasi-gastropub also serves a second purpose for this trip, standing as one of the finest places in town for a snack at the bar before the main dining event really gets under way. Crispy pig's trotters? Yes, please. A bowl of gougères? Absolutely. Both are perfect for priming the appetite without running any risk of putting it straight to bed.

TAG, Troy Guard's Larimer Square restaurant (1441 Larimer Street), is on my list for apps. For sushi tacos and pork belly ssam, for lovely plating acting in service of the food and preparations that have been honed and sharpened over years of practice under other roofs. The trick with TAG, though, is to not get too comfortable. I could easily go through two or three removes here and prematurely fill myself up, so I'll have a time limit: twenty minutes before a team of ex-Secret Service agents come in through the door, taze me, bag me and hustle me right down the road to Rioja (1433 Larimer) for chef Jen Jasinski's Rioja picnic — a perfect spread of cured meats, warm pine nut-crusted goat cheese, Italian gorgonzola, olives, truffled fennel salad and almonds. It's one of my favorite single plates in the city, and also nicely takes care of the charcuterie requirement of any proper blowout dinner.

 

Soup is next. No question, I'm going to Pho 95 (1002 South Federal Boulevard). But then I'm going to sneak in a second soup course at Bones, Frank Bonanno's noodle bar at 701 Grant Street that opened first in a flurry of noodle bars and remains the best of the survivors. I'm going to have the lobster ramen (and maybe a few marrow bones). And no, I'm not sharing.

Pub chips and malt-vinegar gastrique at Argyll, mac-and-cheese fries at Jonesy's EatBar, more fries with hot mustard at Encore, pierogi from Cracovia: It kills me how many places there are in Denver right now at which the beginnings of great meals might be had. And it would kill me if I tried to eat at all of them, so following Bones, I'm forcing myself to get into some serious eating and start in on the mains.

For a first meat course, I'm going with the duck meatballs over polenta at Olivea (719 East 17th) — a single plate that succinctly communicates everything that's great about this restaurant and the guys working in John Broening's galley. Just to be difficult, though, I want it with a side of the kitchen's boudin blanc, and on the side of that, I want the sauerkraut from the Cheeky Monk (534 East Colfax Avenue). And when I'm done with all that, I'm getting back into the helicopter (where, by this point, I have been joined by an internationally renowned team of gastroenterologists sworn to keep me going as the night wears on) and fluttering away to a fish course at Paradise Asian (6180 South Gun Club Road in Aurora). I'm having the shrimp in lobster sauce, of course. I rarely order anything else here.

Pasta as an intermezzo: spaghetti carbonara at Locanda del Borgo (5575 East Third Avenue). I haven't eaten a lot of pasta over the past year. A lot of noodles, yes, but not much in the way of real Italian pasta. Locanda was one of the rare exceptions. And its carbonara — all thick and rich and eggy with caramelized pancetta and thick spaghetti —is one of those dishes that stuck with me across the reach of months.

After that, it's time for a second meat course, at Venue (3609 West 32nd Avenue), where James Rugile once cooked me one of the most amazing plates of pork tenderloin over milk-white grits flavored with bacon fat, doused in preserved sour cherries and maple-pork jus. I want that again right now. Looking back, I might actually dis-order these courses and go for Rugile's pork first, when my appetite is still unspoiled, my enthusiasm for these ten or eleven or twelve courses still virginal and pure.

Time for coffee and a cigarette. Since I'm in the neighborhood, I'll have a café con leche at Buchi (2651 West 38th Avenue) — which I will require to stay open very late just for me, my doctors, my helicopter pilot, my Secret Service escort and whatever hangers-on I've acquired during my night out on the town. The coffee I will sip amid the roiling crowds. The cigarette I will have standing alone on the street while I try to catch my breath and collect my wits for the final push.

Dessert. I'm going to D Bar Desserts (1475 East 17th). Although Denver has never been particularly friendly to dessert bars, Keegan Gerhard's vision of a dessert-bar-and-then-some has flourished over the past eighteen months, mostly because there's no better place in the entire city to make an entire meal out of nothing but sweets. I'm going for the rock-sugar waffle ice cream sandwich with three-cherry compote because it is one of the greatest desserts I've ever had, and perhaps the only thing that could possibly make me imagine wanting to eat more after the impossible stretch of courses I have already described.

After that, I'm going to sleep. Probably for a very long time. But when the sleeping is done and the hangover has worn off and my appetite slowly begins to return, I'm tacking one final day-after plate to this list. Alone, kept company only by a good book and maybe a hip flask full of Jameson whiskey, I'm going to go have an iceberg salad and a $10 steak at Columbine Steakhouse (300 Federal Boulevard).

 

When I reviewed the Columbine back in April, what made it to the page was really nothing but stories about my dad – growing up with him, watching him at the grill in the backyard, memories of steak night at the Sheehan household from back in the days when things were tight enough for us that steak nights were few and far between. At the time, I thought that "The Last of the Great $10 Steaks" was one of the best pieces I'd ever written. It was funny and sweet, full of all the things that make writing about food worthwhile – and not just some hollow exercise in reporting on prices and portion sizes.

And then, when my father died a few months later, the Columbine became rather mythic in my memories. Even though he wasn't with me for any of the meals I ate there, the Columbine really became the last place I ever saw my father, the review of it one of the last few real conversations we would ever have.

So by myself then, I will go back one more time and have another. I'll spend some time with the old man, tell a few stories, drink a medicinal nip of the family brand. And then I'll have a nice, cheap and delicious steak to go with it.

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