Next week's Best of Denver 2006 will mark the end of several solid months of eating and note-taking, list-making and writing -- but mostly eating. I have no idea how many dollars and how many hours I've spent scrambling around the city in a desperate fever to find the best cheeseburger, the best sushi and the best desserts, but I've spent plenty. I've also put on about ten pounds and gone through two large boxes of green tea and three bags of Ting Ting Jahe ginger bonbons from the Asian Deli in futile attempts to settle my stomach. My doctor has put me back on Prilosec for persistent esophageal ulcers, and I have passed more than one day flat on my back, staring groggily up at the ceiling and wondering what the hell I was thinking when I got into this bizarre line of work that can make me dread an eight o'clock dinner reservation like it was a court date.
But it's all been worth it. Because while I was eating, I could see just how far Denver has progressed, and how fast. True, we've lost some fantastic houses, but we've gained even more. True, there have been moments of absolute suck -- lunches and dinners and sometimes whole weeks all proving that without a constant, merciless striving for excellence with every single plate, Denver can slip and fall quicker than any city I've ever known -- but these have been more than balanced by moments of utter bliss in the unlikeliest of places.
One of the best recent developments has been the sloughing off of some of the heavy anxiety and seriousness that had been a hallmark of years past. In many cases and at many of the best houses, food is fun again -- something it most definitely was not a few years ago, when it seemed like everyone in town was going broke and good news was when someone was going broke just a little more slowly than his neighbors. But from the easy sensuality of Cafe Star, Z Cuisine and Duo to the goofy brilliance of Nine75, the sexy flood of booze and tapas at The 9th Door, the reinvention of Somethin' Else and the placid joy that attends every meal at Sushi Sasa, this has been a year for excess and innovation, for gleefully turning old stereotypes (New American, comfort food, small plates, deconstructionism and nouvelle everything) on their ears and committing bold acts of revolution across dozens of menus.
Best of Denver
Not long ago, I was asked by a company that assembles information for travel and tourism websites to submit a list of Denver's ten best, sexiest, most cutting-edge restaurants. It didn't want descriptions, it didn't want reviews -- just my opinion of Denver's ten best and brightest as a handy guide for travelers. I figured the job would take ten minutes, tops. Several hours later, I had a list of 34 restaurants that I felt were Denver's best, sexiest, most cutting-edge restaurants. And that was a trimmed-down list. Trouble was, these 34 were about equal in my eyes. Sure, one had better cassoulet, one had a better bar, one did a dessert that I would gladly eat every night of my life, another had the hottest waitresses anywhere.
But the point was, this city -- my city -- had more than thirty contenders for a top-ten list. And that's rare. If you live in a place that has three or four truly excellent restaurants, you're doing well. If you're somewhere with ten great restaurants, you're in a foodie wonderland. And when twenty or thirty or more joints are vying for the crown? Well, you must be in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco -- or Denver, Colorado.
Eventually, I whittled my list down to ten and fired it off, but that larger list of 34 eventually came to form the backbone of my Best of Denver lineup. Next week, one will be named Best New Restaurant, another will have the Best Chef, another the Best Crew. Come March 23, you'll get to see the whole thing for yourself. And in the meantime, I'm taking a few days to cool down and not think -- at all -- about food or restaurants or chefs. I'll be back in the saddle as soon as I can fit into my pants again.
Adios, Adega: One of last year's big Best of Denver winners was Table 6, at 609 Corona Street. Exec chef Aaron Whitcomb has since left for Chicago, and now sous chef Scott Parker has taken over the kitchen. When I got Parker on the phone last week to find out what he's done in his first few weeks with the big hat on, he was somewhat reticent to talk up his new menu (explaining that there were a lot of changes happening, sometimes day to day), but he did say that the new board is all his and that a lot of it is reinterpreted classics and bar foods (like chicken wings stuffed with blue-cheese mousseline) jumped up with a fine-dining touch.
"I'm just trying to have fun with it," Parker told me. "I'm doing stuff I've wanted to do for a long time but never had the chance. Taking bar foods and classics and just fucking it up. It's fun. You gotta come down and check it out yourself."
He's right. At the same time I taste his new lineup, I can salute the end of an era. Because while Parker is a veteran of Adega -- the restaurant that really propelled Denver's push for food-world respectability when it opened almost four years ago -- there's not a single member of that acclaimed spot's original crew still working in Denver. Sommelier and partner Ken Fredrickson left early on for Vegas, Chris Farnum rolled out for the Windy City back in February of last year to take a position as operations director with Chipotle (nice timing, right?), chef Bryan Moscatello is in Virginia, still cooking, and now Whitcomb has bailed out of Table 6, which was initially seen as a spinoff of Adega but quickly developed a taste and style all its own. And let's not even think about what happened over at Mirepoix, Moscatello's third try in town. Weird how much can change in just a few years.
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Actually, one Adega original remains: Mike Huff. He made a lot of noise about leaving the industry entirely after Adega closed its doors last August, but he's still around and still involved (somewhat, at least) with Table 6.
Leftovers: Two weeks ago, Lola finally closed the doors at 1469 South Pearl Street with a helluva clean-out-the-refrigerator party, then handed over the keys to Paul Blakley, who's already tearing up the second floor in anticipation of a May opening for BB's on Pearl. Lola owner Dave Query and chef Jamey Fader are still looking at an April date for the debut of the new, larger Lola at 1575 Boulder Street.
Over at 233 East Colfax, Broussard's Creole Cafe is no more. According to Joel Broussard, his restaurant was finally done in by a massive plumbing problem that left the space uninhabitable. But Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet is now open at 12200 East Cornell in Aurora (the former home of Denver Woodlands) -- so those in need of a Creole pick-me-up know where to go. And for Peruvian food, head to Pan & Vinos Machu Picchu, a new restaurant at 420 South Chambers Road in Aurora serving "99 percent authentic Peruvian food," according to Walter Suarez, who owns the place along with chef-partner Dario Gonzalez-Loaiza.
The Dario's space at 2011 East 17th Avenue is getting a new tenant: Il Posto, which has a June opening scheduled. Chef Andrea Frizzi (ex of Cucina Colore and Via, which took over the old Brasserie Rouge space) will be on the burners doing (no surprise) Italian food -- more or less what didn't work at Dario's. And finally, there are signs of life in the 700 block of East 17th, where the old Dante Bichette's and the former La Sala are being turned into a Hamburger Mary's.