Bite Me

Well, folks, it's over. Last week you saw my rookie-year picks for the best of everything Denver's restaurants have to offer, and I gotta tell ya: While I had a blast eating my way through the city (and beyond) over these past months, no Best of Denver issue ever comes off without a hitch.

First, there were all those surprise closures and menu changes that always pop up at the eleventh hour (or so my editor assures me). The Best Indonesian/Singaporean category was shot to shit by the closure of Singapore Grill (whose former address, at 7923 South Broadway, Littleton, now belongs to one of those pay-by-the-scoop Chinese places). By default, I suppose I could have given the nod to Isle of Singapore, at 2022 South University Boulevard -- the only other Singaporean place in town and a winner in 2001 -- for its whole shrimp, interesting soups, and having the cojones to serve durian fruit, but I'm still depressed that I can't get roti canai there.

Bistro Adde Brewster was a contender for Best After-Work Watering Hole, but Adde Bjorklund sold the joint before the ink was even dry on my glowing review ("Frite Dreams," December 5, 2002). Today the space at 250 Steele Street is known as Bistro 250, but Adde's chef -- Joe Sinopoli -- is still in the kitchen, cooking up the same pommes frites that captured my heart, stomach and Best Fries award.

DiDi Deli (1560 Kipling Street, Lakewood) was on track for Best Sandwich, but when I dropped in for a pre-Best Of Korean BBQ beef sandwich, it wasn't remotely close to the version that had come out of the kitchen when I reviewed the place ("Deli Dally," October 10, 2002). Fortunately, the Korean menu offerings are as good as ever, earning DiDi the prize for Best Korean in a Place You'd Never Expect.

Opus (2575 West Main Street, Littleton) was a dead lock for Best Starters -- until chef Michael Long took the ahi tuna PB&J off the menu. Without an equally brilliant appetizer, it would have been very tough for anyone to knock Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue) off the top of the heap, what with Clair's perfect plateau de fruits de mer and antipasti plates. But Opus did pick up awards for Best Sauté Crew and Best Dinner Destination for Impressing the Folks.

After reviewing Trinity Grille (1801 Broadway) last fall ("Business Class," September 19, 2002), I thought it might be a good pick for Best Power Lunch; on subsequent visits to the downtown steak and seafood joint, though, I found that the wattage had been turned down considerably. Not that there's any lack of customers during the lunch rush (quite the opposite, actually), but for some reason -- perhaps everyone's disappearing 401ks -- Trinity doesn't have the subliminal buzz of lives being made and deals being broken that you get on a good day at Panzano (909 17th Street).

The spinach pie at Vita Bella (1627 Coalton Road, Superior) won that eatery the award for Best Pizza -- Sicilian Style. It was also up for Best Strip-Mall Italian, until we remembered that Venice (5121 South Yosemite, Greenwood Village), the out-and-out Best Italian Restaurant, is also located in a strip mall. Damn those city planners! By the way, Venice's second location, at 5946 South Holly Street, is now up and running. Sam's No. 3 (2580 South Havana Street, Aurora), which snagged prizes this year for Best Comfort Food and Best Breakfast Burrito, is drawing downtown crowds to a second Sam's at 1500 Curtis Street, which opened a month ago in the establishment's original home (it's a long story, and you can read about it in the February 6 Bite Me). Likewise, Kathy and Bill's Diner (1050 South Havana Street, Aurora), which won Best Cheap Breakfast and Best Meatloaf awards -- has opened another location, at 595 South Clinton Street.

But there's no more Roy's Cherry Creek. In March the Roy's chain abandoned its link in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, which had been closed for a month while mall management worked on some sewer problems at this cursed space, previously home to Black Hawk Steakhouse and then a reincarnation of the Rattlesnake Grill. Roy's was all set to get Best Sushi -- New School, in recognition of the brave path being taken by owner Roy Yamaguchi's cousin, Amy Yamaguchi, who was doing really interesting things with raw fish and rice, combining her classical sushi training with anti-establishment, punk-rock flair. But the sewer snafu was apparently the final straw in a load of problems Roy's had with the mall, so the owners decided to get out while the getting was not so good.

But even with all of this trouble at Roy's (including the as-yet-unsettled matter of the restaurant's lease on the space), now-former head chef Bill Trevino made it to his station at the "Chefs Up Front" benefit for Operation Front Line at the Colorado Convention Center on Academy Awards night. And you know what? That's a classy move from a guy who could have just packed up his knife roll and split town. Trevino said he would do something; he stuck to his word, and he deserves credit for it. Nice job, Bill. Hope you get a new one.

Frankly, I won't miss anything at Roy's other than the sushi. The kitchen had timing and quality issues, and lots of tinkering hadn't helped. Dinner at Roy's simply wasn't competitive with other options in Denver's new, high-end restaurant market.

Denver's new high-end market, you ask? Hell, yes. Slow economy or no, this past year has seen a mess of flashy openings that are changing the industry's perception of Denver as nothing more than a meat-and-potatoes Midwest cowtown. As a matter of fact, in one of those developments that considerably brightens my outlook on the food-service biz as a whole, over the past twelve months Denver has gained more independently owned joints of both the glam and grunge variety than it has chain installations. This is huge. Epic, even. And it certainly supports the theory that the Mile High City is in the throes of a dining renaissance. Despite the downturn, restaurants like Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street), Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), Indigo (250 Josephine Street), Intrigue (275 South Logan Street), Vega (410 East Seventh Avenue), Lola (1469 South Pearl Street), Opus and Clair de Lune are surviving -- and, in some cases, thriving. I've talked to quite a few industry pros in town -- ladies and gentlemen with out-of-town sources that reach higher up the fiscal food chain than mine do -- and they all say that Denver is starting to make a name for itself as a real food town, one that welcomes new, daring cuisine.

There's money out there just waiting for a place to land, and with rents in New York, L.A. and San Francisco locking out all but the biggest investors and Las Vegas already at some kind of critical mass, people are looking for the Next Big Thing. Aspen is too exclusive, Park City a tiny gold mine for boutique operators, but overexposed. Chicago? Beaten-down industry guys have been migrating to the Windy City for years and trying to make a go of it, with mixed results.

So Denver could be the next dining-scene darling -- but we're not yet ready for the attention. Critical pieces of infrastructure -- such as year-round access to fresh produce and herbs, a larger base of local suppliers and more respect (meaning better product) from national distributors -- are missing. But if doing my rounds for Best of Denver 2003 taught me anything, it's that this city has the potential for even greater things. We've got the space, the desire and the talent. We've caught the eye of industry movers and shakers on both coasts (you can credit Richard Sandoval's Tamayo, at 1400 Larimer Street, for some of that) and, most important, we've proven that there are diners here hungry for the best any kitchen has to offer. Denver has embraced the high-end Mexican wave, sees nothing weird about choosing sushi for lunch on Wednesday rather than hitting the drive-thru, seems to be welcoming the return of both country and colonial French cuisine, and handles the experimental-fusion creations of arrogant young chefs testing their mettle with the proper amount of respect and good humor. Yeah, times are tough, and we've lost a few big names (Papillon, Sacre Bleu and contender Kevin Taylor's Dandelion and Nicois), but even in this soft economy, there are houses around town doing solid numbers on Tuesday nights -- and some that can boast two-hour waits on the weekends.

All in all, it's a great time to be a food writer here. And as soon as I recover from my Best Of exertions -- or simply can look at a taco or nori roll or bloody-rare over-the-top double bar burger without wincing in fear and nausea (I did eat an awful lot of the damn things; just ask the bean counters who handle my expenses) -- I'm looking forward to whatever the next year may bring.

And on a personal note: Yes, the responses are already pouring in. People who love my Best of Denver picks, people who hate my picks, people convinced that I'm taking bribes -- calls, letters and e-mails from everywhere, all from people who take this very, very seriously.

On the one hand, that's good, because we're talking about food, and food is important to us. Everybody has their favorite joints, favorite dishes, favorite out-of-the-way places for chile and duck confit.

But on the other hand, it's just food we're talking about, people. Just food, and the opinions of those of us here at Bite Me World HQ. Did we eat at every single restaurant in the greater Denver area? Of course not. There are thousands of restaurants out there, and while we visited a lot of them, ate a staggering amount of food and threw out a whole lot more, I still feel like we only scratched the surface of what's available in this town. The bad news? I'm sure we missed some gems. The good news? There's always next year.

In the meantime, you can quibble with me in person -- or at least over the air -- from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 5, when I'll be a guest on the Gabby Gourmet Show, KHOW/630-AM.


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