Ten days ago, my faithful staff here at Bite Me HQ and I were giving the Best of Denver 2004 its final tuneup, a last polish before sending it out into the world. There were still eleventh-hour additions and subtractions being made -- awards sneaking in under the wire, awards being yanked from the suddenly undeserving. And then, the blessed quiet. The abrupt realization that it was done, fini, over and out. Months of eating six days a week, sometimes twice a day, everywhere from Caro's Corner to Clair de Lune, eating everything from steaks to tacos, from sea urchin to crème brûlée -- done, just like that. It was a relief. It was also oddly disconcerting. Because with the Best of Denver finished, there was only one question left to ask: What next?
Well, Mao for starters. The restaurant that I first talked about in this column on January 8 finally gets its proper treatment -- half confused love letter, half kick in the ass -- on page 65. But even sitting at Mao on official reviewing duty two weeks ago, I couldn't escape those nagging worries about Best Of. The "who did we miss" and "what were we thinking" neuroses that are par for the course when you're condensing thousands of restaurants into a tight roster of a hundred or so that do at least one thing really, extraordinarily well.
And I had those nagging worries even before the letters started arriving from pissed-off locals accusing me of blindness, bias or just plain stupidity, before I'd seen the "How could you have forgotten..." e-mails or taken my first call from some little mom-and-pop outfit surprised that we'd even noticed its wonderful tamales, great burgers or what have you.
By the time the Best of Denver was on the press, I was already hunched in my favorite booth at Breakfast King, trying to write about my meals at Mao but really just thinking about how much weight I'd put on during this year's exertions (one full pants size, at least) and second-guessing every award I'd made. So I finally set Mao aside and pawed through the twelve-pocket accordion folder full of notes and menus, Post-Its, cryptic messages from myself to myself scrawled on cocktail napkins and the backs of credit-card slips, that represent the culmination of this year's research. And I vowed that no matter what the temperature, I'd go home that night, light a fire and burn it all.
But in the meantime, the notes brought a little trip-down-memory-lane perspective to the project. Like why didn't Solera make this year's list? I love Solera -- love the food, love the space, love the wine and think Goose Sorenson is a great cook -- and yet...nothing. Solera won Best Place to Eat on Colfax last year, and had we given out that award this year, Solera would have gotten it again. But Best Restaurant on Colfax isn't exactly a gotta-do category like Best French, and Solera didn't give me a reason to repeat it this year. Nor did it rise to new heights that would have inspired me to honor it in a new category. Goose has a great menu -- has always had great menus -- but I thought Ian Kleinman's at Indigo was better. Solera has a great wine list, and Brian Klinginsmith is an excellent and well-educated sommelier, but in that category, it's up against Adega and, well, come on. Bill Murray was fantastic in Lost in Translation, but the Oscar went to Sean Penn this year. Didn't mean Billy sucked, just meant he was up against someone pretty much unbeatable. Solera is consistently one of my top five overall favorite restaurants in the city, and that's an achievement in itself -- but Best Of awards go to the best, so there you go.
Another conspicuous absence: Opal. Last year's long-shot winner for Best New Restaurant (beating Adega, Clair de Lune and a host of strong comers) dropped like it had put its jet-pack on upside down with the departure of its chef, Duy Pham, about the time the plaque went up on the wall. After a series of complaints from diners who'd gone there for a fabulous dinner on my recommendation, after I'd gone back myself and been disappointed by lackluster food and service that was schizophrenic at best and sometimes just plain awful, I wanted nothing so much as to sneak in and yank that award off the wall. This year, Opal got nothing.
City Grille? Not on the list for 2004. It's a good spot for lunch, a nice place for drinks after work, a fine address for seeing elected officials getting into slap fights over whose turn it is to pick up the tab, but I didn't see it as the best of anything this time. Taquería Patzcuaro? Love it for the snaps of the Mexican revolutionaries on the walls, used to love it for the cheek tacos, but after two in a row came out spongy, gooey and gross, I need to find a new place to get my fix. Jus' Cookin's was in the can for Best Fried Chicken, but then I found out the owners are about to close their Aurora restaurant and move the operation to Lakewood (to the corner of Eighth and Simms), so in slid Pierre's Supper Club.
And even after all the back-and-forth in this space over Little Ollie's -- which I don't like -- Cherry Creek's sesame-chicken mecca still got an award for its dumplings. Why? Because it makes the best Chinese dumplings in the city. If nothing else, this should prove that I don't hold grudges: Best is best. Same goes for Hapa Sushi: Didn't like 'em and probably never will, but for a sushi rookie, it's the best destination in town.
I love Mizuna, which was mentioned only in one award -- Best Second Act -- but to me, that's an important honor. Too many chefs these days pack it in with the opening of their second houses. They turn to the dark side, the path of the clipboard-checking sellout. But Frank Bonanno didn't do that. Both of his places are great -- in fact, Luca d'Italia won Best Italian Restaurant -- made all the greater because Frank works at both. And Sean Kelly winning Best Chef means that still (and maybe always), Clair de Lune has the best kitchen in Denver. Dinner at Clair is an event. One you'll remember. One you'll never want to end.
Clair de Lune, Luca d'Italia and Mizuna are all locally owned. But corporate restaurants can do right, too -- and it would be wrong to ignore the best of them. The Capital Grille cleaned up with something like 37 awards, simply because the steakhouse is so amazing. Chipotle -- yes, another chain, although at least a local one -- won its millionth Best Burrito award because it deserves it, because it seems genetically incapable of ever just being good enough.
Kabul Kabob -- the exact opposite of a chain restaurant -- would've won two dozen Bests, one for each item on its menu, if reading that kind of thing wouldn't have gotten awfully repetitive. As it was, Kabul won three, and giving it Best New Unexpected Restaurant was my way of saying that it was a strong contender for Best New Restaurant honors. But it had Brasserie Rouge to contend with in that category, and that restaurant's another unbeatable addition to the dining scene.
Finally, the disclaimer. Did I eat at every restaurant in the city? Of course not. Did we snub your favorite taquería/sushi bar/burger joint? Probably. And was this year's list totally subjective and situational? Without a doubt. This is food we're talking about here, not quadratic equations. There are no absolutes. We love what we love and we hate what we hate, and we do what we can with everything in between. If you really feel that we slighted one of your faves or heaped undue honor on some undeserving shmoo this year, let me know. It's firstname.lastname@example.org, folks. Don't be shy. The best thing about Best of Denver is that twelve months from now, we'll be doing it all over again.
And after that bonfire, the slate's wiped clean.
Leftovers: Even as we were laboring over the rag-ends of the Best of Denver, this city's restaurant scene continued to evolve. Next week, Table 6 will finally open at 609 Corona Street. After months of hassles with liquor licensing in the former home of the Beehive, the Adega partners have backed off from their ownership position and turned both front- and back-of-the-house operations over to veteran Adega staffers Aaron Whitcomb (formerly chef Bryan Moscatello's sous chef) and Aaron Foreman (once Adega's bar manager). They're looking at a soft opening on April 6, with dinner service seven nights a week and a standard beer-and-wine license to call their own.
"These are our boys," Adega partner Chris Farnum says of Whitcomb and Foreman. "They're still part of the family. We're always there to help them out with any questions, any problems, any consulting they might need."
Chef Whitcomb is calling the place "an innovative American bistro."
"I don't want to say it's going to be comfort food," Moscatello adds, "but it's going to be more comfortable. Like American-bistro style. They'll be using more peasant cuts, focusing more on technique. Aaron and I came up with the items we knew we wanted to be there together. The menu will have a $21, $22 top while still being creative."
That menu includes a smoked-mussel charlotte with Smithfield ham, rocket and lemon; an oyster Cobb salad; and braised rabbit with crème-fraîche ravioli and oyster mushrooms -- dishes somewhat similar in style to what people are used to at Adega, but different at the same time. And with Whitcomb in charge of the kitchen at Table 6, Matt Ramsbottom is stepping in to run Adega's line. Moscatello's going to need the help: Mirepoix is scheduled to open in the new Cherry Creek Marriott on June 1, and Moscatello is under contract to do breakfasts, lunches, dinners and room service at that restaurant while still keeping things going at Adega.
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"Sundays, I won't work," he says. "But every other waking hour, I'll be at either Mirepoix or Adega."
Two days after Table 6 debuts, the Tom Tom Room is scheduled to open in the spot at 1432 Market Street that was formerly home to Tommy Tsunami's Pacific Diner. Although sushi will continue to be an offering, Tom Tom will bring something new to the table, too: robata. This oh-so-Japanese method of cooking and serving involves the preparation of skewered marinated meats and veggies over blazing-hot charcoal grills, followed by family-style service, whereby platters of the stuff are whisked hot off the grill and set in the middle of the table, with dipping sauces, for everyone to share. It's like Japanese fondue -- very interactive and flashy. Think of a fully Asian Vesta Dipping Grill. Better yet, check it out for yourself and see what two American guys -- Phil Schoen as exec with Matt Smith as his sous -- are doing to bring a different taste of the mysterious East to the back side of Larimer Square.
A good brunch is hard to find in this town, but as of April 3, Denver will have a new option for midday meals on Saturday and Sunday. Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge, at 930 Lincoln Street, will be open early on those days -- from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to be precise -- for a $13.95 all-you-can-eat urban brunch that includes piano jazz. The $5 Absolut Bloody Mary bar is extra, but worth every penny.
Finally, on Sunday, April 4, the Lancer Lounge, 233 East Seventh Avenue, will throw a "Breakfast Bash Benefit for Jose," where ten bucks at the door gets you bacon and eggs, mimosas, screwdrivers and the chance to lay down some green to help with medical expenses for a popular waiter at the nearby Benny's Restaurante y Tequila Bar who was recently diagnosed with cancer. For all the good they do, waiters don't (generally) get health insurance, so let's step up and give the guy a hand.