The Denver dining scene in 1999 continued to be as confused as a salmon filet swimming in blueberry sauce. Exactly what are we going for here -- and where do we think we're going?
Ingredients from around the world are arriving faster than chefs can look them up in a dictionary to find out how to pronounce them, let alone incorporate them -- did everyone just discover harissa last week? -- and the notion of service has gone the way of the eight-track. Even as the chains come marchin' in, the city struggles with its culinary identity. Three primary trends seem to be emerging: groovy spaces with textured, faux-painted walls that serve contemporary food involving at least seven major ingredients (all of which are listed on the menu); concept eateries based out of either Texas or California that offer mediocre dishes in an atmosphere of unintended hilarity; and places owned by Kevin Taylor.
Still, as I looked back over a year's worth of meals, dozens of dishes stood out as noteworthy not just for Denver, but for any restaurant, anywhere. I've picked the very best of them to come up with the following dream meal, one fit for the last supper of the millennium.
100 East Ninth Avenue
The current fave see-and-be-seen scene, the year-old Radex was Radek Cerny's foray into more casual, affordable dining. And while the food here is less focused than at his Papillon in Cherry Creek, that's only because Cerny lets the staff at Radex have more fun. Some dishes, however, remain signature Radek, lubed with the deeply flavored, intensely rich sauces that are his forte. The starter shrimp cake on a pool of balsamic-laced beurre blanc is a prime example: a fat bundle of juicy crustaceans blended with corn, cream and Japanese breadcrumbs -- they're sturdier than the domestic kind -- then fried until golden and napped with an addictive concoction.
Papa J's Italian Restaurant and Lounge
7510 Sheridan Boulevard, Westminster
During this imaginary meal, there's time -- and courses -- enough for plenty of decadence, so let's break for something downhome and healthy. Papa J's minestrone is all that and more. The classic Italian joint, which has been serving up a killer red sauce since 1976, is known for its meatballs as well as for the caricatures of celebrities on the walls -- they're drawn by Papa J himself. But the minestrone is the real work of art here: a vegetable-packed comfort food that uses cauliflower, celery, carrots, tomatoes, pasta (both macaroni and spaghetti noodles) and several kinds of beans to augment the delicious tomato-based broth. Soak up the last drops with a slice of Papa's old-fashioned spongy Italian bread -- each slice comes individually wrapped.
The Painted Bench
400 East 20th Avenue
As any lobster lover knows, one false step in cooking this crustacean and the once-succulent flesh comes out as dry as the shell around it. But Steve Rohs, chef/part-owner of the charming Painted Bench, is not only willing to take risks in the kitchen, he has the skill to pull off impossibly delicious things. His lobster salad, for example. While his brother, Bill, mans the front of the house, Steve pairs tender lobster meat with Israeli couscous, roasted corn and super-sweet vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, then ties everything together with a rich, lobster-based aioli. Since he came up with this fabulous combination on a whim, when he had no crab for a salad but lots of lobsters lying around, it's not always on the menu. So when it's available, order the entree portion. More of this is a very good thing.
815 17th Street
What's old is new again at Zenith, the restaurant (now reincarnated) that made Kevin Taylor a household name over a decade ago. When Taylor's Brasserie Z failed to find its niche, he pretty much turned the attractive space over to Sean Yontz, his cooking colleague for the past nine years who's now a managing partner at Zenith. Working together, Taylor and Yontz have reformulated some old Zenith favorites, elevating them a few notches higher. For example, there's the lobster ravioli, a dish so good it deserves its own twelve-step program. Satiny pillows of pasta arrive filled with soft-as-buttah lobster meat and drenched in a champagne-spiked butter sauce so rich it could buy the Pepsi Center. And while you enjoy this marvel in an atmosphere meant to evoke the lustier side of life, people who actually could buy the Pepsi Center are probably eating in the power-charged red room to the side.
3611 Navajo Street
At Cafe Brazil, a casual, festively colored storefront restaurant in northwest Denver, seafood is the Rio thing. And the very best of Cafe Brazil's many seafood-based dishes is the pernambuco, six huge sea scallops -- they look like Hacky Sack balls -- sautéed in coconut milk, cooked until barely done and enhanced with, but not overpowered by, Kaffir lime leaves, shallots and garlic. While her husband, Tony, acts as consummate host, chef/owner Marla Maria Zarlenga anchors the scallops on a mound of impeccably cooked, herb-infused rice, then rings the plate with a mélange of steamed and sautéed vegetables. One bite, and you're in the swim.
2390 South Downing Street
Canino's has been catering to meat, pasta and bread lovers (don't miss the homemade rolls smeared with parsley-flecked Gorgonzola butter) since 1954, serving fabulous food in an atmosphere as friendly as that of an Italian wedding. And its veal saltimbocca not only meats, but exceeds, expectations: Inexplicably tender, plush, velvety "scallops" of young calf, layered with prosciutto (the real stuff, not some deli-ham substitute), provolone and fresh spinach, are heated together until the assorted components fuse into one heavenly mess. It comes with the only side that makes sense -- a pile of al dente spaghetti coated in a simple, sweet sauce made from melted-down fresh tomatoes.
330 East Sixth Avenue
Spinach may be good for you, but at Little India's, it tastes good, too. While this simple but classy spot is adept at many of the traditional dishes of India, its saag paneer is out of this world. Fresh spinach enriched with cream and flavored with nutmeg and teeny bits of onion is cooked until it turns to mush, almost Deep South-style. But the rest of the dish is pure Punjab, with large chunks of housemade cheese (the paneer) adding further richness and something substantial to sink your teeth into. Otherwise, it's all goo, glorious goo.
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609 Corona Street
The Beehive's panna cotta is the perfect finale to any evening. An Italian custard, panna cotta is usually dense and can be heavy. But in the skillful hands of chef/part-owner Janice Henning -- who moved here from San Francisco with her husband and partner, Tim Elenteny, to open this groovy, busy-as-a-you-know-what space -- the dessert becomes a sinfully rich and satiny-textured marvel, smooth and creamy, with a few fresh, fresh blackberries set on top to ooze their juices into the mix. Despite all of its overwhelming sensory qualities, this dessert is still so light, you can order a second.
And with that, 1999 finally gets its just desserts.