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Dream On

Sacre Bleu s the spot for all salads.
Q Crutchfield

A hungry visitor from another city -- hell, a hungry visitor from another planet -- dropping into Denver would recognize in a heartbeat that we're a little short on exciting cuisine right now. The few interesting restaurants we have are often doing exactly what the other interesting restaurants are doing (if everyone would please stop serving calamari for a couple of weeks, squid sphincters everywhere could relax), and, ironically, when an innovative eatery does come along, we fail to support it.

This past year, I ate enough truffle-oil-infused, goat-cheese-stuffed, ahi-tuna-packed, butternut-squashy spring-roll-wrapped soufflés to choke the liver of a foie gras-producing goose, and 2001 doesn't seem to hold much promise of improving the situation. The two dominant dining trends in Denver will only become more dominant next year. A slew of national outfits are slated to join the chain gang already operating in town, squeezing local dollars from independently owned eateries. And the labor shortage will only intensify, which means that you'll spend plenty of time sitting at a table, wondering if your server is planning to wait on you or if he is simply waiting to see if he gets a better offer from that restaurant down the street.

Still, the dining scene has its high points, and as I looked back over some of the excellent dishes I've eaten this past year, it wasn't hard to pull together a dream meal. Of course, what would really make this a dream meal in Denver is if someone actually served the damn thing with reasonable efficiency and a smile -- but I know that's asking way too much. APPETIZER

The Briarwood Inn

1630 Eighth Street, Golden

In a town of increasingly precious restaurants -- in both behavior and price -- the elegant Briarwood Inn is a delightful anachronism. Here you not only receive a full complement of complimentary snack items, but they're artfully and conveniently arranged on a lazy Susan that arrives at the table -- get this -- before you even sit down! The centerpiece of the arrangement is a mound of shaved ice lined with tail-up shrimp, below which sits a rich duck-and-chicken-liver pâté; a savory salad of marinated vegetables; a smooth, port-spiked, spreadable cheddar cheese; a heavenly mousseline of spinach and water chestnuts; and, most appealing of all, a creamy butter made from smoked salmon. Don't concentrate too hard as you slather all this goodness across one of the Briarwood's housemade breads, though: One spin of that lazy Susan and your dining companion could snag the rest of the salmon with a flick of the wrist.

SOUP

Bravo! Ristorante

1150 Court Place

When soup is part of a meal rather than the meal itself, it should be light but still rich, flavorful but not so bold it kills the palate, and interesting enough to warrant saving stomach space for yet another course. The crema d'aglio e cipolle at Bravo! not only fulfills all of those criteria, but it also has a very cool name. And it comes with a soundtrack at this Italian-themed eatery, where the servers take turns giving excellent service and singing beautiful songs. You might burst into song yourself after getting a taste of the lusty soup, a purée of roasted garlic and onion that you'd think would knock your tastebuds into orbit -- and anyone you breathed on later, too -- but instead counts a stunning subtlety as one of its charms. The kitchen adds cream until the toasty garlic taste is muted but still very much a presence, and an herb-packed oil swirled in the center brings a fresh taste to the intriguing concoction. Encore!

SALAD

Sacre Bleu

410 East Seventh Avenue

Although the scene at this tragically hip restaurant sometimes distracts from the food, if you can keep your mind and eyes on your plate, you'll be amply rewarded. Chef Don Gragg's meat-enhanced rocket salad is sexier -- and more addictive -- than anything you'll find in the bar. The innocent-sounding salad is a texture-laden, flavor-packed mixture of fresh, dark arugula with paper-thin shavings of cured foie gras and sweet hazelnuts, an inspired combination that plays bitter and sweet against each other. The foie gras is so rich it melts like butter on the tongue, and the peppery edge of the greens and oily nuttiness of the hazelnuts make for one palate-blowing experience.

PASTA

Restaurant on the Ridge at

MeadowRidge Resort

1 East Meadow Mile, Fraser

Marvin Bronstein, once one of Denver's top toques, is now in charge of the kitchen at Restaurant on the Ridge, and his menus are so tempting that it's often hard to pick just one thing to eat. But if the veal ravioli is available, your decision is made. One of the richest, most decadent entrees ever, this dazzling dish features large rounds of homemade pasta holding in soft, succulent bits of young beef. Draped across each luscious package is a sauce of St. Andre cheese -- a triple-cream delight with a taste and texture reminiscent of butter -- made musky and earthy with plenty of wild mushrooms. And since you'll be enjoying this to-die-for dish in the Ridge's tranquil mountain setting rather than server-strapped Denver, you'll also enjoy superb service.FISH

Roy's of Cherry Creek

3000 East First Avenue

New to Denver's dining scene last year, Roy's is a keeper. This link in a Hawaii-based chain features striking fish dishes that range from plain to fancy, all gorgeously presented. There's blackened rare ahi tuna, macadamia-nut monchong, nori-wrapped seared swordfish, steamed blue-nose snapper, peppercorn-crusted yellowfin tuna and, more than likely, some other fabulous fish you've never even heard of. The innovative sauces are another catch; the monchong, for example, comes swimming in a Kona lobster reduction that tastes like a lobster was boiled down in a vat of butter. Roy's gets its seafood from respected local purveyor Reel Fresh Fish, which means it's all top-quality and absolutely fresh.

MEAT

Manhattan Grill

231 Milwaukee Street

Not every great steakhouse belongs to a national conglomerate of manly places filled with dark wood and run by someone from Texas or Kansas. The Manhattan Grill, a locally owned eatery that opened this year in the old Cherry Creek home of Vartan's Jazz Club, puts out one of the best steaks you'll find in this or any other town. The moist, tender porterhouse, cut from the smallest part of the short loin for an intense beefy flavor and velvety texture, is a 22-ounce meat marvel, seasoned with a little salt, a little pepper and its own juices, and always grilled perfectly to order. Pair it with the Manhattan's namesake cocktail, and prepare to meat your maker.

SIDE DISH

Petra's

2700 East Third Avenue

Side dishes don't need to be elaborate, fussy or involve myriad important ingredients. And if you don't believe me, get a load of Petra's sweet-potato French fries, the sweetest, crunchiest, most satisfying side around. This New Orleans-inspired funhouse takes big sweet potatoes, cuts them into irregularly shaped shards, and then deep-fries them until their insides soften into potato pudding and the outsides caramelize sweeter than brown sugar. A smattering of salt is all that's required to bring up the sweetness even more. At Petra's, the sides take center stage.

DESSERT

Table Mountain Inn Restaurant

1310 Washington Avenue, Golden

Although the French are considered the global experts at making desserts look like something else entirely -- after all, they invented the chocolate truffle, which looks just like a dusty mushroom plucked from the earth -- the Table Mountain Inn Restaurant is beginning to intrude on France's turf. At this Southwestern eatery, the dessert special is a chocolate taco: a chocolate taco-shaped shell filled with thick ganache, adorned with a sauce of intense chocolate and held in place on the plate with a blob of cream-enriched peanut butter. A magnificent sight to behold and a mouthwatering treat for the tongue, this taco looks real and tastes divine. Now if they could just make a chocolate chalupa...

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