I consider it one of the great fortunes of my life that, for as long as I have been my own man, I have never had a normal year -- one that could be anticipated, seen through end to end, navigated on an even keel. All of my years have been strange and stormy, filled with unexpected, terrible, wonderful adventures, midnight phone calls from unknown area codes, death threats, fistfights, big loves, petty hatreds and fun. I have the restaurant industry and all of its vicissitudes to thank for this. For seventeen years now, my life has been governed by its ups and downs. I've lived according to its weird rhythms of punk rock and the seasons. My sleep schedule is tuned to the post-midnight vibe of vile debauchery that I so enjoyed while making my living with the knife, and if these days I don't debauch quite as well (or recover quite as quickly) as I did in years past, I still find it difficult to go to bed while the moon is up. I feel for the guys on the line when the temperatures soar, miss desperately the warm, humid comfort of a bakery when there's frost on the grass.
Now that I'm a restaurant critic, my life continues to be bordered and defined by food -- by meals, more or less.
For the past three years, I've marked this gimpy week between Christmas and New Year's (a week when cooks, chefs and restaurateurs are concerned with nothing so much as prep and recovery from back-to-back holidays and with me not at all) by putting the final wrap on a year in The Life. It's an efficacious ritual for ending the year, I think, a chance to look back fondly and create fantasy dinner parties thrown in my mind by my favorite staffs, or to take one last, solo jaunt through my favorite houses of the year.
These past twelve months have been strange ones for the restaurant business in Denver. Births and deaths, battles and reconciliation, profit and loss -- the dining scene has seen them all. On the one hand, great restaurants have been shuttered and good ones have gone bad; villains have grown rich and decent folk have lost their shirts. But on the other, the industry is healthier now than it has been for some time. There are young turks on the rise doing fine work, and old dogs contemplating new tricks.
This has been the year of North; of Rioja and the resurrection of Larimer Square; of Highland and Belmar; of the reinvention of Jim Sullivan, the reinterpretations of Marco Colantonio and the rediscovery of Denver by all those glossy-press fuckers in their Ugg boots and ski parkas who came here to taste our balls and bison and stumbled on a restaurant scene in the throes of a vigorous recovery, propelled by scores of white-jackets who've finally concluded that they don't need the validation of the New York or California cognoscenti to complete them, anyway, and one diminutive Mick restaurant critic giving the one-finger salute to those coastal types as their planes depart from DIA, returning the interlopers to whatever foul rag spawned 'em.
It's been a year of great eating. But I hold too tight to love affairs, allow too many remembrances of past sweetness to color my view of the present. To cleanse my palate for the new year -- as The boss advises Rob Gordon in High Fidelity -- it's time to say goodbye and good luck to my top five of 2005. Five restaurants, five courses, one fantastic meal.
There's a table at Nine75 (975 Lincoln Street) that's been named after me. It is, of course, the worst table in the house -- directly across from the kitchen door, in a hallway running between the front dining room and the bar/lounge in the back -- and anyone willing to sit there gets a slice of meatloaf (my least favorite Nine75 offering) on the house.
I want to begin this year's grand tour at the Jason Sheehan table, sliding in early and unnoticed and alone, ahead of the Golden Triangle hipsterati and beautiful people who are finally flocking here, snagging an obscene 5:30 reservation so that I might eat among the early birds unmolested and sample the best of Troy Guard's cockeyed, retro brilliance. I'll start with the ceviche shooters, shot glasses full of fish set proudly atop dishes of neon-lit ice. Then a long plate of deep-fried wonton tuna tacos and the house's seafood ravioli washed in cream sauce -- one of the best dishes I've had not just this year, but ever.
Besides the Jason Sheehan table, there's another reason that Nine75 is a good spot to embark on my culinary retrospective. When I reviewed the restaurant four months ago ("Magic Time," August 25), I was disappointed that it was not as close to perfect as it could have been and should have been and wanted very badly to be. It was a restaurant walking a thin line between cool, à la minute disaffection with its fancied-up comfort foods, slick decor and Breakfast Club soundtrack, and outright parody. I thought Deluxe down on South Broadway had pulled off the same gimmick better and with more historical pedigree, since chef/owner Dylan Moore had actually been in California for the beginnings of the '80s-style cuisine that he was mimicking. Rioja, in Larimer Square, had a much cooler look and location; even the venerable 240 Union served its lobster corndogs and shredded-duck cigars with a sense of humor that seemed lacking on Lincoln Street.
But for whatever reason, Nine75 entranced me, kept drawing me back. I've watched it evolve over the past few months, steady itself, find the crowd it was looking for and an equipoise that's stopped it from straying too far over that line into caricature. The floor is doing three turns a night, two sibling restaurants are coming in the new year, and what was once just good here is now even better. Nine75 is clearly on its way -- as I will be after I polish off my appetizer course.
Next stop: Frasca (1738 Pearl Street in Boulder) for antipasti. Because this is my fantasy, I need no reservations, and though I could have any table in the house, I'll still take my seat at the bar, because that's where I always have the most fun. Here I will get gently smashed on tajuts of red wine from countries I've never visited and eat prosciutto and speck and spiced almonds and olives and grissini breadsticks dipped in red-pepper jelly and rounds of sheep's-milk frico tuiles. I've spent hours slouched at Frasca's bar, drinking my way through Bobby Stuckey's wine list, eating my way through chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's menus, talking with both of them on the phone about the accolades that keep coming to their restaurant, including my rave review ("Fantasy Land," April 7). I could stay at Frasca all night -- it's clearly the best restaurant in Colorado, and I hesitate to say it's the best in the country only because I have not (yet) eaten at every great restaurant in the United States -- but there are other very good restaurants still calling me.
So it's back to Denver for my first main course: chef Patrick Dupays's wonderful cassoulet at Z Cuisine (2239 West 30th Avenue). Under the candlelight and in a tiny room crowded with strangers who've all come here like pilgrims after a true taste of the Left Bank, I will savor a glass of raw, rough, sweet Beaujolais and ease into the peasant's winter stew, savoring the way Dupays crafts his flavors, leaving each strong ingredient to stand on its own. I will also sneak a second antipasti, digging into the house assiette de campagnard because the plate reminds me of good Christmases, with all sorts of hidden surprises (a few unexpected olives, slices of lovely radish, terrines and pâtés that rival those done by the best garde-manger men I've ever known) and because this is a fantasy meal, remember? I don't have to worry about my waistline or the way Dupays's charcuterie will one day be the fatty death of me.
My best nights at Z have always been late ones, so I will take my time here. Next year, this area of Highland -- with gentrification under way and more liquor licenses pending -- will be almost unrecognizable, and I'll want to hang on to my window seat and drink in the peace and quiet of this dead-end street, feel the bulk of the silent church dominating the sky outside, try to salt away all the reasons why I love this place so much. It's much more than just the food. It's the space, the people, the chalkboard menus and the iron gate over the door. It's my dream of Paris -- or was my dream, on the first night I found myself there ("Z Whiz," November 10) -- and I want to remember it just the way it was.
Then it's down the hill to The 9th Door (1808 Blake Street). At this point, I will be stuffed, drunk and looking for a place to lie down -- and conveniently, the 9th Door has a bed in the middle of the dining room. This trick has been tried before in locales significantly more sexy than Blake Street (and usually to ridiculously bad effect), but here it actually works -- mostly because of its oddity, but also because after dark, space at the 9th is at a premium, and on a good night, you could cram six or eight people onto that bed, easy.
The 9th Door is also a good pick as my night starts winding toward its bloated conclusion, because everything served by the kitchen (once under the command of Michel Wahaltere, now handled by his ex-sous) comes in small portions on small plates with small prices -- a true tapas restaurant in a city abso-fucking-lutely over-goddamn-run with quote-unquote "small plates" menus that barely get the spirit of tapas right, let alone the style.
But the 9th Door does. Pimientos del piquillo rellenos, fried artichoke hearts with lemon aioli, gambas al ajillo tasting of garlic-shot chiles, followed by serrano and membrillo and almonds, fried balls of goat cheese drizzled in honey, and ensaladilla like Moorish potato salad, all washed down with glasses of tinta de verona --cheap red wine and orange Fanta -- because if nothing else, the Spanish know how to have a good time, and nothing says fun like drinking a half-gallon of fizzy pop-skull too fast and then barfing in an alley ("Love and Death," July 7).
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Finally, I will arrive at my last stop. On my dream tour of the city, Cafe Star (3201 East Colfax Avenue) has stayed open late just for me. And while I would be more than happy, again, to eat everything on chef Rebecca Weitzman's beautifully controlled and oddly understated menu of New American comfort food ("Shine On," September 22), this time I'm after just two things: the best chocolate pots de crème I have ever had in my life and one single glass of Prosecco bubbly with which to welcome in the New Year. It is here that I will have my chocolate and my champagne and say my last goodbyes to the masters' class of '05.
I've lingered over-long in these rooms already, and the chefs don't need the likes of me telling them how good they are. They can take care of themselves, as well as everyone else who stops by in the new year. So after saluting the five restaurants that made 2005 such a year to remember, I'll start making a list of all the places that deserve more attention in 2006.
But first, to all of you out there in Hotcakesland, a very merry whatever and a Happy New Year. Keep the faith, keep it local and please, don't forget to tip your waitress.