All through the run-up to this holiday season, people were asking what I'd be doing for dinner: on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, on New Year's Eve and the day after. They asked expectantly, assuming that I'd be doing something fabulous. Maybe they thought that, as a restaurant critic, I had a secret "in" somewhere, a code word or special phone number that would grant me entrance to some epic shindig where everyone would be dressed to the nines in their best penguin suits and served glasses of Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve and Beluga triple-zero off the bellies of naked virgins. Worse, they may have expected me to be doing something myself -- loading up the thrift-store table in my quiet little suburban apartment with treats and delicacies, serving a long parade of guests only the best from local markets and the finest boutique purveyors.
And sure, maybe I told a few of them that this was exactly what I was doing -- but I lied. The fact is, holidays are usually quiet affairs around the Sheehan household. No grand plans, no parties, nothing but the wife and I, our two cats, and whatever the four of us feel like knocking together at the last minute. I spent more than a dozen years eating my Christmas dinner while standing over a prep table in some trashed kitchen, passing around a bottle of warm Stolichnaya with a gang of grumpy cooks all missing their families, and I saw too many Times Square ball drops on the tiny black-and-white screen of a busboy's portable TV set on top of the dish machine. Cooks -- like bartenders, cops and cabbies -- are generally at work while the rest of the world is out having a good time, but now that I no longer have a kitchen to call home, I find myself craving the easy pleasures: a simple meal, good company, peace and quiet.
Still, all those people asking me what I'd be doing got me thinking about the ultimate holiday dinner party. If I could pick from all of the tables where I'd been seated in 2002, what would I eat? If I could snatch from any kitchen in town an all-star, ass-kicking lineup of gastronomic True Believers, who would I choose?
It's My Party and I'll dine if I want to
Rather than sugarplums, this was what I dreamt of as the season drew nigh: the best of the best from the abbreviated year I spent eating my way through Denver, one meal in nine courses prepared by some of the city's finest. So without further ado, let's kick this party off with...
Mojitos. No party that begins with mojitos can end badly; that's just a fact. And at my party, I want them muddled and mixed up by Franklin Buist, bartender at Cuba Cuba (1173 Delaware Street, 303-605-2822). Prepare one of these high-test highballs wrong, and it'll taste like grass clippings soaked in rubbing alcohol. But do it right (and Buist does it right) and what you get is an instant good time in a glass. Begin with mint-infused rum; add sugar, a splash of lime, some rum and a little rum for flavor; serve generously to eager guests with empty stomachs -- and the next thing you know, people are laughing and talking together, folks not aerodynamically designed for it are doing the limbo, and all of your lampshades are being worn as hats. Keep serving them, and it's almost guaranteed that by the end of the night, some inebriated little scamp will have done something terrible to the family pet or on one of the houseplants.
Which is pretty much why I'd never host this party at my place. My cats can take care of themselves, but I only have one houseplant, and I'm rather fond of it.
Passed hors d'oeuvres. Chef Matt Selby and crew man the town's most ambitious kitchen at Vesta Dipping Grill (1822 Blake Street, 303-296-1920). These guys have balls, and that's one of the best compliments I can give any kitchen -- which is why I'd pick them to lead off my all-star team. In particular, I've got a hankering for Vesta's spiced-potato-and-corn samosas and the beef tenderloin skewers. Yes, I know: The tenderloin skewers are an entree, not an appetizer, but this is my party, so I can do what I want. And what I want is to have those two dishes passed around the room on nice trays, so that their opposing tastes set the tone for the courses to come. The complicated, exotic spice of the samosas, paired with Vesta's smoky yellow curry, will introduce my now-drunken guests to off-the-scale high notes of flavor, while the buttery-soft grilled tenderloin will lay an unshakeable foundation on which to build.
Like an acid-fueled jazz composition, any great meal should begin with boundaries: yin and yang; high, shrieking sax over thumping bass; the sweet, razoring bite of yellow curry above the thick solidity of grilled meat. It should begin with an introduction of extremes, leaving a broad space between that's just begging to be filled. It's in these juxtapositions that Vesta truly excels.
Plated appetizers. After such a start, it's going to take a lot to coax people into sitting down and behaving in a civilized manner, but Michael Long, chef at Opus (2575 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-703-6787), is up to the challenge with his ahi tuna PB&J appetizer. Although it's no longer on his menu (which changes according to some mysterious calendar known only to Long), in its time this dish had everything. It had humor and restraint; it poked fun at the pretentiousness of over-intellectualized cuisine while drawing on food memories from everyone's youth. But mostly, it was just plain good, with flash-seared slabs of prime, purple ahi, sashimi-raw in the center and sandwiched between thin, soft rounds of bread, stinging green wasabe jelly and a sweet peanut butter reminiscent of both a Thai satay sauce and that sticky jar of chunky Jif tucked away in the back of all of our cupboards. I'd pair this with a fat slab of gravlax as prepared and presented at the former Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street, 303-388-1900, and soon to be just Adde's), baskets of dark rye or pumpernickel from Michael Bortz at the Paradise Bakery and Cafe (105 East Seventh Avenue, 303-832-6300), and an expenses-be-damned wine list decided on by dueling sommeliers Karin Lawler of Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue, 303-831-1992) and Ken Fredrickson, formerly of Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street, 303-534-2222). Champagne corks at ten paces, winner picks the first bottle...
Soup course. By now, my guests have been liquored up on mojitos, slapped around by the competing tastes of Vesta's contrasting appetizers and dazzled by the complexity of Long's tuna, so this is the time to take things down a notch. It's time for comfort food, for something familiar and pacifying. For this course, I choose my mom's cream of broccoli soup. Granted, I'm breaking the rules by bringing in an out-of-town ringer (Mom being back in New York and all), but to me, a holiday isn't a holiday without it. Anyone who hasn't tried a bowl of this deadly rich, cream-intensive, delicately soft soup has no idea of how wonderful and sublime a simple soup can be. On the side, warm boule loaves fresh from Paradise Bakery's cooling racks, and a sharp, crisp white chosen by whoever won the champagne-cork duel.
Second (fish) course. The meal is going swimmingly by the time the next dishes appear: plateau de fruits de mer à la Sean Kelly of Clair de Lune and the mint-and-ginger tilapia served at Ocean City (1098 South Federal Boulevard, 303-936-1000). Kelly knows how to treat seafood, setting out chilled Littleneck clams and Malpeque oysters like tiny treasure boxes on a bed of crushed ice, their liquor carefully preserved, adding huge shrimp boiled in court bouillon, served cold, and lobsters split down the spine. Mixing cold with hot but staying true to the exquisite simplicity with which all seafood should be prepared, the tilapia (a mid-sized white fish, the Honda Civic of the sea) arrives steaming, split jaw to tail, lying in a shallow pool of warm, spicy soy sauce and topped with fresh mint leaves and slivers of ginger root. Polite company will pick daintily at the fish with their forks; I will go after it with my fingers.
Intermezzo. A sorbet course next, something to cleanse the palate. The Iceman Cometh, which provides sorbets to some of the best houses in town, gets the nod here for doing terribly dangerous and explosive things with fruit that should probably be illegal -- or at least carry a warning label for those with weak hearts. One small dish for each guest is enough -- any more would be too much -- and then, finally, it's time for...
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SHOW ME HOW
Main (meat) course. What to choose -- Vesta's seared duck breast, or the aged Muscovy duck at Clair de Lune? Michael Long's goat-cheese-crusted lamb tenderloin? Or maybe the simple, spice-rubbed chicken at 1515 (1515 Market Street, 303-571-0011)? When it comes time for the main course, I'll sit back, close my eyes and let the chefs do what they will. Give me Sean Kelly on the line, backed by Olav Peterson (chef at 1515) and Ben Alandt (formerly Peterson's sous chef, now working under Ian Kleinman at the new Indigo), with Michael Long as sous chef, Matt Selby as saucier, the grill team from Vesta feeding the flames, the crew of Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue, 303-832-4778) manning the garde manger station, and Frank Bonnano (chef/partner at Mizuna) keeping everyone honest. I have no doubt something wonderful will emerge. I trust all of these guys -- trust their judgment, their skills and their commitment to putting the art of cooking above the artifice of being chefs -- and wouldn't dream of telling them what to make when they're in their element. In blissful, purposeful ignorance of that old rule about too many cooks spoiling the sauce, I will just wait, wonder and gratefully devour whatever they come up with.
Fourth course. Because we are civilized people, we eat our salads last. At this party, the salads are baby spinach and bittersweet caramelized red onions topped with a warm, earthy bit of Haystack Mountain goat cheese and a dash of smooth, bacon vinaigrette -- a Mizuna creation. If we're lucky, the kitchen might also prepare small plates of crisp, perfect sweetbreads with pancetta, maybe some late-season pears with fig syrup. Frank Bonnano is one of those cooks who don't like to see anyone go away hungry. He knows his food, and his crew likes to show off, but they also have a delicate touch with ingredients that can so easily be ruined by too much fussing. Final courses are for relaxing, for calming down, and the plates that come from Bonnano's kitchen are quiet ones.
Dessert. Dinner is done. The plates have been cleared, the wine glasses taken away, and all that remains is one final course, a sweet finish to the perfect meal. Triana (1039 Pearl Street in Boulder, 303-449-1022) gets the honor of closing the curtain on this party, and with a single dessert: a humble chocolate cupcake, looking so plain and unassuming there on the plate. A little dusting of sugar, a dollop of vanilla ice cream, an artsy swirl of caramel sauce and a smear of macerated (which is just a fancy word for squished up) strawberries -- that's all it is. But stick in your fork and out spurts molten chocolate sauce, like lava from Mount Vesuvius. It touches everything, melting the ice cream, warming the strawberries, mixing with the caramel, until this one plate turns into the most decadent, most indulgent dessert you could possibly imagine. It's a thing of beauty, and the only dish rich, blunt and remarkable enough to end a meal like this.
Happy holidays, everyone, and season's eatings.