I'm looking back at the year from a twelfth-floor suite across from Carnegie Hall, on the quiet side of 57th Street. I've got a bellyful of ridiculously overpriced beer, cheeseburgers and Cuban chicken from the Brooklyn Diner, and have just returned from a nice digestive stroll through the Christmas market in Central Park, where I made the mistake of buying (among other things) a traveler of hot apple cider from a couple of frozen Vietnamese women who ladled the steaming gunk from a highly suspect and disgustingly grimy pot being kept warm over a portable butane burner. I've skipped out on dinner at Le Bernardin, but I have a lunch tomorrow at Bar Americain that I can't miss.
For the first time in a long time, I'm honestly and completely in love with New York City. I don't know when it overtook me — whether love bloomed while I was trying to fight my way upstream through the gawping Times Square crowds, or while I was stuck in Broadway traffic with the racist Maltese cabbie who, when he learned I was living in Denver, couldn't stop talking about how much he hated Mexicans and how everyone in Colorado marries their cousins — but I'm finally hooked deep by this city that I'd long ago given up as just one of those places (like New Orleans or Tampa or all of Texas) that I would suffer only out of absolute necessity and gladly flee the minute necessity allowed.
But still, I'm thinking about Denver. And while Laura fights with the hinky TV in the bedroom and we wait for our delivery of knishes and chocolate cake from the deli around the corner, I start remembering the great meals I've had over the past year, the ones that truly define my contentious love for the Mile High City, have the power to make me miss it even when I'm off having a blast somewhere else, and will, at some later point, finally get me into a car, onto the street, through the tunnel and aimed once more toward Denver and home without regret.
If there's a better spot in the country for your car to break down than South Federal Boulevard on a Friday night, I've never broken down there. I'd had a fairly shitty day and intended to console myself with a fat pork torta from Tacos y Salsas. Driving there, I knew something was going terribly wrong with my car (as evidenced by its awful squealing noises), but still muscled it on because I am a single-minded creature when dinner is on the line and will brook no hijinks from man or machine. By the time I'd chugged into the parking lot, I was more than halfway sure that, once killed, the engine was not going to resurrect easily. And after I'd eaten my torta and paid my bill, I discovered I was right. But AAA was running on a two-hour delay, so I went back into Tacos y Salsas, sat down at the carnival-colored counter, ordered tacos and cold beers, and spent the time eating and watching what has to be the fastest open-line crew in Denver assembling gorditas and cleaning buche, smiling like an idiot because all the annoyance of a dead car meant to me was an excuse for a second dinner at one of the best taquerías in a city full of great taquerías. Had my car died at, say, Tacos D.F., I would've been tempted to just walk home. Outside Los Carboncitos, I would've crashed with friends or hitched a lift out of the city. But at Tacos y Salsas, I was stuck. And very happy.
Another night, in a white-out snowstorm, I drove to the British Bulldog and loved it not just because the food was good, but because of all the places to wash up on a snowblind night in Denver, the Bulldog had to be the most unlikely. Indo-Pakistani-British pub cuisine in a million-year-old address. Fried pickles and pakora, Murphy's-over-Bass black-and-tans, Peshawari chicken, fish fries and fried macaroni and cheese. The place was warm, dark, thinly populated by regulars who'd willingly stranded themselves at the bar, and I sat huddling in a booth with a bunch of friends, all of us trying to drink ourselves warm when we should have been hunkered down at home with hot chocolate and John Denver on the hi-fi. Instead, we ordered another round of fried pickles and watched the snow come down.
On other nights, I made other affirmations over food. My first dinner at Oceanaire reinforced my belief that all life's troubles seem small when considered over a steak made of bacon. Chicken and waffles at the Corner Office, Lucky Charms and whiskey at the Corner Office, pretty much anything at the Corner Office (save the carnitas, which don't even begin to compete in this city full of great taquerías) reminded me of the restorative power of behaving badly in public, of drinking too much and eating too much and comporting yourself in questionable ways. And at Centro Latin Kitchen & Drink-ateria in Boulder, I learned that if you choose to drink yourself into a marginal stupor while making loud sport of the gentle hippies grooving to the twenty-minute upright-bass-and-tambourine solo in the front room, it's handy to find a place close by where you can nap. I chose the carpet stockroom of the import store a couple of doors down. Odds are good that if I tried something like that in New York, I'd wake up in the Tombs with my shoes and wallet missing. In Boulder, no one even noticed.
The farewell dinner at the original Mel's was a night I'll remember forever. Not because of the food (although the food was excellent) or the crowd (although the dinner was certainly well-attended) or the bar pouring champagne like water for anyone ambulatory enough to stick out a glass, or the general naughtiness in all the alleys and bathrooms, but because of the kitchen. During a break in service, I poked my nose in and saw a half-dozen of Denver's best chefs — including Frank Bonanno, Goose Sorensen, Tyler Wiard — who were all veterans of Mel's, working together in a perfect psychotic ballet on that tiny, cramped, historic line, literally climbing on each others' backs to put dinner on the rail. Denver is a rare city in that we have a big scene that feels like a small scene because everyone knows everyone, has worked above or below or with everyone, or has connections that in retrospect seem to border on the prophetic. No one comes up alone in Denver. No one comes out of nowhere. Everyone who gets anywhere does it on the back of someone else.
At Fruition, I finally tasted the promise of haute comfort food that had been augured by every food writer, every newspaper and every magazine for years, and that, to some extent, had always left me cold. But at Fruition, I tasted chicken soup done just better than chicken soup should be reasonably expected to be done. Beet carpaccio with goat cheese that wasn't just a way for the kitchen to charge fifteen bucks for vegetables no one really wanted to eat. Duck and simple lemon sole and risotto that were all exponentially more excellent than comparable dishes attempted anywhere else, said excellence born out of an almost pathological commitment to doing everything perfectly every time.
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Then at O's Steak & Seafood, I sat out on the front patio after dinner smoking a cigar, drinking vintage port and trying to wrap my head around the paradigm shift going on in the dining room behind me. Chef de cuisine Ian Kleinman had just cooked me one of the most affecting meals of my life. I'd stood beside him in the kitchen for hours — watching him measure his methylcellulose, turn grape juice into caviar and grin like a bald-headed stage devil from behind a boiling fog of sublimating liquid nitrogen — and I still didn't understand how he'd done half of what he'd done. Ian is not the first guy to go all Star Trek with his food. He's certainly not going to be the last. But for me, the dining room at O's was where all this sci-fi cuisine became real, began to make sense. Not a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about what I experienced at O's, but there on the patio, the impressions and the emotions were still fresh and raw. After fifteen years in the kitchen, everything I'd thought I knew about food and cooking and prep and presentation had just been rendered moot. I'd tasted honest-to-God magic, and after that, nothing was going to be the same.
From my somewhat elevated perch in Midtown, I thought about big dinners and small dishes. About the green-curry-and-potato soup at Uoki and the bananas Foster pancakes at Toast, about pho for breakfast at Pho 79 and pork buns and shumai for brunch at Super Star Asian, about the miraculous lobster boils at Cherry Crest Seafood and about how, after eating the raw beef and cottage cheese at Arada for the first time, it immediately became one of my favorite foods in the world. I thought about the fire-breathing craziness of the cooks at US Thai making the best Thai food I've had in Denver or anywhere else, and the sublime and overwhelming beauty of every little thing at Izakaya Den. I thought about all the hours I've spent slouching around like a crazy person in booths and at bars eating hot dogs and barbecue and churros and chelados.
I thought about what I love about Denver, and what will always draw me back. Even after more than five years, I know that every single night has the potential to be amazing, mind-blowing, life-altering and strange. I've seen the Vietnamese Elvis sing love songs to gangsters, had a woman at the bar at Gennaro's demonstrate how she stabbed her boyfriend in the neck. I've eaten the offerings of the God of Ramen, drunk wine that was bottled before I was born and whiskey that was put in the cask before this country was born. I've been poisoned near to death by dimwits who ought to be spitted on their own steel and run up tabs higher than what I've paid for some of my used cars. I am one lucky sonofabitch.
And now, in Manhattan, my knishes are growing cold and Laura is digging into the chocolate cake, so I'm going to stop thinking and start eating. I'll be back in the saddle soon enough, eating too much and behaving badly. I can't wait to see what next year brings. I can't wait to see what I know tomorrow that I didn't know today. And as happy as I am, right here and right now, I really can't wait to get back to the city I've come to call my own and to start all over again.