Our critic's picks for the best dishes of 2013
Nothing beats the roasted-beet salad at Harman’s eat & drink.
You're an educated group, Denver dwellers. You eat out a lot, and keep us on our toes with suggestions of places to eat and thoughts on what you liked and why. So as I share the twelve dishes that stood out from the hundreds — and hundreds and hundreds! — of others I've eaten this year (keep in mind that some of these are no longer on offer, given the pace at which menus change), I invite you do the same, sending us your own lists of the foods that captivated you most. In the meantime, here are my dozen dishes to whet your appetite:
Crispy farm egg, chicken confit and wild-mushroom toast: Like the Americano that helps me face the morning, I could eat Oak at Fourteenth's kale salad and tomato-braised meatballs day in and day out and never grow bored. But it's another dish, one too rich for everyday occasions, that won my heart and a spot on this list: crispy farm egg, chicken confit and wild-mushroom toast. All components — panko-coated egg with a perfectly cooked yolk that pops and coats everything with liquid gold; chicken confit; and mushroom-laden buttered toast — are delicious on their own, but together they're exquisite. Maybe we should start a letter-writing campaign to bring it from Boulder to Acorn, Oak's sister restaurant that opened this fall in the Source.
Roasted-beet salad: Given the overexposure of this ruby-colored workhorse, it's a rare chef who can send out a plate of beets that feels fresh. John Little, executive chef at Harman's eat & drink, managed to do just that with a dish that had me at hello. Rather than playing up the earthiness of the beets, Little gave them the brightness of sunshine, tossing roasted beets and fried shavings with segments of fresh orange, crispy roasted chickpeas, tangy feta and cumin vinaigrette. Goat cheese, it's time to pack your bags, because this flavor combination is here to stay.
Green curry: The homegrown Thai Monkey Club chain does so many dishes right that choosing the best one is like choosing your favorite child. But because soups, stir-fries and curries don't have feelings, I'll go ahead and pick one: green curry. Imported from Thailand, the curry paste is first toasted in the wok to wake up the flavors, and then ingredients that speak of other lands — kaffir lime leaves, ginger-like krachai — are added. Finished with full-fat coconut milk that's creamier and more intensely coconutty than what you get at the store, the dish is undeniably savory, but so fragrant it dips a toe into sweet.
Budino: Variations of this dessert abound, but no one does butterscotch pudding better than the folks at Pizzeria Locale. Dip your spoon through the layers of chocolate ganache and caramel, and you'll encounter a pudding so rich and creamy, it coats your tongue like a pashmina shawl. Caramelized dark-brown sugar staves off the cloying sweetness that can make you put down your spoon after one bite. Here you'll want to finish it off and go back for more, an entirely possible scenario given the dessert's laughably affordable price tag of $1.50 — at the Denver Pizzeria Locale, at least. You can get a bigger serving at a bigger price in Boulder.
Risotto: Since Il Posto changes its menu daily, your chance of finding the same beet risotto that made all other Italian rice dishes seem like Rice-A-Roni is slim. Thankfully, risotto is always on the menu, treated as its own category next to assaggini, primi and secondi, so even if yours isn't stained red from beets and studded with kale and gorgonzola, it's likely to be just as memorable. Under chef-owner Andrea Frizzi's watchful eye, the kitchen treats the carnaroli rice like royalty, toasting the grains, dousing them with wine and stock, and whisking them off the heat for extra lightness.
Bangs Island mussels: I didn't think I could like a mussel more than the Prince Edward Island variety, with slips of chewy flesh and smooth black shells. But one night at Beast + Bottle, I met their plumper cousins from Casco Bay in Maine. These were mussels to wrap your arms around, fat and sweet and bathed in a white-wine broth with cream, garlic and celery-root purée that asked as politely as possible to be lapped up with every last bit of crusty bread.
Empanadas: Okay, so this isn't one dish. But at Rincon Argentino, all of the flaky empanadas and their vegetarian counterparts called canastas stand out. Owner Christian Saber and his crew arrive at 4 a.m. to make the light, crisp dough that they'll spend upwards of five hours filling and folding into artful shapes. I liked all of them, but the ones I enjoyed the most were the green-olive-studded pollo; the gaucho, with ground beef and raisins; and the espinaca.
Scallops: Scallops are like tofu — mildly interesting on their own, but a force to be reckoned with when matched with an interesting +1. I've eaten many well-cooked scallops this year, but the cleverest version came at the hands of twelve's Jeff Osaka, who paired them with bacon, butternut squash and outrageously sweet persimmons that were the equivalent of heirloom tomatoes when all you've tasted are pink rocks from the store.
Carrots three ways: In the kitchen, as in life, there are perils to overthinking — which is why I find many plates conceived with variations (pork six ways, beets eighteen ways) to be strained, better in theory than in the mouth. But this wasn't the case at The Populist, where carrots three ways — charred-carrot purée, raw shoestrings and orange-glazed — worked better as a whole than they would have in separate parts, with riffs on texture and flavor that kept the dish interesting from start to finish.
Nose-to-tail plate: The casualty of eating out for so many meals is that I've seen too much pork belly; I feel like it's Halloween and my mom said I could eat the entire bucket of candy. (In other words, too much of a good thing.) One place I'm always happy to see pork belly, though, is on the nose-to-tail plate at Old Major, where chef-owner Justin Brunson renders enough of the fat to make the meat moist yet crisp. Contents of the plate change seasonally; mine had a confit rib, a thin-cut pork chop, guanciale and smoked city ham, all from hogs butchered in-house — but it was the belly that disappeared first.
Vietnamese egg rolls: I'm convinced that people order egg rolls not because they like the filling (which is often too skimpy for the shell), but because they're jonesing for something deep-fried and crispy. At Pho Lee, however, you crave the egg rolls for an entirely different reason: the greens offered alongside them. Served Vietnamese-style, the rolls are meant to be blanketed in layers of crisp lettuce and mint, for an appetizer as invigorating as the herb-filled pho that is sure to follow.
Porchetta sandwich: Short of closing and moving to a new city, Spuntino has undergone about as many changes as a restaurant can go through in a year, including a renovation, a new executive chef, expanded hours and the addition of a bar program. Through it all, the kitchen has continued to put out a porchetta sandwich that draws me to this neighborhood Italian's doorstep as much for lunch (when the sandwich is offered) as for dinner. Rubbed with sage, rosemary, thyme, fennel seed and garlic and left to sit overnight, the pork-belly-wrapped loin is roasted for hours, then sliced thin and heaped on a puffy brioche with arugula, fontina and spicy aioli. The sandwich wins bonus points for being easy to eat — which is more than can be said about lots of bread-based meals — given the soft brioche and tender pork.
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