If I had an unlimited budget, enough pull to get the best guys in town away from their kitchens (or their families) for one night, and room enough at home for all of you good readers, I'd treat you to one great holiday meal. A classy cocktail soiree, dimly lit and intimate, with radiant ladies and fellas in tuxes and bows. Something real swank and elegant and staffed with an all-star lineup of cooks and crews from across the city. My party would be a showcase of the best of a year's worth of Denver dining, my batting order styled for maximum impact with minimum fuss. So strap on the feed bags, because here we go...
Amuse bouche and wine list: Sean Yontz from Vega and Brian Klinginsmith from Solera.
As my first guy, my number-one man, I want Sean Yontz to set everyone up with tasting portions of his veal albondigas, mini crab Louies and some of that achiote-roasted Maine lobster as a primer for the appetite, a hint of what's to come. At Vega, Sean's best trick is a sense of drama -- a deliberate awareness of timing and balance and an innate feel for style. His plates go right up to the edge of fussiness without tumbling over, and he always leaves people wanting more.
Wine is also important for setting the mood, and for the first flight, I'm going with Brian Klinginsmith. He's the floorman and chief grape-pusher at Solera, one of my favorite spots in town for high-end grub in low-key surroundings. The restaurant's wine list, while deep and intelligent and probably scaled toward a guy far brighter than I am, never makes me feel like a total wine boob. Brian can, of course, choose whatever grape he sees fit to press into the chilly mitts of my happy revelers -- he's the expert, after all -- but I'd humbly suggest something bubbly and exquisite. A few bottles of that Jean-Paul Gaultier-edition Piper-Heidsieck champagne with the bottles dressed in the tiny red leather corsets, maybe. Pop some miniature Santa hats on those babies and we got ourselves a party.
Passed cold appetizers: Sushi Tazu and Brasserie Rouge.
Guests need time to mingle. They need to get a drink (or four) in 'em, to walk around a little, to make some new friends. This is a holiday party, after all, and I think we all know that holiday parties are really just thinly veiled excuses for doing embarrassing things with no consequences, for getting loaded on someone else's dime and fooling around with a complete stranger in the coat-check room. And all of this takes time, so a round of passed appetizers is the perfect stall before it comes time to sit down and eat with a knife and fork.
With this in mind, we have two choices this year: fish and meat, the ethereal and the substantial. First, for those who can recognize Apollonian culinary excellence when they see it (or taste it), a little O-Toro sushi from Sushi Tazu, the tuna belly rolled by the quiet professionals behind the bar. Next, from the charcuterie station at Brasserie Rouge, thick rounds of savory, fennel-scented lamb sausage mounted on toasted rounds of baguette with a smear of coarse-grain mustard. Rouge's kitchen makes its own sausage, its own mousse, its own pâté, its own everything, and it does so in the purely traditional way that causes slow-food junkies to swoon. Everybody should have the chance to taste handmade sausage before going back to their plates of Jimmy Dean Li'l Smokies, and at my party, everybody can.
To find servers to pass the apps and work the floor, I'd return to Brasserie Rouge and probably swing by Le Central, as well, with table service provided by the smooth and well-educated crew from Mel's. Let's face it: I'm a sucker for those French accents. If I could get past that, I'd likely staff my party with Hooters girls.
Behind my longbar, I'd have Oran Feild, pre-Rouge, operating as he did at Flow -- mixing drinks with a chef's eye for detail and taste for only the best ingredients -- and backed by Ronnie Crawford from the Skylark pulling pints and making conversation. I'd leave the liquor choices up to them, with only one specific request: the inclusion of some Vietnamese snake wine from T-Wa. I've always wanted to try that stuff, and nothing says party like a glass jug full of zillion-proof rice wine with a whole snake marinating in the bottom.
Warm appetizers: Radek Cerny from L'Atelier.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American lives, so it's a good thing that Radek Cerny is Czech by birth and French by training. In 2002, I gave one of his restaurants a pretty good smackdown for doing just about everything under the sun wrong, but this year, Radek came back with one of only a handful of restaurants in Boulder worth a damn. True to its name, L'Atelier is Radek's workshop, his studio, and it's a beautiful showcase for his unique brand of food-as-art-and-craft. So provided he promises not to punch me in the mouth over last year's differences of opinion, I want him front and center at my party, working his magic. I want him to warm up my guests with his sweetbreads in dark sugarcane sauce, then blow them away with table-sized portions of steak tartare. I want him to haul out all those gigantic plates, go nuts with the squeeze bottles -- I want him to do everything he does every night in Boulder that puts his place so over the top. Except for one thing. Radek, leave the Meissen figurines at home. Otherwise, I might steal them, wrap 'em up and send them to my grandma for a belated Christmas present. She'd love them. They'd look great on her knickknack shelf next to the Hummels and ceramic kitties.
First main, from the sea: Sean Kelly from Clair de Lune, and Duy Pham.
Sean Kelly is one of the best cooks in town. His menus are beautiful, his plates spare, elegant and well-balanced. His tastes are somehow simple and majestic at the same time, and he cooks with an unaffected expressionism that would be the perfect foil to Radek's extravagant hubris. For his spot in this lineup, Sean could cook almost anything -- a plate of seared sea scallops with celery-root rémoulade, scallions, capers and preserved lemon; one perfect filet of sea bass. But his plateau de fruits de mer is still the ultimate in grace without commotion: a half-dozen sea critters, harvested in their prime, cooked (if at all) with bare minimum intervention by human hands, then presented simply, on ice, with no fuss or bother. In the zen of line cooking, Sean has reached a different level than most of his contemporaries. He breathes different air. He has come to understand that all the garnishes and sauces and funky fusion nonsense in the world don't mean anything unless the food at the center of the plate is, in itself, divine. And if it is, why do anything to detract from its rightness? So for fish this year, we shall have Littleneck clams and mussels and powerful oysters that were alive not a minute before they hit the table, giant deep-water shrimp served whole, and Japanese spiny lobster.
For a final kick, I'll bring in Duy Pham's sea urchin three ways, from his old menu at Opal, to balance warm with cold. Don't like sea urchin? Don't come to my party. That's just more sea urchin for Duy and me.
Soup course: Goose Sorenson from Solera.
I don't want Goose Sorenson at my party to help Brian Klinginsmith, his partner at Solera. I want him there cooking the potage queue de boeuf -- the oxtail consommé -- that he made for the Les Amis d'Escoffier dinner earlier this year. That soup, filtered through three different rafts (a kind of egg-and-veggie mush that strains out protein solids and purifies the consommé), took ten hours to prepare, and my guests deserve to taste something that requires that sort of effort to compose, that singular dedication to purpose. I'd serve it less as a soup than as an example of the sort of pride that drives the best cooks -- an edible lesson in the potential of simple things.
Besides, a consommé would be the ideal palate-cleanser for a spread in which we're skipping the sorbet-or-green-salad intermezzo course in favor of continuing flights of Denver's finest. This soup is no placeholder. It offers no pause in the gustatory action. Rather, it leads us straight into...
Second main, from the land: A group effort by Ian Kleinman from Indigo, Frank Bonanno from Luca d'Italia and John Broening from Brasserie Rouge.
Three very different houses, three very different chefs, one plate. Frank Bonanno's rabbit three ways nearly killed me when I tried it at Luca a few months ago. In Frank's capable hands, this dish was a riot of flavors and textures, a deconstructionist's platter of bunny leg, loin and body prepared in three styles, with truffle's dirty, powerful musk as the defining, combining, overarching sensation that held it all together. It was a wondrous dish, as bold and deeply complex as any plate in town, and I want it -- as translated by my three mercenary wise men -- as the centerpiece of my table this holiday season.
Frank can take the center of the plate, handling the shredded and braised rabbit meat mixed with slivers of cremini, porcini and shiitake mushroom, all swimming in a tarn of reduced and black-truffle-infused rabbit gravy. Indigo's Ian Kleinman can have the loin, taking what was a simple fan of juicy, tender meat on Frank's original plate and subjecting it to the kind of smart-ass, borderless fusion for which he is becoming so well known. I would love to see him do the rabbit loin the way he handles hanger steak -- giving it a rub, a tickle and a place to sit. Ancho-rubbed rabbit loin, perhaps? Glazed loin mounted on a bed of white-bean purée? Lapin beurre mont au sang? And to John Broening -- the true traditionalist in this crowd -- I leave the confit fore and back leg, trusting that he'll create an earthy, salty, strong, blood-rich flavor to match.
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Dessert: Robert McCarthy from Mel's and Sean Yontz.
As quick as the onslaught of meat arrived, I would want it now to vanish, with servers swooping down in a coordinated ballet, removing plates and replacing each one with a crystal martini glass filled with the "cosmopolitan" -- apricot sorbet, shreds of dry lime and little cubes of clear vodka gelee that melt the instant they touch the tongue -- created by Robert McCarthy, Mel's pastry chef.
And then I'd bring everything full circle with a spread of amuse gueule desserts, again from Sean Yontz. A touch of Scharffen-Berger chocolate, perhaps, a final sip of champagne.
But at this point, the band would be playing its last waltz and the bus crew would be breaking down the tables. It would be time for everyone to gather their coats, find their dates and move along. We'll meet again next year -- but for now, it's a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.