There comes a moment every year -- and it's usually an alcohol-inspired moment during the holidays -- when I, after a bottle or two of wine, declare that THIS year is the BEST YEAR EVER in Denver dining, and then commence to deliver a highly passionate, self-indulgent speech about why eating in this city just keeps getting better and better.
Seriously, though, 2011 may well be the best year ever. Established restaurants improved their game and a record number of new restaurants opened -- many of them serving food that's creative, provocative and, above all, delicious.
During the holidays, when I inevitably start spilling my feelings about the exciting things that are happening in this city's culinary scene, I will no doubt mention the favorite dishes on this list, my best bites in the Mile High City this year. And maybe ever.
Guanciale di vitello at Barolo Grill:
My favorite cut of the animal -- any animal -- might very well be the cheeks. They're like belly times a hundred: The cheeks are one of the most tender parts of the animal, and they can be braised until they practically drip. But the veal cheeks at Barolo Grill raise this cut to another level entirely. The guanciale di vetello are rich and velvety, braised until they're almost buttery in texture and then embedded in creamy mascarpone polenta and ringed with bitter braising greens and pearl onions, which lend just enough bite to bring everything into balance. Seductive, hedonistic, climactic balance.
Sweetbread ravioli at Colt & Gray: My fetish for both offal and brown, bitter and stirred cocktails practically guaranteed I'd fall hard for Colt & Gray -- and I've been an unabashed fan since I ate my first meal there, not long after it opened. But just when I thought my love could for Colt & Gray could not grow stronger, the kitchen came up with a dish that practically made me grovel, I'm-not-worthy style, at the chef's feet: the sweetbread ravioli. Pasta pouches had been filled with tender sweetbreads -- carrying just a faint gaminess -- and cooked al dente, then bathed in a delicate parmesan brodo infused with rich, decadent foie gras. Sweet, savory and lifted by a couple of leaves of braised, bitter greens, this dish made me moan at the first bite -- and when the pasta was gone, I unashamedly picked up the bowl and licked it clean.
Macaroni and cheese at Highland Tap and Burger: The first time I went to Highland Tap and Burger, I was angry. Specifically, I was angry at myself, because I couldn't believe it had taken me nearly a year to walk through the door when I only live a few blocks away. But at this point, I've more than made up for my early mistake. While every burger on the list has been wonderful, the macaroni and cheese is nothing short of magical. I'm a mac-and-cheese snob, and this kitchen makes a lot of smart decisions: Pasta shells get tossed in a slightly sharp and creamy sauce of Fontina, aged white cheddar and parmesan that's spiked with Modus Hoperandi IPA, which is bitter enough to sharpen the flavors and give everything a lift. Then, in final assembly mode, the pasta is dusted with breadcrumbs -- and bacon, if you like, which, dear Lord, I do -- and baked. The resulting dish satisfies nostalgic cravings for classic macaroni and cheese while also adding depth and character.
Chili gobi at Jai Ho Indian Kitchen, Bar and Lounge:
I didn't know what to think about Jai Ho the first time I sat down. Beer in hand as Bollywood poured over the speakers, I spent many minutes trying to decipher the least descriptive board I'd ever seen, and then wound up asking the staff, who were about as cryptic as the menu when it came to recommending dishes. Still, I went with their suggestions -- and was hooked at first bite. That's because my first bite at Jai Ho was the chili gobi, which I'd chosen because "cauliflower in Indo Chinese style" sounded relatively straightforward. A pile of cauliflower florets, cooked tender and then deep-fried until crisp, had been mixed with sautéed bell peppers and onions, then tossed in a sticky, tangy, earthy sauce infused with ginger and garlic. Although there was no meat in sight, the delicious dish made me think of five-spice chicken wings, with a heat that built from a mere tingling to a blistering fire that not even my large Kingfisher beer could put out. But even with the burn, I couldn't help going back for more.
Pupusa revuelta from Tacos Acapulco:
It was the middle of the night when a pair of friends first took me to Tacos Acapulco, a shack on East Colfax, for pupusas. Grabbing an order of a half-dozen, we took them out to the car, where we covered the pudgy pouches with a pickled-cabbage coleslaw called curtido and doused them in a watery tomato salsa. The griddled corn-round sandwiches had spent enough time on the flat-top that they were crispy and golden on the outside,and cheese oozed out along the edges. The heat had created a particularly satisfying mess of tastes and textures with the pupusa revuelta, which featured chicharrón (finely ground marinated pork, in this case, rather than fried pork skin). Every bite was a delicious mix of spicy, juicy pig meat; stretchy white cheddar; soft, sweet cornmeal; tart-sour curtido and tangy salsa. I've been back at least a dozen times, at all hours of the day, since.
Panang curry at Thai Flavor:
The best curry I've ever tasted was at a pop-up beer garden near the banks of the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos. It came from a pieced-together kitchen equipped with camp stoves, a mortar and pestle, and a collection of sauté pans, and it was a fiery, orange-hued curry, dotted with angry-looking red chiles and full of pieces of bell pepper, eggplant and prawns. It was incredible, and I dream of it still. It's not exactly convenient to jump on a plane to southeast Asia every time I get a hankering for Panang, though, so I've spent some serious hours searching out a curry that will feed my beast of a craving. Enter Thai Flavor, where you can get a brimming bowl of Panang curry, creamy and caramel-colored, pungent and peppery, swimming with tender strips of pork, scallions and basil, and laced with a chile-infused heat that's checked -- somewhat -- by the natural sugar of coconut milk, the savory bite of garlic and the tangy nip of a freshly squeezed lime.
Jollof rice with plantains and fried chicken at African Grill and Bar: Owner Osei Ford-wuo walked me through the menu the first time I visited African Bar and Grill, eagerly describing every West African specialty on the list. The jollof rice with plantains were his "number-one number one" dish, and it's easy to see why he loves it. The sticky, caramelized fruit contrasts nicely with the rice, which is cooked in a rustic, zesty tomato sauce, punched up with onion and salt and made earthy by red pepper. The dish is sent over the top, though, by what's perhaps the best fried chicken I've had in town. Legs of the bird are coated in an ethereally light batter and pan-fried until golden, with a light sheen of grease on the outside and flesh that is incredibly juicy inside. The platter includes a couple of dipping sauces: One, made with habañero peppers, is the color of watermelon and packs enough blazing heat in a couple of drops to practically asphyxiate you; the other is a dark, less spicy paste made slightly sweet by the inclusion of dried shrimp, dried herring and ginger.
Juicy pork dumplings at Tao Tao Noodle Bar:
Making soup dumplings -- especially really good soup dumplings -- is truly a craft, and world-class dumpling-makers even fight over the correct number of folds required for the top of each bun. Tao Tao goes with eighteen, and the tiny creases, curling out from a twist in the center of the plump dumpling, look like a starburst. But consuming soup dumplings is also something of an art, especially at Tao Tao, where I want to start shoving the little morsels in my mouth the second they hit the table, burning my esophagus to a crisp. Instead, I sit on my hands and wait for the right moment, when I pluck a dumpling by its twist so that none of the liquid can escape, place it in a spoon, add a little black vinegar-coated ginger and then nibble a small hole in the side of the dumpling, which lets the soup gush out of the wrapper and into the spoon, creating a tart, pungent, garlicky broth that warms my heart and soul. When I've sucked that down, I pop the doughy wrap into my mouth and savor the herb-flecked ground pork meatball. And then I do it again and again and again, easily polishing off eight or ten of these dumpings all by myself.
Live scallop at Land of Sushi:
I'd barely sat down at Land of Sushi when my server started gushing over the live scallop, a special on the menu that she insisted I'd love. I hesitated -- one scallop, after all, would ring in at $18 -- and then finally succumbed. I watched as the chef pried the live mollusk from its shell, then passed it across the bar unceremonious. But no ritual could have done thacross the bar, and rightfully so, because no amount of praise could have done the scallop justice. Each slice was ocean-air cold, smooth and supple and sweet, perfumed lightly with the scent of the sea. Simple sides of tart berries and tempura salad were worthy additions, but unnecessary. The scallop was perfection all on its own.
Walnut-praline ice cream at Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar:
Fact: I am obsessed with ice cream. Obsessed. In fact, I doubt there's a better dessert on the planet, because pretty much every other delicious sweet I can think of is either a) better served a la mode, or better yet, b) even more tasty when made into an ice cream flavor. It goes without saying, then, that I eat a lot of the stuff, making special trips to my favorite parlors around town more often than I care to admit. But the best ice cream I had this year wasn't at a shop. Hell, it wasn't even served in its own dish. It was the walnut-praline ice cream accoutrement that Le Grand Bistro and Oyster Bar serves with profiteroles. It was sweet and creamy, lightly caramel-y and studded with crispy, sugared nuts, and I could have eaten a vat the first time I had it. And even on this chilly second day of winter, I could go for a bowl right now.
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Honorable mentions: I could eat the popper breakdown at Linger every time I drink for the rest of my life. Fried cheese curds plus shishito peppers equals sublime happiness.
Almost everything I ate at the Squeaky Bean pop-up dinner for Work Options for Women could have made this list; I can't wait until that spot reopens in 2012.