Better late than never: Zengo is a must on any twelve-
    step culinary tour.
Better late than never: Zengo is a must on any twelve- step culinary tour.
Sean O'Keefe


Thanksgiving is a distant memory, Christmas is done, and the holiday season -- in all its shlocky glitz and sweetness -- is nearly over. All that's left to do is bid a final farewell to the year gone by, to turn our backs on the little victories and larger defeats of 2004 and look ahead with some hope for the year to come.

Is it obvious that the end of the season has gotten me down? Seasonal Affective Disorder, the holiday blahs, just plain Scrooge-ified cussedness, whatever -- it happens every year around this time. Kurt, my shrink (whom I visit only under protest and only informally, like over drinks or slices of pie, and who isn't really a shrink so much as this guy I know who once went to shrink school but gave it all up for a life of debauched leisure as some sort of jet-trash financial analyst), tells me that the coming of the new year reminds me of my own essential mortality and the ticking of time's grand clock and all that crap. I respond by casting rude aspersions on Kurt's academic credentials because, come on, I failed out of Psych 101 in college and can still spout trite pop analysis like that. At which point Kurt goes all Freudian on me, saying it's not really him I'm angry at, but perhaps my father or some other authority figure from my past. And I say that, too, is a load of crap, and that maybe if he'd quit laying down the Dr. Phil trip, I wouldn't be so tempted to punch him in the throat.

But I have learned one thing from my quasi-therapeutic evenings with Kurt: Nothing quells the bitter humors quite so effectively as a good old-fashioned night of high living and alcoholic abandon. Nothing cleans the pipes so well, nothing tidies the karma or realigns the chakras or polishes the synapses so quickly as kicking out the jams once in a while with a couple of good friends and the phone number of the closest cab company written in Sharpie on your forehead.



Am I seriously recommending a night of gluttony and alcohol abuse as a cure for the holiday blues? You bet I am. I know it isn't exactly PC to encourage such behavior in this age of Prozac and celebrity rehab, but too bad. It's a rough world we're living in, and sometimes the retarded-teddy-bear wisdom of the day's talk-show gurus just doesn't cut it. So while in years past I've used this space for plotting fantasy dinner parties catered by some of the city's best and brightest kitchen magicians, this year I've planned the ultimate restaurant crawl for Denver foodies who feel a little put out by the season's rigors. Assuming an unlimited budget, bottomless appetites for food and cocktails, and the availability of a helicopter to ferry us all from place to place, here's my prescription for starting the new year in high style: a twelve-step program for holiday cheer.

The first stop: Bud's Bar, 5453 Manhart Street in Sedalia. We'll meet here to kick off our festivities, because Bud's is a great place for meeting. A place meant for meeting, it could be argued, what with the seasoned, no-nonsense waitstaff, good bar and room out front for either a couple dozen Harleys or one slightly used helicopter. Besides, Bud's has the greatest double cheeseburgers on the planet. Are they better than the tricky, upscale, New American chicken and crab-cake burgers being done at Mirepoix? They are. Better than those gimmicky, $50 Kobe-beef-and-truffle nightmares that were the talk of Manhattan earlier this year? Without a doubt. For decades, Bud's kitchen has made nothing but cheeseburgers, and it's therefore passed beyond the point of simple beef mastery into a realm of Zen perfection accessible only to those who've dedicated their lives to the Way of the Burger.

A couple cold ones and a burger basket at Bud's will keep us fueled while we head for Adega, at 1700 Wynkoop Street. (This is where the chopper comes in; otherwise, we'd spend the night stuck in traffic and wouldn't get that sweet kick of culture shock that comes from rubbing elbows with the biker trade at Bud's one moment, then stepping out into a bar full of LoDo's young and lovely the next.) Here at chef Bryan Moscatello's original outpost of New American swank, we'll play a game called "You Blind It, I Buy It."

Adega has a hot-shit sommelier, Chris Farnum, who (in the name of educating wine boobs like myself) has invented a sort of contest whereby a customer picks a price range of anywhere between thirty and three hundred dollars, and Farnum brings a bottle that fits it. The trick is, this is a blind tasting. You don't know what in the world Farnum will haul out of the cellar, and once the glasses arrive, you have to guess at what you're drinking. But for every characteristic of the bottle you guess right -- grape varietal, region and vintage -- Farnum kicks in a third of the price. Guess 'em all, and the bottle is on the house. Get 'em all wrong (like me), and you're paying the full markup. But with our group pooling cash and collective wine knowledge, we should clean up.

Before we leave this part of town, we'll stop to contemplate the quiet, dark hulk that once was Brasserie Rouge. There's a lesson here, folks, and it is this: Any restaurant can die. Doesn't matter how good the food is, how talented the chef, how pretty the fixtures. Doom comes where it is least expected, when it is least expected. Which means there's a second lesson here, this one mostly for restaurant employees: The minute the partners start filing for restraining orders against each other? That's the time to start updating your resumé -- and demanding your paycheck in cash.

Over in Cherry Creek, we'll see just how close a restaurant can come to disaster -- and through no fault of its own. The week before Christmas, a fire at a salon across the atrium from Mel's Restaurant and Bar put the restaurant at 235 Fillmore Street temporarily out of action. If it's reopened (owner Mel Master is hoping for New Year's Eve), we'll grab a round of drinks at the short bar, toast Mel's narrow escape, maybe eat a little something from chef Tyler Wiard and company.

Then it's on to Brix, at 3000 East Third Avenue, the brainchild of Charlie Master, son of Mel, that made its debut in 2004. Brix's sound system is loaded with the most eclectic MP3 catalogue in town, and while Tony, the man behind Brix's bar, may not be the most formally educated booze baron around, he knows a little bit about everything -- from port wine to Mad Dog -- and has an easy hand with the samples. The kitchen also offers an excellent menu for grazing.

So does the kitchen at what will be our next stop, Mezcal, which just celebrated its first birthday at 3230 East Colfax Avenue. At happy hour there's a good jukebox, Mexican-street-corner-style tacos for snacking, and Pablo behind the long oak bar, discussing his obsession with tequilas large and small. Mezcal also serves excellent shrimp cocktail, and I defy anyone to cling to holiday angst while sunk to the wrists in tomato juice and avocados, searching for that last crustacean at the bottom of the bowl.

For more substantial eats, we'll chopper it back to LoDo and Vesta Dipping Grill, 1822 Blake Street. For some reason, people -- okay, me -- always seem to forget Vesta when they're looking for a great place to eat, but I've recently been reminded of its charms by all the new restaurants (Go Fish Grille and Nova, to name just a couple) that are all over the stuff-and-stuff-to-dip-stuff-in theme as done first, and done best, by Matt Selby and his crew at Vesta.

So here we've got another lesson -- this one in patience. For years now, Vesta has been doing its thing, getting better and better with each passing season and always looking sexy as hell while doing it. That's commendable, and we'll commemorate Selby's staying power by getting goofy on neon cocktails at the bar and then scarfing down tenderloin with Indonesian tomato sambal, samosas with rosemary-ginger sauce and venison with Madras coconut milk.

From Vesta, it's over to Rioja, at 1431 Larimer Street, where we'll celebrate the new by eating chef Jennifer Jasinski's handmade mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and spiced duck consommé. Then on to Somethin' Else, at 1313 East Sixth Avenue, to bear witness to the miracle of rebirth as performed by Sean Kelly and his protegé in the kitchen, Seth Black. We'll eat lobster tails and fried baby artichoke hearts and little plates of Moroccan lamb ribs and wash it all down with Chimay -- the champagne of beers -- as the clock strikes midnight.

Before the chimes begin to fade, we'll be on to our tenth stop, Zengo, at 1610 Little Raven Street. Midnight-plus-one will see us there on a night when chef John Calloway -- late of the Hilltop Cafe and a friend of Zengo's chef de cuisine, Troy Guard -- is helping out in the galley, as he has been known to do since finding himself without a kitchen to call home. This way, we can get the imaginary best of both worlds: Guard's Latino-Asian weirdness in the shape of fusion sashimi swimming in lime juice and avocado oil, tuna with pomegranate, and chicken empanadas over mango-curry salsa, as well as the classic bistro fare on which Calloway's talent is grounded. We'll finish off with the best dessert in town: fried plantains laced with honey like spun sugar.

While the weight of our numbers and our flashing gold cards should keep the Zengo crew up long past their bedtimes, by now it will be time to move on. So it's back to the helicopter for a cruise over to Greektown, where we'll sober up at Pete's Kitchen, 1962 East Colfax. Although I personally prefer the greasy, truck-stop charm of the Breakfast King, when you're on a tear of such epic magnitude, the only proper place to see it wind down is sprawled across the formica at Pete's. For generations, this has been the last stop on Denver's party circuit -- providing bottomless cups of black coffee, breakfast burritos and pie to legions of hyped-up, strung-out, beaten-down and hung-over Colfax street creatures and LoDo pretties. And who am I to argue with tradition?

That's eleven steps, and by now the party is pretty much over.

But there's one step left: recovery. So the morning will find me across town at Mee Yee Lin 3090 West Alameda Avenue, for a couple rounds of Vietnamese coffee, some dumplings and maybe a few other dim sum delicacies. Purged of all bitterness and now short more than a few brain cells, this is where I'll toast the new year.

Care to join me?


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