When You Dish Upon a Star

Over the past year I've eaten the food of more than 200 restaurants, including 32 Italian spots, 15 Chinese, 5 steak, 4 French, 2 fusion and 1 Japanese/Salvadoran. Some meals stuck with me longer than others--the Japanese/ Salvadoran dinner, for one--and some provided memories that will stick with me for months to come, setting new standards for particular tastes. If I could take my favorite dishes from the past year and have them all in one meal, it would make for some remarkable eating.

And in my mind, at least, I can. Here, then, is 1996's perfect meal.

1. Hors d'Oeuvre
Emil-Lene's Sirloin House, 16000 Smith Road, Aurora
Everything about this steakhouse harks back to better days--a time when people ate thick, cheap steaks with chunky iceberg-lettuce salads and drank hard liquor in large, fun quantities. So it's only fitting that one of those cocktail-party has-beens, the crudite platter, lives on here. Awaiting each diner is a complimentary bowl of iced-down vegetables: crisp celery stalks, radishes, scallions, carrots and black olives, all waiting to be dipped into Emil-Lene's super-salty blue cheese and ranch dressings. Fiber, digestive aids, beta-carotene--it's all in there, making this the ideal starter for the abusive meal to follow.

2. Appetizer
Pavilion Chinese Cuisine, 3333 South Tamarac Drive
Yeah, yeah--technically, hors d'oeuvre and appetizers are the same thing, but hors d'oeuvre always sound smaller and less filling to me. At Pavilion you can get a slightly more involved starter, the incredible Shanghai leek dumplings. Six to an order, these little surprise packages are always fresh and stuffed with dai suen, miniature leeks that give the pork filling a heavenly mild onion flavor. Biting into each dumpling releases a squirt of steaming-hot leek juice; mixed with Pavilion's complex sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce, it makes for some glorious appe-teasing.

3. Bread
MijBani, 2005 18th Street, Boulder
Since this wonderful Indian restaurant serves only vegetarian fare, there's little need for a tandoor oven. So instead of naan--the traditional tandoori-cooked Indian bread--MijBani's kitchen griddle-roasts and serves hot such flatbreads as chapatis and parathas, the first a chewy, tortilla-type bread, the second puffy and multi-layered. The bhaturas also rise to the occasion: yogurt-based and looking like Navajo fry bread, these disks are moist but not greasy and light enough to satisfy a bread craving without killing the rest of the meal.

4. Salad
Cliff Young's, 700 East 17th Avenue
One of the last still done tableside, Cliff Young's Caesar is simply great. A succession of ingredients are tossed together in a large wooden bowl by the waitstaff captain, who can crush garlic, smash anchovies, sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, splash Tabasco and then thinly coat each piece of impeccably fresh romaine while simultaneously carrying on a conversation--and, moreover, get it right every time. This is serious Caesar, a model for those who want to enjoy the salad as it was intended, back in the days before some idiot thought it needed grilled chicken.

5. Soup
Le Central, 112 East Eighth Avenue
The soupe a l'oignon that Le Central chef/proprietor Robert Tournier makes at his affordable French restaurant is the cleanest version going, a rich but light combination of white stock, French bread and Swiss cheese that sounds deceptively simple. The key to the winning taste is that Tournier doesn't brown the veal bones for the base, resulting in a liquid that's clear and somewhat gelatinous, naturally thick and not the least bit salty (unlike most French onion soups). This is good to the last drop.

6. Pasta
The Savoy, 535 Third Street, Berthoud
I would be happy to relive any part of my stirring meal at this romantic and charming but sadly far away French restaurant; however, it's the salmon ravioli au deux sauces that keeps calling me long-distance. I had it as an appetizer but would be ecstatic to eat a whole entree--or two--of the ravioli again. Little sachets of handmade pasta, these aromatic purses are filled with bits of soft fish and crisscrossed with an intense, exquisite pesto, all floating atop a sea of concentrated tomato coulis studded with fresh herbs. Alone, each element is delectable; together, they elicit the kind of ecstasy only properly prepared French food can arouse.

7. Fish
Japon, 1028 South Gaylord Street
For a long time, Americans have been reluctant to try collar, that section of fish behind the gills. Fortunately, Japanese restaurants have been changing that, because the collar's tender, porous qualities mean it cooks beautifully and soaks up sauces like a sponge. For one of the best takes on it in town, I head to Japon, where the salmon collar done teriyaki style is a three-inch-thick piece of fish slicked with a superb teriyaki sauce that isn't the sticky-sweet liquid icing most Japanese restaurants purvey. Salmon doesn't get any better than this.

8. Chicken
El Azteca, 3960 South Federal Boulevard
Not only does El Azteca cook up some of the most authentic and delicious Mexican food in town, it also turns out a mean rotisserie chicken. Marinated overnight in pineapple and lemon juices and then generously rubbed with "secret seasonings" that include cilantro and salt, this bird is crisp-skinned and twice as juicy as any other chicken I've tried lately. And half a bird here costs less than a McDonald's Value Meal.

9. Side Dish
Tante Louise, 4900 East Colfax Avenue
At this restaurant, almost every course was a contender for inclusion in my perfect meal. That's because Tante Louise's kitchen harbors one Michael Degenhart, a chef who is able to prepare flawless renditions of classic French foods. One such item is the duck confit, which Degenhart offers as a side to his roast breast of duck. The confit--salted meat cooked in its own fat--has it all over a side dish of, say, steamed broccoli. The fatty flavor improves everything it touches, especially the heirloom beans that come along for the ride.

10. Dessert
NoNo's Cafe, 311 East County Line Road
The sweet-potato crunch featured at this whimsically decorated restaurant overflowing with Southern hospitality is also available as a side, but its unbelievable sugary sweetness--compounded by the natural sweetness of the cooked-to-pudding-consistency sweet potatoes and the crumbly topping--might make it impossible to continue consuming the rest of the meal. Better to save it for last and take it on as your finale, so it won't compete with anything else. Decadent, rich and loaded with buttery goodness, NoNo's sweet-potato crunch is the perfect ending for a perfect meal.


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