Little Ollie's woks the walk. The kitchen produces dishes that are incredibly polished, not to mention filled with the best Chinese cooking in town. The steamed fish, stir-fries, sweet spare ribs and black-bean sauces evoke the streets of Hong Kong, but the delivery there surely leaves something to be desired when compared with the gracious, efficient service at Little Ollie's. The wine list is startlingly well chosen for a Chinese restaurant, too.


When we want to Thai one on, we head to Thai Bistro. The dining room is sweet and simple, with greenery for color and just a few Thai touches here and there -- but in the kitchen, it's all Thai, all the time. Chef/owner Lek Phromthong knows his way around sweet-salty-sour-spicy, and he balances those elements to good effect in his multi-layered, deeply flavored dishes. The appetizers, including sumptuous steamed dumplings and deep-fried tofu, are admirable, and the main courses, particularly the curries, are truly a main event. Those curries are heavily, and deliciously, sweetened with coconut milk; Phromthong also has a way with fenugreek, which gives his curries an even more exotic taste. Tell the servers your tolerance for chile heat -- they're happy to adjust dishes to match.


Owner Sue Smith goes above and beyond at her simple but spiffy Asian restaurant in the 'burbs. In dishes such as lobster and crab pot stickers and Vietnamese seafood paella, New Orient presents the flavors of Vietnam in a fresh and innovative way. Don't expect noodle-house prices: The macadamia-sesame-encrusted walleye or two-mushroom beef tenderloin will set you back a bit. But you won't find these preparations on any other Vietnamese menu in town.


You won't miss meat at Masalaa, an all-vegetarian Indian eatery, because everything is so well seasoned that there's no shortage of flavor. In fact, the name Masalaa means "spice" in Hindu. The kitchen specializes in southern Indian dishes that you rarely find in Denver, as well as superior versions of traditional favorites from all over the South Asian subcontinent. Masalaa spices up such standards as mulligatawny soup, samosas, curries and saag, and makes dosas -- crêpes of rice and lentil flour -- that are just right for soaking up its fiery mango chutney. Masalaa's most interesting offerings, though, are the idlys, especially the miniature versions that look like little flying saucers made from rice, and the uthapams, bubbly breads topped with fresh vegetables or cheese. Both come with Masalaa's superior sambar (a stew made from several types of dal, or legumes, cooked down with many spices). The servers are ready to explain the unfamiliar items that abound at this restaurant, and they are as gracious and welcoming as a warm cup of chai.


The laid-back Ali Baba Grill cooks up the usual Middle Eastern favorites, but the difference here is that these dishes are absolutely packed with flavor. Creamy, smooth hummus carries a fresh lemon-juice-and-garlic punch, and the baba ghanouj contains eggplant that's been roasted until it's nearly caramelized, so that the dip has a deep, sweet quality. The just-made tabbouleh is always tip-top fresh; the kabobs are charbroiled, giving the meats that crunchy edge of extra flavor; and the chicken shawarma is coated in a garlic paste before it's rotisserie-broiled. Save room for dessert: The housemade baklava and a cup of freshly brewed mint tea make for a relaxing finale.


Best California-Mediterranean Restaurant

Mizuna

The name, which refers to a Japanese green, is your first clue that Mizuna is all over the map, pulling from international flavors and ingredients to make dishes so stunning, they're over the top. Still, most of the items at this charismatic bistro are inspired by the New American sensibilities of California cuisine, with a heavy reliance on Mediterranean components to pull everything together. The hallmark of chef/part owner Frank Bonanno's cooking is fresh ingredients, with plenty of butter and cream to carry the flavors; dishes such as crème-fraîche-bolstered mashed potatoes and lobster-enriched macaroni and cheese are perfect examples of this philosophy. Bonanno's partner, host-with-the-most Doug Fleisch-mann, manages to keep the needy audience pampered and entertained while diners wait for the next delectable dish to come out of the kitchen.
Italian food is more than spaghetti and meatballs. A lot more. And Panzano, which is named for a small wine town in Chianti, proves it with inspired, well-executed dishes that evoke what you might find at the finest inns of Tuscany. Panzano is lucky to have chef Jennifer Jasinski do the translating: She relies on bold flavors, rich sauces and just the right touch with herbs to create such elaborate dishes as mezzaluna pasta stuffed with roasted Kabocha squash, mascarpone, three-nut brown butter, Amaretti di Saronno cookies, Parmigiano-Reggiano and fried sage. If that doesn't grab you, how about chicken breast rolotini with currants, pine nuts, pancetta and Parmigiano, accompanied by a salad of grilled figs, pecorino and arugula? Match the culinary masterpieces with one of Panzano's well-chosen Italian wines, and you have a meal that isn't just Italian -- it's delicious.


Chef Duy Van Pham may be Vietnamese, but his food couldn't be more French if he were cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. Pham has settled in at Tante Louise very nicely, helping the old aunt preserve her thirty-year-old reputation for serving the best French food in town. From the charcuterie plate to the fruit tarts, a meal at the AAA four-diamond and Mobil four-star Tante Louise includes everything from haute to not, with a bit of American and Asian whimsy thrown in for good measure. Try the délices françaises of garlic confit white-bean soup, lobster mashed potatoes and foie-gras-stuffed tenderloin, and don't be afraid to ask sommelier Emma Healion for a wine recommendation from her 600-bottle roster. Enjoy your meal in the romantic, elegant atmosphere of a French country inn just minutes from downtown.


Get your mojo working at Cuba Cuba, Denver's first totally Cuban restaurant. Owners Kristy Socarras Bigelow, her husband, Brian Bigelow, and her brother, Enrique Socarras, have turned two side-by-side, pre-1880 dwellings in the Golden Triangle into party central, with one house looking like a casual, convivial replica of the Casablanca set, complete with palm-frond fans and a bright, open-air feel, and the other transformed into a bongo-lined bar. The drink of choice is a mojito, made from rum, fresh mint leaves, a splash of lime and plenty of sugar, and the recipes -- from Enrique (the siblings are Cuban) -- focus on the breezier, fruit-focused foods of Cuba. Have fun with the plantain chips and shrimp appetizers, but save room for the sugary tres leches at dessert.
As Latin-food lovers race to the new South American spots cropping up across town like plantains in a tropical heat wave, savvy south-of-the-border aficionados continue to savor the culinary carnaval that is Café Brazil. The only thing zestier than the colorful decor in this tiny, fascinating space is the food, from the fab fejoida (Brazil's national dish) to the particularly luscious flan. Entrees are substantial and always surrounded by rice, steamed vegetables and fresh fruit; if that's not enough food, moist banana bread and savory cheese buns come with the meal, and the spicy black-bean soup and killer calamari appetizers make nice add-ons. The close quarters make the dining room as intimate or as raucous as you'd like, but be sure to make reservations -- Denver loves this Latin a lot.


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