Best Of :: Food & Drink
Mizuna and Luca d'Italia, Frank Bonanno's two (and counting) houses, exist today almost beyond the bounds of classification. They're neither casual eateries nor necessarily fine dining. They're each dedicated to their own style of cuisine -- Italian for Luca, French-Mediterranean for Mizuna -- but neither work from any kind of standardized canon, depending instead on improvisation and reworking classics into modern interpretations. The crews in both restaurants are fiercely talented and incredibly well trained, and they consistently knock out some of the best plates in the city, night after night, week after week. And at the center of all this is Bonanno, who -- after years of working his ass off and paying his dues -- is now coming into his own not just as Denver's best chef, but as an artist, craftsman and businessperson who's known and respected throughout the industry. For years, Bonanno spent every one of his rare vacations cooking stages (short apprenticeships) at some of the best houses in the country; now line dogs and galley kids from some of the best houses in the country are coming to him, asking for a week, two weeks, a month in his kitchen so that they might learn the tricks and techniques that make his restaurants so good. What's more, a lot of these cooks are choosing to stay after their stints are complete, joining Bonanno's crew permanently or asking him to help them find work at Denver's other top addresses. So for all of this -- for his personal talent behind the burners, his dedication to Denver's ever-struggling scene and his vicious competitive streak, as well as for the way his restaurants have thrived, his reputation traveled, and his crews gone from merely great to a rarefied sort of brilliant smoothness over the past couple of years -- Bonanno takes the prize.
For reasons we'll never understand, some people out there are afraid of eating pork belly. Maybe it's the name: The idea of eating anything's belly could be a little disturbing. But still, everyone with a tastebud left in their heads should immediately swallow all prejudices against this noble butcher's cut and get a taste of the wonderful pork-belly entree with smoked bacon, hedgehog mushrooms and apple chutney at Frasca. On a menu filled with nothing but winners by chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, this plate is singularly amazing. The fat cap of each thick slab of pork belly is rendered in the pan, seared crisp just at the end, and then the beautifully tender meat is sliced and fanned over a pale white smear of horseradish sauce for a real treat by a wickedly talented kitchen. So if the civilians out there continue to eschew the potential wonders of pork belly, that's fine with us. Frasca is a busy place, and that just means more belly for us.
Empress Seafood Restaurant is a classic dim sum joint. It's huge, it's entirely impersonal, and almost everything that goes on here happens in a different language. Every dim sum item available -- from dumplings to tripe -- is listed on one long paper menu, and no matter what you think you ordered, it's impossible to reconcile that with what eventually makes its way to the table. The exception to this rule is the char siu bao, pork buns that arrive hot and steaming from the kitchen like giant, puffy white softballs filled with chunky, honey-sweetened barbecued pork. The house makes its bun dough once a day, using yesterday's leftovers as a starter for the new batch, and the result is a light, airy breading, slightly sweet, always soft as eating a cloud. If you're not up for fried pork intestines or chicken feet in black bean sauce, the Empress's buns are a perfect choice for even the least adventurous diner.
Just staying open for more than three decades is an achievement for any restaurant. But staying open and staying relevant? That's a real accomplishment. And that's what Tante Louise -- which opened in the old home of the even more venerable Normandy in 1973 -- has managed to do. In a newly hot restaurant neighborhood in a town where fine-dining houses open and close so quickly that it's hard to keep track of the failures, la grande dame of the white-tablecloth scene has the legs to keep up. Sure, Tante has occasionally stumbled. But owner Corky Douglass has always had a good nose for talent; a solid reputation for training tomorrow's execs and restaurateurs; an understanding that new hands in the galley serve to keep things fresh, often taking even the most staid and traditional kitchens in surprising new directions; and the patience to let his chefs find their own voices. And today, Marlo Hix is speaking loud and clear with her cooking, bringing a little pan-Asian flavor to traditional French fare -- and ensuring that Tante Louise can hold her own, running a marathon in a world full of sprinters.
They don't look like snails when they come to the table. They look like something baked inside a pastry shell. And from the first bite, they don't taste like you'd expect snails to taste. They taste more like a forestire of mushrooms, more like some dark fowl's meat -- turkey or duck, or something equally gamey. But snails they are, with three competing sauces painted onto the plate. Le Central's escargots are an excellent introduction to the world of French cuisine, where everything that walks, crawls or slithers is fair game for the pot. And this plate -- listed as feuilleté d'escargots on the menu -- shows just how great snails can taste when a kitchen is operating straight out of the Michelin playbook of haute French cuisine.
When we talk about peasant cuisine these days, the conversations run toward comfort foods with a slightly musty past. No longer do we speak of such offal-centric dishes as French tête de veau or anything involving trotters or English lung pie. These days, peasant foods are more like a Disneyfied version of what we'd like to imagine our forebears having eaten, not so much what they actually did eat. But that's not the case at Taquería Patzcuaro, where the tacos de cabeza are a straight-from-el-rancho original, involving calf cheek meat (never the most attractive cut) that's lightly grilled, then set on fresh corn tortillas with a little pico de gallo, a little shredded lettuce, and nothing else. This is peasant food the way it's supposed to be: something wonderful out of what would normally be waste.
When you order oxtail at Caribbean Cuisine Plus, there's no question what you're eating. This is the southernmost edible portion of any animal, and with a little Tinker Toy ingenuity and some toothpicks, the big, rough-cut chunks sitting on your plate could probably be reassembled back into a semblance of a tail without too much difficulty. Served in a smoky, greasy, deeply flavorful black sauce powerful enough to dirty up a whole mountain of white rice, this oxtail is a wonderful example of the benefits of nose-to-tail eating. Spoiled Americans, we've become used to consuming nothing but the best of any animal used for food -- which means we've missed out on the culinary joys of peasant eating. But we'll let the culinary philosophers argue over the societal and spiritual payback of slumming it among the so-called peasant cuisines. If anyone wants our opinion on the matter, we'll be down at Caribbean Cuisine Plus having a couple of meat pies, maybe a little curried goat, and some oxtail over rice.