BEST BRAINS 2006 | L'Atelier | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
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Sweetbreads -- the thymus and hypothalamus glands taken from the base of a fresh calf's brain -- are an acquired taste. But there's no better place to acquire that taste than at L'Atelier, where chef Radek Cerny nightly works his freakish magic on some of the least appetizing bits of a whole variety of animals. Here the sweetbreads are seared crisp and served along with Cerny's trademark potatoes -- mashed spuds so intensely packed with butter and cream that he might just as well sculpt them into the shape of a hand grenade and have you swallow it whole. They're the best brains in town, but Cerny also pushes the envelope with other brainy, intellectualized dishes, including lobster in potato foam, scallops in frozen oil and other tricks of molecular gastronomy inspired by a trip to Spain to hang out with Ferran Adria last year.
Vesta Dipping Grill -- the brainchild of chef Matt Selby and Josh Wolkon -- has been here almost nine years, and it still feels as fresh as it did the day it debuted in LoDo. Night after night, it fills seats and turns tables as though it were a brand-new hot spot -- but Vesta's never turned down the heat, and the restaurant is as vital and innovative as it ever was. With legs like that, Vesta should have a good, long run as the coolest kid in town.
If only green beans tasted as good as the cactus at Rosa Linda's, kids would never have to be told to clean their plates. The kitchen here uses the nopales in tacos, in burritos, mixed in with lettuce and pico and other such adulterating flavors. But we like to pull the packages apart until we end up with a taco carcass on one side of the plate and a pile of cactus strips on the other, which we then eat with our fingers -- the way we still eat green beans when we can get away with it. But this cactus only tastes like green beans if you can imagine that vegetable as a fruit -- something dimly sweet, a little oily and vaguely astringent. It tastes like water in the desert -- which is what cactuses are, after all -- served in a restaurant that's been a refreshing oasis in northwest Denver for more than two decades now.
Scott Lentz
Doing excellent bread a mile above sea level is tough; it takes some funny chemistry to make the stuff come out just right. But the bakers at Udi's have the knack, and not just for making bread. Their real contribution was figuring out what to do with the leftovers -- and that's turn it into the best bread pudding we've ever had. Soft, pillowy, honey-sweet but not overwhelmingly so, this single dessert is probably packed with more butter, cream and eggs than any sane person should eat in a week. And yet we'd eat it every night if we could. The cubed bread is soaked in heavy cream, baked until the top goes stiff and golden, then set on a cloud of wonderful creme anglaise. It's so good it should come with a warning label, posted right on the menu alongside this award.
Buffalo isn't cheap, but if you're a fan of these walking buffets of the plains, then go directly to the Fort Trading Company, an offshoot of the Fort restaurant. Sam Arnold has put together a variety of cuts and packages, providing natural, hormone-free, Colorado-raised and free-range buffalo that you can buy and have shipped back home. Although the site also offers elk steaks, quail and some other game meats, buffalo is the focus. You can get it as filets, strips, burger meat and bratwurst, but the roasts -- while pricey at $150 for five pounds of untrimmed tenderloin -- are probably the best deal if you've got a dozen hungry cowboys to feed.
Kris Ferreri grew up in Buffalo, cut his teeth on the two-note cuisine that made Buffalo famous. Chicken wings and pizza, pizza and chicken wings -- that's really all Buffalo has besides the Bills. And now we have the wings and pizza, because Ferreri now runs a joint on Broadway, where he offers Denver an honest taste of the things he knows best. And while the boxy, slightly thicker-than-Brooklyn pies are good, what he does best are the wings -- tender, slathered in just the right kind of sauce when ordered regular, and served to-go in a foil-lined cardboard box that smells like home to anyone who's spent time in the Nickel City.
From top to bottom, the taste of Philly is exactly what Taste of Philly delivers. The little storefront looks like an authentic East Coast operation with its tiny dining room, Eagles pennants and requisite framed pictures of Rocky Balboa. The counter is always crowded, the six tables cluttered with dine-in customers and people waiting for their to-go orders. The cooler right across from the register is packed with cans of birch beer and bottles of black-cherry Wishniak, and there are Tastykakes for sale. So it looks and feels like Philly -- and the food coming out of the cramped kitchen definitely tastes like it. Every sandwich arrives on an Amoroso's roll -- the only kind of roll for a serious kind of sandwich -- and the cheesesteak is the best you'll find outside the City of Brotherly Love.
Pat's #1 is not the best restaurant in the world. The french fries are terrible, the soda machine is sticky, and the help is only occasionally helpful. But none of that matters, because no one makes a better hoagie than this Pat's. The rolls are fantastic, the ingredients fresh and stacked tall, and we're pretty sure they put heroin in the sandwich oil, because that's the only thing that could explain the wickedly powerful cravings we get for their salami sandwich with nothing more than lettuce, oil, salt, pepper and a slice or two of funky provolone. No matter what kind of cold sandwich you want -- from a simple ham-and-cheese hoagie to a stacked Italian with everything -- it's listed on Pat's long menu, and the hoagie made by the freakishly talented galley crew is bound to be the best you've ever gotten your hands on.
Last spring, Amy Vitale left Strings to start Tables, a cozy little spot in Park Hill, with Dustin Barrett. And in the process, the partners moved sandwiches to an entirely new level in this town. Tables' menu recognizes sandwiches for exactly what they should be: transport vehicles for the best ingredients, front-loaded in interesting combinations. So here, a simple turkey sandwich takes on layers of gourmet complexity with the addition of brie and artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes and handmade herb pesto. Ham and cheese gets a boost from sliced pears, watercress and a smear of apricot jam. And as if great sandwiches weren't enough, Tables recently got a liquor license and has now started offering full dinner service.
Not surprisingly, Buenos Aires Pizzeria is best known for its South American pizzas and, to a lesser extent, its fantastic spread of empanadas. But this spot also offers the best Cuban sandwich we've found outside of the Cuban neighborhoods of Miami. Thick-sliced ham, good Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on grilled bread -- that's all that constitutes a Cuban. But put together right, the sandwich is so much more, and Buenos Aires does it very right. The bread is larded, pressed and grilled until crisp, melting all the ingredients inside together, and the sandwich is then plated with a side of salty fries that could only be improved if they were served in a twist of wax paper. In Havana.

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