Black Pearl
The menu at Black Pearl is studded with dishes like an "unassembled" clam "chowdah" (the quotes courtesy of the house), Asian-influenced seared tuna and a truffled mac-and-cheese, all trend-humping examples of the culinary smart-assitude that makes New American food so laughably stupid. And yet that unassembled clam chowder is absolutely delicious. And that seared tuna -- one of the most archetypal workhorses in the entire New American stable -- is so good and so thoughtfully assembled that it instantly makes you forget the hundred other derivations of the exact same plate you've had at a hundred other temples of American haute that never quite rose to the level of Black Pearl. After it opened last summer, Black Pearl quickly proved that it was the best of the New American breed, and as long as New American continues to evolve in strange new directions, Black Pearl will continue to draw a crowd curious to see what's coming next.
Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
Z Cuisine is a warm little bistro that's like a perfect fantasy of Paris, requiring no passport, no baggage, no feigned appreciation of the films of Jerry Lewis or Gerard Depardieu. We love the old iron gate hanging open by the front door, the fact that there's nothing else on this quiet block save a few old houses and a dark, silent church looming against the dark sky. The crowds come and go all night, laughing, sometimes stumbling, clutching each other close in the shadows, and the food is an ideal expression of farmhouse French done in a thousand spots in Paris, tens of thousands of kitchens in France. The wine, the food, the staff, the company -- everything is in perfect alignment at Z Cuisine. In fact, the only things missing from this idyllic scene are the Gauloises-smoking French, the pall of their yellow cigarette smoke hanging around the high ceiling, and the bells tolling the hour as it grows later and later.
Rebecca Weitzman is a natural, a smart, hardworking chef who runs the kitchen at Cafe Star, one of the best houses in the city. She wrote (and continues to refine) a menu that took the overused, overworked, insipid and childish notion of comfort food, knocked the dust off and -- with a rigorous application of skill and intelligence to a style of cooking that generally showcases neither -- made magic. She's trained a crack crew of cooks who will someday take all they've learned from her and use it in their own houses to bolster the ranks of big-hatted white-jackets in town. And through it all, Weitzman has consistently performed at a level higher than that to which most chefs aspire, and definitely higher than many will ever achieve. Her food is nearly flawless, her vision pure, her talents formidable. Weitzman is the best.
Table for eight on a Saturday night? Cafe Star will fit you in. Special requests? Done. Problems on the floor? Handled. Whether you're coming here for multiple flighted courses, paired wines and one of the best meals of your life or just to grab a quick beer and a pizzetta with friends, Cafe Star is ready -- because this is a neighborhood restaurant working the trade in one of the strangest neighborhoods in the city. Between old friends and new neighbors, history and gentrification, Cafe Star stands as a restaurant that's there for everyone, offering a taste for every craving and a solution to every problem. The menu is comfort food squared, and the staff is dedicated to making every meal a great one. There was a time when "neighborhood restaurant" denoted a tavern that made cheeseburgers, a taco stand open late or a little mom-and-pop trattoria with great spaghetti and meatballs. And while that still may be the case in some neighborhoods, this stretch of Colfax deserves a shining Star -- and now it's got one.
Belmar has the Oven and Chama. Sixth Avenue has Table 6, Somethin' Else, Barolo Grill and more. Larimer Square is overflowing with great restaurants, and Highland is like a small-plate foodie nirvana these days. And yet this has been Cherry Creek's year -- not for the old dogs pulling new tricks, but for the young blood making this neighborhood a much better restaurant scene. The construction workers and temps crowd Tula for lunch, then clear out just in time for the Creeker contingent to load it up over dinner. Sketch is already getting rave reviews. It's hard to find a seat at Emogne on the weekends, and in May, Ocean will make a fresh run at the crowds that Mao failed to impress (for more than five minutes). Over on Clayton Lane, North changed everything the day it opened its doors. Barely a week goes by without an announcement of something new happening in the Creek, and if we might make a humble suggestion to the neighborhood association, it would be for a new slogan that matches the new scene. Something along the lines of "Cherry Creek: Not Just for Yuppie Dickheads Anymore."
Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
Over the past twelve months, many great restaurants have opened in Denver. But Z Cuisine is the best. In addition to its intimate room, amazing food, wonderful service and obsessively dedicated chef, Patrick Dupays, it has a special je ne sais quoi -- that indescribable, warm and electric vibe of a house working at its absolute peak. Every dinner here is a celebration of life and love and food and good company, every night a party. For bringing to Denver this joie de vivre, this endless revel and non-stop culinary bacchanal, Z Cuisine deserves to be named best new restaurant of the year.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Steve Ell's little-burrito-chain-that-could has come a long way in the dozen years since it opened its first outlet at 1644 West Evans Avenue -- all the way to Wall Street, where it raised $45 million on its first day of public trading this year. En route, Ells entered into a partnership with (read: sale to) McDonald's, making Chipotle another chain restaurant in a world that's already more or less owned by chains. But in this case, bigger is better: How else are the good people of Minnesota, Georgia or New Hampshire going to learn what a great burrito is supposed to taste like? Better Chipotle than Taco Bell. Better Chipotle than McDonald's, even. For that matter, better Chipotle than 99 percent of the mom-and-pop stores rolling burritos here in Denver, Colorado.

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