Ya Hala Grill
The space is small and more than a little ragged. The service runs at a pace somewhere between slow-but-friendly and glacial. And the menu seems oddly foreshortened. But at Ya Hala, all that matters is the food -- and the food is absolutely fabulous. The kitchen must be imbued with some kind of natural magic for the deep-but-narrow cuisine of the Middle East, because it turns out unbelievably good roasted chicken, shawarma and baked goods -- particularly the baklava, a dish we'd simply assumed that, like celery, roasted eggplant or the musical stylings of John Tesh, was just not to our taste. But Ya Hala's baklava is food for the gods, a fitting end to a meal that starts with the best hummus in the city (flavored with sumac powder and olive oil) and just goes up from there. The presentations are straightforward, the flavors blunt and lovely, and each plate is given an attention born of complete love of the cuisine -- no shortcuts, no scrimping.
House of Kabob
For twenty years, House of Kabob has been jammed into this strip mall, tangled up with other Middle Eastern markets and restaurants. That's twenty years of Persian cuisine, twenty years of kabobs and lamb tongue and herbed yogurt and pita. And while the room -- done in regal purple, with pale wood tables and booth backs -- certainly shows its age, it's still comfortable, a place where it's easy to settle in and waste an entire afternoon sampling a cuisine born of spice caravans and killing desert heat. Everything is rough: rough-chopped peppers burnt on the grill; rough-cut chunks of lamb, sliced small and fatty and tumbled into folded pitas along with big chunks of charred onion and charred tomato turned sweet and wet in the heat. This is peasant food in the purest sense, ancient and unchanged by a Colorado area code.
Yanni's Greek Restaurant
At Yanni's Greek Taverna, no meal can start without ouzo, no meal can proceed without a big spread of mezedes (Greek tapas), and no meal is complete without somebody ordering the lamb. When the wind is right, when owner Yanni Stavropoulos has the gigantic outdoor rotisserie grill fired up in this strip mall off Monaco, the odor of roasting meat and garlic and wine mixes with car exhaust and the stink of hot blacktop into an aroma of history cut loose from chronology. You can see Stavropoulos standing over that grill like some kind of laughing spirit from an expurgated chapter of the Iliad -- the Lamb God, bringer of barbecue -- and you understand on a very basic gut level why the Greeks never developed a haute cuisine and why Greek food never really progressed beyond this simple interchange between man, meat and fire. Because it was already perfect the way it was.
Last year, Arada moved out of its home on East Colfax and into a small, comfortable space on Santa Fe surrounded by taqueras and art galleries, in just the right area for catching hungry adventurers looking for an interesting dinner on a Saturday night. It's a nice place with scratchy tablecloths and no silverware, strong, sweet black coffee served in tiny demitasse cups, a full bar and a modern kitchen, and decor dominated by a large map of Ethiopia. But the important thing here is the menu, an uncompromising document that presents Ethiopian cuisine in a style almost completely unchanged from how it's served in the mother country. The slew of sides that attend many of the dishes are reminiscent of the more common cuisines they've inspired (Cajun and Caribbean and American soul food); the spicy meat dishes -- best served raw -- have both the feel of something comfortingly familiar and the taste of a food that's still completely alien to many people.
Cafe Paprika
Courtesy Cafe Paprika Facebook
Bastilla and sweetened black coffee at Cafe Paprika: That's the one order that captures the essence of Morocco in particular and North Africa as a whole. Ginger and cumin and saffron, cinnamon and powdered sugar, a billion layers of phyllo dough with shreds of herbed chicken stuck in between, the heat of the coffee on your fingers through the filigreed glass cup -- all of it combines to transport you far from the Denver strip malls and deep into the deserts of the other side of the world.
Tuna nicoise; grilled Andouille sausage with charred peppers, olives, almonds and pumpkin seeds; a cheese plate with poached pears and lavender honey; mushroom tarts in cognac sauce. These are just a few of the unique tastes of Aix-en-Provence featured at Restaurant Aix. Feeling a bit more Mediterranean? No problem. The menu also features shrimp risotto and mussels in a roasted tomato sauce with Pernod. Since the influences of Northern Italy, Barcelona and Belgium all flavor the cuisine of Provence, they're all duly represented on this menu. And while the dining room where you'll devour these dishes feels sleek and modern, the food carries a sense of history that's inescapable.
Le Central
We go to Le Central like Catholics go to confession -- as a way to clear the head and save the soul after a week spent doing wrong. For serious fans of French food, Le Central is a required stop. But even if you just dream of spending a lazy Sunday afternoon hanging around a Parisian cafe reading Rimbaud and wearing a beret, Le Central is calling. From the unabashedly Gallic menu (loup de mer in port-wine reduction, escargots Bourguignon and Canard Grand Veneur roasted crisply and served with currant jelly) to the specials (such as an all-truffle menu for thirty bucks a head) to the nine-dollar bowls of perfectly done mussels and all-you-can-eat frites, owner Robert Tournier's little slice of the Left Bank is truly one of Denver's landmarks.
Z Cuisine and A Cote Bar a Absinthe
One of the best, most recognizable dishes in the epic French canon is cassoulet. And at Z Cuisine, one of the best, most recognizable dishes on chef/owner Patrick DuPays's chalkboard menu is a cassoulet maison that does proud every French cook ever tasked with carrying on the cassoulet tradition. One taste of DuPays's version -- which combines a leg of duck confit on the bone, local sausage, stiff white beans, bitter greens and whole cippolini onions gone soft as roasted garlic cloves, all in a tomato broth muscled up with stock and deeply, richly flavored with the mingled essences of each individual ingredient -- will remind even the most recalcitrant epicure why the French deserve their position of honor as the undisputed masters of cuisine both haute and basse, because there's nothing more comforting, nothing more charming, than a real cassoulet expertly done. Bracket it with a brilliant assiette de campagnard and maybe a bowl of the celery soup with cr?me frache (when available), and you'll know that Z Cuisine represents the best of France that Denver has to offer.
When Limn opened last July, it did so without the opening-night fireworks that have become rather customary for Denver's big addresses. But this was by design. What looked like one of those open-the-doors-and-pray scenarios was actually orchestrated inside and out by Kate LaCroix from Dish Publicity, and it worked amazingly well considering that the only thing more difficult to find than a succinct definition of chef Alex Gurevich's Novoandino cuisine was an open table during Limn's first few weeks. Granted, Limn is small, but its debut was one of the most surprising crushes of the year. And now, nine months into a very good year, Limn is expanding -- which is good news for the entire dining scene, since it shows that a smart idea can pay off.
There was no doubt that Lola had outgrown its original location. It had outgrown the space within a few weeks of Dave Query and chef Jamey Fader opening their little coastal Mexican seafood shack on South Pearl. What was never a sure thing, however, was whether the loyal crowd of regulars, neighbors, brunchers and margarita-suckers would follow Lola to its new home at the edge of Highland last April. Today, though, Lola is living large, because not only were the faithful willing to charge that hill, but the restaurant picked up a slew of new customers who'd apparently been waiting for such a spot to move in so that they could swill great margaritas on the patio, pitch tents in the dining room and absolutely refuse to leave.

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