Masalaa
Creamed spinach can be great, but the best friend that creamed spinach ever had was a steak. Make that the best American friend that creamed spinach ever had was a steak, because there are plenty of ethnic restaurants where vegetarianism is not about the denial of pleasure (read: meat), but the glorification of vegetables. And at Masalaa, you'll be so busy eating creamed spinach with twenty different spices and squeaky cubes of cheese -- better known as saag paneer -- that you won't give a thought to the missing pork chops or porterhouse. There's just too much on this menu to enjoy. The gigantic food-as-art dosa are meals in themselves, the innumerable chickpea creations are excellent, and every creamy, rich and stunningly complex sauce is a masterwork.
D Note
The D Note's menu isn't entirely vegetarian, but the parts that are -- better than half of the offerings, with many of them completely vegan -- are so good that you'll barely notice the lack of pepperoni and hot Italian sausage. And if you do, there's always the other half of the menu on which to slake your carnivorous bloodthirst. Chef Amy Wroblewski and the DeGraff brothers, who own the D Note, have assembled a wild board of custom pizzas with carefully sourced, high-quality ingredients piled so high you'll never leave hungry. For vegetarians, virtue has its own reward: an overloaded monster covered in oil and basil pesto, huge puffs of ricotta cheese, vegan mozzarella, artichoke hearts or anything else your twig- and berry-eating heart desires.
Mercury Cafe
Who is this city's most fierce, forward-forging green advocate? The answer is blowing in the wind. This year, Marilyn Megenity -- who infuses her Mercury Cafe with good, organic food and intelligent entertainment and fuels her own car with vegetable-oil fuel -- took out a loan on her home so she could install two forty-foot-tall Air X turbines on the roof of the Merc's longtime home in downtown Denver. Though Megenity's quixotic installation (which is small in comparison to those that whir out on the prairie) isn't big enough to completely cover the restaurant's energy-consumption needs, the windmills do something else just as important: They set an example for the rest of us.
Gaia Bistro
Mark Manger
Gaia is the goddess of the earth and everything that comes from the earth, including all of the wonderful dishes -- the buttery quiches and buckwheat crepes wrapped around peppered lamb loin with wild mushrooms and fragrant pots of French-pressed, organic Kaladi Brothers coffee -- served by Patrick Mangold-White and Jon Edwards at Gaia, a restaurant tucked into a little clapboard house on South Pearl. But it's in the summer months that the place really comes alive. That's when the focus moves from the charming window seats indoors to the outdoors, where the raised beds in the back yard produce much of the menu's ingredients. This is truly a garden of the food gods.
Flower Wraps Cafe and Urban Market
Platt Park residents Val and Carolyn Erpelding combined their talents -- he's a chef (and an accomplished ice sculptor), she's a florist -- to create the multi-purpose Flower Wraps, a restaurant/coffeehouse/flower shop that gets people coming and going. Situated adjacent to the Louisiana and Pearl LRT station, the restaurant part of the operation serves breakfast, lunch and "twilight" menus for people on the run, and caters to its clientele-in-transit with the "Fastracks Next Day Program," which lets customers order a sandwich on the way home and pick it up in a reusable bag to take to work the next morning. Bouquets are also on the menu, with everything from a dozen roses to an English garden basket option ripe for the picking.
Rioja
Scott Lentz
Chef/co-owner Jen Jasinski has put up many impressive menus at Rioja. But with all her housemade pastas, salads, Colorado lamb dishes and an ever-changing pork-heavy, Mediterranean board, there's always been one delicious constant: the Rioja "picnic." Combining Spanish chorizo, air-dried duck breast, shaved speck, Italian gorgonzola and assorted olives, nuts and condiments, this plate truly has something for everyone. And if you enjoy your picnic on Rioja's small, pleasant patio on busy Larimer Square, you're guaranteed to see almost everyone you know. Just don't offer to share; you'll want to keep this plate all for yourself.
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.

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