Best Meatball 2015 | Acorn | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

The best meatball in town doesn't come on top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese. Rather, it comes in a cast-iron skillet, which is delivered by the servers at Acorn with the warning to be careful, this is hot. What they should warn you about instead is how you'll want to eat your weight in these suckers. Tender as butter, they're served over rich, coarse-ground grits with melted burrata and just enough tomato sauce to hold each bite together. If you were at any other restaurant, we'd encourage you to throw caution to the wind and eat course after course of the stuff. But this is Acorn, owned by powerhouse duo Bryan Dayton and Steven Redzikowski, with Amos Watts manning the day-to-day kitchen operations — so there's plenty more deliciousness to come.

Beast is in the name of this bright and lively eatery, and beast is what you'll get — in almost every form but beef. Chef/co-owner Paul Reilly has earned a reputation for whole-animal butchery and top-caliber dishes based on pork, lamb, poultry and seafood, but you won't see any steaks on the menu. That's because while Reilly is dedicated to bringing in whole animals, a side of beef is simply too big to fit in the tiny kitchen. Instead, look for lamb and pork roasts and braises on the big-plates menu, with more difficult cuts of the same animals transformed into charcuterie — terrines, sausages and cured cuts — on the small-plates side. Seasonal fish and fowl are also lovingly handled, so you'll find crudos, clams, guinea hens or sturgeon, depending on the time of year and what strikes the kitchen's fancy. And for plant-based diners, there's plenty to choose from, too, with all-veggie creations in both appetizer and entree sizes. With so much variety packed into such a small menu, even the most die-hard beef lovers will barely notice the missing moo.

Danielle Lirette

We wouldn't steer you wrong: It takes balls — bull's balls — to open a modern steakhouse in this cowtown. And when Troy Guard's Guard and Grace debuted in a stunning first-floor space in a renovated downtown high-rise, it clearly had cojones to spare. Although Guard had to work hard at first to fix early problems, today Guard and Grace is as good as any cow palace Denver has seen, with a smart menu that gives plenty of attention to the main event (grass-fed filet mignon, oak-fired prime rib, spanking-fresh salmon, Colorado rack of lamb) while also turning out sides that are far from standard steakhouse glop. The setting is lovely, the service attentive, and Guard is definitely a man on the moo.

Readers' choice: Capital Grille

It's no surprise that Vesta has a way with grilled meats, but even skeptical steak lovers will be impressed with the kitchen's mastery of tenderloin. Rather than trying to reinvent steakhouse fare for the small-plates set, Vesta proudly presents a platter of meat and potatoes, sided with nothing more than seasonal flourishes and your choice of sauces. The steak itself is a dark beauty, sporting stripes from the grill and a light crust of simple seasonings. The kitchen gets the temperature just right, too, especially if your preference is medium-rare, letting the steak sauce itself with savory juices. But while purists might skip the sides of sauce, that's where Vesta shows off its playful side (and lives up to its name), with aiolis, emulsions and gastriques guaranteed to bring out the best in the beef. And since you call the shots, you can go with a light touch or a heavy hand when it comes to dunking each bite.

If you're going to cure meats for two restaurants, you might as well build your own curing facility — which is exactly what Colt & Gray owner-executive chef Nelson Perkins did when he decided to expand Colt & Gray. His cured-meat program had started simply, with a duck prosciutto and a country pâté on Colt & Gray's opening menu, but it soon grew to take over the massive space beneath the restaurant. He gave the facility its own name — Viande (French for "meat") — and tasked sous-chef Kyle Foster with butchering a pig and a lamb every week, turning every bit into bacon, coppa, speck and more, including the rarely seen cicciola and porchetta di testa. Viande's humidity-controlled chambers operate at a constant 42 degrees (slightly lower than at other facilities), which doubles the time it takes to cure — but also doubles the depth of flavor and puts a nice finish on dried sausages.

Danielle Lirette

Chef/restaurateur Mary Nguyen came to prominence with her elegant interpretations of Vietnamese cuisine, but her love of European cafe culture prompted her to open Olive & Finch, an all-day market serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a casual, bustling atmosphere that encourages lingering and neighborly exchanges. The overall menu board is delicious and comforting, but it's the Greggers tongue sandwich that has us talking. The finicky cut, which can yield tough results in inexperienced hands, is cooked low and slow before being piled onto a crusty baguette with sweet caramelized onions and red peppers. A smear of tarragon aioli adds bright, herbal notes while a dab of roasted-garlic purée balances the mineral qualities of the tongue with rustic, earthy flavor. A cascade of arugula lends a fresh and bitter bite.

Back in 2011, chef-owner Ryan Leinonen transformed a hundred-year-old Ballpark-neighborhood pawn shop into a glossy but approachable modern Scandinavian restaurant that rapidly became known for its Swedish-, Norwegian- and Finnish-influenced-menu, which pays special attention to smoked and brined fish and smorgasbord appetizers. Trillium is not shy about serving assertive fish and seafood, nor about making sure that diners taste some strong flavors — which is why it makes sense that the house signature pâté is a far cry from bland or ordinary, even though it's meatier than much of the rest of the menu. Leinonen's Hudson Valley foie gras pâté features liver that's rich, buttery and plated with pickled foraged mushrooms, "Grandma's rieska" (traditional Finnish flatbread), cloudberry preserves and a sprinkle of birch-smoked Icelandic sea salt. Cloudberries are rare, delicate and difficult to source, but they add a flawless touch of tart fruitiness for a dish — and a restaurant — that puts flavors forward.

Williams & Graham

Foie gras is among the most luxurious of luxury foods, and the fatty goose- or duck-liver delicacies are generally considered expensive — and controversial. At Williams & Graham, the sizzling-hot LoHi spot that channels a 1920s speakeasy, the cocktails are vintage-classy (you can feel perfectly at ease ordering a Brandy Alexander or a throwback absinthe specialty drink), and the menu is focused on upscale small plates with "rarebits" like roasted bone marrow with bacon jam, black-tea-smoked quail with pine-nut polenta, and seasonal deviled-egg specialties. So Williams & Graham is well-situated to feature an oft-provocative and pricey indulgence like foie gras in the most elegantly simple and completely inexpensive way: seared tidbits of duck liver over tiny toast tips with enough sweet-tart blackberry gastrique for dipping and a sprinkle of hazelnuts for bite. At just $10 a plate, the only controversy here is how many orders you can get at one time.

Mark Antonation

Boone's Tavern, a favorite in the University of Denver neighborhood, underwent some changes last year when part of the space was walled off and turned into the more upscale Atticus and the rest of the bar was given an upgrade over its old working-class, sports-bar vibe. One thing that didn't change, though, was the kitchen's knack for delivering tasty smokehouse meats. While Boone's offers its chicken wings either fried or smoked, go with the smoked to get a true taste of the house specialty. The additional layer of outdoorsy flavor beneath the sauce puts these wings in a class of their own. As for the sauce itself, eight options should make any wing lover happy, but the jalapeño gold stands out with just the right combination of heat, sweetness and tang.

Readers' choice: Fire on the Mountain

Chefs have been finding more and more creative ways to sell off-cuts of meat, either through the noble guise of nose-to-tail cooking or as an attempt to capture ethnic authenticity. Where chicken is concerned, once the breasts and thighs were gone, most people traditionally called it quits — or at least they did until that clever Buffalo bar owner figured out how to sell those mostly-skin-and-bone wings. But chicken skin, as it turns out, is one of the most flavorful bits of the bird, especially when fried or roasted to a crisp. Skipping past the meat and bones entirely, Pinche's chicken chicharrones present nothing but skin, sliced into bite-sized curls and deep-fried to a mahogany crisp. A post-fryer dusting of seasoning adds chili-powder zip, and a dunk in tart salsa casera balances the fatty nuggets with zesty lime and a face-slap of heat from habanero peppers. The cute appetizer bowl is small and cheap enough for a pre-taco indulgence, and these chicharrones won't fill you up like their heavier pork-rind cousins.

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