Best Chef 2016 | Mark Ferguson | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Some people have a way of talking that makes you feel like you're the only one in the room. Mark Ferguson, chef/owner at Solitaire, cooks this way. Everything about his sprawling restaurant makes you feel special, from the garden-side setting that offers some of the most romantic tables in town to the menu that he so masterfully crafts. Plates come together confidently, gracefully, thoughtfully — with an eye to presentation that reflects Ferguson's twenty years with Wolfgang Puck. Ferguson is far from the only chef in town who's attuned to seasonality, but his dishes are refreshingly original, so full of cleverly united ingredients that you'll find yourself nodding in appreciation, even for foods you heretofore might not have liked. Octopus, for example, dotted with chorizo, roasted grapes and black garlic, or bread pudding with figs, maple syrup and foie gras. Never content to rest on his laurels, Ferguson is always trying new things, experimenting with a dash of hazelnut pistou here, a dab of Chinese black-bean sauce there — and as a result, Solitaire's menu changes like the wind. In some restaurants, you'd be annoyed to find that the dish you relished last time has been replaced. Here, however, you're pleased — no, delighted — to go in whatever culinary direction Ferguson takes you.

Readers' choice: Troy Guard
Molly Martin

No new restaurant captured the zeitgeist of Denver's dining scene quite like Hop Alley, the second eatery from Tommy Lee, whose noodle bar Uncle was no less of a hit when it opened in 2012. How did Lee repeat the success of his first go-around? With a slate of rare, regional Chinese dishes — many borrowed from his childhood visits to Hong Kong — tied to tradition by wood-fire cooking and amplified by the funky flavors of vegetables fermented and pickled in-house. The name Hop Alley honors Denver's original Chinatown, but the cuisine wanders far from standard Chinese-American fare, with cumin-tinged lamb sandwiches called rou jia mo from Shaanxi province; tongue-buzzing spices from Sichuan; and alternating cooling and warming elements to keep the palate stimulated — from jiggly chilled tofu to earthy char-siu pork belly with braised mustard greens. The eatery's instant success when it opened at the end of 2015 was proof that Denver diners are ready to be challenged, titillated and rewarded with a whole new world of gustatory experience. And Hop Alley also pushed the boundaries of Denver's dining scene into fresh new territory, taking fine dining further north than it had ever gone before in the booming River North neighborhood.

Readers' choice: Avanti Food & Beverage

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