When I became the Westword restaurant critic in summer 2012, I knew there were many terrific meals ahead of me. What I didn’t realize was that my tenure would coincide with Denver’s Wild West boomlet and that my reviews would chronicle our city’s transformation. Food halls like Avanti, Milk Market and Denver Central Market weren’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye six and a half years ago. Union Station was a dilapidated train station, and Larimer Square was the hub of fine dining. Capturing just how much has changed is this snapshot from my review of the Populist, published on March 14, 2013: “Set on a dark stretch that looks deserted even though it isn’t, the Populist has been nudging diners to venture farther up Larimer.” Farther up Larimer! These days, that part of town wouldn’t look deserted even at 1 a.m. in a blizzard! (I’m only partially kidding.)
Growth has its downsides: rising rents, increased traffic, gentrification. But it also directly translates to more kitchens and more opportunities for chefs to wow us with their creativity. Here are the ten best dishes to come out of those kitchens this year, the majority at restaurants in parts of town that are unrecognizable from when I started the job:
Tartines at Call
2845 Larimer Street
Before this sliver of a restaurant was named one of the ten best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appétit, I was singing the praises of Call. I liked its Scandinavian leanings and cheeky decor, including tin-can phones shellacked bright orange and dangling from the ceiling. I liked its headlong embrace of little-known fare (aebleskiver, anyone?) that didn’t cater to the law of averages. And I liked — no, loved — its tartines. So much more than fancy toast, these smørrebrød — Danish open-faced sandwiches built upon dense, seeded rye — were distillations of the restaurant. The smoked mackerel with curried onions and droplets of garlic aioli was confident and bold. The feta, grapefruit and blueberry jam was refreshing and bright. The smoked mushrooms with thick, housemade ricotta, fresh parsley and mint was a seasonal hello. Tartines aren’t the only temptations at Call, but no visit here is complete without one.
Fried Eggplant at Q House
3421 East Colfax Avenue
Eggplant isn’t the easiest vegetable to cook; it soaks up too much oil and can be bitter if not properly prepped. But in good hands, this purple-skinned odd fellow can be transcendent, as it was at Q House, Chris Lin’s contemporary Chinese restaurant. Sliced into logs, the eggplant was dusted in potato starch and rice flour moistened with a cheffy splash of vodka and water. Hot from the fryer, it morphed into crackly batons, their savory, pudding-like flesh accented by gently sweet General Tso’s sauce. Lin has had years to perfect his technique: The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he worked at his parents’ Chinese-American restaurant growing up, then honed his chops at the Culinary Institute of America and at Ssäm Bar in New York.
Malabi at Safta
3330 Brighton Boulevard
The little-known secret at Safta, the first effort beyond New Orleans for two-time James Beard award-winning chef Alon Shaya, is that dessert is every bit as spectacular as the hummus and wood-fired pita that kick off your meal. Pastry chef Liliana Myers has crafted a smart roster of sweets in keeping with the rest of the Israeli-inspired menu, but what captivated me most was the cool, silky pudding called malabi. Rather than having that cloying vanilla aftertaste so common in American sweets, this milk pudding was subtle and haunting, slicked with rosewater-scented syrup and topped with almonds and grapefruit sections. Accents vary with the seasons, but trust Myers to always come up with something inspired.
Dry-Aged Ribeye at Citizen Rail
1899 16th Street
Whether 100 percent grass-fed or grain-finished, whether served with béarnaise, chimichurri or just a thorough sprinkling of salt, great steaks have been a perk of this job. The one that stands out — not just for this year, but for all time — was a bone-in ribeye at Citizen Rail, the steakhouse that’s more than a steakhouse inside the Hotel Born. Hand-cut by the in-house butcher and dry-aged for a month, my hefty eighteen-ounce ribeye settled into the best version of itself, ultra-beefy and oh-so-tender. Not even the bourbon peppercorn sauce could improve on that baby.