Cafe Society

Fare to Remember

Every year while on dining duty, I discover stand-out dishes--some so good that I must return to their home restaurants on my own time to sample them again. And 1997 was no exception: I ate at 200 or so restaurants and enjoyed so much wonderful food that I had a tough time narrowing things down to a meal's worth of favorite dishes. Still, if I had an unlimited budget, all the time in the world to drive all over town and no worries about my cholesterol level, the following would be my dream meal, based on this past year of eating.

1. Appetizer, Part I
Ilio's Mediterranean Restaurant
1201 Broadway

Denver's biggest food fad of 1997--tapas--has split the appetizer category in two. Although for years local restaurants have tried to pass off pseudo-Spanish creations as true tapas (small bites of food that go well with drinks and conversation), they've all failed miserably. Until now. I welcome the tapas trend; as a hired belly, I certainly don't have any problem with eating before I eat. So my first stop would be to pick up a couple dozen orders of the lamb ribs at Ilio's, a Mediterranean eatery that's part of the new wave of tapas joints that clearly know what the word means. And there's one other word for these ribs: exquisite. Chef Sean Brasel takes babyback lamb bones in all their fatty glory and coats them in a sweet, sticky sauce with the texture of sap, a hint of heat and a saturation of juices from the ribs' meat, of which there's just enough to get you truly hooked. The first time I had them bones, I was asking for more before I'd taken my second bite.

2. Appetizer, Part II
Brasserie Z
851 17th Street

Okay, now it's time for a full-blown starter, and none is more ideal than the fried artichokes at Brasserie Z. This appetizer looks daunting, but it's actually light, made with ingredients that stimulate the appetite without doing in the palate. Chef Sean Yontz shaves artichokes into thin, tiny slivers and then dusts them with seasoned flour before flash-frying them in hot oil. The result is a glorious pile of crispy bits and pieces, more addictive than French fries, with a mild artichoke flavor. Eat them as is, or dip them into the pungent basil aioli.

3. Salad
Bistro Adde Brewster
250 Steele Street

Over the past several years, other items have come and gone from the menu at Bistro Adde Brewster, but the lamb-loin salad remains a keeper. Large enough to be a meal in itself, the salad features butter-soft medallions of seared lamb offered in perfect proportion to flawless, hand-picked hearts of romaine and mixed greens, as well as cucumber slices, soft nuggets of goat cheese and lightly roasted olives, all judiciously doused with a smooth, mellow oregano vinaigrette that completes the Mediterranean effect.

4. Soup
Carmen and Jean-Paul's Franktown Grill
7517 East Highway 86, Franktown

When Carmen Jennings and Jean-Paul Beining decided to sell Soren's, their popular Cherry Creek restaurant, people thought they were crazy to open another eatery in Franktown, of all places. But the location is close to their hometown of Elizabeth, and Cherry Creek's loss is the Parker area's gain. Especially since no one in those parts had been serving vichyssoise (please, say vishee-swahz, not vishee-swah), and certainly not the kind of vichyssoise made by Beining, a native of France. This reprise from Soren's is as smooth as cream and balances potatoes and leeks for a rich, flavorful concoction that proves why the soup is one of France's best exports. It's chilled in the summer, hot in the winter, and heaven anytime.

5. Pasta
15 Degrees
1965 15th Street, Boulder

Cavatappi is the Italian word for "corkscrew," and it's also the name of a marvelous, corkscrew-shaped pasta that's only recently been popping up on Denver menus. Well, expect to see more of it, particularly once chefs realize how well the wiggly shapes hold on to sauces. And the sauce served on the cavatappi at 15 Degrees is worth holding on to: a rich, sharp balsamic reduction that cloaks not only the pasta, but also tender braised rabbit, wilted arugula, soft chantarelles and thick, chewy pieces of bacon. The only downside to this dish is that cavatappi is a dense pasta and thus very filling, so it requires a great inner struggle to determine when to stop eating the marvelous combination. That is, if you can stop.

6. Fish
Jax Fish House
1539 17th Street

One of the nicest things to happen to LoDo since Coors Field opened, Jax has quickly become one of the area's most popular eateries. And with good reason, because this place knows its fish--and Denver had been in desperate need of more good fish houses. Proof of Jax's proficiency with fin is the "filet mignon" of tuna, a creation of chef Paul Schutt's that is an extraordinary marriage of sweet and sour, rich and tangy. Schutt sears a hunk of tuna on the grill, leaving it nearly raw in the center, then adorns it with a sweetened soy sauce set off by pickled ginger. Despite the embellishments, the plush, fresh flesh of the tuna stands out.

7. Meat
Bruno's Italian Bistro
2223 South Monaco Parkway

The third lamb dish in this imaginary meal--is the U.S. finally catching on?--the Tuscan lamb shank at Bruno's is the ultimate comfort food, the kind of thing you long for on a cold winter's night along with a glass of deep, dark red wine and a blazing fire. The steamy garlic rises up to offer a taste before you've even put a fork to the shank, and the meat is almost liquefied, literally falling off the bone. It falls into a red wine sauce sparked by the lamb's juices as well as kalamatas and tomatoes, then reduced down to a gravy that's perfect for the accompanying chunky, hand-mashed potatoes. At $13.95, this dish is quite a baa-aa-argain.

8. Side Dish
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House
8100 East Orchard Road, Greenwood Village

Even though a side of mashed potatoes comes with the lamb shank, Del Frisco's potato innovation is too good to pass up. Here, as at any other self-respecting, big-name steakhouse, a lot of effort is put into the side dishes--but even so, Del Frisco's skillet potatoes are something special. A fun side, one that doesn't take itself too seriously (or need a thick slather of sour cream), the crunchy taters look more like thick, homemade potato chips, arranged vertically--which makes them easy to grab--and draped with damp, grilled onion slivers. A smidgen of grease from the skillet and a smattering of salt, and I'll bet you can't eat just one--and I mean one order.

9. Dessert
1509 Marion Street

At janleone, it's not just one dessert that's noteworthy, it's the whole danged lot of them. While chef/owner Jan Leone concentrates on the main courses (good news: She recently made her fabulous paella a permanent fixture on the menu), her daughter, Mara, is responsible for the unbelievably delicious tiramisu, the decadent chocolate bread pudding (made with brownies), the soothing blueberry bread pudding (made with blueberry muffins) and the killer turtle cheesecake. Get them all--you have a whole new year to work them off.