The Bite

At this time last year, I was lamenting Denver's lack of great restaurants, as well as its excess of lousy service. Well, the service hasn't improved much, but several wonderful eateries opened in 2001, and many other eateries got better, so picking my annual dream meal was a little tougher this time.

While Triana served my choice for the appetizer course (because it does so many starters so well), a close runner-up was the Gorgonzola cheesecake at Pesce Fresco (6600 South Quebec Street, Englewood). This cozy restaurant fills a twelve-ounce ramekin with a dense, creamy cheesecake made even richer by the nutty cheese, then tops it with caramelized onions and tosses deep-fried mushroom bits on the side.

Although none produce a version as dreamy as Mizuna's, other places do right by foie gras. Micole, for example, whose venison tenderloin was my pick for the year's best meat entree. The kitchen at this prix fixe establishment (despite predictions that diners would balk at the concept and the price, Micole endures) gently sears the duck liver, then pairs it with a sliver of caramelized endive and a tart biscuit tinged with the juice of blood oranges and spiced with cinnamon.

Soup and salad were easier to choose, because few restaurants seemed interested in coming up with creative dishes for these courses. Notable exceptions were the soups at Hilltop Cafe; chef Ian Kleinman is making a name for himself with his rotating repertoire of nearly a hundred top-notch broths. The only other salad I considered was the ensalada Cuba Cuba at Cuba Cuba (1173 Delaware Street), which is stunning in its simplicity.

There were two more strong contenders in the pasta category: the stuffed shells at Santino's on Downing (2390 South Downing Street), packed with creamy ricotta and smothered in mozzarella and chef/owner Sonny Rando's sweet marinara; and the penne alla Caprese at Campo de Fiori (300 Fillmore Street) another dish that dazzles through sheer simplicity.

Also wonderful was the pan-seared Muscovy duck at Amuse (1430 Pearl Street, Boulder), which boasted a rich, crispy skin and a drop-dead-delicious honey-fig sauce. And both the pan-seared trout and the baby-back pork ribs at Sage Southwestern Grill (699 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton) were dishes to remember.

While few sides stood out, the Gorgonzola-loaded gratin-style potatoes at the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue) are the kind of partly crunchy, partly soft spuds that put potatoes at the top of so many people's comfort-food lists. But the best comfort course of all is dessert. Here I debated between Aix's chocolate torte, the pine-nut-filled, gingerbread-like pastel de chocolate diablo at Julia Blackbird's (3617 West 32nd Avenue) and the tres leches at Cuba Cuba.

I never did figure out where to put the multiple-orgasm roll from Hapa (2780 East Second Avenue), but it should be part of any dream meal. The roll, which arrives looking like many little Os in a row, is actually constructed of cream cheese, crab, tempura-wrapped smoked salmon and what's billed as a "luscious cream sauce," a description that doesn't do that item justice. Eating one never failed to elicit a moan from me.

Here's hoping your New Year is filled with as many multiple Os as you can stomach.