Cafe Society

A rearview look at the year in food

It was the year of the gastropub, the year of the gourmet hamburger joint and cupcake shop, the year of the noodle bar. For me, it was the year of the book, the year I lost my father, the year I found out it was to be my last year in the Mile High City after already having put seven of them in my rearview mirror in what felt like record-breaking time.

In the wider world, it was the year of so many things — but I don't cotton much to the wider world. It's a big place, and scary. Full of too much I don't know and haven't seen. Which is why I think I find myself turning more and more inward with each passing season, attempting only to inhabit more fully the small worlds I know best, the vistas and landscapes wherein I feel some small measure of control.

I eat. It's what I do. It's how I make my living, what I do to find adventure, how I achieve rare moments of solace. Food is my history and my ease, the way I connect, how I time and temper my days. Food is the lens through which I view the world (wide or narrow) and my defense against its more bitter realities. My mouth has gone places the rest of me likely never will. My nose has sniffed scents that mean home in dozens of different languages. And while my lumpy, heavy, often exhausted, occasionally ravaged, sometimes joyous corporeal form has sat slumping around teahouses and dive bars, palaces and shacks, my brain — that inconstant organ, that rebellious, perennially unsatisfied knob of addled goo — has gone a-coursing, finding fun and excitement, intrigue, connection, diversion, division and comfort in the annals of momo, the stories of pho, the language of cooks, beer's ancient religion, sashimi's terrible arrogance and the secret strength of grits on the plate.

This was, as far as years go, one of my best and one of my worst. It wasn't that different in the restaurant world, a year born in assumptions of implosion and decline, penury, disaster and everyone sitting around eating cold Dinty Moore out of the can, huddled around a fire kindled by worthless Wall Street stock certificates and old back issues of Travel & Leisure magazine. But as the year progressed, all the penny-pinching and doomsaying became...dull. And when we pulled our heads up out of the sand, we saw that maybe things weren't so bad after all. Denver recovered faster than most places, maybe never suffered quite as badly. The restaurants were mostly still there when we needed them, the chefs standing patiently before their stoves, ready to do what they do best. In relative calm and something like quiet, we ended the year roughly where we'd begun it — in a growing food city, surrounded by some of the greatest chefs anywhere, all of them struggling, none of them willing to quit.

I reviewed fifty restaurants in 2009. I wrote and talked about countless more in the paper, on the blog, on Twitter and wherever else I could find some space or someone willing to listen. From all of that, I've come up with what amounts to one perfect meal, assembled from all the disparate parts of the hundreds of meals I ate throughout the year, made with the assumption that all those little niggling details like reservations, number of courses, credit limits, seating capacities and time and space don't matter, and taking for granted that little things like blood-alcohol limits, obesity, potential gout and access to a helicopter would all work themselves out in the end.

Any proper meal must start with cocktails. Preferably several of them. And because this is my fantasy dinner and my fantasy lineup, I'm going to be hitting a couple of different places. First, the Fainting Goat (846 Broadway), because over the past year it has become my neighborhood bar, and because it serves the best of the worst whiskeys known to man: Wall Street. This year, more than any other, a fine finger or two of Wall Street over ice just seems like a smart way to start things off.

After the Goat, I'll head to Colt & Gray (1553 Platte Street) for one of the best of the best whiskeys around: Stranahan's, served with C&G's special giant ice cube. Nelson Perkins's quasi-gastropub also serves a second purpose for this trip, standing as one of the finest places in town for a snack at the bar before the main dining event really gets under way. Crispy pig's trotters? Yes, please. A bowl of gougères? Absolutely. Both are perfect for priming the appetite without running any risk of putting it straight to bed.

TAG, Troy Guard's Larimer Square restaurant (1441 Larimer Street), is on my list for apps. For sushi tacos and pork belly ssam, for lovely plating acting in service of the food and preparations that have been honed and sharpened over years of practice under other roofs. The trick with TAG, though, is to not get too comfortable. I could easily go through two or three removes here and prematurely fill myself up, so I'll have a time limit: twenty minutes before a team of ex-Secret Service agents come in through the door, taze me, bag me and hustle me right down the road to Rioja (1433 Larimer) for chef Jen Jasinski's Rioja picnic — a perfect spread of cured meats, warm pine nut-crusted goat cheese, Italian gorgonzola, olives, truffled fennel salad and almonds. It's one of my favorite single plates in the city, and also nicely takes care of the charcuterie requirement of any proper blowout dinner.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan