And We Have a Winner!

In the December 30 Mouthing Off, I invited readers to guess when the very lame Dante Bichette's Sports Bar and Grill, at 700 East 17th Avenue, would finally strike out. As it turns out, even the most pessimistic prediction was much rosier than reality, since the restaurant shut its doors this past weekend. The closest call came from TheNewk, who e-mailed his pick of February 3, "right before spring training resumes...I also predict someone will paint over that garish purple on the building no later than February 5." The vote's still out on that second prediction, but in the meantime, I'll be buying TheNewk dinner -- not, thank God, at Dante's infernal place.

Rocky Mountain highs: If you're tired of the food in Denver, it's time to head for the hills. Not only can an excellent meal be had at Restaurant on the Ridge (see review ), but the January 7 Winter Park Chef's Cup showcased other worthy alternatives for that post-skiing binge.

The Cup was started five years ago as a fundraiser for Winter Park's Disabled Skiers Program. Every year since then, folks from Denver's School of Culinary Arts at the Colorado Institute of Art have helped judge the entries from participating restaurants, which vie for such prizes as a professional knife set, chef's jackets and other cooking-related items. This year's judges included Gary Prell (who works for the Art Institutes, the culinary school's parent); culinary academic supervisors Jackson Lamb and Doug Zimmerman; director of operations Chris DeJohn and instructors Mary Scott, Anne Craddock and Peggy Alter; and Rocky Mountain News restaurant critic Thom Wise and me. Armed with our combined vast knowledge of the culinary profession and a shot of tequila each, we proceeded to eat some of every item presented for judging. That meant at least two dishes (and sometimes three or four) per restaurant, from which we then had to choose winners in four main categories and a few wacky ones for fun. The overall winner -- the best of the wursts, you might say -- was Gasthaus Eichler (78786 U.S. Highway 40 in Winter Park), which took the top prize with its incredible re-creation of a German charcuterie. A whole, bratwurst-stuffed smoked pig was the highlight of the Gasthaus offerings, which also featured a variety of wursts, pheasant en croûte and pork pâté, along with some caviar and a plum pudding drenched in liqueur-spiked crème anglaise.

The Gasthaus had some competition from The Lodge at Sunspot (the official address is 677 Winter Park Drive, but it's right off the Zephyr lift), which wowed us with what we judges kept referring to as "The Bunny": homemade pasta pillows stuffed with wild mushrooms, rabbit confit and caramelized onions, with more mushrooms and onions on the side and a textbook-perfect basil cream sauce. This preparation was so delicious, we gave it top honors in the Taste category. First place in Creativity went to Paul's Creekside Grill at the Inn at Silver Creek (62927 Highway 40 in Granby), for chef Seth Daugherty's creamy-textured goat-cheese terrine, a house-cured salmon and his signature Thai noodle dish, the recipe for which I published in the December 24, 1998, Mouthing Off. (I raved about Paul's Creekside Grill in my Cafe review, "A Gift for You," in the same issue.) Best Vegetarian went to Winston's at the Vintage (100 Winter Park Drive), for what one of the judges said was the best portabello preparation he'd ever had: The 'shrooms were coated with molasses and beer. I also thought Winston's venison was to die for -- although a vegetarian would probably do just that before tasting the dish. Best Dessert went to the delectable blackberry bread pudding at Restaurant on the Ridge, and Best Baked Goods to the Showboat Bakery (308 West Agate Avenue in Granby), which is getting a reputation for its fabulous green-chile apple pie. Other highlights: the étouffée from Fontenot's Cajun Cafe (78711 U.S. Highway 40) and the grilled sesame quail with Oriental slaw and ginger peach salsa from The Rails at Iron Horse (257 Winter Park Drive).

Sadly, one perennial favorite was no longer with us: The Fraser Brazier has closed, taking with it the secret for its acclaimed barbecued carrots.

Elsewhere on the planet: Okay, all ten of you Planet Hollywood fanatics, it's time to face facts. We're never going to get a Planet Hollywood. Not only is the chain dropping sites like flies -- the latest to close is the Beverly Hills restaurant, considered to be one of its flashier, most high-profile spots, leaving just two open in California -- but spokesman John Caparella, who works in the corporate office in Orlando, Florida, says the company has no intention of doing anything in Denver in the foreseeable future. "Maybe a long, long time from now," he adds, with about as much oomph as one of the limp burgers the eatery serves. So forget all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans to make a Planet Hollywood the center of the LoDo universe at his long-awaited Stadium Walk project. But you can still satisfy your pathetic need for celebrity-gazing while eating crappy food at one of the 75 Planet Hollywoods open worldwide, including outlets in Helsinki and Amsterdam.

A few blocks away from Ahnold's project, Il Fornaio keeps things cooking at 1637 Wazee Street. You can also get a taste of this chain's excellent baked goods at the Spicy Pickle Sub Shop, 988 Lincoln Street, which stuffs its fillings into fabulous Il Fornaio bread. And that bread makes a difference, as the aubergine panini ($5.95) and the capicolla sub ($5.50) clearly demonstrated. The aubergine was an excellent vegetarian deal, with grilled eggplant, artichoke hearts, goat cheese and basil-mayo spread layered between two buttery slices of foccacia that were grilled to a lovely golden brown. The regular sub sandwiches are listed by meats, and you can choose from fifteen additional toppings, eleven spreads, nine cheeses and such breads as the hollowed-out Italian we got with the capicolla. Everything is fresh, the sandwiches are well-wrapped to avoid leakage (you can also eat inside the storefront), and the pickles, of course, are spicy. Unlike the bread, they're made on the premises.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner