Cafe Society

Course Correction

In 1998, the face of Denver dining changed from the wizened old visage of the familiar to the crazed, cash-hungry smirk of the young upstarts. While most of the restaurants the town lost were newer models, few of the disappearances came from links in chains. Although many old-timers are still hanging on for dear life, the sheer volume of medium to higher-end restaurants that opened this past year makes it clear that the days of savvy diners putting up with mediocre meals are numbered.

As I looked over the restaurants I reviewed in 1998, it became even more obvious that dining here is moving toward more innovative, elaborate fare, and that's where people are putting their money--sometimes a lot of it. Fewer readers are clamoring for out-of-the-way mom-and-pop joints. They all want to know about the latest hot spots, the big-time eateries, the famous chains that finally hit Colorado. And, surprise! I even found good food at some of those.

In fact, although I ate more than my share of awful meals, this was a year marked by an amazing number of good dishes. Some I found in old haunts; others came out of brand-new kitchens. And so, pulling from a fridge full of memories, I concocted my dream dinner of '98, from soup to nuts.

APPETIZER
Mattie's House of Mirrors
1942 Market Street

It's hard to pick just one appetizer at Mattie's, which stuns the senses not only with its sumptuous dishes, but also with its rich, warm decor and captivating history. Although chef Kip Wotanowicz has fun with all his food, he's most playful with his appetizers. For example, an order of Southwest duck "cigars" brings seasoned, shredded meat rolled in tortillas and fried crispy, served with black-bean-and-corn salsa and a cilantro pesto: These are taquitos with an attitude. But the rich, wild mushroom crepes--draped in mascarpone flavored with parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil--also cry out for some attention. And then there are the blue crabcakes with a spicy mango sauce and the spring rolls with wasabe aioli. On second thought, don't even try to pick just one. For starters, we'll take all of them.

SOUP
Wild Ginger
399 West Littleton Boulevard, Littleton

This is the ideal time of year to stop by Wild Ginger and order a bowl of Thai penicillin: a chicken with rice soup that makes the Jewish version look like so much chopped liver. A double-boiled chicken broth serves as the base, and it's packed with small bits of chicken, plenty of tummy-soothing rice and a touch of scallions. Since you can't find this elixir--yet--on the shelf of your local pharmacy, prepare to sit on the floor at one of the Asian-style tables and relax. The soup is just the beginning of all the goodies that this top-notch Thai eatery has in store for you, and the staff will take excellent care of you.

SALAD
Los Cabos II
1512 Curtis Street

If the salsa lessons at Los Cabos II don't rev you up, the ceviche mixto--a volatile mix of squid, shrimp, octopus and potato served on a bed of lettuce--certainly will. The raw seafood salad is fueled with the strong flavors of red onion and cilantro, along with plenty of aji, the ubiquitous Peruvian chile. Taking a bite of this fiery, sour and bracingly fresh stuff is like splashing cold water on your face.

PASTA
Dazzle
930 Lincoln Street

Most local takes on spaghetti carbonara are just peas and deli ham, but Dazzle chef/owner Theo Roe uses his noodle to better effect. His carbonara is all about balance, the right proportions of pancetta, cream, butter, eggs and cheese cooked into a plush mass that's almost too rich to eat and too rich not to. The harmony of the dish is echoed in the eclectic but inviting space that Roe and his crew transformed from the former fright that was Fuji-En into one of the best new restaurants of 1998.

FISH
Sushi Den
1487 South Pearl Street

If you've never tasted fresh fish--and I mean sushi-quality fresh--then the bamboo steamed fish at Sushi Den is a must. The type of creature featured depends on the day's catch, but delectable specimens of orange roughy, salmon and scallops are usually available. The confident kitchen sets the fish in a steamer along with tofu, Japanese greens, rice noodles and shiitake mushrooms and then lets the warm water cook it until the dish is just done. The result is a heady combination of simple flavors that makes the ponzu dipping sauce on the side completely unnecessary.

MEAT
Castle Cafe
403 Wilcox Street, Castle Rock

Making pan-fried chicken to order is a big pain, but that doesn't seem to bother the folks at Castle Cafe. In the spirit of the famous Strouds in Kansas City, they fry up batches of birds all day long. The kitchen here veers only once from Strouds's formula: Rather than stick with the K.C. frying medium of choice, which is lard or Crisco, the Cafe uses heart-healthy canola oil, with a minimal difference in flavor and a lot in potential artery clogging. Cloaked in a salt-and-pepper-doused flour, the chicken is placed in a cast-iron skillet filled with that sizzling oil, then fried until the meat is all wet and juicy inside and the flour outside has been cooked into a golden crust. Then the drippings and scraps are made into a creamy cracklin' gravy, which is poured over the chicken. It's enough to make anyone crow.

SIDE DISH
Q's
2115 13th Street, Boulder

Q's chef John Platt believes in making every component of the meal matter, and the side dishes to his innovative, smartly flavored entrees are no exception. In fact, sometimes it's hard to concentrate on the main course when the sides are so special: crunchy, onion-flecked potato cakes, luxurious creamed spinach flavored with anise, gingered golden beets, roasted vegetable ratatouille, lamb-shank risotto and crawfish, corn and barley succotash. If I had to be pinned down to just one side, though, it would be the lamb-shank risotto, with every last bit of rice oozing the flavor of Platt's succulent lamb cut.

DESSERT
Paul's Creekside Grill at the Inn at Silver Creek
62927 Highway 40, Granby

Fusion may be on its way out, but there's nothing passe about the Asian-influenced fare at Paul's Creekside Grill. Just one bite of this heavenly dessert should convince you of that. The kitchen takes a seemingly innocent pear and poaches it in red wine, to which has been added cilantro, lemongrass, black pepper, Kaffir lime leaves, cinnamon and brown sugar. The liquid cooks down into a syrup so addictive that you'll be licking the plate. And as an added bonus--especially after an imaginary meal as heavy as this one--the dish is light, but so sweet it feels like a real finish to a year of good eating.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner