Digesting a year's worth of my best meals in the Mile High City

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I started the year at O's in Westminster, sucking mango-vodka purée out of shells of frozen vanilla, eating matsutake mushrooms and razor-shaved snails and drinking champagne by the bottle. I started the year at Bar Americain in midtown Manhattan, checking in on Rebecca Weitzman (ex of Cafe Star and since moved on from Americain as well), eating a weird simulacrum of her original Denver menu on starched white cloths — smoked chicken pot pie, shrimp and grits with bacon, glazed butterfish with Brussels sprouts. I started the year at Osteria Marco in Larimer Square, eating Frank Bonanno's Italian charcuterie, then going out to stand in the snow just hours back from the East Coast, smoking a cigarette and watching the almost magical fall of dream-thin wisps of prosciutto from a rotary slicer.

This was all within a week, first of the new year. I am one lucky fucker.

At the end of every year, I take a look back. I do this because I want some vision, some wisdom, to arise from my year's labor. I climb to the top of this mountain of virtual paper, then turn and retrace the route that I have traveled. I do this because I want the long view. I do this because sometimes my memory is for shit, and I can easily lose an entire week that, for some people, might've been the best week of their lives.

Reached by jet, car, on foot — three spectacularly interesting and (occasionally) spectacularly good meals in three different cities in the span of just a few days. And that's not counting the cheeseburger with hot sauce I picked up at Schaller's while I was in Rochester that same week (best burger in that particular city), or the takeout Chinese food that Laura and I picked up from the spot we always stop at as soon as we are back within sight of home — a tradition that we have fallen into, laziness and lack of imagination becoming sweet through repetition.

It was a good start to the year. Shortly after, I found myself hunkered down at the bar at Big Hoss (3961 Tennyson Street), rolling a glass of whiskey between my hands, eavesdropping on two men discussing the ritual of men buying other men drinks. It was particularly sweet because I knew I had my story (the column ran January 31), made better by the fact that I was, at that point, only watering myself — pouring whiskey down on top of pork barbecue, Carolina-style vinegar shrimp and Midwestern fried cheese curds.

There was my night at Ha Noi Pho (1036 South Federal Boulevard, reviewed on January 8), where I stopped a few weeks after an attempted shotgun robbery of the place, foiled by two plainclothes police officers who were lunching there. I'd almost gone there the day it happened, but one of the people I was supposed to meet was dead set on another spot. There were two bullet holes by the door as souvenirs. I remember that meal for the strange power those nasty punctuation marks had over me, but also for the jellied duck's blood and paddy crab, for the ridiculous conversations I had with the owners as I tried to figure out whether they served breakfast and, if so, what was on the menu.

Radda Trattoria (1265 Alpine Avenue, Boulder) was an accident. We hadn't planned to eat there; I certainly hadn't planned on reviewing it (even though I did, on February 5). But Laura and I were in Boulder and we were hungry, and the next thing we knew, there we were — listening to the rogue CU economics professors sit and argue vehemently about the Bush tax cuts over plates of golden-brown pressed chicken and small bowls of rosemary-roasted fingerling potatoes. Meanwhile, we destroyed our own table, filling it with bowls and plates and wine glasses and eating gnocchi Bolognese with polpette di vitello and prosciutto pizza set with a quivering, barely cooked egg speckled with black pepper.

My meal at Relish (137 South Main Street, Breckenridge, reviewed October 8) was another accident, another amazing meal with Kurobuta pork shoulder ravioli, fried, topped with sharp cheddar and a sauce of green pear and brown butter, creamy fish soup and a roasted chicken served swimming over a sausage-and-bean ragout in thin, savory broth that tasted like cassoulet turned into soup. We spent that dinner looking out over the first snow of this season dusting the mountains around Breckenridge, and finished with bowls of cupcake ice cream from Ice Cream Alchemy. It was one of those moments that, had I been a normal person, might have been enough to hold me for an entire year.

At Tibet's (321 South McCaslin Boulevard, Louisville, reviewed February 12), I had stew made by a man who'd once cooked for the Dalai Lama. At GB Fish and Chips (1311 South Broadway, reviewed April 15), I tried fried fish and pasties made by a man so obsessed with the cooking and serving of same that he decided to open his dream restaurant in the shell of an old computer repair shop, far from any sort of restaurant neighborhood, and make a go of it — offering bottles of Newcastle and bangers-and-mash for the post-show crowds, soccer fans and drunken bikers who make up the bulk of his regulars. At Sushi Katsuya (2222 South Havana Street, Aurora, reviewed May 20), I found the perfect neighborhood sushi bar, one with frosted windows decorated with pictures of geishas and stalks of bamboo, and a radio tuned to some kind of Asian soft-rock station — Tokyo's version of Kenny G toodling away on the sax and singing (I assume) of pretty girls, sunsets and long walks on the beach. It was my own little bubble of Japan. My own little bubble of delusion, really, because I know nothing of the real Japan except for what I've picked up from years of Saturday-afternoon kung fu movies, late-night anime and video games. How could reality possibly live up to the fantasy I've built in my brain of a restaurant where there are ninjas in the rafters, robots walking the streets and nightly Godzilla attacks? It can't, but, Godzilla aside, Katsuya came close.

At French 250 (reviewed March 11), I had one of the most remarkable meals of my year: frog's legs and champagne, loup de mer with beurre noisette and mushroom duxelle, all eaten in honor of precisely nothing. The sheer, overblown luxury of it had washed over me like a wave, making me love everything about the place, love everyone involved, and love myself for being smart enough to have gotten a job that would pay me for doing exactly this. French 250 closed without warning (the tax auction is scheduled for later this week, and its former home at 250 Steele Street is empty), but I had advance warning that Mel's Bistro (1120 East Sixth Avenue, now Mojitos) would be going. I went there for a last mourning meal, meant to be a sad farewell to a restaurant, a group of restaurants, that I'd loved since my first days in this city. But instead, it turned into one of my favorite meals of 2008. It was the Irish funeral effect, sadness at loss giving way to celebration of lives well lived and, in this case, restaurants well run.

Keegan Gerhard's D Bar Desserts (1475 East 17th Avenue, reviewed July 29) was another revelation. How many chefs have tried to open dessert bars in Denver? How many have worked? Exactly none — until Gerhard brought his star power, and star cooking abilities, to town. And with the opening of Z Cuisine À Côté (2239 West 30th Avenue, reviewed August 19), chef/owner Patrick Dupays doubled my pleasure; at his side-by-side restaurants, those movie fantasies about eating in French restaurants actually come true.

During the Democratic National Convention, there were all those nights at RockBar (3015 East Colfax Avenue), guzzling booze and flaunting any number of laws and doing unprintable things with celebrities and local luminaries who, for legal reasons and the sake of politeness, must remain unnamed in print. Taken all together, they were like a good episode of Entourage written by Aaron Sorkin during the height of his crack-and-blow-fueled West Wing genius and gone completely sideways on lukewarm PBR and tequila and sex. And in between nights (and mornings) spent propping up the bar or skulking through the corridors upstairs, I had dinner at beautiful little Indulge (4140 West 38th Avenue, reviewed September 2), where, unknowingly, chef-owner William Wahl kept me fortified for each night's weirdness by serving me roasted salmon with leek fondue, potatoes tournée, cold glasses of Côtes du Rhône and the best duck in the city.

For entirely homegrown weirdness, I stumbled into the gorgeous, intoxicating freak-show cool of Beatrice & Woodsley (38 South Broadway, reviewed November 19), with its chainsaw decor and frog's legs for breakfast and odd bathrooms and crawfish beignets and long plates of pork upon pork upon pork. It was the discovery of the year.

Were there slow weeks? Yes — but not many. From West 52nd Street in Manhattan to my most recent turn off of Sixth Avenue and into the revitalized dining room at Table 6 (609 Corona Street, reviewed last week), it has been an amazing year of meals. I have been lucky as hell to have seen and done and eaten as much as I have.

And now, with another new year here and 365 more days and nights to play with, I can't wait to start all over again.

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