Life as a restaurant critic might seem like a good time, but the truth is, I eat a lot of bad food. Even top-of-the-line restaurants put out dishes that fail to wow — or simply fail altogether — and since I have to eat my way through a menu, I’m bound to find them. Often I’ll still be at the table, soldiering through plates that my dining companions have long ago pushed away, trying to identify why, exactly, the starter/entree/dessert flopped.
I remember those dishes. But what I remember more — and what I urge you to try, if you haven’t done so already — are the ten that follow, my favorite discoveries of 2017. These are the glorious dishes that revealed a transcendent sense of imagination, purpose and sure-handed execution, and they more than made up for every overwrought, over-cooked plate I’d like to forget from the past year.
Gateau Basque at 12@Madison: After rainbow carrots with labneh, masa gnocchi and whatever else you’ve chosen from the exquisite lineup of small plates at 12@Madison, you’ll be asked if you want to hear about dessert. The answer is yes. Because no meal at 12@Madison is complete without a slice of something you’ve probably never heard of before: gateau basque. Chef/owner Jeff Osaka modeled this stunner after a traditional cake from southern France. Part tart, part cake, the individual-sized treat has all the eggy, buttery goodness of sugar cookies, with a thin layer of pastry cream and a trio of preserved cherries on the side. And because almonds go so well with cherries, the cake contains a triple dose, with almond flour and almond extract mixed into the dough and candied almonds snuggled into a quenelle of whipped cream. Unlike at Twelve, Madison’s precursor, where the roster changed every month and favorite dishes were always disappearing, Osaka and chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady have listened to guests and kept this sweet on the menu.
Crispy Pig Tail at Señor Bear: Leave it to chefs Max MacKissock and Blake Edmunds to repurpose an awkward cut like pig’s tail, curing, deboning and pressure-cooking it, then finishing it off with a dip in the fryer, until the tail resembles a gargantuan rib. A late addition of tamarind in the sweet, tart and craveable glaze added just the right oomph to earn the crispy pig tail a spot on this list.
Celery Root Soup at Concourse Restaurant Moderne: Don’t shoo away your server when a mug is set down before you; this isn’t someone else’s latte, mistakenly delivered to you. It’s your celery root soup, less stodgy than it sounds, with cold apple cider and maple syrup frothed to look like foam. Chef-owner Lon Symensma and executive chef Luke Bergman are masters of the unexpected, and this dish is one of their most shockingly delicious. As if the contrast of cold, sweet bubbles melting into the hot, earthy soup wasn’t thrill enough, the kitchen nestles pumpkin brittle into the foam for a fun candy crunch.
Polpo Carpaccio at Il Posto: You’d swear that Denver was near the coast, given the popularity of octopus in this town. But just because the tentacled cephalopod is everywhere doesn’t mean that chefs know how to cook it. At Il Posto, which moved to stylish new digs in RiNo last winter, they certainly do. The kitchen takes creative license, pressing micro-thin layers of polpo (Italian for “octopus”) with purple potatoes into a colorful, edible mosaic. Accents change with the seasons — mine glistened with orange kumquats, red chiles and purple potato chips — but no matter what it’s topped with, this carpaccio is required eating, just like a bowl of Milanese chef/owner Andrea Frizzi’s legendary risotto.
Pancetta-Wrapped Shrimp at Cattivella: Pizza and pasta seem like obvious choices at this high-end yet family-friendly eatery in Stapleton. But Elise Wiggins, who made a name for herself as the longtime Italian maestro at Panzano, has tricks up her sleeve, and the one you won’t want to miss doesn’t involve flour. Medjool dates and shrimp are bound snugly together by ribbons of pancetta, smoky from the wood-fired oven. Plated over a bed of soft polenta with Gorgonzola and pine nuts, this dish is what I start every meal with at Cattivella. Or at least I did until it was recently taken off the menu to make room for more seasonal fare. According to Wiggins, the happy-hour delight will return come spring, which is very happy news.
Moroccan Lamb Sausage at El Five: Justin Cucci doesn’t just open restaurants. He creates experiences, and El Five, like Linger before it, is no exception. Much has been made of the skyline views, the cocktails, the sultry vibe. But don’t forget that this kitchen knows how to cook. The menu is full of adventurous small plates and hearty paellas, but the humble-sounding Moroccan lamb sausage rises above the rest. Creamy hummus anchors a colorful tower of sausage fragrant with cumin and coriander, fava beans, pea shoots, feta and mint. I’d eat this dish anywhere, even in a windowless basement, but it’s more fun to eat it inside the atmospheric marvel that is El Five.
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Porky Porkorino at White Pie: Brothers Kris and Jason Wallenta modeled White Pie, their sleek neighborhood pizzeria, after the famous Sally’s Apizza, a childhood favorite. And though they’ve taken liberties with the New Haven-style pie they grew up with, they’ve retained enough of the hallmarks — thin, crispy dough, with a heavy, smoky char — to pay respectful tribute while making their own mark. Of all the whimsically named pizzas on the menu, I find myself craving the Porky Porkorino, with crisped soppressata, pickled jalapeños and chile-infused honey. But the Paulie Walnuts, with mozzarella, garlic, candied walnuts, bacon and silky mashed potatoes, runs a close second. One is red and one is white, so grab a friend, kick back with a boozy slushie, and share both.
Avocado Toast at Marczyk Fine Foods: Walking into Marczyk Fine Foods is like stepping into a commercial. The butcher is impossibly cheerful. Shelves are lined with (expensive) goodies that look funky and perfect. Music is blaring, the kind you want to Shazam and put on your next party playlist. But it was at the deli counter that I stumbled across one of the year’s most unassuming hits: avocado toast. This elegant open-faced sandwich puts the market’s high-quality ingredients to spectacular use: pain au levain, edges browned and crisp after a run through the toaster, a hefty layer of mashed avocado, a shower of extra-virgin olive oil and a few hot peppers from Campania. Fat flakes of Maldon sea salt finish it off, making for a healthy snack any time of day.
Black and Blue Elk at Arcana: The name might not be very appetizing, but this refined starter at Boulder’s high-aspiring Arcana certainly is. The meat is marinated, seared and served paper-thin, charred outside (black) and raw inside (blue). Cooked thus and spread in a single layer, the meat seems to shine, with dollops of juniper custard and cherries and crunchy bits of fried garlic, shallots and heirloom sesame seeds.
Grilled Beef Tongue and Marrow Toast at Annette: Chef-owner Caroline Glover learned to cook tongue as sous-chef at New York’s famed Spotted Pig. At Annette, her sleek, seasonal hot spot in Stanley Marketplace, the cut has become a surprising staple. Thanks to a mix of technique (six days brining, six hours braising and the kiss of a wood-fired grill), richness (spiced cream) and acidity (pickled vegetables and mustard seed), the aesthetically pleasing small plate has become shorthand for what this gutsy kitchen does best. Finished with thick slices of grilled sourdough slathered with marrow butter, it’s the new gold standard for open-faced sandwiches.