The best meal I ate all year: Peter Franus wine dinner at Elway's Downtown

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When I was invited to a special dinner with winemaker Peter Franus at Elway's Downtown, I was a tad skeptical as to how, exactly, they would cater that meal to my palate. As a vegetarian, I usually turn down invites like this -- I've worked in the restaurant industry for many years, and far be it from me to turn into that pain-in-the-ass diner with special requests and needs from the kitchen. But I was reassured that it would be no trouble at all, so my carnivorous companion and myself accepted the invitation and, on that late-October evening, headed to the steakhouse to taste what we could taste. And I ended up being very glad I agreed to attend, because it was the best meal I ate in 2010.

There were a handful of components that made this meal my 2010 winner -- some, like the company (including Peter Franus himself), were secondary considerations. What really put this set of plates heads above the competition was the skill used in creating dishes that were beautifully balanced by Franus's catalog of wine, as well as the wine itself. Chef Robert Bogart outdid himself coming up with vegetarian substitutes for the meat-centric plates on the menu.

The seasonal meal started off with a seared sea scallop and grapefruit arugula salad, paired with a fruity, smooth sauvignon blanc. My vegetarian version featured round scoops of avocado in place of the sea scallops (the photos from that dinner are in the post I wrote the day after the Peter Franus wine dinner). The slight bitterness of the arugula was enhanced by the accompanying bitter/sweet taste of the grapefruit, and the ripe avocado added a lovely textural element to the plate.

The second course comprised seared duck breast, butternut squash croquette and plum demi, paired with an oaky, delightful merlot. While my tablemates uttered moans of ecstasy around me, I dug into my own version: Bogart replaced the seared duck with grilled tofu, tender yet firm. It might not seem like the most elegant or inspired meat-replacement in the history of meat replacements, but cooking tofu to taste like this isn't something any cook can do, though they might try and try again.

Elway's is known for steak and seafood, so it's no surprise that after the scallops, Bogart chose steak as the central component of the main entree. The flat-iron was paired with a 2005 blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, and accompanied with parsnip puree and Brussels hash. I remember hearing my date's assertion that this was the best steak she'd ever eaten, but I was too busy tackling my own version.

Apart from a larger portion of the Brussels hash (which was delightful), my plate contained a marinated, grilled portabella mushroom. Here's the shocker: I dislike portabella mushrooms, and this dislike borders on hate more often than not. I like mushrooms in general -- I just think this variety tastes like dirt, and I've eaten more of it than I like to remember, because many chefs use portabella as a meat substitute. Don't eat beef? Slap a portabella cap on that burger bun! I've long thought that using portabella in lieu of beef is lazy, ill-considered and a cheap way out of the vegetarian problem.

And I still feel that way about most of the portabella mushrooms I encounter. But every once in a while, an entree like this, prepared by a chef like Bogart, comes along. I heaved a small inward sigh when it was placed in front of me, but then I tasted it, and devoured it -- all of it -- and all of that heavenly parsnip puree, too, and the Brussels hash. I was already full, but I ate every last bite of that entree, because the marinated mushroom was the closest thing to a flat-iron steak I've tasted since going vegetarian. The texture, the flavor -- it was delectable.

After this orgy of food, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to eat another bite, no matter how tempting. Dessert proved me wrong. This course was easy to digest, featuring thin slices of blackberry ice with chocolate chamayo bits, paired with a restrained, elegant zinfandel. Cool and refreshing, it was packed with flavor and just sweet enough to signal an end to the food frenzy.

Say what you will about carnivores: This Veggie Girl has found that Elway's Downtown has been accommodating to my tastes in 2010, serving up picture-perfect vegetarian food you'd pay extra for.

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