The Top Ten Dishes in Denver for 2014

I ate hundreds of restaurant meals this past year, comprising thousands of dishes. Narrowing those down to the ten best dishes I ate in 2014 wasn't easy -- especially when you consider the energy coming out of the 300-plus bars and restaurants that opened over the past twelve months and the well-crafted fare executed by established eateries around town. Still, there were ten that definitely stood out.

See also: Ten Ways the Denver Restaurant Scene Has Changed Over 100 Reviews

10) Monkfish with peas in mint brodo at To the Wind Bistro

To the Wind Bistro made an early name for itself with its escargot empanadas, and those snail-filled pockets nearly made it to this list. But every time I'm served a piece of fish that's overcooked, soggily battered or bathed in butter, I find myself longing for something else that came out of this shoebox-sized kitchen: pan-seared monkfish. Accented with pea shoots and peas, the fish was refreshing and light, with a minty broth that showed why this prolific summer herb deserves consideration as more than a garnish.

9) Roasted-squash soup at the Nickel

Chef Christopher Thompson is a lifelong fan of wood-fired cooking, and his comfort with the medium is evident in the outstanding steaks and other items coming off the cherry-and-oak-fed grill at the Nickel. But Thompson isn't just a grill master. Under his direction, this kitchen inside the newly renovated Hotel Teatro turned out a roasted-squash soup that felt as much like fall as yellow aspens and crisp nights. The silky blend of kabocha and butternut squash was vegan until it was plated, so the flavors in the soup were pure, uncomplicated by cream or chicken stock. Since I'm not a vegan, I enjoyed the finishing touches of maple crème fraîche and pumpkin-seed streusel, which framed the dish with texture and subtle sweetness.

8) Pork rillette at the Plimoth

The Plimoth is the kind of restaurant that every neighborhood deserves to have, a place to unwind after work with unpretentious, impeccably executed fare; chef-owner Peter Ryan's years as a culinary instructor are evident in the kitchen's attention to technique. As good as the menu is, however, I always start with pork rillette, prepared country style with chunks of rich, salty pork to spread on crostini. The last time I had it, the dish came with French touches of pickled jardinière and mustard to temper the richness.

Keep reading for seven more of the top dishes of 2014

7) Tuna mousse at Cart-Driver

Most people think of Cart-Driver as a pizzeria, a place for blistered-crust pies with dough fashioned from 150-year-old starter. To me, however, it's synonymous with something else: tuna mousse. The spread -- known at Basta, Kelly Whitaker's first restaurant, as tuna panna cotta -- gets its addictive creaminess from butter, cream and dry vermouth, and its insanely smooth texture from gelatin-like agar. Dishes like this are proof that Cart-Driver isn't your run-of-the-mill fast-casual spot.

6) Citrus mount baum at Glaze by Sasa

Sushi and cake seem like an unlikely duo, but Glaze by Sasa has turned them into an unforgettable combination. What better way to end a meal of precise, artistic nigiri and sushi rolls than with an equally exquisite baum cake? Most are offered whole, making them difficult to enjoy after a meal, but my favorite, the citrus mount baum, came as a plated dessert. Shaped into peaks while it rotated on the spit, the orange-scented cake featured a crisp crust that reminded me of the glazed ridges on the best old-fashioned doughnuts. Cut into wedges, the multi-layered cake was served alongside whipped cheesecake, candied orange zest and rosemary for an ending that was sweet, but not overly so.

5) Bacon-wrapped halibut "chowder" at Stoic & Genuine

For a landlocked state, Colorado isn't lacking in places where you can slurp oysters on the half shell, and some of the most interesting varieties I plucked off the ice this year were courtesy of Stoic & Genuine, Jennifer Jasinski's offbeat seafood temple inside Union Station. But it was one of Stoic's hot entrees that caught -- and kept -- my attention: a soul-satisfying bowl of surf clams, fat Bangs Island mussels and bacon-wrapped halibut bathed in a light corn-and-wine-based broth.

4) Gamberi in crosta di nocciole at Barolo Grill

Rather than looking to the sea for inspiration, chef Darrell Truitt of Barolo Grill looks to northern Italy. This year, his annual trip -- organized by Barolo owner Blair Taylor -- produced one of the best appetizers I was served in 2014. The head-on blue prawns provided a study in the wow factor of texture, the crispness of their hazelnut-panko crust contrasting beautifully with chewy grains of wild rice and smooth chanterelle purée.

Keep reading for three more of the top ten dishes of 2014.

3) Cochinita pibil at Work & Class

Usually when you're ordering meat by the pound, you're at a barbecue joint, deli or butcher shop. But Work & Class, located in a raucous shipping-container structure in RiNo, changed all that, adapting the model for its lovingly roasted and braised meats, which are the centerpiece of the menu. Executed by a team more accustomed to fine dining than casual fare, the lamb, chicken and goat -- sold by the quarter-, half- and full pound -- are all great to mix and match, but the one I wished I'd ordered more of was the cochinita pibil. Served with cilantro-lime slaw and house corn tortillas, the braised, shredded pork dazzled with a hint of citrus from the orange and lime juices in the achiote rub.

2) Lamb shawarma at Acorn

Like its big sister Oak at Fourteenth, Acorn has always been adroit in its handling of down-home classics such as fried pickles and meatballs over grits. But the dishes that impressed me most were riffs on global fare, such as oak-smoked duck breast with spicy curry; tempura-fried snapper with a Thai-inspired sauce of chiles, basil, mint and cilantro; and squid-ink tagliarini, with Spanish octopus and calamari. If I could order only one plate, however, it would be the lamb shawarma, with thin slices of garlicky, cumin-spiked lamb draped over shishito peppers, feta and chickpea fries.

1) Wild-mushroom salad at Lower48 Kitchen

Vegetable lover though I am, it's not often that a salad impresses me enough to warrant a spot on this kind of list. But the wild-mushroom salad at Lower48 Kitchen did just that, with pickled and confited shiitakes, roasted maitakes, braised chanterelles and smoked oyster mushrooms set over a pear-and-walnut purée. Pickled carrots, radishes, celery and raw pear were the equivalent of a dab of red on an otherwise monochrome painting, the bright flavors completing the comfortingly earthy dish.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz