Eleven favorite dishes from 2011 -- and one more to usher in 2012
"This is the oven that nearly bankrupted us," says Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, peering into the behemoth Stefano Ferrara oven, a floor-to-ceiling monster, shipped direct from Italy, that's constructed from volcanic rock culled from Mt. Vesuvius. It's a stunning piece of craftsmanship that makes us drool with envy, but the pizzas that emerge from that 1,000-degree oven -- blistered masterpieces that take all of ninety seconds (or less) to rise from the embers -- make Boulder's Pizzeria Locale better than unicorns and rainbows, butterflies and blow.
Jordan Wallace, Pizzeria Locale's high priest of dough, spent nearly four months in Naples honing his craft, and his pizzas, ultra-thin, light platforms of bliss, are mounted with the best ingredients lire (and dollars) can buy. We can't wait to chew our way through the entire board, but for now, the mais pizza, smeared with creme fraiche, dotted with fresh corn the color of the golden sun, blotted with lightly applied mozzarella di bufala and sheeted with translucent slices of prosciutto crudo, is my heart's obsession.
Keegan Gerhard, Denver's confectionaire extraordinaire, is renowned for his sensational sugar sensations, which he, along with his wife, Lisa Bailey, deliver in abundance at D Bar Desserts, their groovy bake shop in Uptown. But while Gerhard has always had the baking thing down pat -- his sugar shack pimps cookies, cakes, cupcakes, shakes, doughnuts and ice cream sandwiches, among other guilt trips -- it's his savory creations that are suddenly attracting long lines of devotees, and you can count us among the many ardent admirers who are jonesing for elbow room at the counter to wrap our lips around whatever he's delivering from the kitchen.
Starting with the Crue fries, an irresponsible, wholly irresistible mound of Parmesan-dusted, ballpoint-pen-thin potatoes. But Gerhard doesn't stop there: He smothers the fries with melted Jack and cheddar, crumbles of really good bacon and snips of chives and then crowns it all with zigzags of housemade ranch dressing. You'll push the heap away more than once in an effort to pretend that you can't possibly eat one more bite, and then the second a staffer swoops in to take it away, you'll snatch it back and slap her hand for daring to try.
Several years ago I hopped on a plane to Las Vegas -- not to push my luck playing penny slots, but to eat at Lotus of Siam, which I did, three times in one day. And then, fat, drunk and deliriously happy, I boarded a jet back to Denver. And I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat, because Lotus of Siam -- the original joint in Vegas, not the imitator in New York -- is the best Thai restaurant in the country, in part because of its nod to the cuisine of Isaan. (Jitlada, in Los Angeles, is a close second.) And for years, I've prayed to the gods of fish sauce, lemongrass and lime leaves that a Lotus of Siam outpost would magically appear in Denver.
I'm fairly certain that won't happen, and that's okay, because when Utumporn Killoran, who runs the Thai Street Food cart on the 16th Street Mall, opened a same-name brick-and-mortar this summer in Aurora, there was no longer a reason to mourn. From her tiny kitchen, which she runs with her husband and son, Killoran re-creates at least an approximation of the Lotus of Siam experience.
There's nothing on her tidy menu that I don't love. My favorite is the noodle jelly salad, which doesn't have jelly at all but exposes a soupy mound of glossy glass noodles tangled with ground pork, shrimp, cilantro, tomatoes and mint, pungent fragrances and the flame of fiery red chiles, the heat of which makes your stomach quake like a coin-operated waterbed. It's salty and sweet, sour and spicy, and it's quite possibly the best Thai dish I've had all year. Unfortunately, you can only get it on Saturday, the one day that Thai Street Food is open.
Earlier this year, the Squeaky Bean, one of my favorite restaurants in Denver -- and maybe anywhere -- shuttered after lease negotiations fell by the wayside. And for several months, Bean owner Johnny Ballen and Max MacKissock, the restaurant's amazing executive chef, scoured the city for a new space to resurrect the Bean, which they finally found downtown at 15th and Wynkoop in the historic Saddlery Building. In the interim, however, MacKissock, Ballen and many of the original Bean counters congregated earlier this month at Cafe Options for a pop-up dinner, at which MacKissock made my jaw drop through the concrete. Every single dish was exquisite, but his lamb creation -- lamb belly-wrapped lamb loin plated with whipped sweet potatoes, green garlic soubise, borage blossoms (which taste like cucumbers), crisp kale leaves, dots of mint gel and frisée -- more than personified MacKissock's unspoken vow to ensure human happiness.
2012 is going to be a very good year.