Ten favorite dishes from 2011...and maybe ever in Denver
There comes a moment every year -- and it's usually an alcohol-inspired moment during the holidays -- when I, after a bottle or two of wine, declare that THIS year is the BEST YEAR EVER in Denver dining, and then commence to deliver a highly passionate, self-indulgent speech about why eating in this city just keeps getting better and better.
Seriously, though, 2011 may well be the best year ever. Established restaurants improved their game and a record number of new restaurants opened -- many of them serving food that's creative, provocative and, above all, delicious.
During the holidays, when I inevitably start spilling my feelings about the exciting things that are happening in this city's culinary scene, I will no doubt mention the favorite dishes on this list, my best bites in the Mile High City this year. And maybe ever.
Guanciale di vitello at Barolo Grill:
My favorite cut of the animal -- any animal -- might very well be the cheeks. They're like belly times a hundred: The cheeks are one of the most tender parts of the animal, and they can be braised until they practically drip. But the veal cheeks at Barolo Grill raise this cut to another level entirely. The guanciale di vetello are rich and velvety, braised until they're almost buttery in texture and then embedded in creamy mascarpone polenta and ringed with bitter braising greens and pearl onions, which lend just enough bite to bring everything into balance. Seductive, hedonistic, climactic balance.
Sweetbread ravioli at Colt & Gray:
My fetish for both offal and brown, bitter and stirred cocktails practically guaranteed I'd fall hard for Colt & Gray -- and I've been an unabashed fan since I ate my first meal there, not long after it opened. But just when I thought my love could for Colt & Gray could not grow stronger, the kitchen came up with a dish that practically made me grovel, I'm-not-worthy style, at the chef's feet: the sweetbread ravioli. Pasta pouches had been filled with tender sweetbreads -- carrying just a faint gaminess -- and cooked al dente, then bathed in a delicate parmesan brodo infused with rich, decadent foie gras. Sweet, savory and lifted by a couple of leaves of braised, bitter greens, this dish made me moan at the first bite -- and when the pasta was gone, I unashamedly picked up the bowl and licked it clean.
Macaroni and cheese at Highland Tap and Burger:
Highland Tap and Burger
The first time I went to Highland Tap and Burger, I was angry. Specifically, I was angry at myself, because I couldn't believe it had taken me nearly a year to walk through the door when I only live a few blocks away. But at this point, I've more than made up for my early mistake. While every burger on the list has been wonderful, the macaroni and cheese is nothing short of magical. I'm a mac-and-cheese snob, and this kitchen makes a lot of smart decisions: Pasta shells get tossed in a slightly sharp and creamy sauce of Fontina, aged white cheddar and parmesan that's spiked with Modus Hoperandi IPA, which is bitter enough to sharpen the flavors and give everything a lift. Then, in final assembly mode, the pasta is dusted with breadcrumbs -- and bacon, if you like, which, dear Lord, I do -- and baked. The resulting dish satisfies nostalgic cravings for classic macaroni and cheese while also adding depth and character.