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Dec 1, 2009 04:37 AM

Denver Restaurants: A Few Ideas/Opinions

I dine out rather frequently but haven’t found the time to write up much lately, so I’m not sure how many of these to include in one post. There always seem to be people looking for metro-area recommendations, and I’m happy we have so many solid independent restaurants. I’ll try to throw together some Boulder/Northern ‘burbs ideas in another post too (or you can beat me to the punch and start one). Please add to this so I’ll have some new ideas too.

El Taco de Mexico: Do yourself a favor and drop by the counter here on Santa Fe for a cabeza (beef cheeks) burrito or an order of chilaquiles or frankly anything that happens to land in front of you. You won’t need lots of it, but bring cash since they don’t accept anything else. We took bets on whether a gregarious friend from SF could make the methodical señoras smile, and he got all of them but one. Don’t expect to be so lucky, but do expect to eat very well for precious little green.

D Bar: Not just about desserts, as even I’m surprised how much I like their savory items. Flatbread pizza with tomatoes/goat cheese/pepperoni, crunchy panko-topped mac and cheese with a simple side salad, tiny Kobe sliders with baby fries, and luscious Medjool dates with the suggested Late Harvest Syrah pour (2 oz is plenty). It is a bit annoying how you can’t get most of the “fancy” desserts until 6:00, even on the weekends. Their classic cake and shake with Manjari frosting (after the chocolate and not the Eurovision singer) is always available and their pastry case is usually enough to boggle the mind.

Olivea: Huge improvement over Aix, both in how they’ve opened up and brightened up the space and in how they serve food you actually want to eat. Outstanding items were the chocolate caramel tart with sea salt (I doubt you could go wrong with any of Yasmin’s desserts) and a salad of sorts of Valencia oranges with purple onions, fennel, and olives. I sadly didn’t think their prosciutto platter or their duck mousse were the best in show, and I would probably run over my own sibling (and yours too) for amazing versions of those.

Osteria Marco: Speaking of cured meats like prosciutto, it’s hard to beat the ones here. I picked up a to-go order for my wine group of bresaola, ciccioli, coppa, prosciutto, capra ricotta, the god-like burrata, roasted red peppers, and ciabatta bread and they threw themselves on it like a pack of wild dogs. It literally survived less than 5 minutes and I swear every adult in the room would’ve picked up the cardboard containers and licked them if no-one else had been looking. I had an unbelievable happy hour deal there of meatball sliders, cheese & truffle oil Panini, and lemongrass-flavored cocktail for 15 bucks.

LoHi Steakbar: I was here on their second day of biz and thought it was a nice space with friendly servers that was clicking fairly well. If I get a craving for a big hunk of meat (burger, steak frites) but don’t want to put a second mortgage on my house, I can’t imagine a better place to land. Martinis with a spoon of caviar? Yes, please!

Sketch: Just snacks and hooch, kids, assuming foie gras au torchon is your kind of picnic treat. Go get the boozy Amarena cherries and chocolate with their recommended glass of Rutherglen red (assuming they still have that vino). Then go nuts and pick up some locally-crafted ice cream at nearby Sweet Action!

Park Burger: This summer a friend and I happened to walk in on the day they added sliders to the menu and they said we were the first to order them. We had already started with juicy burgers of our own and a shared order of sweet potato fries, but come on--we had to try the sliders too! I must express a preference for the mouth-feel of the sliders, as everything’s cut to fit on a tiny bun so you don’t have one gigantic tomato slice and piece of lettuce moving about. The chocolate peanut butter shake didn’t win me over, but you need room for those sliders anyway.

Rioja: They are tough to beat, especially at brunch. My better half’s beloved breakfast burrito isn’t on the current menu, but he didn’t seem too disappointed with his lovely platter of steak, polenta, and eggs (which I managed to sneak only one taste of between bites of ethereal Dungeness crab cake crepes). The dinner classics are, of course, the artichoke tortelloni and the pork belly appetizer. I’m of the opinion their veggie lunch chips should always be on the menu—they’re that good. I wonder if they always source them from Panzano. I thought I saw a bread baker there stirring pumpkin one morning but when I walked by realized it must have been sweet potato for the chips, as there was a bowl of them in front of her.

Panzano: Check out their happy hour specials and order a mushroom crepe all to yourself. Don’t let anyone else even put an evil eye on it. Guard that baby for five seconds until it’s gone. Then order another one. They still have one of the best breakfasts in town, including a $15 “power breakfast” option where you get a belly-busting amount of food with coffee and juice. You cannot help but smile when Champagne hollandaise is on your plate, can you?

Fisher-Clark Urban Deli: People rave about the Spanish sandwich, but the hot pastrami is undoubtedly my fave. Last time I was in I had a custom turkey packed with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, and chipotle mayo on focaccia.

Bones: Have had many amazing noodle bowls here (pork udon with poached egg, kai shiru with clams/corn/sausage/coconut broth/bok choy, chilled soba with shrimp on one occasion and crab on another, ramen with lobster/edamame/miso broth). If you have a loved one feeling under the weather, bring them back one of these piping hot bowls of aromatic noodles and you will be their undisputed champion. I have found that their salads have an excellent “goodies-to-greens” ratio, meaning you’re not left with half a plate of plain arugula after all the accompaniments are gobbled up and can therefore enjoy every bite. I would expect to get maybe two candied Marcona almonds at most places, but between a good number more of those and the goat cheese, pickled onions, and Asian pear slices on their bibb lettuce salad, I didn’t run out of any treats.

Man, I haven’t even yet mentioned Izakaya Den or TAG or Fruition or Lola or Sherpa House or Sushi Sasa or Vesta or…

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      1. re: rlm

        What a great round-up. Thanks rlm.

    1. We are relocating to Denver (natives) after a 10 year stretch in the Phoenix area. Can't say that the food scene here has been inspiring but it's all in what you find. I'll miss simple things and simple food such as Flancer's, Bola Thai, Patsy Grimaldi's and more foodie places like Zink, Rokerij and the lamented Mosaic.
      Looking forward to places like Zaidy's, La Cueva, Ship's Tavern, Elway's and My Brother's Bar.
      Will be in the Valley as business requires so will keep up to speed on Chowhound so keep the reviews coming.

      1. Wow, that is a great list.

        I just finished mentioning a sort-of negative experience I had at Bones, but your comment about getting take-out soup on a cold night (or when a loved one is under the weather) is a great idea.

        I think their noodle bowls are a little long on broth and a little short on protein in my experience, but perhaps I have been there on a couple of off nights (they happen) or perhaps my expectations aren't fair (Asian isn't my bailiwick).

        That said, they did seem to do a brisk carry-out business, and at your suggestion, I might add to it.

        And like others said, thanks for posting this list. Wow.

        1. I have to respectfully disagree about Olivea, at least the food aspect anyways. I agree that the space is utilized much better than Aix was, and I hear great things about Jasmine's desserts. However, I left that place feeling like I spent way too much money on a mediocre Dinner (and I only spent around $120 for two). Nothing I ate was memorable, and believe me when I say I am the type that likes to sample everything. I too eat around quite a bit, and I completely agree with your other recs, especially Osteria Marco, Rioja and Bones. Olivea on the other hand is not a restaurant I am rushing to get back to anytime soon.

          6 Replies
          1. re: bensop

            Well, rlm gave Olivéa a bit of a mixed report—and I agree with her about that; I had a couple of terrific dishes, a couple of iffy ones. But I haven't been since it (presumably) exited shakedown mode so I'd be curious to return. When were you there, bensop—recently or early on? And rlm, when were you there last?

            1. re: tatamagouche

              My list was intended to be ideas--capsules of places I've eaten in the past year, often multiple times. Not everyone will have the same experience or the same tastes. I went to Olivea in July and had two outstanding items and two that were a little disappointing to me. I have not been back yet because there's always new places to try as well as the stand-bys where you know you're going to get great chow. There was enough going on at Olivea with two talented chefs that I want to check it out again.

              I'm just excited we have so many options in this area and it's getting better all the time. If we get out there as diners and consistently fill seats on, say, a Tuesday and order the stuff like goat and rabbit and foie when it's offered up, maybe we can finally shake this cow-town reputation.

              1. re: rlm

                Amen to that. May 2010 bring us more Southeast Asian, South American, and tapas.

              2. re: tatamagouche

                I went to Olivea a few months after it opened, I want to say Sept. As I recall we shared a few apps, a charcuterie board, a flat bread, and a squid salad and something else. For a main course I had Steak or Pork chop ( it was that unmemorable) and the wife had sea bass (I think). We skipped dessert because we were full. Its not like anything was bad, although the flat bread was borderline. I just felt as though my meal should have been half the price (kind of like Aix made me feel at times). It had nothing to do with prices, size of portions or service. I just know that I could have gotten a better meal at so many other places for the money I dropped on Olivea.

                With all of that being said, I would go back, but not for a full meal. I would do cocktails and small plates there in the future.

                1. re: bensop

                  I usually check out a new (to me) place solo at the bar first and try to hit their happy hour if they have one so I can gauge whether I want to come back with the better half and/or friends and drop more $ there. Sometimes it's a matter of figuring out what they do best and when to stop by. A place that is over-priced and disappointing at dinner might just have a killer weekend brunch or unique, hand-crafted cocktails.

                  1. re: bensop

                    Speak of the devil...Here's a pic and write-up on Westword's Cafe Society blog today on Olivea's dreamy chocolate and fleur de sel caramel tart with milk chocolate gelato and nougatine crunch:

              3. So here's a few more ideas...

                Sushi Sasa: I’m never overjoyed when I look at the bottom line on the bill here and realize my sake-clouded mind probably didn’t need to make me order all that monkfish liver, but I don’t really have buyer’s remorse either because everything is so fresh and well-balanced and leaves you with a pleasantly full tummy and a goofy grin. I like Sushi Den and Izakaya Den as well, but I’d rather not deal with the insane crowds at Sushi Den when I can typically walk over to Izakaya and get the same sushi plus their amazing panzanella salad with crab without a huge wait (if any). I do wish Izakaya would bring back the yellow curry soup they had when they first opened. They curiously had a Colorado corn soup on the menu last week. I’m not sure who is harvesting corn this time of the year (my guess is it’s frozen), but as I am a complete freak for a good corn soup, I had to order it anyway. Whatever you do at any of our sushi havens, make sure you get some premium Wakatake sake at least once. I love that Sasa announced new late-night hours, as this metro area needs more places that aren’t trying to whisk you out the door and roll up the sidewalks by 10.

                Lola: I like their newer space in the Highlands so much more than their old tiny space on Pearl. We discovered their Sunday afternoon happy hour where they have a live band playing and cheap eats like chicken tacos, ceviche, the ubiquitous table-side guacamole, barbacoa sliders and the like (which can be washed down with sangria—the white being better than the red, although it’s not on the HH menu). I will say that I still don’t think any of the “fancy-pants” tacos at places like Lola, TAG, and Centro come close to matching up to the real deal you can get at Pupusas, Tacos y Salsas, El Taco de Mexico, Tacos Jalisco and the like.

                TAG: Like others have expressed, I too was more impressed with the chef’s nine75 when it first opened and Zengo when he was in command of the kitchen than TAG, particularly since the bang for the buck was much better (although they do have a pretty good happy hour that starts early and features sushi and tacos). I’m thinking those old price points couldn’t possibly come back though given the swanky interior finishes at the new joint. The downstairs bathrooms accessible only by elevator are a little annoying--mainly the first time you’re bumbling about trying to find them after swigging a few pear mojitos and boozy peachy goodness at the bar. I still enjoy his food and I’m rooting for this place to succeed. The piping hot French onion soup dumplings are the best thing I’ve had there so far, although the butterfish and pork belly apps are also quite good. I still haven’t been for a proper dinner.

                Sherpa House (Golden): Charming house (except for the tub in the bathroom—be forewarned) and large patio with posters pimping the local “craft microbrewery” Coors. Be advised that even though their menu indicates you can have dishes prepared to the level of spice you’d prefer, the samosas are pre-made and come out rather mild (though with a lovely flaky exterior). That’s not the case with the channa masala when requested hot—it was almost more than I could handle and the extra punch of flavor still didn’t make it taste any better than the one served up at Tibet’s in Louisville. Their various incarnations of naan are superior to many places though and they hold up longer at room temperature. My better half had the enormous bowl of combination thukpa (veggies, lamb, yak, and beef) on both trips, which he likened to Little Lamb’s full-flavored hot pot broth. I had the chicken bindaloo with no special spice level requests on the second trip and it came out on the bland side. Next time I hope I can split the difference between having my tongue seared off and being understimulated.

                3 Replies
                1. re: rlm

                  First off, thanks so much for the terrific reviews. I have been out of the loop with the Denver food scene (but do get back "home" fairly regularly), and you are making me eager to get back and try some of these places.

                  In regards to TAG, were you saying that they serve French Onion Soup Dumplings? As in the Shanghai style soup dumplings (with the soup inside the dumpling)? If that is the case, I am very excited about that. I spent a lot of my Vancouver vacation searching out Soup Dumplings (with mixed success), and think French Onion soup dumplings sound wonderful.

                  My wife and I's first date was at the original Lola's, so that place still has a warm place in my heart, but we haven't had a chance to get to the new spot.

                  Have had a couple great meals at Sasa, and think it is a great addition to the Denver food scene. Like you said, it isn't cheap, but it is a good value for what you get (incredibly fresh fish prepared with great care).

                  1. re: Booger

                    They're sorta like that, but not quite. Served sorta escargot style. Photo in blogpost below. I agree with rlm completely: they're the best thing I've had; the other apps I tried, though rather pricier, lacked a little. I'm hoping it's still just in shakedown mode, b/c obviously Guard really can be all that.


                    As for Lola, I think it's got one of the best brunch menus going, but I'm never quite as interested in the dinner menu.

                    I gotta say one of the places that impressed me most this year was Fuel. I knew Bones would rock, expected good things of LoHi and Park Burger—but this place was a total surprise.

                    1. re: Booger

                      TAG's dumplings didn't remind me of Shanghai-style dumplings because of all the cheese. It really is like having a little blast of French Onion soup going off in your mouth.