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Hot Picks from 11 of Denver’s Freshest Faces & Places

December 16, 2013
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by Ruth Tobias

Not only is it a cliché these days to say that any given chef is “moving the conversation forward,” it might not be terribly accurate. Sure, the best of the bunch get us talking. But the dishes we really remember tend to put the table's most high-minded culinary discussions on hold. “Wow, this is good.” “Holy moly, you’ve got to try it.” “I can’t stop eating.” The following dishes inspire precisely that sort of blissful banter. (So, by the way, does the food we sampled just last week at the brand-new Lower48; look for our coverage of the menu later today.)

Acorn: Lamb “Shawarma”

Let’s face it, the glitziest newcomers don’t always yield the year’s best dishes. But then, Bryan Dayton and Steven Redzikowski aren’t behind every newcomer. Borrowing from the success - and progressive repertoire - of their Boulder flagship Oak at Fourteenth, the open kitchen at their much-ballyhooed sophomore venture in The Source produces several winners (as does the bar - read more here). Yet we’ll always have a place in our hearts, and bellies, for the deconstructed lamb shawarma, laden with creamy nuggets of chickpea panisse, bright shishito peppers and zingy accents of tzatziki, harissa and feta.

3350 Brighton Blvd.; 720-542-3721

Babettes Artisan Breads: Pain au Naturel

“It’s nice having praise, but at the end of the day, I still have to bake,” laughs Steve Scott of the comme il faut pastries and loaves he produces at this white-hot counter, also in The Source. Make that dark-hot: the crusts are nearly black and practically crackle, yet the interiors are as moist as could be. Scott, who’s “totally in love with France,” explains that the results are a matter of high-hydration dough, long fermentation (35-40 hours) and an oven temperature of 500 degrees: “They wouldn’t have the same punch otherwise.” But you don’t have to know what all that means to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into his simplest white bread as well as his prettiest pithivier.

3350 N. Brighton Blvd., #140; 303-993-8602

Beast + Bottle: Roasted Squab with Foie Gras

At this intimate farm-to-fork smash in Uptown, chef-partner Paul C. Reilly’s style is at once au courant and effortless, his market-driven menu an of-the-moment blend of comfort and luxury. Exhibit A: the squab duo. On the one hand, it showcases that crown jewel of delicacies, foie gras, in the form of a 1.5-oz. pan-seared lobe; on the other hand, it also features a good old hash of buttercup squash, black-trumpet mushrooms and Swiss chard. As for the bird itself, it appears two ways: as roasted breast and as confit made with wing and neck meat as well as the fat of the foie. Candied kumquat adds a final flourish.

719 E. 17th Ave.; 303-623-3223

Glaze: Baum Cake

Distinguished by the ultra-thin concentric layers formed as the batter rotates on a spit, baumkuchen are beloved to the Japanese by way of German bakers - and for the past year, Denverites have been getting their fill of the cakes too. Inspired by the bakeries she frequented in Tokyo, founder Heather Alcott imported a custom-built oven from Kobe, the first of its kind in the States, to set up shop in Congress Park. Now the studio-like space displays a veritable gallery of the goodies: some with pears or apples at their centers, others flavored with green tea, dipped in chocolate or glistening with rum glaze.

1160 Madison St.; 720-387-7890

Harman’s Eat & Drink: Cake-Batter Ice Cream Sundae

Though we were sorry to see the Denver branch of Phat Thai go, restaurateur Mark Fischer made a shrewd move when he transformed his Cherry Creek venue into this gastropubby contemporary joint, bringing chef John Chad Little over from The Pullman in Glenwood Springs to oversee the kitchen. After all, the neighbors clamor for sustainably sourced, health-conscious cuisine - and Harman’s is delivering via an eclectic, local-meets-global repertoire. 

This sundae, however, is nothing if not a droll exception to the rule. Little drapes of pork in three forms frame the cake-batter ice cream at the center: crispy belly, fried rinds and bacon, the latter incorporated into the rum caramel. Of course, all the salty and smoky notes only highlight the dessert’s intense sweetness. Meanwhile, if you need to justify the indulgence to yourself, just remember that the blueberries in the compote are a superfood.

2900 E. 2nd Ave.; 303-388-7428

Old Major: Sausage

The tagline of Justin Brunson’s singular LoHi go-to remains “Seafood, Swine and Wine” - but thanks to his in-house butchery program, it’s definitely the swine that has made Old Major a national media darling over the past several months. There’s not a shred of pork that he and his crew don’t use somewhere, somehow - sausage being a prime example. The inaugural version (pictured) was studded with black truffles and pistachios and served over a light, bright escargot vinaigrette and potato purée, while the current rendition is smoked and accompanied by foraged mushrooms and Brussels sprouts in a cherry-sage demi-glace. We’ll have it either way - or any other way, for that matter.

3316 Tejon St.; 720-420-0622

Olive & Finch Eatery: The Greggers Sandwich

It’s barely a week old (read our coverage here), yet Mary Nguyen’s Uptown bakery-cafe has rolled out hot beef-tongue sandwich that's already among the most talked-about dishes of the year. And no wonder: it’s a thing of beauty. The meat is braised for six hours, shaved to tender ribbons, and placed atop a crusty baguette with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and arugula; roasted-garlic puree and tarragon aïoli enhance the hearty flavors while softening their edges. Try it and soon enough your own tongue will be wagging about it too.

1552 E. 17th Ave.; 303-832-8663

Session Kitchen: Pierogi

Let chef Scott Parker’s lamb collar and taleggio cornbread get all the glory - there’ll be more pierogi for you. At this major splash on Old South Pearl, which you can check out further here, the humble dumplings are stuffed with crispy potatoes, tossed with Brussels sprouts and drizzled with a Frank’s Red Hot butter you could eat with a spoon.

1518 S. Pearl St.; 720-763-3387

Ste. Ellie: Stuffed Dates

The delays seemed interminable, but this subterranean cocktail lounge has proven well worth the long, long wait. Not that anyone’s surprised - after all, Ste. Ellie’s upstairs sibling, Colt & Gray, has a permanent spot on the short list of Denver’s cleverest kitchens, thanks to ambitious chef-owner Nelson Perkins and crew. Head barman Kevin Burke and certified cicerone Ryan Conklin, who’s overseeing the beer program, are clearly having a ball pouring an ever-changing roster of libations: pecan-infused bourbon with maple and chicory bitters here, blueberry Berliner weisse there. And the small plates keep the party going strong. Though the in-house butchery program yields as many sausages, European deli meats and as it does upstairs, seafood stars here too - check out that squid a la plancha with black lentils and enoki mushrooms or the smoked-trout rillettes served in their own little squeezable tube alongside rye crackers. Still, the sweet-salty, Reuben-sandwich-inspired dates stuffed with beef-tongue pastrami, escargots and Gruyère over Russian dressing (pictured) are an undeniable standout.

1553 Platte St. #120 1/2; 303-477-1447

Table 6: Salt-Baked Onion with Semolina Spaetzle

Combining free-wheeling creativity with urbane savvy, Aaron Forman’s rustic little bistro off a whizzing stretch of Sixth Avenue isn’t new. But the face of the open kitchen is: following Scott Parker’s departure for Session Kitchen a few months ago, Carrie Shores stepped from up her sous-chef position to take top toque. And she’s rocking it. While checking out the latest by-the-glass selection for our recent Winning Wine Lists roundup, we discovered this richly rootsy jewel of a creation, and it’s sparkled in our memory ever since. At its center is a whole onion that’s roasted in a pan of salt for 14 hours, then hollowed and stuffed with a mixture of Camembert and wild mushrooms that, when you stick a knife through it, flows like lava to cover the housemade semolina-black pepper spaetzle in creamy, earthy goodness, cut slightly, but only slightly, by the greens. 

609 Corona St.; 303-831-8800

Udi’s Pizza Cafe Bar: Pane Bianco

Whether accompanied by hummus, baba ghanoush or the thick, creamy tzatziki, the golden, crusty-chewy puffs of pane bianco at Udi’s twinkling City Park outlet are so addictive we rarely order much else.  Executive baker Maurizio Negrini developed the 48-hour recipe while staging at Rome’s famed Antico Forno Roscioli, based on the same three-starter dough (two yeasted, one sourdough) the kitchen uses for the pies. So you’re basically eating pizza as it is; throw in a salad and it’s as good a dinner as any. 

2550 E. Colfax Ave.; 303-355-5445