This year’s return to Denver brought more delights, whether a super cool food hall with downtown Denver views, Avanti Food & Beverage, or cold press juice fixes at Pressed Juice Daily. Despite my ever-extensive research to avoid it, there were a couple disappointments, from the uneven food and cocktails at beloved The Populist, to the lackluster Mexican food at raved about hole-in-the-wall, El Taco de Mexico, which was authentic in a greasy, overly-sauced and fried, American-ized way, not in the greasy-yet-still-fresh expressions I find all over Mexico and California.
GUARD & GRACE, CBD
You may weary of another steak house, but Guard and Grace is bigger than its categorization would suggest. They serve impeccable steaks, sure. But this restaurant, opened in 2014 and named after the chef Troy Guards (of TAG) daughter, is also about the oyster bar, charcuterie station, seafood, small plates, wines, barrel aged cocktails and massive, modern space in downtown Denver.
Eat This: Think three types of beef from Colorado ranches (prime, certified angus and local grass-fed cuts) and a wine cellar of over 4,000 bottles (include temperature-controlled wine lockers to store your reserve bottles), all served in a sleek dining room of gold, woods and burnt orange upholstery.
Though you’ve seen the likes of beet salad or grilled octopus a thousand times around the US, Guard manages to make these dishes feel fresh, accenting roasted beets and beet puree ($11) with walnut butter, honeydew, frisee and lardo or a near perfect oak-fired octopus ($14) with white bean and celery salad, sherry vinaigrette and red pepper sauce. Steaks star but so does a decadently lush Alaskan black cod ($39) in sweet soy butter with charred broccolini.
Drink This: In addition to barrel aged and house cocktails, G&G’s sommelier and gracious staff can help you pair dishes with white Burgundy, Chianti Classico or any of the wealth of wines.
VITAL ROOT, Northwest/Tennyson St.
With dishes ranging from an affordable $6-15, Vital Root just opened in June as a vegetarian/vegan destination from chef/restaurateur Justin Cucci, who is behind Root Down, Linger and Ophelias Electric Soapbox. It’s fast-casual, “fast slow food”, order-at-the-counter fare that, from what I tasted, veers both healthy and flavorful. With front and back patios offering plenty of open air seating when the weather is nice, the funky space boasts skylights, an herb garden in back, a Japanese maple and tree sculpture outside. This is a place that would be a huge hit in California or in many a city and I’d love it on my own town.
Eat This: They take Root Down’s popular Devils on Horseback and offer a Devils on Unicorns version with goat cheese, Medjool dates, smoked almonds, coconut meat bacon and walnut-chili oil. Indian-influenced dishes shine, like a coconut dosa ($11) packed with Okinawa sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, peas, mushrooms and carrots, accompanied by a spicy sambar (lentil-based vegetable stew), mint chutney and a drizzling of charcoal oil for added earthiness. Try the chewy-crispy mochi churros ($7) laden with cinnamon, star anise and coconut sugar, for dessert.
Drink This: Besides organic beer, vegetable and fruit juices and smoothies and nut milks, juices are served as cocktails ($8) as with Edible Beats (tequila, beet shrub, pineapple, lime).
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BAR DOUGH, Highland
Open late 2015 in the Highlands ‘hood, Bar Dough is the type of menu you’ve seen across the US (and by the dozens in cities like mine). But here it’s done right and may be one of the best Italian and Neapolitan pizza restaurants in Colorado. It can get unbearably noisy on weekends (God bless the far more “chill” outdoor front patio) but films on the flat screens (like “Zoolander”) keep it playful.
Eat This: Executive chef/partner Max MacKissock showcases his years of training in Italy in creative combinations like wood-oven roasted carrots ($14) accented by puffed farro, chickpeas and pine nuts in a carrot cumin vinaigrette, or fatty-good beef bacon ($15) in an onion caramel with rhubarb soffrito and marcona almond pesto. Housemade pastas sometimes veered on the far too chewy, dense side of al dente, but pizzas, like a comforting three cheese blend (aged gouda, aged and fresh mozzarella) over red sauce ($12) delights.
Drink This: There are plenty of Italian wines and straightforward cocktails, but it’s also fun to dig into local offerings like a 2014 Jack Rabbit Hill Blaufrankisch rosé from Colorado or the fantastic Horse & Dragon Maracuya IPA beer (I visited their Ft. Collins distillery days later) on draft.
HOP ALLEY, Northwest/Five Points
Open at the end of 2015, Hop Alley is another funky-cool spot from chef/restaurateur Tommy Lee behind Uncle. In keeping with the hipster, Asian fusion wave that continues to proliferate around the US taking its inspiration from pioneers like Mission Chinese in SF and Roy Choi in LA Hop Alley serves modern Chinese food with a twist, named after Denver’s Chinatown dating back to the 1870s.
I’m well over the no-reservations process for places that are perpetually packed, requiring arriving before opening hour for a crazy-early dinner in hopes of avoiding a wait, but Hop Alley handles the crowd with efficiency. The dining room is intimate, bustling, smoky and hot surrounding the kitchen and this is gratifying eating, even as dishes pop out in a hurry.
Eat This: Chef Todd Somma (from Uncle) serves family-style goodness in dishes like a dreamy steamed eggplant ($12) in Sichuan bean sauce with lots of fried garlic, or grilled flank steak chow fun ($21), a mountain of rice noodles and leeks in double dark soy sauce. The popular Beijing duck roll ($16), five spice duck and its crispy skin, wrapped in scallion pancakes with cabbage, was a standout of savory deliciousness. So were salt and pepper soft shell crabs in bibb lettuce cups ($23), brightened with lime mayo, pickled onions and green chilies.
Drink This: Unfortunately, cocktails ($12) leaned towards the “miss” side of hit-and-miss. They sounded fantastic, like the Horse (each named after a Chinese New Year animal), combining Bols Dutch Gin, Calvados, orgeat and matcha green tea, or the Monkey (Plymouth gin, Beniotome soju, sesame, Campari) but were imbalanced, either dominating with one ingredient or lacking harmony entirely. Better to stick with the solid craft beer selection (like collaboration beer, 36 Barrels Shaolin Saison) or with thoughtful wines from wine director Matt Mulligan (like a Syrah/Carignan rosé from Jolie-Laide in Sebastopol, CA, German rieslings or French beaujolais).
Before its James Beard Award nomination and all the rest, Acorn was easily one of, if not my top, restaurant in Denver. So I had to check out their casual, order-at-the-counter rotisserie newcomer, Brider, which opened in January in the ever-hip Highland area. Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton (also of Oak at Fourteenth) have done right by fast casual, slow fast food, keeping food and drink offerings high quality yet straightforward in a massive, modern, cement-floored space brightened up with lime green accents facing the street with big picture windows.
Eat This: There are pastries and breakfast sandwiches, rotisserie platters and salads, with a heavy sandwich selection, including the raved-about Cajun-spiced blue shrimp sandwich ($14) that I found a bit overrated but for its wealth of avocado (surprisingly lacking in Cajun spice/flavor). Though it didn’t read as exciting, I found the roasted porchetta sandwich ($13) more gratifying overall, from the rustic bread to house kimchi, cheddar and herb aioli.