Feature

2012: The 25 Best Restaurants

From northern Italian sophistication to authentic street tacos—and just about everything in between—these restaurants are the very best of the Front Range dining scene. Make your reservation today.

October 2012

5280.com Exclusive: Take a peek inside Fruition Restaurant.

No. 1: Frasca Food and Wine (1)

Dine at Frasca Food and Wine, and you can’t help but leave with a deeper appreciation for dining experiences as a whole. The evening is carefully and gracefully choreographed. Your water glass never empties, and spent dishes are removed without interruption so that the untarnished focus of the meal is co-owner and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson’s northern Italian menu and co-owner and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey’s impeccable wine list. To accomplish this with every table, six nights a week, is no small feat. And yet Frasca delivers every single time. Since opening in 2004, Mackinnon-Patterson’s small menu has changed monthly. But this summer, he overhauled it weekly in order to focus on a single seasonal item. When I dined, the highlighted ingredient was broccoli. With each course—and especially in the soufflélike sformato with egg yolk and Tender Belly bacon—I discovered elegance in a vegetable I usually characterize as overpowering. This menu change was bold and potentially polarizing, but it underscored Mackinnon-Patterson’s commitment to his chosen cuisine. /1738 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-6966, frascafoodandwine.com

No. 2: Sushi Den (4)

What brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki have accomplished in a landlocked state is almost unthinkable. Each week Sushi Den serves 2,000 pounds of seafood that taste as if it’s just been fished from the ocean. A decade ago, the brothers created a complex supply chain that now reaches from the Nagahama Fish Market in Fukuoka, Japan, to San Francisco and on to Denver to import seafood quintessential to the sushi experience. Two years ago, the Kizakis took the same approach with many of the vegetables and herbs served at the Platt Park restaurant: They bought a farm in Brighton, built a state-of-the-art greenhouse, and have been adding just-harvested produce to Sushi Den’s plates. Toshi, the creative force behind Sushi Den, is a perfectionist, and Yasu, the business mastermind, executes Toshi’s vision—and this relationship of yin and yang is evident in every bite. Sit at the sushi bar and let the team of sushi chefs guide you through a meal. PLUS: Look for Izakaya Den to open next door to the mother ship this spring. /1487 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0826, sushiden.net

No. 3: ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro (5)

If there’s a Denver restaurant that constantly takes me by surprise, it’s ChoLon. The contemporary southeast Asian menu often reads simply—pork ribs with smoked tamarind barbecue sauce and green papaya salad, or asparagus and mushroom salad with soy-truffle vinaigrette—but simple it is not. Those ribs are slathered with sauce made from the reduced liquid left over from the beguiling caramelized-onion soup dumplings. For the salad, al dente asparagus combines with king oyster mushrooms that have been cooked sous vide to a meaty texture that eats like pork. No matter which items you choose, chef and co-owner Lon Symensma’s cuisine is defined by a purity of flavor. His technique is advanced and complicated, but every ingredient’s purpose is clear and distilled—nothing is muddled. The downtown space is equally vibrant, with a tangible buzz and a beautiful crowd. Sit at the chef’s counter, where you can watch these magnificent dishes come together. /1555 Blake St., Suite 101, 303-353-5223, cholon.com

No. 4: Luca d’Italia (6)

Each time I dine at Luca d’Italia and Mizuna, both owned by Frank Bonanno, I weigh the experiences against each other, because both spots often represent the pinnacle of local dining. Last year, Mizuna landed higher on this list because it showed off a new, more relaxed vibe and a menu that was surprising and exquisite. This year, however, Luca edges out Mizuna (number 6, page 63) because of dishes such as hand-rolled agnolotti stuffed with rich corn purée, and served in a smoked Maine lobster broth with Laughing Bird shrimp and fermented black garlic. The corn purée contained neither butter nor cream—it was simply blended with potatoes for smoothness and left to impress all on its own. This type of restraint—something I also discovered in the Colorado lamb loin with English peas and lamb shoulder gnudi—is the work of chef de cuisine Hunter Pritchett. In collaboration with Bonanno, Pritchett has created dishes that shine on the well-priced prix fixe menu. Four courses run $55 (excluding wine), and for my money, it’s one of the best values in the city. /711 Grant St., 303-832-6600, lucadenver.com

No. 5: Fruition Restaurant (2)

There are few things, it appears, that Fruition chef Alex Seidel can’t do. He runs one of the city’s best restaurants; garners national attention (ahem, Food & Wine Best New Chef 2010); runs a farm and sheep dairy in Larkspur; and guest chefs for Chefs Club, Food & Wine’s new concept restaurant in Aspen. All of this success has grown from his intense passion for cooking, the showcase of which is Fruition. At the 50-seat restaurant he co-owns with maître d’ Paul Attardi, dishes are sophisticated, innovative, and special. Although most meals play out seamlessly, a recent visit with distracted service and a couple of unfocused items has me wondering if Seidel is beginning to feel the wear of so many projects. /1313 E. Sixth Ave., 303-831-1962, fruitionrestaurant.com

No. 6: Mizuna (3)

Mizuna’s kitchen, which runs the length of the west wall and is framed like a picture, is one of my favorites in all of Denver. It’s efficient and small—the six chefs working each night have no elbow room—but there’s a synchronicity and rhythm that only those pedigreed enough to cook here acquire. There’s a reason Mizuna is a jumping-off point for so many of Denver’s bold names—Alex Seidel, Justin Brunson, and Jean-Philippe Failyau among them. Frank Bonanno keeps an astute eye on the restaurant’s focus: to push the boundaries of modern French cuisine. He mostly succeeds. At a recent dinner, although a couple of combinations fell flat (the promise of Bing cherries in the Lola Rosa salad yielded a skimpy portion, and the lovely lamb loin felt like it was missing a sauce, a side…something), there were many moments of perfection. The delicate asparagus soup garnished with lump blue crab and draped around a silky, white asparagus flan is one of the best dishes I’ve had all year. The prosciutto-wrapped monkfish, with a cloudlike crema ahumada and tender, astringent baby fennel, was also transcendent. Tip: When making your reservation, request a table in the main dining room, not the small, auxiliary room in the back. /225 E. Seventh Ave., 303-832-4778, mizunadenver.com

No. 7: Z Cuisine (8)

Z Cuisine (8) If Z Cuisine has a fault, it’s that the restaurant isn’t open every day (dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday). The truncated hours and shoebox space mean it’s difficult to secure a table (I suggest arriving before 6 p.m. to put in your name), but that makes the reward all the sweeter. If you’re lucky, you’ll sit by the window, but the room is so cozy that every table feels distinctive and tended to. The staff helps you navigate chef and co-owner Patrick Dupays’ chalkboard menu du jour, but always—always—order the Z salad gourmande, a pile of greens tossed with an ever-changing assortment of meats (Spanish chorizo, duck prosciutto, boudin noir). With wine served in glass pitchers and baguettes in paper bags, Z Cuisine is special in a casual way. Even when you can’t get a table, it’s worth dropping in next door to the equally packed À Côté Bar. The straight-out-of-Paris feel is like that of its sibling, and the food is an expanded version of Z Cuisine’s menu. /2239 W. 30th Ave., 303-477-1111, zcuisineonline.com

No. 8: Cafe Aion (12)

If Dakota Soifer had opened Cafe Aion in Denver instead of Boulder, it would likely be my go-to spot. The space is easy and confident; I especially love the tables that back up to the bay windows, which open to warm breezes in the summer and showcase the snowy outdoors in the winter. The food—all small plates with the exception of four shared platters that include a tagine and paella—is rustic, thoughtfully conceived, and simple. No diner should skip the fried cauliflower with cumin-spiced yogurt and lemon wedges. (On my last visit, our table of four ordered two rounds of the crispy, nutty florets.) From there, let your server—and the seasons—be your guide. One event to put on your calendar is the Wednesday paella night, when you and a date can nab the Spanish dish (sometimes traditional, sometimes not) and a bottle of wine for $39. /1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-993-8131, cafeaion.com

No. 9: Colt & Gray (10)

Although the website describes Colt & Gray as a neighborhood pub, that label hardly does it justice. Sure, it’s comfortable enough to pop by on a Tuesday evening for dinner at the bar, but the small dining room, divided by a brick fireplace, is distinguished enough for a wedding anniversary—or even a proposal. There’s a British, tweedlike feel to the place, almost like you’re dining in an exclusive hunt club, but any stuffiness is offset by chef-owner Nelson Perkins’ modern menu. Crispy pig trotters and blue cheese–dusted gougères (both must-orders) sit on the same menu as Hudson Valley foie gras terrine with pickled peaches and pan-roasted rabbit. The flavors are savory, deep, even masculine. PLUS: By spring, Perkins hopes to open St. Ellie, a cocktail bar that builds on Kevin Burke’s already impressive program, and Viande Colorado Charcuterie, a cured meats shop, next to Colt & Gray. /1553 Platte St., 303-477-1447, coltandgray.com

No. 10: Linger (22)

Eat a meal at Linger and you won’t soon forget it. The breadth of the globally inspired street menus is somewhat overwhelming (ceviche, masala dosa, Mongolian barbecue duck buns, carrot and lentil kofte…), but that’s where the servers come in. They know the dishes, they have opinions, and they will steer you right. They want you to sink into the urban-cool vibe and take in the unprecedented views of downtown and the surrounding neighborhood. Servings are generous: At lunch, the goat tacos, the crispy lentil salad, and the ginger-chile shrimp is more than enough for two people. Justin Cucci’s restaurant delivers smartly priced dishes, a huge dose of fun (have you been on the rooftop?), and creative, global cuisine. Linger is one of the few spots that lives up to the sky-high expectations put upon it—and it gets better with each passing month. Be forewarned: You’ll need to be patient when making a reservation. /2030 W. 30th Ave., 303-993-3120, lingerdenver.com

No. 11: Bittersweet (7)

It’s not uncommon for diners sitting on Bittersweet’s patio to inquire about whom the restaurant employs as a gardener. Chef and co-owner Olav Peterson laughs and explains that he, his wife and co-owner Melissa, and the kitchen staff tend to the plants. They sow the seeds and nurture them to harvest. Peterson might chuckle, but the 600 square feet of garden space defines Bittersweet and his approach to cooking. Peterson’s food is flush with European influences, but its contemporary spin elevates simple farm-to-table cuisine. There’s a studiousness to his menu (the pork is a cut from the coveted Spanish Ibérico ham; the deconstructed tuna niçoise is resplendent with tomato consommé), but you don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate the flavors, the layers, and the artistic approach. There are occasions when dishes could benefit from self-editing (hint: opt for the simpler preparations). But one of the things that impresses me most about Peterson as a chef is that he’s always tinkering, and the menu is ever-evolving. Don’t leave without dessert: Pastry chef Danielle St. John is one of the city’s best. /500 E. Alameda Ave., 303-942-0320, bittersweetdenver.com

No. 12: Il Posto (24)

Too many restaurants are best suited to specific seasons. But at Il Posto, the small Uptown eatery shines all year long. I never let a summer pass without ordering chef-owner Andrea Frizzi’s just-sweet-enough strawberry risotto. In the winter, I take the chill off with the marrow-rich osso buco Milanese (Wednesdays only). Fall and spring find me indulging in house-made pasta dishes filled with the produce of the moment. The northern Italian menu reflects Frizzi’s heritage (he was born and raised in Milan), but the local sensibilities say everything about Colorado dining. Just how does a restaurant rise halfway up the list in a single year? It quietly labels itself a neighborhood spot; it assuredly serves a compact menu on which each dish sings; and it relies on professional, casual service that never lapses. /2011 E. 17th Ave., 303-394-0100, ilpostodenver.com

No. 13: Table 6 (18)

Table 6 has long been a staple restaurant for me—and much of Denver: The come-as-you-are space and the approachable menu serve as background for owner Aaron Forman’s eccentric wine list. Forman’s characteristic, slightly rumpled plaid jacket and skinny European tie are clues to the vibe: cool, urban, and not overly serious. However, a year ago, I knocked chef Scott Parker for his tongue-in-cheek approach to the menu. There have always been playful elements to Table 6 (gussied up tater tots and mini Philly cheese steaks among them), but when nearly every dish seemed to come with a wink and a “gotcha,” it was simply too much. Happily, Parker has reworked the menu so that—while still lighthearted—it best reflects what Table 6 is known for: being a terrific, easygoing neighborhood restaurant. /609 Corona St., 303-831-8800, table6denver.com

No. 14: TAG Raw Bar (New to the list)

Often, subterranean restaurant spaces are too dark, too easy to overlook, and too, well, basement-y. Not TAG Raw, an offshoot of chef-owner Troy Guard’s popular TAG Restaurant (number 18, page 67) just a few doors down on Larimer Square. Instead, Raw Bar’s tucked-away location feels like a secret that you’re lucky enough to uncover. The decor—glossy white tiles, punches of bright orange, and raw wooden beams—buzzes with cosmopolitan energy. The food (most of which is served raw in a sushi-ceviche-carpaccio way) follows suit with bright flavors, crunchy textures, and a chaser of chile-induced heat. Don’t miss the inventive ceviche imagination, a $4 ever-changing selection of firm, cubed fish (recently salmon and kampachi) marinated in citrus and punched through with onion. The refresher arrives in a shot glass, and it’s enough to give you a taste of what’s to come. Sit at the bar for the best service, or grab a table in the newly expanded dining room for a more leisurely meal. /1423 Larimer St., 303-996-2685, tagrawbar.com

No. 15: Twelve (New to the list)

If you were ever a fan of Kokopelli’s, a live music venue on Larimer Street, you wouldn’t recognize the place now. Twelve chef-owner Jeff Osaka has pulled off the ultimate face-lift. After taking over the Ballpark address in 2008, he restored the sweeping—and original—bar, brightened up the space, and opened his restaurant later that year. He named it Twelve to reflect a menu that changes on the first of each month. That dedication ensures Osaka is ever-refining, using the best of in-season produce, and stretching his culinary abilities. There has always been tremendous potential in Twelve, and now the restaurant is fully realized; it hums in every perceptible way. The service is generous and informative (request Justin Russell’s section when making a reservation). The warm space seats an intimate 40. The food is altogether stunning. A must-order is the simple-sounding baby lettuces salad with Parmesan and Banyuls vinaigrette. This is not just a salad, but also a celebration of produce at its peak—and it’s one of only two items that never come off the menu. From there, don’t miss the exquisite lamb dishes—and know that the vegetarian entrées are similarly thought-out and complex. /2233 Larimer St., 303-293-0287, twelverestaurant.com

No. 16: Trillium (New to the list)

With Trillium, Scandinavia’s suddenly in-vogue cuisine lands in Denver. But it’s not all lox, horseradish, and pickled herring. At this Ballpark restaurant, chef-owner Ryan Leinonen puts his spin on the stark cuisine by warming it up, softening the edges, and at times incorporating updated versions of his Finnish grandmother’s recipes. What arise are splendid, comforting eats that are vastly different from other dishes around town. Sure, there’s pork, steak, and duck (all served with refined sides), but the bulk of the menu centers on cold-water fish such as steelhead trout and whitefish. This is a refreshing shift from the ubiquitous seared scallop and pan-roasted halibut dishes on other menus. Although somewhat sparse, the space is generous enough for a girls’ night out, a raucous birthday party, or a quiet dinner for two. /2134 Larimer St., 303-379-9759, trilliumdenver.com

No. 17: Pizzeria Locale (New to the list)

Before burgers and tacos were the hot trends, it was pizza—specifically Neapolitan-style pizza. Translation: thin-crusted, charred in a wood-fired oven, and topped with pristine ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes and cured meats. The best example of this Napoli-inspired dish is found in Boulder at the ever-busy Pizzeria Locale. Owned by the same team as Frasca Food and Wine (number 1, page 60) next door, it’s no surprise that every detail is attended to: The pizzas—don’t miss the diavola with basil and salame—are fired in a hand-built, Italian-imported Stefano Ferrara oven (the only one in Colorado). The meats are sliced paper-thin on a prized VDF slicer (the first to be imported to North America). The final result is a cut-it-yourself circle of chewy dough, crispy crust, and tomatoey warmth. /1730 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-442-3003, pizzerialocale.com

No. 18: TAG Restaurant (New to the list)

TAG, Troy Guard’s Larimer Square restaurant, suits the historic street’s in-the-now spirit. Walk inside the long, skinny space and notice the decibel level: It’s loud and boisterous in a way that swoops you up into a pleasing swirl of energy. This translates to the servers, too—they hustle to and fro, taking orders, answering questions, and ferrying cocktails and plates. Lean on them to decipher the menu (and then lean on them again when you’re ready for the check; this process is always more arduous than it should be). The multicultural dishes, which pull from Guard’s upbringing in Hawaii, his stints in Asia, and his home in Colorado, almost always contain some unheard-of ingredient and clever sauce. As incongruous as this approach might seem, Guard cooks clearheaded, powerful dishes. The Szechuan pork’s toasted Israeli couscous and zucchini come ringed with a sweet and fiery dragon sauce that adds savoriness and depth to most anything it touches. Likewise, entrées such as heady goat enchiladas draped in guajillo chile sauce and grounded with crunchy slaw push diners out of their comfort zones. For the best experience, reserve a table on the main floor. /1441 Larimer St., 303-996-9985, tag-restaurant.com

No. 19: Potager Restaurant & Wine Bar (9)

It’s the top of the menu coupled with Potager’s timeless space (that bucolic patio!) and attentive service that keep this restaurant firmly on this list. Although Potager opened in 1997, the Capitol Hill spot still feels fresh and relevant. It also has the rare ability to appeal to both the special-occasion crowd and the spontaneous neighborhood diner. That sense of community is apparent the moment you walk through the door. Perhaps it’s the urban space that balances concrete with wood and glass. Or maybe it’s chef and co-owner Teri Rippeto’s farm-to-table approach that she began adhering to long before the concept was a trend. I greatly appreciate the simplicity and the philosophy of letting ingredients speak for themselves. The entrées, however, need a little more finessing, and often seasoning. I suggest ordering a couple of appetizers (all of which are generously portioned), a glass of wine, and finishing with the legendary chocolate pudding. /1109 Ogden St., 303-832-5788, potagerrestaurant.com

No. 20: Fuel Café (13)

Bob Blair’s Fuel Café is an oasis on the edge of downtown. The four-year-old eatery, which anchors the TAXI district, has become a destination for those tired of the mainstream. Judging by the packed house during brunch, lunch, and dinner, scores of diners are looking to escape the day-to-day and enjoy the simple pleasure of good food. Service is friendly, if distracted, but the low-key atmosphere explains it away as the desire not to interfere. Some entrées need a tad more attention before arriving at the table: herb spaetzle under a terrific pork chop was more crunch than dumpling, and a Spanish-style fish stew required more heat and body. But there are moments of brilliance in the charred rainbow carrot salad with quinoa or a skirt steak with avocado-peanut salsa and roasted corn. These are dishes that nourish and please, all while encouraging you to share a bite across the table. /3455 Ringsby Court, 303-996-6988, fuelcafedenver.com

No. 21: Oak at Fourteenth (New to the list)

An elevated bar program has become as important to a restaurant’s success as the food itself. At Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, mixologist and co-owner Bryan Dayton leads the charge with an extensive cocktail program that includes his award-winning, gin-based East Aspen Heights. The list is broken down by alcohol content and bolstered by excellent house-made sodas, tingly ginger beer, and earthy root beer. This attention to detail is mimicked in chef and co-owner Steven Redzikowski’s seasonal menu. The centerpiece of the kitchen is an oak-fired grill, and the wood’s primitive, smoky flavors are apparent throughout the menu. The best example comes via the Colorado lamb T-bones, which arrive with a charred exterior that reveals—but doesn’t overpower—the tender, sweet meat. Cooking over fire is fickle, however, and occasionally dishes arrive with too much, or not enough, smoke. /1400 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-3622, oakatfourteenth.com

No. 22: Duo Restaurant (17)

When Duo opened near the corner of 32nd Avenue and Zuni Street in 2005, it signified a turning point for east Highland. Today, this stretch of the neighborhood is a destination in itself with bakeries, a pizza shop, bars, and bistros. The surrounding area has evolved, but Duo has largely remained the same: a straightforward, seasonally focused gathering spot. The restaurant is so committed to sourcing local ingredients that owners Stephanie Bonin and Keith Arnold recently started their own urban farm a block and a half from Duo. Order the antipasto for a trio of impeccably fresh items (if you’re lucky, it will include the bean-and-carrot salad with tarragon-carrot dressing). Given the focus on produce, the vegetarian dishes always dazzle: On my last visit, that included a summery corn-and-ricotta ravioli topped with mint pesto. Service, which was always a high point at Duo, has become slightly preoccupied over the years, and that can lead to delays that add up by the end of a meal. Even so, a dessert (lemon icebox cake!) from the award-winning Yasmin Lozada-Hissom will help erase any annoyance. /2413 W. 32nd Ave., 303-477-4141, duodenver.com

No. 23: Café Brazil (New to the list)

For 20 years, Café Brazil has been serving reliable, no-frills South American cuisine—first from a tiny, cash-only spot on Najavo Street and now in a gracious, colorful space on Lowell Boulevard. Despite the name, the restaurant is not solely Brazilian: The menu is a contemporary, if slightly European, composite of South American dishes. But there are Brazilian elements, most notably the jovial, carefree, familial vibe that wraps you like a hug when you enter. Chef Tony Zarlenga’s cuisine matches the warmth of the space: Coconut, chile, ginger, palm oil, and citrus march through the menu. The most evocative dish, the cazuela Colombiana, is a heady, spicy stew of prawns and chicken. And then there’s the frango de tiago, a chicken dish bathed in curry and coconut milk cut with chile pequín and garnished with crunchy, nutty, freshly chopped coconut meat. Dinner here isn’t a white tablecloth, fine-dining affair, but that’s just what makes the thoughtful service and surprising flavors all the more enticing. /4408 Lowell Blvd., 303-480-1877, cafebrazildenver.com

No. 24: Pinche Taqueria (New to the list)

Denver first fell in love with Kevin Morrison’s brand of street tacos—palm-size tortilla bundles stuffed with griddled Cotija cheese or carnitas, or beef tongue doused with freshly made salsas—when they were served through the window of the roving Pinche Tacos trailer. That craze kicked off what has become a mini taco empire. A year ago, Morrison opened a taqueria on York Street. There, he expanded the menu, procured a liquor license (order the paloma, a classic combo of grapefruit juice and tequila), and created a brunch that has become a weekend must-do. Now, thanks to never-ending demand, there’s news that Morrison will ring in 2013 with a second location in Highland at 3300 West 32nd Avenue. This announcement came just weeks before Bon Appétit recognized Pinche Taqueria as one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. /1514 York St., 720-475-1337, pinchetacos.com

No. 25: Barolo Grill (11)

Two of my favorite details at Barolo Grill are sitting down to a table set with colorful, handpainted Tuscan plates and ending the meal with the check tucked into a dog-eared travel guide to Italy. Those moments cultivate a fluid sense of rustic adventure, in between which sits chef Darrel Truett’s Piedmontese-inspired cuisine. There’s the succulent braised duck, a Barolo classic that’s been on the menu since the day the restaurant opened in 1992, and more modern dishes such as the Moretti beer–braised rabbit and fried loin. The stunning wine service (ask your server for pairing suggestions) never ever disappoints, and it helps smooth glimpses of heavy-handed presentation and desserts that cry out for attention. It’s no easy feat, but Truett—and the impeccable waitstaff—brings freshness to this long-running restaurant. /3030 E. Sixth Ave., 303-393-1040, barologrilldenver.com