Denver’s food scene is growing exponentially, with new spots opening every week. Residents as well as visitors are loving the wonderful variety of new choices available. Much of the scene is chef-driven, with local celebrities fueling the renaissance. New spots are springing up from RINO (the River North district) to Capitol Hill to the bustling market scene all over the city, and if it gives you an idea how recent a phenomenon this is, every restaurant in the list has been in its current location less than ten years or so, with most younger than five years old. So grab a fork and join us on a culinary tour of some of the best places to eat in the Mile High City.
At TAG, Chef Troy Guard’s menu of “continental social food” travels the world, lingering in Asia but melding a global set of influences with ease. Have a seat in the plush booths that line the walls, and order one of the intriguing cocktails, like a Black Rose, which combines vodka, lime, blackberry, and sparkling rosé, or perhaps a kumquat/jalapeño mojito. The deliciously inventive drinks are just a hint of what’s to come. Then dig into such amazements as velvety burrata that sits amid swirls of salted pear butter and hazelnut puree. Their taco sushi is just on the right side of cuteness. The smooth sushi rice contrast with the crispy taco shell, with guacamole somehow uniting them perfectly. Brown butter halibut is served on a bed of fava beans, with black trumpet mushroom puree and tangy kimchee vinaigrette, while miso black cod is strikingly plated with edamame, shiitakes, and artichoke. Dessert? Indulge in one of the most surprising sweets I’ve had, carrot cheesecake wrapped around a rich sweet pea puree with crunchy pecan butter, almond flour madeleine cakes, and lacy candied carrots. I see that look on your face, but trust me on this one. 1441 Larimer St. Tel: 303-996-9985. www.tag-restaurant.com
At ChoLon, a modern Asian bistro, Executive Chef Lon Symensma gives intriguing spins to familiar dishes, often unexpected and always delicious. The menu is divided into four parts: small bites, slightly larger appetizers, main dishes, and wok dishes, so you can mix and match as you like. Don’t miss the French onion soup dumplings, the best incarnation of this dish I’ve ever had, in which the rich soup, deepened by cave-aged Gruyere cheese, is actually INSIDE the dumplings. Pop the whole thing in your mouth and feel the explosion of flavor as the soup pours out of the dumplings onto your amazed taste buds. Lobster crepes are served with a lettuce wrap so you have a wrap within a wrap, fresh cilantro and mint and a tangy nuoc cham dipping sauce giving them the taste of many dishes in one. Brussels sprouts come with ground pork and kaffir lime, rich butter chicken is dotted with English peas and spring onions. Take a seat beneath the cool deep brown walls, recessed lighting giving a soft glow, or on the large patio. Then prepare to go on a gastronomic adventure of modern Asian cuisine. 1555 Blake St. Tel: 303-353-5223. www.cholon.com
Il Posto is, simply, one of my favorite Italian places anywhere. Chef Andrea Frizzi is passionate about his home country and determined to show his guests the great diversity it has to offer. Have a seat in the stunning space, done in shades of gray under a huge freeform chandelier with Murano glass globes. Like the setting, the food is both creative and simple. It’s also mouth-wateringly fresh and beautifully presented. Start with the luscious housemade burrata, silken in texture, bursting with flavor, and intensely rich. It’s served with lavash, prosciutto, and aged balsamic for a treatment that lets the flavor shine through. I Fiori (the flowers) presents a gorgeous selection of seasonal vegetables (when I’m there it includes everything from pickled fiddlehead ferns to asparagus, marble potatoes, and scrumptious morels) on a bed of basil/arugula/pistachio pesto, with a swirl of hibiscus-based sauce around the side. Simple, gorgeous, and full of flavor. From here, move on to pasta, risotto, mains from fish to lamb to beef, or (my choice) all of the above, washed down with expertly-selected Italian wines. My favorite dessert: the gelato and sorbetto collection, with flavors like pomelo, stracciatella, espresso, and more. I can’t say enough good things about this lovely place, where the food is perfect, the atmosphere warm and inviting, and the chef is well-versed in the virtues of freshness and simplicity. 2601 Larimer St. Tel: 303-394-0100. www.ilpostodenver.com
This Troy Guard restaurant presents food that is creative and delicious in a relaxed setting. Long rows of black tables are open to the patio. You look across the street to a row of murals, and the feeling is vibrant, hip, and young. Small plates let you sample a wide variety of dishes, with an Asian flair that’s largely seafood, but not exclusively either. True to its name, several tuna small plates are on offer in the Tuna Tribute, and you can get an individual one or splurge on all four. The tataki is rich with buttermilk, the perfectly-seared yellowfin accompanied by rhubarb and peas with a hint of vanilla, while Mr. Tuna Toast is sourdough toast you can spread with eggplant caponata and tuna conserve, topped by slices of tuna sashimi. Halibut ceviche comes on a bed of aji Amarillo potatoes, with little balls of avocado to give an extra layer of flavor, texture, and color. Meanwhile, the RiNo Burger, served on a rounded wedge of wood, is perfectly done, with amazing fries on the side. Accompany it with a spectacular dish: charred peas, which you eat like edamame, miso/shallot butter adding to the richness and the tender little peas sliding down like little pieces of blackened heaven. Who says top-notch food can’t be served in a casual setting? 3033 Brighton Blvd. Tel: 303-831-8862. www.mistertuna.com
Take a tour of the Mediterranean with the meze plates and satisfying entrees at El Five, the fifth restaurant of local star Justin Cucci. The food says Middle East, but the view, a spectacular panorama of the city skyline, lets you know you’re definitely still in Denver. You might decide to go with Cameros cheese four ways (crispy tuile, tangy wedge, smooth flan, and crumbled cheese over a raw honeycomb), or Moroccan lamb sausage with hummus, feta, and fava beans. Eggplant fries are the best thing that’s ever happened to eggplant, dusted with harissa and boasting a subtle honey glaze, accompanied by a cool lemon yogurt dipping sauce. Another favorite is the cauliflower yufka: Little triangles of deep-fried cauliflower, chick peas, pine nuts, and tahini, with a cumin rouillé to round out the flavor profile. From a variety of shareable paellas, my group chooses the lobster/jamón, made, interestingly, with black forbidden rice, the strips of lobster resting on top and piquillo peppers, broccolini, and a delicious sherry/saffron sabayon. As you sit under the mirrored tiles and savor your dessert (try the “Turkish tiramisu” made with coffee brandy and mascarpone crème Anglaise) you’ll notice that the sun has set and the lights of the city have begun to glow. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve been too absorbed in the vast variety of tasty treats to notice. 2930 Umatilla St. Tel: 303-524-9193. www.elfivedenver.com
The first thing you notice about Mercantile is the space and its airy feeling that makes it immediately appealing. The wood floors, floor to ceiling windows, murals of farm scenes, and tall wood sideboards give it a rustic chic allure. It’s buzzy and friendly, functioning both as a market (great charcuterie, cheeses, jams, and the like) and restaurant. For breakfast and lunch you’ll order at the counter and have your food brought to you, with offerings from ricotta pancakes or avocado/quinoa toast to coconut/matcha/chia pudding. Fresh juices burst with flavor, from Red Robin (beet/carrot/ginger) to Gumby (kale/cucumber/apple). Dinnertimes brings such dishes as roasted baby artichokes, polenta custard with grilled corn and feta salad, or butter-poached sturgeon, which you’ll enjoy at a table in the high-ceilinged space or al fresco overlooking the plaza outside Union Station. A group of friends can’t do better than their family-style smoked lamb or traditional paella, though you might want to each try one of their handmade pastas, featuring everything from braised rabbit to squid ink. These people are passionate about food, and it shows. 1701 Wynkoop St. Tel: 720-460-3733. www.mercantiledenver.com
DENVER’S MARKET SCENE
One interesting development in the city’s food scene is the plethora of market halls. Diverse, casual, and quick, they offer a variety of culinary experiences under one roof . At Broadway Market (950 Broadway. Tel: 720-390-7132. www.broadwaymarketdenver.com), the purveyors are arrayed around the perimeter of the market, with the wide open center space filled with tables and chairs. Start your day with coffee (or perhaps a turmeric or matcha latte) at Logan House Coffee. Your choices proceed from there, with everything from the fried chicken of Royal Rooster to Maria Empanada’s eponymous offerings. Build your own bowl at Biju’s Little Curry Shop, where you might choose a coconut curry or fiery vindaloo. Wonder Press offers yummy cold-pressed juices, while Misaki has some great sushi and oysters. Finish off with a Nutella, molasses, or Earl Grey donut at Glazed and Confused.
At Denver Milk Market (1800 Wazee St. Tel: 303-792-8242. www.denvermilkmarket.com), a winding concrete path wends its way among stalls offering everything from sweet and savory crepes at FEM to Hawaiian-style poke at Mopoke. Try a selection of steamed buns at Bao Chica Bao or fresh Italian food at Pastaria. Coffee and pastries at Morning Jones will rejuvenate you as you stroll down the path past people enjoying pizza, hot chicken sandwiches, and much more.
At Denver Central Market (2669 Larimer St. www.denvercentralmarket.com), I stop in Izzio Bakery for a spinach/ricotta croissant and a pear/almond tart. That’s just the start. Next up: wonderful Vero for pizzas and pastas from the Il Posto folks, and Tammens Fish Market, offering not only fresh fish for purchase but ceviche, oysters, blackened wahoo sandwiches, and fish tostadas. At Culture Meat and Cheese, you can similarly buy a wedge of cheese or sit down and have a meat and cheese board. I defy you to get out the door without indulging in the chocolates and confections of Temper!
A very interesting market is Avanti F&B (3200 Pecos St. Tel: 720-269-4778. www.avantifandb.com), designed as an incubator for new culinary talent, so the selection often changes. I love Quiero Arepas, which dishes up the Venezuelan cornmeal cakes with a variety of toppings from chicken or cheese to La Original (black beans, avocado, plantains, and tangy guasacaca sauce). Try some pizza from Brava (or, just as wonderful, their antipasto board), or mix and match with the “two meats, one side” from Rotary (hint: charred cauliflower is the best side). Be sure to visit upstairs, with more eateries and a deck offering a great city view.