5280 Restaurant week. Foodies and food novices alike love it. Servers dread it (tip well folks!). So many restaurants, so little time. How do you decide where to go during 5280 week, a fourteen day foodie fair that makes a 3-course dining experience at even Denver’s most expensive restaurants accessible to anyone with $26.40 in pocket (or, $52.80 if you’re pairing up)? Some go to the fanciest, like Kevin Taylor’s at the Opera House; some want a safe, classic upscale American meal at Elway’s; others want hip, so they take it to the Highlands’ Root Down or Venue; still others pick a culture or region and go for a traditional meal at Bistro Vendome for French, Carmine’s on Penn for Italian or Cafe Brazil for a string bikini (and fabulous Brazilian cuisine).
Regardless of the location, the majority considers the quantity per dollar and how much it would cost if this were any other night outside the two-week promotion. For those like myself, though, I don’t think about how much less I am going to spend for multiple intercourses upon courses for two weeks straight. I think about how I will redistribute the funds for a really nice bottle of wine. So for me, the restaurants with the most impressive wine lists in town are the ones grabbing my attention.
Use this time as an excuse to live it up. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a 3-course fine dining experience. Support Denver’s burgeoning gastronomical scene. Here’s where I would go with $26.40 for food and maybe $20-40 more bucks to split a bottle of wine with a friend or a loved one:
Firenze a Tavola: Osso Buco was the dish that drew me to this quiet, Tuscan-inspired eatery tucked beneath the ever-bustling Parisi Euro market and casual eatery. The food is authentic, generously portioned and consumed amidst a simple room that is lined with (empty) bottles of collector wines: Gaja, Giacomo, Borgono, Conterno… More impressive than anything else, though, even moreso than the hilariously accurate ’80s Euro ballads that sang from the speakers (that is so Italy–love it), was the wine list. For those of you who think you have had some of the most esoteric Italians in the market, you haven’t seen anything yet. Extensive, comprehensive and peppered with so many back vintages it will make you giddy!
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Carciofi al Forno (wood oven baked artichoke), followed by the Paparedelle sul Cinghiale (rich stew of boar meat and vegetables) and finished with the classic taste of tiramisu on the tongue. If I had my way I would start with a funky fun Falanghina with an 03 Fattoria Paradiso Barbarosso from Emilia Romagna (if they still have it!).
Indulge French Bistro: This was my first choice, but my sister was intimidated by the menu. They won’t let you pomme frite your way through the experience without taking a couple French indulgences like tartare, mussels or duckling. But really, there are so many choices, even for the faint of heart. It truly offers some of the best French food in the city in a diner-like, humble setting that is cozy, endearing and reinforces their serious focus on the food rather than the tablecloths. Plus, they work with small farmer wines that you won’t find in many other restaurants let alone shop shelves.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Cream of Roasted Butternut, followed by Boeuf Bourguignonne and a sweet finish of Pear ‘Belle Helene’ all washed down with 06 Domaine de la Boutiniere Chateauneuf du Pape.
Olivea: I first went here not long after a trip to Barcelona and Southern France. I was not only impressed by their culinary accuracy, but it had an upbeat vibe, a pulse if you will, that metered the meal with optimism and good energy. The wine list is limited but thoughtful. Daring for the novice, but engaging for the seasoned wine drinker.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Arugula salad with beets and pistachios, followed by Gargagnelli with white beans and tomato, finishing off with Pistachio Nougat with sour cherries. The wine(s): 08 Droin Chablis, 07 Tempier Bandol (decant it!) and/or 03 Marting Cendoya Rioja Reserva.
Table 6: Always been my favorite go-to restaurant in Denver, especially in winter to justify their hearty, decadent dishes. Everything from the front of the house to the back emanates friendly, comfortable yet upscale neighborhood dining. They are creative and playful with their food, recalling old childhood favorites and provoking nostalgia with every bite (on that note, don’t miss the tater tots!). Their wine list is always changing and, in my opinion, the most inspiring yet still affordable in town.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Asparagus, Lamb Loin Lomo, followed by the Shrimp Risotto and sweetening up the finish with the Meyer Lemon Cream Cake. As I said, the wine list always changes. If you can, grab Aaron Forman, the manager/sommelier. Tell him what you like, don’t like and price range. He has never steered me wrong.
Colt & Gray: I find myself going here way too often. Is it the burgers? The sticky toffee pudding? Kevin Burke, the incredibly talented mixologist that is single-handedly transforming Denver’s cocktail scene one concoction at a time? Regardless of the fact that I am not always wild about their wine list, the place has a happening feel. The food is sensational, daring and downright disgusting sometimes if you, like me, are not used to seeing head cheese, blood pudding and roasted bone marrow on menus (see my old blog entry). But I love it anyway and can’t get enough.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Winter Vegetable Salad, followed by the White Bean, Sage and Fennel Ravioli and made complete with Minced Meat Brioche Bread Pudding (oh yum). Wine list varies, though if you have the dough, they often carry wines by Bedrock and Smith-Madrone for an agreeable nod to new world wine. Otherwise, have Kevin mix up something special for you… and prepare to be amazed.
OTOTO: I am going to go ahead and say it. This is my favorite new restaurant to hit Denver in a long time! From the meticulous build-out of copper ceilings, Rejuvenation-style lighting, iron spiral staircase, wine crates and eye-catching oyster bar, OTOTO has done the Sushi Den family proud in its sophisticated fare and impressive aesthetic execution. Restaurants like these make me excited to be a part of the culinary scene in Denver. My only fear? Will their high end ingredients and brave global cuisine be understood enough that they can sustain such a vision? I have been there three times now, each seeming to demonstrate growing popularity as evidence by the patron numbers. I have high hopes for this Spanish/Catalan-inspired eatery.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: Mussels, then the Daily Vegetarian Tasting Dish (he is so creative with this) followed by one of my favorite desserts in town right now with the Pear Almond Cake with Salted Caramel Ice Cream. I am really digging on their whites by the glass, but already they have had to remove a couple ridiculously awesome values (Ladoucette and Domaine Ott for under $12/glass), because they couldn’t go through the open bottles fast enough. So go in and show some support! They have a passion for superior ingredients.
Barolo Grill: When I want a classic fine dining Italian experience, Barolo is where I go. The wait staff is informative, the wine list epic and the menu never ceases to make my eyes grow larger than my stomach in minutes. Luckily they have pared it down for you for 5280 week so decisions won’t be so difficult. As for the wine, why bother doing it yourself when you have one of the most talented sommeliers in the state to do it for you? Ryan Fletter is my go-to guy for unforgettable Italian wine. Plus, if I interpret correctly, you get 4 choices at this restaurant. Score!
My Ideal 5280 Menu: KISS method. Start with the Prosciutto con Parmigiano-Reggiano and Balsamic, followed by the Tagliatelle al Bolognese, the Brasato al Barolo (Barolo braised beef short ribs) and the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Winter fruit compote.
Squeaky Bean: If you haven’t checked out this hip Highlands full service daytime/nighttime coffee shop/lunch/dinner/bar crowd eatery, you are missing out big time. The perfect balance of serious food under a not so serious roof. For instance, you will find the dish ‘Parts and Pieces’ under the TV Dinner portion of the menu, which is a meal of marrow custard, Vitello tonnato sweetbreads, chicken liver meatballs and beef tongue ‘bourgignon.’ You can take down duck confit and seared hiramasa, all while staying in your jeans and Chuck Taylors, as most of the diners do when paying for their $100+ bill for two after cocktails and wine. The beauty of their menu for 5280 week? You choose the most ideal bites. Whatever you fancy, they have a pretty comprehensive list from their regular menu to choose from, which you can find on their website under ‘Restaurant Week Menu.’ Their wine list is small but their reserves wines are, as they call it, ‘geeky’ and therefore right up my alley.
My Ideal 5280 Menu: If it were me, I would start with the Italian Wedding Soup, followed by the ‘No Bake’ Shepherd’s Pie, finishing with the Bourboned Apples. I would have the 08 Venica and Venica Friulano, or, quite honestly, who am I kidding… just about any of their many Lopez wines will do. Lopez de Heredia is one of my favorite producers in the world.
Mind you, these are the ones I have been eyeing for myself. There are so many more restaurants that are worth it! Freshcraft (for the beer geeks), Arugula and Salt (if you’re from or willing to make the trek to Boulder), Venue, Il Posto, Mizuna, Duo… But these are the ones whose wine lists captivate me most. I am anxious to hear what you all think of the restaurants you decide to try. Ring in on the Comments and tell me all about it!