I spent a whole afternoon in Denver with Frank Bonanno, who you might recognize from the Food Network. Or, if you’re an actual foodie, you’ll know he’s a James Beard nominee who served under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. He talks with his hands and can go on for hours about food, which, to me, is often so esoteric that I find myself nodding at things I totally don’t understand. Anyway, he’s so passionate that he cures his own meats and makes his own cheese. It’s completely illegal, but he had no qualms showing me his secret cheese chamber, a closet in the office above one of his restaurants, Bones.
Sure, he was busted by the health department once, so he had to move all his perishables to a secret stash. Bonanno believes other chefs in Denver dislike him because he’s too opinionated, but he and I both know it’s because he’s successful. In fact, he spearheaded Denver’s culinary scene, bringing ethnicity (from French to Asian) and innovative dishes to the city – often for the first time. Frank just recently opened up his seventh establishment in Denver (Lou’s Food Bar, an “affordable” French-American restaurant inside a former biker bar), and plans on debuting his eighth (an upscale BBQ smokehouse) within the next three months.
Frank gave us the 4-1-1 on Denver dining, clearing up a few misconceptions along the way.
It’s not all about steak and potatoes. Our dining scene is really good, there’s really talented people doing some great things beyond steaks, and there’s a lot of passion in this city about cooking. I think denver has some of the better educated diners in the country. Our clientele is sophisticated. i think we’ve always had a pretty good palette, and we have everything you want that every other big city has.
Believe it or not, there’s fresh seafood in Denver. Some people ask: “Where do you get fish? How could the fish be fresh?” Oh, come on. You’ve never heard of Fed-Ex? All our seafood basically comes from New York. People think fresh seafood here is impossible but it isn’t.
There’s more to drink than Coors Light. I actually do believe our cocktail scene is outdoing New York and San Francisco. It’s a bold statement but every restaurant has a cocktail program.We have so many small batch brewers here, and it’s so widespread. Even our regulars will deviate from a simple drink to try our homemade gin and tonic (we make our own tonic) or Moscow Mule. Denver has come far with the cocktail scene. I can’t think of a restaurant in the top thirty that doesn’t have an extensive cocktail program.
It’s not all American. We have great Mexican food thanks to our huge Mexican community. We have really good ethnic food in Colorado in general. We have awesome pho, too. I would put our Sushi Den against Nobu’s fish any day of the week. It’s unbelievable. They get their fish from the Japanese fish market. And they have a certified sushi chef, which you don’t find a lot in this country.
Forget Rocky Mountain Oysters. Denver is all about artesianal cooking. Restaurants use whole animals, lambs, unpasteurized milk to make cheese. That’s something Denver’s been embracing for years, like farm-to-table, whole animal cooking. There is a ton of talent and great chefs here. We don’t set trends, but people are on par with what’s going on nationally.