Once again, we've revisited our dining reviews over the past 12 months to cull five special picks each that stuck in our minds as the year's most excellent and memorable flavors. Also once again, we've unintentionally proven that price and hoity-toity factor don't always determine greatness. Sometimes, the best bite is a humble comfort-food item lurking at the least-expected locale.
Sample from the list below and you're sure to start 2012 off with gusto.
La Baguette French Bistro
4440 N. Chestnut St., labaguettefrenchbistro.com
Monte Cristos have nothing on the Croque Madame — at least not the glorious version of the Parisian bistro fave found here ($8.50 lunch/$9.25 dinner, with fries and béchamel sauce).
The queen of ham-and-cheese sandwiches — knife and fork needed — starts with thick, buttered French bread, sautéed ham and Swiss cheese with Dijon mustard. Then comes melted Gruyère and a fried egg, whose popped yolk oozes down to marry with a puddle of underlying béchamel. It's heavy, comfort-food perfection, the saucy remains of which are best cleaned with fantastic accompanying potatoes persillade, shoestring fries tossed in fresh garlic, salt and parsley. Que magnifique! — MS
26 E. Kiowa St., conscioustable.net
There was a magical time when the seafood rotating to those conscious tables were incredible wild-caught Atlantic scallops, doughnut-thick and glistening. A single, Gorgonzola-stuffed version appeared during a $65 chef's table, stealing the dinner.
Creamy cheese oozed from the bottom as a circle of sliced mushrooms sautéed in smoked-tea dressing ringed the plump round in a sunburst pattern. Each leathery slice burst with sweet earthy flavor, and sang with perfectly paired texture and taste. Though you may not find this one, catch new scallop setups on monthly changing menus. — BC
McGinty's Wood Oven Pub
11115 W. U.S. Hwy. 24, Divide, mcgintyswoodovenpub.com
McGinty's remains one of the biggest surprises of my career, a pub-food revelation up on high in Divide. The Friday night fish-and-chips special ($7.95 small/$12.95 large) is a highlight, earning a weekly waitlist. Owner Tracy McGinty and chef Scott Coulter won't share recipe details, other than to say theirs is based off a recipe from Tracy's father.
What we do know: It's Irish ale-battered haddock, beautifully fried to a fluffy texture with a crisp exterior. An accompanying tartar dip is delicious, as is a smoky house chowder and unique slaw with red onion bite and citrus zest. Well-executed steak fries complete the perfect pub package. — MS
La Perla Tapatía
4737 N. Academy Blvd., laperlatapatiacs.com
It's no stretch to describe chef Sergio Laureano's tortas de pierna ($7.99) as transcendent. The blessed arrangement: tender shredded pork — marinated in chipotle peppers, tomato sauce, garlic, salt and pepper — a super-smoky, spicy sauce and toppings of lettuce, salsa fresca, shredded Monterey Jack cheese and crema espesa (Mexican sour cream) tucked between halves of a huge oval telera roll, grilled black on the inside but soft and spongy on top. The best Mexican food I've ever eaten. — BC
Spice Island Grill
10 N. Sierra Madre St., spiceislandgrill.com
It's rare, if not a first, for an ingredient or side component — in this case, a sauce — to make a year-end favorites list. But it's equally rare to find a sauce so worthy; and for the record, I did try it with multiple dishes at the Springs' newest Jamaican eatery.
I'm talking about the house jerk sauce that adorns plates like the jerk chicken and acts as a dip for items like awesome crispy tofu fries. Scotch bonnet peppers grant it considerable heat, and a vinegar element gifts a zesty tang. I can't tell you all that's in the sauce. I can, however, tell you it's available by the bottle to-go ($6 small/$9 big). — MS
9205 N. Union Blvd., sushirakkyo.com
Let me simplify the typical what-to-get dilemma of all-you-can-eat dining ($14.95 lunch/$24.95 dinner): Go to this northeastern sushi spot at lunch, fork over 15 bucks, turn off your cell phone (for additional concentration), and order the White Fish Volcano roll over and over again.
There's no bad option at this top-flight spot, but the cut of red snapper nigiri over a bed of toasted rice, topped with a creamy white sauce and a mince of mango, radish and cucumber is fresh, light and powerful. — BC
5152 Centennial Blvd., creativecateringsolutions.com
I could probably stop at the words "Palisade peach," and you'd understand. The source material is perfection in itself. But chef Greg Soukup does manage to accentuate and take the seasonal treat further.
After grilling the skinned fruit to further soften and sweeten it, he places it on white chocolate mousse garnished with fresh lavender ($4). Even reading it now, it doesn't entirely sound like it would work, but, oh my, does it. The lavender's aromatic oils blend intoxicatingly with the peach's juice, and the sugary mousse acts as a glorified and thicker cream in the classic peach-cream combo. Soft, velvety bliss. — MS
123 E. Pikes Peak Ave., springsorleans.com
I'm as likely to order a salad as an entrée as I am to be satisfied with a hug on my wedding night. But this unnamed salad ($9.99) is a different beast (and not in a bulbous-taco-salad kind of way, either).
A white, porcelain, tipped-oval bowl holds an array of fresh greens topped with cubed sticks of Fuji apple, mild, cage-aged blue cheese, sweet walnuts and long cubes of ridiculously rich pork fat known as lardon. With more blended apples in the dressing, it all adds up to one hell of an exception to the rule. — BC
Pegasus Mediterranean Café
19251 E. U.S. Hwy 24, Woodland Park, pegasuscafewp.com
Though ubiquitous, gyros are not created equal. Pegasus plates a memorable version from Lebanese-born chef Marios Gazali, thanks to the odd additions of jalapeño slivers and Sriracha sauce.
His spicy gyro ($10 with side) starts with a spit-roasted, then grilled, lamb-and-beef combo shaved from a Grecian Delight gyro-cone. To that comes yogurt and sour cream tzatziki and feta crumbles for a rich dairy dimension, plus tomatoes, onions and lettuce for fresh crunch. It's a wet mess, and certainly no major leap forward in terms of culinary invention, but the heat element really makes this into a must-have gyro. — MS
4455 Mark Dabling Blvd., driftershamburgers.com
No decision has brought more blowback my way than the failure to include Drifter's in a March story about the city's best hamburgers. Believe me, I wish I had it back to do again.
The burger spot's "wild style" version ($4.39) of its standard double-patty burger takes yellow mustard and cooks it into the Ranch Foods Direct beef patty, before adding grilled onions, lettuce, pickles and a dressing-like sauce. It's a sometimes-messy stack of warm, grilled bread and savory gooey cheese set off by a touch of sweet ketchup. Eating fewer than three is a tragedy. — BC