There are only so many ways to find relief in the blazing heat of the summer sun. An apartment pool or the Cherry Creek reservoir alleviates Denver from being a complete desert, however those yearning for the scent of the sea breeze will find it sadly missing from the Mile High. Fortunately, even without the sights of the mosaic of blues in the ocean or the touch of toasted sand, the chefs of Denver provide the taste and smell to bring diners beachside for at least a little while. The variety will bring your palette to whichever vacation comes to mind, from docks in the upper northwest to the island of Japan. For anyone craving a taste of the sea, we’ve rounded up some of the best local seafood spots to help scratch that itch.
Where: Forget Me Not 227 Clayton St, Denver
The Lowdown: Ben Wolven is a beast when it comes to bringing a new type of golden nugget to Denver. As a Maine man since birth, his connections with oyster farmers allow him to go straight to them when importing these little jewels to the city. His little shucking stand at Forget Me Not is probably as humble as an oyster itself. Wolven’s intent is to be a support for the cocktail but without even realizing it could probably steal the show. Each oyster belly is perfectly intact as if the top shell never existed. A lemon wedge, glistening mignonette sauce and threads of freshly shaven horseradish are the only acceptable accoutrements to the army of oysters. His following continues to grow despite appearances of only a single dish in his repertoire. However, with a constantly new batch of oysters, diners are treated to a new tasting menu each time. But when the lobster cronchwrap makes its return, craw anyone and everyone out of the way for one. Wolven epitomizes what it means to be an oyster-lover as he’s improved the Denver food scene after shucking here.
Manzo Lobster and Oyster Bar
Where: 500 E 19th Ave, Denver
The Lowdown: Rather than an eye-catching hearth in an exposed kitchen, Manzo has a marble counter displaying all its catches over ice. Diners can expect to make eye contact with at least one fish during a dinner or happy hour stay. It affirms the freshness of the assortment being offered on the day – Manzo rotates its selections at the same time each day. Owner Rich Manzo crafted this spot to bring the essence of each coast to the middle grounds of Colorado. The raw provisions embody the west coast with dishes like Ahi Tuna Poke ($15) and Scallop Crudo ($14). The sound of clicking clam and mussel shells popping in big metal pots is an east coast harmony. Thus, Manzo puts its spin with four mussel pot ($16) preparations – a red curry, creamy bacon white wine, a tomato base and one with a lobster bisque inspiration. There’s a clear love for seafood, so much so that the lobsters live in tanks that replicate the ocean. If the sea could be brought to Denver, it would be Manzo to make it happen.
Fish N Beer
Where: 3510 Larimer St, Denver
The Lowdown: The front end of Larimer Street in RiNo is filled with the constant commotion of restaurants, bars and boisterous artwork. However, the treasures don’t end as it begins to quiet down near the end of the road. Instead, it is where the hidden gems are waiting to be explored. Fish N Beer is a quaint spot with a nautical theme that has the glimmer of a white boat on the water. The menu sets sail for all parts of the ocean with a Mexican-inspired shrimp cocktail that treads the water of being a tomato-based ceviche. It’s version of guacamole and chips is similar to a poke bowl with cubes of peppery tuna – getting a nice sear on the outside but remaining a bit raw in the center – across a smear of avocado. As all poke bowls must have, a drizzle of spicy mayo adds a kick of creaminess. If bringing notable seafood favorites – for one, the enormous lobster mac and cheese that has a split lobster practically cradling a gooey bowl of mac – Fish N Beer reels new customers in with exotic dishes like blowfish tails and octopus packed with spice from chili de arbol. While the name might be simple, the attention to detail with new menu items and careful sourcing adds to each dish’s complexity.
Where: Inside Avanti Food Hall, 3200 N Pecos St, Denver
The Lowdown: The indecision that lives at Avanti is already numerous with a variety of food styles to entice diners. Del Mar is one of the latest additions to round out the crew and its vision comes to life as the oceanic version of the farm-to-table vision that Del Mar’s sister restaurant – Rooted in Avanti Boulder – has. Reading off the menu, the dishes all sound straightforward but that makes it even more fun when the presentation or taste offers a surprise. Fried calamari is an Italian restaurant staple, a crispy delicacy and marinara’s close friend, although not at Del Mar. They trade in the ring and tentacles for flying squid from Japan. Each piece is long and slender with an even coat of cornmeal hidden in the pearly white interior. The texture and flavor is more similar to a scallop. The oyster po’boy looks more like a lobster roll with the split-top bun with a gold toast. Inside, it’s paired with all the BLT essentials and a glaze of yum yum sauce instead of mayo.
Where: 1487 South Pearl St, Denver
The Lowdown: To talk about fish in the Mile High City and forget to include Sushi Den would be criminal. As one of the most iconic restaurants in Denver, Sushi Den has been a sought-after spot for fresh fish for close to 40 years. While Chef and owner Toshi is in Denver, his younger brother Koichi is venturing through Japanese’s largest fish market – Nagahama – to find Sushi Den’s selections for the following day. It’s like going to a farmer’s market with the artisans selling their best provisions to hopeful buyers. Wholesale takes anywhere from 48-72 hours, but Sushi Den’s inventory of fresh fish is delivered directly within 24 hours. The menu is catered to what Koichi finds at the market and how Toshi thinks best to present it. Toshi displays his versatility best through omakase, where patrons put their order in the hands of the chef. Each dish is of the chefs choosing and diners often feel the relief knowing they wouldn’t have been smart enough to order this well themselves. With Sushi Den, Denver never has to worry about a seafood drought.
Where: 1535 Central St, Denver
The Lowdown: Some of New England’s best food comes from the small shacks set up at the end of the dock. Although Maine Shack must forgo the views of the serene ocean for the congested highway, it manages to keep the integrity of what lies inside these east coast eateries with what is being served up inside. With Maine in the name, its main dish had to include lobster. Even with its battle-drawn lines, Maine Shack serves both Connecticut and Maine style lobster rolls. Many Maine rolls toss pieces of lobster in a light mayo but to implement as much of Maine as possible, Maine Shack adds a splash of sea water for that extra bit of saltiness. While these two rolls are enough for most, they don’t hesitate to amplify each. Toasting the butter a bit longer in the pan makes nutty brown butter drip over the top. The fancy roll nestles lemon herb mayo tossed lobster in bib lettuce with the crunch of celery and cucumber as well. Lobster lovers will rejoice at the ultimate roll – the Lobsterado ($43) – that has a full lobster tail laying atop an already filled brown butter roll. For a break from lobster, the salty fried whole belly clams are a different take on the traditional steamers.
Stoic and Genuine
Where: 1701 Wynkoop St, Denver
The Lowdown: Jennifer Jasinski developed Denver’s food scene with the Mediterranean inspired restaurant in Larimer square – Rioja – and the swanky tapas bar – Ulteria –with its glow making any time of the day feel like it’s time for a midnight snack. Jansinski is also known beyond the Mile High city for showcasing her skills to win Top Chef and being acknowledged with a nomination for a James Beard Southwest. Her ability to select ingredients and formulate a concept have not gone unnoticed in the local scene. From there, her next step was bridging a direct line to the ocean on either coast. A single layer of oysters over ice is a common order, a fancy order might be a tower with shrimp, lobster and crab. But the one towering over the rest includes both snow and king crab legs hanging over the edge, a whole lobster looking back at you, oysters and their twist of sashimi and caviar to fully embrace the ocean. The menu rotates with the seasons, so the set for summer includes a scallop and corn. The sweetness of the corn puree balances the light saltiness of the scallop. Though the charred corn succotash brings the necessary grilled element to enhance the taste of summer. Instead of a BBQ hog roast, seafood-filled summers include whole fish. The haddock has crispy skin to crunch on like a bag of potato chips. Breaking through that leaves the effortlessly flakey white meat to taste. The sound of the ocean rings after the first few bites. Maybe it’s real or it’s the Union Station fountain just inches away.