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Taylor Made

Kevin Taylor's trying hard to make Denver a real city.
He was one of the first to introduce this old cowtown to New American cuisine at his gone-but-not-forgotten Zenith American Grill. Then he took the concept up the road to Boulder with Dandelion, where business is still growing like a weed. Although he bombed a few years ago with Cherry Creek's now-defunct Cafe Iguana--one of the few authentic upscale Mexican restaurants this city has ever seen--that was because people just didn't get it; you still have to give Taylor points for trying. And then, last year, he wowed Denver all over again with Brasserie Z, the funky eatery that elevates the French brasserie--a large, quick, affordable cafe--to another level. In the past several months he's been working on two more eateries: the self-titled Kevin Taylor and the tentatively titled Jesters, both of which are expected to open this fall in the new Teatro hotel at 14th and Arapahoe streets.

Somewhere along the way, Taylor found time to create Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, Denver's answer to the vibrant cuisine being offered at other cities' art museums. "When I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris, I was intrigued, and surprised, by the great meal I had in the museum cafe," Taylor says. "I wanted to bring the same concept home." First, though, he visited eateries in ten American museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Each of those museums boasts a cafe run by a high-profile, nationally lauded restaurateur, so it was only fitting that Taylor would get the DAM job.

And since museum restaurants are big news right now, it's no surprise that Taylor's latest eatery has already been mentioned in magazines such as Money and Metropolitan Home, even though Palettes has been open only since November. The space alone is worthy of ink. The museum paid for the renovation of a former corner gallery--designed by Design Collaborative, with lots of input from Taylor--into a sit-down dining room with a full menu and a cafe section where patrons can order casual fare at the counter. Big people-watching windows surround the bright dining room, which looks out onto the courtyard and the neighboring Denver Public Library, and there are quite a few people to watch both outside and in--including a large ladies-who-lunch crowd that has made Palettes their own personal meeting-and-greeting room.

For now, both spaces are open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, and the dining room also offers dinner on Wednesdays; when there are special exhibits or events at the museum, both will open on an as-needed basis. Also for now, Chad Rusch is the chef (originally, and until quite recently, the chef was Cy Yontz, brother of Brasserie Z chef and longtime Taylor kitchen companion Sean Yontz). Although the menu changes periodically--for instance, it currently includes three Egyptian dishes, added last month to complement the museum's ancient Egypt exhibition--for the most part it's a smaller roster of the sort of straightforward New American dishes offered at Brasserie Z, along with several dishes that just sound like dishes from Brasserie Z.

When I first visited, it seemed as though Palettes' prices were much higher than those at Brasserie Z, but a glance at the Z's new menu showed that the restaurant has raised its prices significantly since opening a year ago. Unfortunately, I didn't imagine the fact that Palettes' staffers are much less solicitous than those at Brasserie Z.

The food is just as good, though. Palettes' kitchen staff executes the deceptively simple New American creations with confidence and flair. Given the restaurant's location inside an art museum, it's appropriate that much attention is lavished on the visual elements, with lots of abstract plate-painting and structural victuals. Still, nothing we ate seemed, as Julia Child once put it, as though "someone's fingers have been all over it."

We, however, were all over the plate of ahi tuna sashimi with cucumber salad, pickled ginger and tobiko wasabi ($8.50) the second it was placed before us. Four even slices of supple, mild tuna were balanced by the tart cucumber slaw and the sharp bite of wasabi-glued flying-fish roe. We paired that appetizer with beef carpaccio ($7.50), which had a wonderful flavor but had been sliced so thin that a gentle tug at the edge of each piece tore the raw beef to shreds. We managed to gather all the shreds together, daubed the mound with mustard and enjoyed it anyway. Munching on grissini, crunchy little Italian breadsticks, provided a nice textural counterpart to the starters.

By now we were primed for the second part of our culinary triptych: farfalle with roast chicken ($8.25), roasted portabello and mashed potato Napoleon ($8.50) and white bean and eggplant tian ($8.50). All three dishes were as pleasurable to look at as they were to eat, with the Napoleon coming out on top for sheer flavor. The mushroom had been roasted until its essence inten-sified; an asparagus and bell-pepper puree added to the Napoleon's overall earthy quality. Mushrooms, along with fennel, also played a key role in the broth of the pasta dish; the bowtie noodles and delicate chunks of chicken had absorbed much of the fragrant liquid. The tian was the most innovative of the three, a delicious lumpy mishmash of white beans and eggplant that was gussied up with many globules of goat cheese and a tangy tomato sauce.

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