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In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes talks of "shadow gatherings," when Venetians would meet in the shadows of San Marco, wandering from bar to bar, eating tapas-like tidbits and sipping half-glasses of wine. But while ombrais the Italian word for "shadow," Denver's Ombra offers only a dim reflection of those delicious get-togethers.
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
And that's surprising, because when Ombra opened three months ago, the restaurant seemed shiny with promise. The owners are Elena (the mom) and Chiara (the daughter) Marzano, born-and-raised Italians who have spent much of their lives working in restaurants. For their first Denver endeavor, the Marzanos made over the below-street-level space in Cherry Creek that previously housed Starfish. The resulting interior is a beautiful, elegant combination of Old World and new, with flowing draperies and gorgeous modern lighting fixtures. And the Marzanos promised to offer service and food to match the setting: simple Italian dishes made with top-quality ingredients, exhibiting the sensibility of the culinaria now being done in the upscale ristorantes of Rome and Milan. They hired James Kiwimagi, who most recently served as lead chef at the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace Hotel and as sous chef for the Full Moon Bar and Grill in Boulder, to create that fare; working in collaboration with the owners, he came up with a roster offering a healthy variety of antipasti, insalata, pasta, pesce and carne -- all traditional Italian fare, no red sauce in sight. Then the menu was matched by an awesome wine list, alternately value-oriented (particularly the four-ounce samplers) and daunting, assembled by managing partner Matthew Jansen, who aspires to be a master sommelier and created the wine lists at several well-known eateries, including Laudisio in Boulder and San Francisco's Aqua and Charles Nob Hill.
But for all these bright spots, plenty of shadows fell over my two meals at Ombra. For starters, there was the completely in-the-dark server at one pricey dinner. After perusing the lengthy list of starters, we'd decided on a quartet of appetizers. But we needed to know if there were scallops in the crabcakes, because one member of our party is allergic to them. Our server looked horrified at the question. "Oh, no," he replied. "There's nothing but crabmeat in them." My friend fixed her eyes on him. "This is serious," she said. "I am seriously allergic to them, and I've found out that a lot of restaurants put them in their crabcakes. I love crabcakes, though, so I always ask." The server repeated that he was certain the crabcakes contained no scallops, but he promised to check with the kitchen. So we included them with our order, then asked for a bottle of champagne.
When the server returned with the champagne, we asked if he'd checked on the crabcake composition. "No, I will," he said. "But I'm telling you, there are no scallops in the crabcakes." Check anyway, my friend urged. About ten minutes later, when he came back around to refill our water glasses, we asked again if he'd checked with the kitchen. No. When we told him we were going to go back there ourselves if he didn't take care of it, the server disappeared. He returned a few minutes later with a sheepish look on his face. "There is a tiny, tiny amount of scallops in our crabcakes," he said. "Do you want me to order you something else?"
By now our appetizers were ready, though, and we weren't going to miss the chance to take a look at those crabcakes. And in fact, there was not a tiny, tiny amount of scallops in them -- there was a very, very large amount, and it was overcooked scallop meat at that. The crabcakes resembled flattened rubber balls in both appearance and texture; the sparse relish of unripe, too-hard diced tomatoes and capers didn't help matters. So the disappointment here wasn't just that the server was slow and clueless about the food; the food itself wasn't very good.
Over the course of my two Ombra meals, I found the food a fifty-fifty proposition at best. Balancing out those crabcakes, for example, was the beef carpaccio, typically served thinly sliced and drizzled with olive oil, but here featuring a gentle spritz of truffle oil. There was also a nice portion of fresh, young arugula and soft porcinis, whose meaty texture and woody flavor came right up against the mild beef in our mouths but never outdid it; newly shaved quarter-sized slips of Parmigiano-Reggiano added a rich element that tied the ingredients together. Still, the standout was the beef itself, fattier than most carpaccio cuts but to good effect, with a clean taste that went a long way toward explaining the marbling in meat.
Swinging the food back to the other side of the scale, though, was the walnut sauce that came with the ravioli al sugo di noce, a bitter concoction that tasted as though black walnuts had been used instead of the sweeter English. The right walnuts would have balanced out the acrid undertones of late-season spinach and bitter, tangy dandelion greens; as it was, every bite was the equivalent of sucking on a coffee-drenched lemon. But then our tastebuds got a reprieve with the insalata Caprese, with ripe, soft red and yellow tomatoes that released a squirt of juice when cut, adding moisture to the already wet fresh mozzarella. Ombra gets the cheese locally -- which means it's really a fior di latte, made from cow's milk -- but it was wonderful anyway, augmented with an abundance of basil and olive oil.
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