By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
I spent my whole childhood plotting my escape from Denver. Despite my parents' best efforts to instill in me a love of the Rocky Mountains and the great outdoors, by the end of high school, I was counting down the days until I could abandon this cowtown for good, setting my fashionably shod feet down in a more glamorous metropolis on one of the coasts. But the joke was on me, because when I decided to make my hobby my occupation as well, the Front Range — and its burgeoning restaurant scene — lured me back. With eateries opening at a dizzying pace, joining a lineup that includes already beloved institutions, there's never been a better time to dine in Denver.
Blair Taylor helped us get to this place. Back in the '70s, he'd joined with Mel and Jane Master to open Dudley's, a legendary fine-dining restaurant on Sixth Avenue. Taylor later turned that address into Chives American Bistro, which he shut down after opening a new spot down the street in 1992. Barolo Grill, with its emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine rooted in the region of Piedmont, quickly became a star, and the standard by which almost every other Denver restaurant was judged, renowned for its impressive service, massive wine list and food good enough to warrant a top-dollar price tag. And although nearly twenty years have passed since Barolo Grill first burst on the scene, it still has an impressive reputation, one used by other restaurants to measure themselves. "We're not trying to be Barolo Grill," the chef of a more casual spot told me recently. "We're trying to be the Barolo Grill of ___ cuisine," another remarked.
On a weekend night, such as the Saturday when I stopped in a few weeks ago, Barolo Grill still opens with the anticipatory buzz of a busy night, valets hovering, waiting for the next sleek luxury vehicle to purr to a stop in front of them. The attendant who opened the door for me was text-messaging his way through a lull and gave me a cursory, uninterested welcome as I passed through. But then, I'd parked my own car and was about twenty years younger than the well-heeled diners already in the restaurant.
Inside, the dining room reflected the decade in which it was built: dimly lit, outfitted with blond woods and swathed in earthy red and gold. Poinsettias dotted the windowsills, white lights sparkled in sweeping vines hung along the front of the space, and jazz singers from the '40s crooned softly in the background. If I'd wanted to convey rustic Italian charm in 1995, this is how I would have decorated a restaurant.
The hostess informed me that she had no open tables for hours, so I nabbed a spot at the bar to wait for my guest: my mother, who did not get the same brush-off from the valet; he bowed graciously as he hung her keys on a hook. We decided to start out with sparkling wine, and immediately encountered a service conundrum that would set the tone for the evening: One bartender was elegant and friendly but slow; the other worked at a more rapid pace but was brusque and arrogant. In the best moments, we were charmed by one and attended to quickly by the other; in the worst, we were staring longingly at the backs of the people charged with waiting on us, willing them to bring us what we needed.
Glasses of prosecco finally in hand, we turned our attention to the menu. There are a couple of ways to dine at Barolo: You can order à la carte, or go with executive chef Brian Laird's five-course tasting menu of Northern Italian dishes that aren't available on the regular roster. (If you don't opt for the tasting menu but still want to eat five courses, the kitchen will adjust portion sizes.) We decided to split several items off the standard menu, starting with pancetta fritti, balls of mashed potato studded with porky pancetta, dropped in the deep fryer and then drizzled with balsamic, dabbed with persimmon sauce and served on a bed of greens. But the fryer oil hadn't been hot enough, so rather than crispy bites with soft, warm centers, we were served blobs of mush that apparently had sat for a while before making their way to our table, during which time the balsamic drizzle had thoroughly soaked in. And though the persimmon sauce was pretty, adding a vibrant orange hue to the plate, it didn't add anything to the taste of those disappointing blobs.
Our salad did not disappoint. The insalata al barbabietole was a classic, simple combination of sweet, earthy roasted beets, crisp frisee and arugula, and sharp, shaved pecorino, lightly coated in a maple-sherry vinaigrette; it was well-executed and delicious. But the soup that the arrogant bartender had described as an apple-fennel-pumpkin concoction with foie gras "espuma" (an annoying word for foam) and a cranberry relish was awful. The one-dimensional soup was abrasive and tart, like rancid lemon, the cranberry relish sickeningly sweet, and the espuma, which might have given an earthy grounding to the disastrous base, had no flavor at all.