A New Vintage

Some restaurateurs lament the time they spend training employees, only to watch them take that experience and use it elsewhere. But not Blair Taylor, owner of Barolo Grill. He's seen several good people come and go on to other endeavors--and each time, he acts like a pleased father when they do him proud. Among the graduates of the Blair Taylor School of Restaurant Skills are Sean Kelly, whose estimable Aubergine Cafe is among the finest spots in the city; Greg Bortz, who's gone from pastry chef to running the Denver Bread Company, one of the top bakeries in town for artisan breads; Jess Roybal, the chef who's turned around the Fourth Story; and Rich Brown, manager and about the best thing at Augusta at the Westin Hotel Tabor Center. "I've been lucky to work with some of the most wonderful people," says Taylor. "I love hearing that they're doing great elsewhere, and I try to keep in touch with most of them by stopping in to their places regularly and supporting them any way I can."

He now has one more stop on his itinerary. J and Michele Skinner, both former employees of Taylor's, opened Pinots this past December in the building that once housed Transalpin. J was in management at Barolo, and Michele trained employees at an eatery Taylor has since sold, Chives American Bistro. The two met seven years ago and are common-law partners, but they plan to make it official in September--when they'll marry at Pinots. "We've had this dream of opening our own restaurant for a really long time," Michele says. "We're tired of Italian restaurants--there are just so many here now--and we love the pinot wines, which we think work well with this food. We'd been looking at different sites for years and kicking around concepts, and we fought hard to get this space."

They couldn't have found a more inviting space for a restaurant--or a wedding. The lighting and decor at Pinots is soft and soothing, and the setup--the floor plan consists of five separate dining rooms that each house three or four tables--is relaxing and intimate. As a result, Pinots isn't one of those trendy, happening eateries where the people-watching is more important than the food. The atmosphere here encourages unhurried, luxurious dining--and the meals deserve your undivided attention.

The chef at Pinots is CIA-trained Theo Roe, who spent time at two of California's better-known restaurants, Napa Valley's Mustards Grill and San Francisco's Moose's. As at those places, the focus here is on American fare, using as many local products as possible and combining them in sensible ways. The Skinners found Roe at Strings, another training ground for many of Denver's top chefs and managers; before that, he'd been at Michael's of Cherry Creek, where he experimented with fusion cooking that concentrated on the harmonious layering of textures and flavors.

Roe's extensive background provided a sound foundation for the innovative but seemingly unstudied cuisine he creates at Pinots. Most of the food has a casual elegance underscored by a comforting home-cooking style. Our appetizer order of Dungeness crab cakes ($8.25), for example, brought two pillows of lump crabmeat, the pieces barely clinging together with the help of a thin breadcrumb coating seasoned just enough to bring up the flavors of the crab. A sharp, thick remoulade and a hill of crunchy slaw sweetened with a vanilla-bean dressing proved excellent foils for the extraordinary crab cakes. The sparkling-fresh salmon-and-tuna tartare ($7.95) didn't work quite as well, partly because the portion was disappointingly skimpy and partly because the curry oil wasn't strong enough to tie together the thin slices of salmon and tuna studded with tobiko (flying-fish roe). But the tartare was one of only two less-than-stellar items I encountered on my visits to Pinots. And the kitchen quickly redeemed itself with the crisp polenta ($5.95), which arrived under a heavenly mishmash of earthy wild mushrooms and rich mascarpone that had melted into a syrupy essence of pinot noir.

The parade of well-melded, complementary ingredients continued through the entrees. When she'd first handed us the menus, our waitress had informed us that the dry-aged New York steak ($19.95) was not available that night. This was a thoughtful move by one of the most experienced and efficient servers I've ever come across; one of my pet peeves is that so few waitpersons bother to mention that the kitchen is out of a dish until after a diner has spent twenty minutes carefully choosing his meal. When she later returned to say that the steak was indeed available, I hurried to order it before the item vanished again. And I'm glad I did, because otherwise we would have missed not just a good piece of meat, but a great side: a remarkable gratin of potato slices enriched by chevre (goat cheese). The concoction was delectably rich and so tasty that I had to fight to get my plate back from my companions, who kept scooping up spoonfuls.

Besides, they had their own wonderful meals to devour. The seafood cioppino ($15.25) was a jumble of shellfish in a tomato-extravagant broth infused with plenty of fresh herbs; underneath it all sat a reef of soft polenta, which proved a worthy vehicle for the leftover liquid. The simple but satisfying Colorado rabbit ($18.95) laid several portions of well-grilled bunny next to a stew of herb-flecked orzo sweetened with red bell peppers and a hint of saffron. The real stunner, though, was the succulent lamb shank ($16.95) that tasted as if it had been slow-simmered for a decade until it nearly dripped off the bone. The addition of chunky "carrot-smashed" potatoes and a mild peppercorn aoli took this dish to a heavenly level.

Somehow after all of that, we were still interested in dessert. The description of one of that night's specials, white cake with white chocolate icing and raspberry filling ($4.95), was so appealing that two of my guests ordered it--which meant both were disappointed, because the cake was on the dry side and the icing was bland. But two other desserts by pastry chef Jennifer Gibbons, who also worked at Mustards, were outstanding. The layered dark-chocolate mousse cake ($4.95) was appropriately decadent and further moistened by a slathering of espresso butter cream; the burnt-sugar flan ($4.95) was a flawless version of creme brulee made even better by a balanced sauce of bitter espresso and sugary maple.

Pinots started serving lunch only a few weeks ago. Prices are on the high end, but portions are large, and the space is so special that lunch here is a good way to treat yourself. My fusilli ($7.25) combined kalamatas, a tomato-heavy ratatouille and capers in a more Mediterranean mix than anything I'd tried at Pinots, but Roe did well by this cuisine, too. The farfalle and grilled chicken ($8.45), coated with a creamy sauce salty from pancetta and packed with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil, also had a Mediterranean feel. My table's favorite lunch, though, was the chicken-topped Caesar ($8.95), with its crispy romaine and strong, authentic anchovy taste. More anchovy flavor was spread across a garlicky crostini, and the strips of chicken had wonderfully crusty, grilled edges that went well with the briny greens.

Our only complaint at lunch concerned the unexciting wines-by-the-glass selection. (At dinner we'd gone straight for a bottle.) The wine list, chosen by J, remains small and stunted by a disproportionate number of pinot noirs and pinot grigios, obviously because of the restaurant's name. On the other hand, the prices are fair and wide-ranging. Michele says they're working to improve the choices. "J has hand-picked everything on the wine list, and it takes a while to find things you like and buy a bunch of it," she notes. "One thing that we learned from our experience with Blair: It's better to have a small list than to have a bad list."

And a food father knows best

Pinots, 410 East Seventh Avenue, 863-8335. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday.


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