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 ombra is the Italian word for "shadow," Denver's Ombra offers only a dim reflection of those delicious get-togethers.
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.
Risotto alla Piemontese...$12
Gnocchi alla Genovese...$7
Ravioli al sugo di noce...$8
Seared ahi and foie gras ...$32
Grilled jumbo prawns...$23
Ahi tartare and slamon carpaccio...$21
Duck alla Saturnia...$20
Vanilla bean panna cotta...$6
Torta della Nonna...$6
Chocolate hazelnut tart...$6
Trio of chocolates...$10
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
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.
Also on the sunnier side of the street: the risotto alla Piemontese, which again called porcini mushrooms into play, adding their earthy qualities to a rich, rich serving of impeccably cooked risotto. (The menu's reference to the cooking style, which should have been Piedmontese, had quotation marks around it, ostensibly to point out that it did not contain the standard white truffles.) And while the gnocchi alla Genovese could have used more of the fresh basil pesto that the dumplings sat on, they were so soft that they were almost fluffy inside. The pesto itself was a marvelous blend of the herb and oil. (This time I had no idea why the dish's name had quotation marks -- here around the "Genovese" -- because the use of basil put it well within the province's style.)
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Ombra would have done well to pay less attention to the quotation marks on the lobster "Capri" and the duck "Saturnia," and more to the cooking. No matter where the crustacean had started its life, it had ended it as a dry, stringy, chewy disappointment. Ditto for the duck, another disaster. (The fowl's "Saturnia" link was either to the Italian word for Saturn or to Saturnalia, the ancient Roman holiday -- although this dish was no Roman holiday.) The duck came with a mixture of baby spinach, capers, olives and artichokes that was too tart and acidic, robbing the flesh of any vestiges of sweetness.
The cooking process also did in the seared ahi. The searing had left the outside of the huge steak too dry, and we had to scoop out the center to get at the good, rare stuff. But the accompanying foie gras was flawless, and the delightful, crispy-edged risotto cake beneath the fish had soaked up the red-wine-soaked juices from more spinach. The grilled jumbo prawns may have been properly cooked, but they had a weird, chemical smell and taste, not quite ammonia-like, that gave us pause; next to the shrimp sat rubbery slices of squid, also victims of bad grillwork. At least the side of crispy baby artichokes had been done right. And no cooking at all was needed for the ahi tartare and salmon carpaccio, of course; perhaps as a result, the dish worked beautifully (even if it would have made more sense in a smaller portion as an appetizer). The salmon had been sliced so thin it had to be scraped off the plate; it was topped with breezy-fresh diced tuna and napped in a pungent olive oil.
All in all, dessert was the most consistently good course at Ombra. Clearly, the offerings had been given a lot of thought -- the kitchen was out of the crème brûlée one night and later replaced it on the menu with a stunning vanilla-bean panna cotta -- and we worked our way through the lineup with glee: a moist lemon cake with fresh berries, peaches baked in puff pastry and smothered in zabaglione, hazelnuts mixed with chocolate in a toothsome tart, and -- our favorite -- a trio of chocolate confections that consisted of a cake oozing liquid chocolate, a creamy chocolate gelato and an intense chocolate mousse.
Still, those marvelous desserts weren't enough to lighten my overall opinion of Ombra. This place does not have it made in the shade -- not yet, anyway.