Brian Laird spent so many years running a high-end Italian kitchen, he got good at explaining why spaghetti and meatballs wasn’t on the menu. Today Laird co-owns Sarto’s, an Italian eatery that he opened with Taylor and Kajsa Swallow in Jefferson Park last fall, and he now finds himself explaining why spaghetti and meatballs is on the menu — this time to industry folks who question why he deigns to serve the dish. “I’ve changed my philosophy from fine dining,” he explains. “Now it’s all about approachability and being more community-driven.”
One of the thrills of a dining scene as mature as Denver’s is that chefs who could helm destination restaurants reach out to neighbors instead. And if ever a dish symbolized the evolution of a chef, it’s this simple plate of noodles. Never mind that the Sarto’s space cries out for more elevated fare, with its big windows, elegant gray-on-gray fabrics, and red Aperol and Campari bottles set like pop art on white shelves behind the bar. In between bites of bass and grilled octopus, I kept returning to that humble bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, eager to see what a chef known for haute cuisine would do with it.
Like the majority of the pastas at Sarto’s — there were seven each time I visited — spaghetti is offered in primi and entree-sized portions. This allows guests to tailor meals to their liking, tailoring being a big part of the restaurant’s concept. Sarto, in fact, means “tailor” in Italian, and the theme is woven throughout the menu. “Tailored proteins” are offered by the ounce; side dishes and add-ons are referred to as “accessories” and “alterations.” The theme is also echoed in subtle decor touches, with door pulls shaped like sewing needles and restrooms modeled after fitting rooms, complete with a mirror at the end of the hall. But no matter how I tailored that spaghetti, ordering it between my antipasto and entree or as the main event, it never made me say yes to the dress. The noodles weren’t any different from what I’d toss into boiling water at home; spaghetti is the only pasta not made in-house. Meatballs were dense, created without breadcrumbs so they’re gluten-free — even if guests aren’t. The sauce fluctuated between thin and downright watery, with little in the way of garlic, herbs or salt to perk it up. Night after night I twirled in vain, as if my fork were a magic mirror and the act of wrapping the noodles around it would turn it into something lovelier.
Fortunately, there were many more options to try on — and out. If spaghetti and meatballs symbolizes Laird’s new approach, duck epitomizes the blending of old and new, given his history with the iconic anatra at Barolo Grill. Now free to reinvent, he’s opted for a sweeter version of the dish, bathing slices of duck breast in a sauce of veal stock and balsamic mellowed by figs, cherries and apricots. The plate had so much sauce, it lapped at the side of butternut squash, fennel and duck confit. But far from being bothersome, the sauce gave the plate the approachable feel that Laird and his partners are going for, and I longed for crusty bread to soak up every bit.
Other amalgams were just as successful. Octopus was tenderized by boiling it with cork (a trick Laird learned in Italy), then sliced and crisped on the grill until the arms were dotted with suckers as crisp as onion rings. Finished with bone marrow, fingerling potatoes and spinach, the appetizer was sophisticated yet comfortable; it would make a fine main course after a more traditional salad. My suggestion: the grilled romaine, with speck, slivered leeks as brittle as tortilla strips, and a hearty whole-grain Dijon vinaigrette brightened with citrus. While this salad normally ranks just above convenience-store hot dogs in my book, the Sarto’s iteration was the best version I’ve tried.
Equally winsome was the tagliatelle, with scratch pasta sauced with little more than parmesan, pancetta and a poached egg, a trinity that proves why ingredients don’t have to be fancy to be a revelation. Risotto was wine-forward, with plump grains of carnaroli and plenty of mushrooms. Pizzette, a flatbread shaped like an individual pizza, was irresistible — if slightly too spring-like for the season — with creamed spinach, peas, prosciutto cotto and a touch of chile oil. A generous cut of polenta-dusted pork wowed with another sauce, this one made from beef broth, wine, herbs and butter; it was perfect when paired with lightly curried mashed potatoes. While curry might sound out of place in an Italian restaurant, it’s Laird’s nod to the way chefs are cooking in Italy today. And on the ever-changing dessert board, coffee panna cotta flecked with espresso beans was a standout.
Not bad for a neighborhood restaurant, right? But it’s hard to believe that Sarto’s wants to be just a neighborhood restaurant. The decor exudes a big-city coolness. Items are listed in English and Italian, and the adjacent market, co-owned by the same trio, is filled with a smattering of high-end ingredients. (When I checked the price of Pomi tomatoes, I was told they were $8 for a small carton.) People arriving too late for a seat at the bar often try to spill over to the cicchetti counter, only to learn it’s a chef’s counter run by Laird himself, with off-menu small plates crafted to order for the entire party. Neighborhood spots cater to people in jeans, but this is a dress-and-sport-coat kind of place; the only person I ever saw in denim had stopped in to inquire about the back dining room that doubles as a party room. “We’re still trying to understand what to do better for the neighborhood,” says Laird, who recognizes that Sarto’s is attracting as many people from outside the ’hood as within. “We’re getting some from the neighborhood, but also Cherry Creek.”
Sarto’s sophisticated bent is to be expected, given Laird’s dominant role. What’s harder to understand are the lapses in execution and service that would be jarring even in more casual spots.
Pickled vegetables were brought out gratis, but the welcoming gesture fell flat given the oniony brine that tasted off no matter what drink I paired with this starter. Green beans, one of the six sides, were oddly bloated, with tough, stringy seams. Sea bass caught my attention for its sweet-and-sour tomato broth, favas and bok choy, but the liquid had only a dying echo of flavor. Eggplant parmesan, as thin as pounded paillard, won points for crispiness, but my lasagna-like stack arrived with hardly a drop of sauce, making it so dry and tough that my knife struggled against the vegetable’s purple skin. And dishes were repeatedly shortchanged in the salt department.
Guests are greeted warmly upon arrival, and servers continue in the friendly vein — but neighborhood spot or not, the staff could use more training. Steak knives with bass are not necessary, for example, but returning to take a drink order after dropping off the wine list is. At least the server recognized his error: Well into the main course, he came back with a glass of complimentary chianti. Servers lacked full command of the food — the romaine was once described as “very lightly grilled, if at all” — and were inconsistent with bread service. Plates were delivered with nothing more than a succinct “Here’s the [fill in the blank],” with none of the descriptions that food like this deserves. And we were often ignored after our entrees did arrive, with no one following up to check if things were prepared to our liking. I’d heard that carts of cheese are sometimes wheeled through the dining room, an old-school touch that would be fun to enjoy. But on all my visits, whether mid-week or weekend, early in the evening or late, I never saw a cart.
But maybe that was a good thing. Carts speak of fine dining, and would only further confuse the line the restaurant is already straddling. For now, Sarto’s is like a fine garment — promising in its pattern, but in need of alterations to find the perfect fit.
Laird might want to start by letting out the spaghetti and meatballs.
2900 West 25th Avenue
Select menu items:
Eggplant parmesan $15
Panna cotta $6
Sarto's is open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For more information, call 303-455-1400 or go to facebook.com/sartosdenver.