In his exhaustive reference book The Food of Italy, Waverley Root marvels at how "curious" it is that the Tuscan province of Siena "has so little to offer of its own...its gastronomic prowess seems to be limited to desserts." Otherwise, he notes, Siena borrows the food it eats "from Florence and the rest of Tuscany."
But there are certainly worse places from which to borrow recipes--and Siena has a way of creating quite commendable variations of other people's dishes. So does Siena, the latest offering from veteran Denver chef and restaurateur Janette Leone, which takes a little of this and a little of that from not just Tuscany, but other regions around the Mediterranean, to create a repertoire of well-constructed, often clever meals.
Like Siena, a comfortable, Old World type of place set up like a fortress because it was always getting invaded by outsiders during medieval times, Leone has endured much. After four years of satisfying palates at Denver's Art Museum Cafe--before that she also cooked at Al Fresco and the now-defunct Cafe Giovanni--she lost that space. She then hooked up with Jeff Harris, part-owner of Dante's, and opened Siena in Dante's old home, a difficult location behind and below a tiny plaza on Downing Street. The two made all the right cosmetic changes to turn Siena into their own space, changes that mirror Siena-the-province's attributes: The restaurant is cozy, warm and inviting. The low lighting underlines the elegant homeyness of the dining areas, and the chairs are particularly appealing, with their rounded backs and arms and soft padding.
The menu only adds to that appeal. Whereas Root claims that the province of Siena is known almost exclusively for its desserts, the restaurant Siena handles all the courses with equal proficiency. And some of its dishes are downright masterful.
For example, the grilled portabello in puff pastry appetizer ($5.95) is a Wellington for the Nineties. Inside the delicate pastry, smooth slips of duck-liver pate sparked the flavorful mushroom, and the package was further enhanced by ribbons of rich, sweet Madeira sauce. An order of escargots Bourguignonne ($5.95) brought a delicious reading of the classic garlic, butter and red-wine mixture over snails. But the grilled vegetable Napoleon ($5) earned applause only for effort. An unwieldy skyscraper of eggplant, red peppers, spinach, tomatoes and feta, the Napoleon had great flavors and textures but was almost impossible to eat; every time we touched it with a fork, it slipped across the plate. The Napoleon was popular at the Art Museum Cafe, where Leone served it as a savory, and controllable, sandwich. Several complaints about Siena's assembly, however, have given her pause. "I think I'm going to take that off the menu," she says. "I can't figure out another way to make it work and still get the same effect."
They should keep Harris's signature dish, the Caesar salad ($4). At Dante's, this was a Best of Denver winner, and Siena's formula is relatively unchanged (Harris couldn't find the original recipe). "It became sort of a collaboration," Leone says. "Jeff remembered the basic components, and we improvised from there." The result is even better than the original, with a dressing that's a little creamier than most Caesars but with a strong garlic presence and plenty of parmesan and Asiago cheeses. Also well-layered with flavors was the soup of the day, a modest tomato and basil ($3) blended with a mild chicken stock that proved a perfect foil for the delicate, fresh tomatoes.
Most of Leone's entrees are as straightforward as this soup. "I try to keep stuff from being all cluttered," she says. "Sometimes when I go out to eat, the plate is so busy I don't know where to start. I like to eat simple, and that's the way I like to cook, too."
One of Leone's favorite dishes is the pork tenderloin ($12.95), a well-priced plate of tender medallions immersed in a cream sauce of apples and Calvados. Often foods prepared with this kind of sauce come out rich and cloying, but this entree stopped shy of dessert pork because of Leone's judicious use of the apples, whose tartness gave just enough edge to the dish.
Another simple preparation that worked well was the oven-roasted Cornish game hen ($12.95) with a pomegranate glaze. The pomegranate is frequently used in Italian cooking--Sicily grows it for the mainland--but it's rarely seen in Denver's Italian restaurants. I'd like to encounter it more often; in fact, I would have liked to find more on this bird. The fruit gave the game hen's skin a sharp bite, but it was used so sparingly that the effect was too subtle. On the other hand, the subtlety of the entree's stuffing (that's what it was called on the menu, but it was really dressing, since it never saw the inside of the bird) was what made it spectacular. When I asked Leone what was in the stuffing, she seemed surprised that anyone would ask but listed the following ingredients: bread, celery, onion, a little chicken stock, sage, thyme and parsley. This was one of those cases where the proportions and the freshness of the herbs made all the difference; the stuffing was so tasty that we had no problem polishing off our overly generous portion.
In fact, Siena's dishes were so comfortably large--amazing, considering the reasonable costs of the food here--that we could only split one dessert. It was the mother of all bread puddings ($4), a large, dense square of sugar-laden bread richly soaked with cream. We kept picking at it long after we were ready to burst.
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Knowing the size of the entrees that awaited us, when we visited Siena again, we skipped the appetizers and headed straight to a filet of beef ($15.95) grilled with mushrooms and then dressed with a lovely coat of port sauce thickened with gorgonzola. Austere sides of sauteed, julienned vegetables and butter-sweaty, herbed new potatoes were good fillers that didn't take away from the rich sauce and nicely cooked meat. Beef was also a major factor in Leone's ragu ($8.95). The Bolognese-style sauce had been sweetened with carrots and onions, packed with beef and veal, then ladled over enough pappardelle to wallpaper a bathroom. It's easy to get a lot of flavor out of a sauce as complex as the ragu; Siena was really put to the test on a straightforward combination of garlic, olive oil and white wine Leone had sauteed with fresh Roma tomatoes and basil before tossing it with penne ($8.95). Here again, the perfect ratio of ingredients was the key to the dish's success: This was a well-balanced stunner that would grace any Tuscan's table.
Even though we'd taken steps to avoid becoming too full, once again we could only split a dessert. The tiramisu ($4) was a sturdy take on the popular classic and is worthy of the Dessert Hall of Fame--or at least a footnote in Root's next book. One of Siena's few entirely authentic Italian renditions, this was a toothsome smashing-together of ladyfingers, mascarpone, espresso, milk and sugar, all gently spiked with just enough brandy to give it the "pick me up" (the English translation of "tiramisu") the confection needed.
And Siena's menu may be all the pick-me-up this odd location needs. "I've always wanted to name a restaurant Siena because I loved the city," Harris says. "We're not an Italian restaurant all the way, but I think we're committed to doing things the Italian way--using what's fresh and what's on hand."