Kevin Taylor's trying hard to make Denver a real city.
He was one of the first to introduce this old cowtown to New American cuisine at his gone-but-not-forgotten Zenith American Grill. Then he took the concept up the road to Boulder with Dandelion, where business is still growing like a weed. Although he bombed a few years ago with Cherry Creek's now-defunct Cafe Iguana--one of the few authentic upscale Mexican restaurants this city has ever seen--that was because people just didn't get it; you still have to give Taylor points for trying. And then, last year, he wowed Denver all over again with Brasserie Z, the funky eatery that elevates the French brasserie--a large, quick, affordable cafe--to another level. In the past several months he's been working on two more eateries: the self-titled Kevin Taylor and the tentatively titled Jesters, both of which are expected to open this fall in the new Teatro hotel at 14th and Arapahoe streets.
Somewhere along the way, Taylor found time to create Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, Denver's answer to the vibrant cuisine being offered at other cities' art museums. "When I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris, I was intrigued, and surprised, by the great meal I had in the museum cafe," Taylor says. "I wanted to bring the same concept home." First, though, he visited eateries in ten American museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Each of those museums boasts a cafe run by a high-profile, nationally lauded restaurateur, so it was only fitting that Taylor would get the DAM job.
And since museum restaurants are big news right now, it's no surprise that Taylor's latest eatery has already been mentioned in magazines such as Money and Metropolitan Home, even though Palettes has been open only since November. The space alone is worthy of ink. The museum paid for the renovation of a former corner gallery--designed by Design Collaborative, with lots of input from Taylor--into a sit-down dining room with a full menu and a cafe section where patrons can order casual fare at the counter. Big people-watching windows surround the bright dining room, which looks out onto the courtyard and the neighboring Denver Public Library, and there are quite a few people to watch both outside and in--including a large ladies-who-lunch crowd that has made Palettes their own personal meeting-and-greeting room.
For now, both spaces are open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday, and the dining room also offers dinner on Wednesdays; when there are special exhibits or events at the museum, both will open on an as-needed basis. Also for now, Chad Rusch is the chef (originally, and until quite recently, the chef was Cy Yontz, brother of Brasserie Z chef and longtime Taylor kitchen companion Sean Yontz). Although the menu changes periodically--for instance, it currently includes three Egyptian dishes, added last month to complement the museum's ancient Egypt exhibition--for the most part it's a smaller roster of the sort of straightforward New American dishes offered at Brasserie Z, along with several dishes that just sound like dishes from Brasserie Z.
When I first visited, it seemed as though Palettes' prices were much higher than those at Brasserie Z, but a glance at the Z's new menu showed that the restaurant has raised its prices significantly since opening a year ago. Unfortunately, I didn't imagine the fact that Palettes' staffers are much less solicitous than those at Brasserie Z.
The food is just as good, though. Palettes' kitchen staff executes the deceptively simple New American creations with confidence and flair. Given the restaurant's location inside an art museum, it's appropriate that much attention is lavished on the visual elements, with lots of abstract plate-painting and structural victuals. Still, nothing we ate seemed, as Julia Child once put it, as though "someone's fingers have been all over it."
We, however, were all over the plate of ahi tuna sashimi with cucumber salad, pickled ginger and tobiko wasabi ($8.50) the second it was placed before us. Four even slices of supple, mild tuna were balanced by the tart cucumber slaw and the sharp bite of wasabi-glued flying-fish roe. We paired that appetizer with beef carpaccio ($7.50), which had a wonderful flavor but had been sliced so thin that a gentle tug at the edge of each piece tore the raw beef to shreds. We managed to gather all the shreds together, daubed the mound with mustard and enjoyed it anyway. Munching on grissini, crunchy little Italian breadsticks, provided a nice textural counterpart to the starters.
By now we were primed for the second part of our culinary triptych: farfalle with roast chicken ($8.25), roasted portabello and mashed potato Napoleon ($8.50) and white bean and eggplant tian ($8.50). All three dishes were as pleasurable to look at as they were to eat, with the Napoleon coming out on top for sheer flavor. The mushroom had been roasted until its essence inten-sified; an asparagus and bell-pepper puree added to the Napoleon's overall earthy quality. Mushrooms, along with fennel, also played a key role in the broth of the pasta dish; the bowtie noodles and delicate chunks of chicken had absorbed much of the fragrant liquid. The tian was the most innovative of the three, a delicious lumpy mishmash of white beans and eggplant that was gussied up with many globules of goat cheese and a tangy tomato sauce.
The dessert selection, however, offered nothing we hadn't seen--and loved--before at one of Taylor's other eateries. We dug into a comfortingly decadent Venezuelan chocolate cupcake with vanilla ice cream, rich brown-sugar-crusted creme brulee with raspberries and blackberries, and a compact chocolate bread pudding with brandy custard sauce (each $5).
Since we knew how our meal would end, on a second visit we decided to bulk up on starters. But the flash-fried calamari ($6.95) was almost identical to the Brasserie Z version, except this squid came with a "spicy tomato sauce and garlic mayonnaise" (not to mention a price tag that was $2.45 higher than the Z's for a similar-sized portion) instead of "spiced tomatoes and caper mayonnaise." The Sonoma goat-cheese-filled chile relleno ($7.50) was reminiscent of the rellenos at Cafe Iguana, but since that eatery is now just a fond memory, I was glad to get a chance to taste that spicy black-bean sauce again.
Another robustly flavored item was the puree of potato soup with poached leeks ($4.50). Not quite as fragile as a vichysoisse, the soup was rich and pungent nonetheless, and the poaching of the leeks had lightened their onion tones. The Caesar salad ($6.50), another Brasserie Z copy, had much more kick, propelled by plenty of garlic and parmesan.
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Palettes' juicy, meaty sirloin burger ($7.50) was as wonderful as the original at Brasserie Z. Taylor doesn't really want to be known for his burgers, but that's too bad--it's his own fault for making them so well and then pairing them with his excellent pommes frites, French fries that are skinny, salty and addictive. And I could eat the spaghetti with grilled salmon ($9.25) on a daily basis. The moist fish was expertly cooked and well-matched with shards of crisp bacon, peas and a goat-cheese cream that was heavy on flavor but light on the stomach. The spicy lamb sausages ($8.95), on the other hand, were so rich that they'd have to be a rare treat. This was sinfully good eating: juices from the sausages' nearly liquefied, savory interiors mingled with a side of garlic-scented mashed potatoes and a pile of spongy roasted zucchini, tomatoes and onions.
Although the cafe area offers some of the same soups (for a few bucks less, at that), the real attractions here were the generously portioned sandwiches ($5.50) and salads ($5.50). My favorites (so far) were the rich, creamy chicken-salad sandwich and the vinegary Oriental salad, both made with first-class ingredients. The cafe also features a huge selection of above-average scones, cookies and pastries made on the premises (prices ranged from 50 cents to $3). Service in the cafe is casual and quick. And while the dining-room crowd was clearly made up of lawyers and those ladies who lunch, the cafe drew students on a budget and business types on a schedule.
A real mix of people--just like in a real city.
Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 629-0889. Dining-room hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday. Cafe hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.