The roast pepper soup stared up at me, an edible riddle. Since it was from the special exhibition-themed menu at Palettes, the white-tablecloth restaurant inside the Denver Art Museum, I knew the dish must be related to the Modern Masters show, but how? Was it a riff on Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, only made with roasted red peppers rather than the iconic tomato? Was it a culinary take on Georgia O'Keeffe's poppies, the flowers' red petals transformed into red soup, their yellow and white accents brought to life through swirls of yellow romesco and citrus crème fraîche? Or maybe red peppers were Willem de Kooning's favorite vegetable, and the soup was a subtle tribute to the abstract expressionist.
See also: A Closer Look at PalettesLike most casual attempts to make sense of the artistic masterpieces on display at the DAM through June 8, these were good guesses -- but nothing more. Turns out the soup, one of six dishes tied to Modern Masters, had a different inspiration altogether. "That's Jackson Pollock," explained executive chef Austin Cueto, who reviewed the show catalogue, researched images online and talked with a restorations expert at the Clyfford Still Museum prior to designing the special menu. "One of his paintings has a red background, with drip splatters of white and yellow and green. When we plate that soup, we try to make it a little messy and drizzled."
Cueto, who'd spent four years as executive chef at the recently shuttered Restaurant Kevin Taylor before moving over to Palettes, told me this by phone, long after I'd used broken bits of pesto-slathered toast (the green in the painting) to scrape my soup bowl clean. The homage was so subtle, I wasn't surprised that I hadn't caught it -- but I was surprised that the server hadn't said a word, much less described the connection to Pollock, as he delivered my soup. After all, running through a dish's dominant elements has become common practice at better restaurants, and Palettes is part of the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group, a name that's been synonymous with fine dining for decades.This lack of explanation continued with other exhibition-themed fare, including a Snickers knock-off that was a bit too sweet and a Rothko-inspired parfait that was oddly rubbery. I thoroughly enjoyed the pork tenderloin, despite the fact that it came in a larger portion (and with a higher price point) than I'd normally want for lunch -- but I would have enjoyed it even more if the server had told me what Cueto later did, that the Brussels sprouts petals scattered around the pork were inspired by Salvador Dalí's melting clocks, and that the large wedges of pork belly and corn-studded polenta mimicked "random geometric shapes, like a Picasso painting."
And sadly, the failure to describe dishes wasn't the only flaw I encountered at Palettes. The crisp dining room is lovely, with gray and seafoam chairs, gallery-esque white walls accented with art, and wraparound windows framing views of stories-high sculpture and the shiny surfaces of the Hamilton building -- but hostesses regularly seated my group near the kitchen or along a traffic-way, even when the room was only a quarter full. Busboys walked away from puddles caused by sloshing water pitchers. Servers failed to apologize when they threw away leftovers rather than boxing them up as requested. And the kitchen was painfully slow, especially for all the business lunchers. Keep reading for the rest of our review of Palettes.