Ian Palazzola speaks with a slight but distinct drawl — just enough to let you know he's spent most of his life somewhere other than Denver. That somewhere else is his native Virginia (the western side, near Roanoke) and later Georgia, where he spent part of his cooking career.
But Palazzola calls the Mile High City home now, and he's making his Southern roots known in more than just his manner of speech; after joining the Acorn team at the tail end of 2017, the chef has put a bold mark on the restaurant inside the Source, unveiling an almost complete menu transformation that accompanies the eatery's first significant facelift since opening six years ago.
How big are the changes at Acorn? "I just took the meatballs off," Palazzola notes of one of the restaurant's iconic dishes, served since Bryan Dayton and Steve Redzikowski opened their second restaurant after Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth. "But the kale salad is staying — there would be an uprising if we ever stopped serving it."
But the menu changes haven't exactly been seismic in nature — more a slow shift toward Palazzola's influences, which along with Southern accents includes hints of Moroccan cuisine, picked up from his time as chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred Mourad in San Francisco. The intertwining of the American South with North Africa may not seem like an intuitive match, but Acorn's wood-fired grill and oven help blend the two cuisines so that the differences are notable more in the ingredients listed on the menu than in the finished dishes.
So you won't be ordering platters of fried chicken or cat-head biscuits doused in buckets of country gravy. But you will find an appetizer-sized skillet cornbread made with blue corn from Anson Mills and served with whipped red-eye butter and aged Surryano ham (Virginia's answer to Spanish serrano or Italian prosciutto). And puffy pork-rinds dusted in a savory spice blend and served with a cheesy dipping sauce certainly bring to mind snacking at its Southern best. But warm castelvetrano olives sprinkled with tiny cubes of housemade lardo and shaved garlic taste distinctly Mediterranean, as does aged wagyu beer tartare buried beneath a sourdough crisp and a thick blanket of grated parmesan.
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Larger plates show more Moroccan leanings, including a deeply glazed lamb shank with Medjool dates, and roasted asparagus with muhammara, a thick sauce made with red peppers and almonds. The overall effect, even with Southern ingredients such as benne seeds, tasso ham, buttermilk, sorghum syrup and golden rice touching nearly every dish, doesn't feel forced or out of place; Palazzola has maintained consistency and a clear Acorn aesthetic through the transition.
Dayton explains that, with Redzikowski devoting his time to Oak in Boulder, he wanted to ensure that Acorn guests weren't overwhelmed by change. (Yes, the daytime doughnuts are gone, but he says lunch customers can indulge their sweet tooth in a rich new Hong Kong toast built from thick slabs of bread from the Source's Reunion Bread Co.). So while Palazzola has been on board for a year and a half, changes have been slow. Dayton notes that the bar area is being reconfigured to add more high-top seating for guests who want to stop in for drinks and small plates after work, and that more seating is being added in the mezzanine level. A new dry-aging room (where you can see whole ducks and slabs of beef on racks in the display window) has taken over part of the former butcher shop next door, and the remainder will soon become a dessert bar called Melted, which will specialize in soft-serve ice cream, warm cookies and other baked goods.
Most of the restaurant reconfiguration will be completed in the coming weeks, with Melted coming toward the end of 2019. While some of the menu items are currently available, the full roll-out will be official after July 4. Visit Acorn at 3350 Brighton Boulevard; call 720-542-3721 or see the restaurant's website for more details and reservations.