Cafe Society

Barolo Grill needs to try a little harder to live up to its reputation

I spent my whole childhood plotting my escape from Denver. Despite my parents' best efforts to instill in me a love of the Rocky Mountains and the great outdoors, by the end of high school, I was counting down the days until I could abandon this cowtown for good, setting my fashionably shod feet down in a more glamorous metropolis on one of the coasts. But the joke was on me, because when I decided to make my hobby my occupation as well, the Front Range — and its burgeoning restaurant scene — lured me back. With eateries opening at a dizzying pace, joining a lineup that includes already beloved institutions, there's never been a better time to dine in Denver.

Blair Taylor helped us get to this place. Back in the '70s, he'd joined with Mel and Jane Master to open Dudley's, a legendary fine-dining restaurant on Sixth Avenue. Taylor later turned that address into Chives American Bistro, which he shut down after opening a new spot down the street in 1992. Barolo Grill, with its emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine rooted in the region of Piedmont, quickly became a star, and the standard by which almost every other Denver restaurant was judged, renowned for its impressive service, massive wine list and food good enough to warrant a top-dollar price tag. And although nearly twenty years have passed since Barolo Grill first burst on the scene, it still has an impressive reputation, one used by other restaurants to measure themselves. "We're not trying to be Barolo Grill," the chef of a more casual spot told me recently. "We're trying to be the Barolo Grill of ___ cuisine," another remarked.

On a weekend night, such as the Saturday when I stopped in a few weeks ago, Barolo Grill still opens with the anticipatory buzz of a busy night, valets hovering, waiting for the next sleek luxury vehicle to purr to a stop in front of them. The attendant who opened the door for me was text-messaging his way through a lull and gave me a cursory, uninterested welcome as I passed through. But then, I'd parked my own car and was about twenty years younger than the well-heeled diners already in the restaurant.

Inside, the dining room reflected the decade in which it was built: dimly lit, outfitted with blond woods and swathed in earthy red and gold. Poinsettias dotted the windowsills, white lights sparkled in sweeping vines hung along the front of the space, and jazz singers from the '40s crooned softly in the background. If I'd wanted to convey rustic Italian charm in 1995, this is how I would have decorated a restaurant.

The hostess informed me that she had no open tables for hours, so I nabbed a spot at the bar to wait for my guest: my mother, who did not get the same brush-off from the valet; he bowed graciously as he hung her keys on a hook. We decided to start out with sparkling wine, and immediately encountered a service conundrum that would set the tone for the evening: One bartender was elegant and friendly but slow; the other worked at a more rapid pace but was brusque and arrogant. In the best moments, we were charmed by one and attended to quickly by the other; in the worst, we were staring longingly at the backs of the people charged with waiting on us, willing them to bring us what we needed.

Glasses of prosecco finally in hand, we turned our attention to the menu. There are a couple of ways to dine at Barolo: You can order à la carte, or go with executive chef Brian Laird's five-course tasting menu of Northern Italian dishes that aren't available on the regular roster. (If you don't opt for the tasting menu but still want to eat five courses, the kitchen will adjust portion sizes.) We decided to split several items off the standard menu, starting with pancetta fritti, balls of mashed potato studded with porky pancetta, dropped in the deep fryer and then drizzled with balsamic, dabbed with persimmon sauce and served on a bed of greens. But the fryer oil hadn't been hot enough, so rather than crispy bites with soft, warm centers, we were served blobs of mush that apparently had sat for a while before making their way to our table, during which time the balsamic drizzle had thoroughly soaked in. And though the persimmon sauce was pretty, adding a vibrant orange hue to the plate, it didn't add anything to the taste of those disappointing blobs.

Our salad did not disappoint. The insalata al barbabietole was a classic, simple combination of sweet, earthy roasted beets, crisp frisee and arugula, and sharp, shaved pecorino, lightly coated in a maple-sherry vinaigrette; it was well-executed and delicious. But the soup that the arrogant bartender had described as an apple-fennel-pumpkin concoction with foie gras "espuma" (an annoying word for foam) and a cranberry relish was awful. The one-dimensional soup was abrasive and tart, like rancid lemon, the cranberry relish sickeningly sweet, and the espuma, which might have given an earthy grounding to the disastrous base, had no flavor at all.

But then came our pasta orders, which erased the bad taste left by the soup. In one, dense, two-inch-long potato gnocchi, crispy leeks and slick Brussels sprout leaves had been bathed in a decadent, creamy parmigiano sauce; in the other, toothsome, hand-cut tagliatelle folded into a velvety, meaty Bolognese. Both were rich, savory Italian comfort food, conceived and prepared by a well-versed hand. Too bad our meal didn't end there. Instead, I'd made the mistake of ordering the anatra al Barolo, the roasted duckling that's Barolo's signature dish. The bird came plated with broccoli, onions and tomatoes (which seemed extremely summery for late fall) and garlic potatoes — but the tender duck had been so steeped in the marinade, I could scarcely taste anything besides astringent balsamic vinegar. Maybe olive, but that didn't exactly lighten the intensity. I took about three bites before surrendering.

Clumsy as the service at the bar had been, I preferred it to the tableside service I experienced on a return visit. During a casual meal at the bar, I'm more apt to let mistakes slide; at a table, when I'm forking over plenty of cash for an intimate dinner, I'm less forgiving. Our server this night was good-spirited, but also unpolished. Bread was offered and accepted, then never appeared. Answers to questions were convoluted and bumbling, doing little to instill confidence — and also putting me on the alert for obvious up-sells. But the waiter's most irritating faux pas came after I'd walked through wine director Ryan Fletter's red-heavy wine list with him, explaining the parameters of what I wanted before selecting a bottle. He returned to the table with bottle in hand, then looked straight at my boyfriend and asked who would be tasting. If I order the bottle, I'm tasting.

The wine carried us through a dinner that began with an uninspiring veal tartare, underseasoned and unhelped by an overcooked quail egg that was also too small to render enough yolk to tie the dish together. From there, we moved on to a triumphant insalata di autunno, a warm blend of sweet chunks of pumpkin, golden beets, anise-y fennel and textured hazelnuts, made complete by the bite of frisee and complementary addition of grape vinaigrette. Our pasta course, the risotto al Castelmagno, was another high point. The rice had been slowly cooked to an ideal al dente, deriving a sharp bite from the cow's-milk cheese and an earthy depth that rendered the black truffle accoutrement unnecessary (but still welcome). But the disappointing side of Barolo soon showed itself again, with a bland grilled quail and dry kabocha squash pudding that our server had let us sample from the tasting menu. That was followed by a wretched crème brûlée that was limp and sticky on top, lacking the crust that's so satisfying to pierce with a spoon — yet still managing to taste of the propane torch that had finished it. I washed dessert down with a bitter Fernet digestif.

I needed the alcohol not just to cleanse my palate and counter the oppressive fullness of the meal, but to brace myself for the check. I can think of about three dozen restaurants in the area where I'd rather drop $200 on dinner for two.

Barolo Grill may still have a good reputation — but the reality of dinner there doesn't support it. These days, the star is tarnished. Rather than gracefully aging into a timeless classic, the restaurant by which everything else was once measured is dangerously close to becoming a Hollywood starlet gone to seed, scratching and clawing for a place on the B list.

Barolo Grill needs to try a little harder to be Barolo Grill.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk