Exclusive sneak peek: Russo's Kitchen + Tavern

Late last week, Brian Laird, the executive chef of Russo's Kitchen + Tavern, which opens on Thursday at Vallagio at Inverness, trotted out a non-stop medley of dishes during a staff tasting and orientation -- and we were lucky enough to share in the food coma.

And Laird, the former chef of Barolo Grill, whose kitchen he reigned over for more than a dozen years, has a renewed sense of energy, a new spring in his step, and a seasonally driven, ever-changing menu that he's crazy-excited about -- in part, because he owns it. "This menu is my style of food, and I'm super-excited about the fact that I have the freedom to play with -- and expand the repertoire of -- my ingredients," says Laird, whose board is steadfastly suited to his own personal fancies and whimsies. "I love not being trapped by one specific cuisine, or region, and while my menu definitely leans toward Italian food, there's a lot of stuff on there that I personally really love," he adds, pointing, for example, to his chile water, a popular Hawaiian table condiment.

"We're not here to complicate dishes," notes Laird. "Simple dishes are best, and that's what my cooking style is all about." And now that he's a chef and a restaurant operator, Laird understands that the bar is set high. "This is what I've been working toward for a really long time -- this is the dream -- but that also means that there's a lot on my shoulders," he admits. "Everything goes by me now, and being able to bring up a new generation of cooks and chefs is super-cool -- there's a tremendous amount of gratitude in that -- but we need to make sure we do a kick-ass job."

Judging from the dishes he turned out during the tasting, he's well on his way to doing just that. Flip the page to get a sneak peek of what Laird has in store.

Fontina, Gruyere and Parmesan macaroni and cheese dabbed with pesto. Tempura-fried artichoke and zucchini chips swiped with a sriracha aioli. Floating with Parmesan-crusted matzoh balls, this is Peter Kudla's matzoh-ball soup stocked with shredded chicken, carrots, fennel and spinach. House-smoked salmon with capers, onions, mixed greens, crème fraiche and olives sandwiched between two half-crescents of buttery hash browns. Roasted beets drizzled with honey and enlivened with toasted walnuts. Spheres of eggplant, marinated in fresh-squeezed tomato juice, lemon, wine and olive oil, fried and crowned with an olive tapenade. Russo's burger, hand-formed patties of all-natural Colorado beef topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese, mushrooms or a poached, fried egg, served on brioche and sided with fries, coleslaw or macaroni and cheese. Spicy Italian sausage and roasted red pepper sandwich blanketed with mozzarella and served on a toasted roll. Sauteed crimini mushrooms tossed with fresh, hand-cut pasta, available in half and whole portions. The star of the show: a deep-fried poached egg heaped with Calabrian peppers, thin-sliced prosciutto, arugula, pesto sauce and tomatoes on toasted ciabatta. Classic pasta Bolognese with fresh, hand-cut tagliatelle. Polenta-crusted sea bass, plated with fried peppers, polenta croutons and chile aioli. Grilled Scottish salmon, straddling a dune of potato and celery-root puree and festooned with a caramelized-onion relish. Executive chef/operator Brian Laird and Peter Kudla, owner of Russo's, and the visionary behind Vallagio at Inverness. We normally don't include bathrooms in our photo essays, but like the dining room at Russo's, which is full of kaleidoscopic artwork and furnishings, so, too are the bathrooms. Brian Laird, the former executive chef of Barolo Grill, is spearheading the kitchen at Russo's, which he describes as "simple Italian." It would take you days to explore the hundreds upon hundred of conversation pieces that bedeck the walls at Russo's, many of which come from Peter Kudla's private collections of really cool stuff. The dining room at Russo's.

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