Panzano and Ace Eat Serve are about as different as two restaurants can be. The first is an upscale hotel restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine and drawing a downtown clientele along with guests from the Hotel Monaco above, while the second is a breezy Uptown eatery specializing in pan-Asian comfort food and table tennis. But the two now have something in common: They both hired new executive chefs in the fall who are rolling out new menus with flavorful seasonal ingredients.
At Ace, Thach Tran is now heading up the kitchen. Born in Vietnam to a family of restaurateurs, he came to Denver when he was nine, eventually attending culinary school and working at places like Sushi Den, ChoLon and, most recently, Stella's on 16th.
Tran's new dishes at Ace are bold and colorful, relying on traditional ingredients like galangal, fish sauce, lotus root and chiles to amp up flavors and textures. He says his favorite is the Night Market Chicken, a tribute to his childhood spent eating in Saigon's outdoor marketplaces. The chicken carries a yellow tint beneath its grill stripes thanks to turmeric in the seasoning blend; it comes with coconut-pandan rice and is decorated with sweet goji berries.
Other new items hop from China to Thailand to Japan. Housemade bao buns are stuffed with pork belly, short rib or tempura mushrooms; a Spice Market beef soup captures the best of ramen, pho and Chinese beef noodle soup; and a vegetarian kho soi takes the famed curry noodle soup of northern Thailand and replaces chicken with chickpeas and toothsome kabocha squash. Another veg-forward dish is the Jade Stir-Fry, which at this time of year comes with Swiss chard, lotus root and broccolini in a garlicky sauce.
The whole crew at Ace is in on the new menu; pastry chef Nadine Donovan takes a cue from Tran's grocery basket with a dessert that shouldn't be missed — cubes of fried mochi butter cake and candied kumquat slices surround a puck of miso caramel mousse coated in chocolate "magic shell." The bar is celebrating a new lunar year with its Year of the Dog cocktail, made with rum, spiced whiskey, orange bitters, Dancing Pines black walnut liqueur and Hair of the Dog tonic.
At Panzano, chef Nic Lebas just introduced his first full menu since coming on board late last year. Lebas was born in France and attended culinary school there; he says his earliest memories are of helping out in his grandparents' bakery — and eating the raisins that were intended to go into pastries. He also has an Italian grandmother, whom he cites as one of his biggest culinary influences.
The new dishes bear a distinct imprint of classic European cooking, but without the heavy butter- and cream-based sauces. Instead, Lebas relies on local, seasonal ingredients to make dishes pop, whether they're the baby beets on an inventive salad that includes a savory "canoli" made with a black-olive tuile stuffed with creamy goat cheese, or a combo of eggplant caponata and pickled giardiniera that liven up a plate of charred octopus. As is the Panzano way, Lebas shows his Italian roots with a variety of housemade pastas: lobster agnoloti, cod brandade tortellini and pillowy gnocchi (served with braised lamb) among them.
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Carpaccio is a staple at upscale Italian eateries; Lebas adds his personal touch with spoonfuls of pickled mustard seeds and black-garlic aioli. And for an entree like grilled pesce fresco (a fillet of whatever's market-fresh), a touch of whimsy is added with a lacy topper of whole-wheat crisp.