Barolo Grill 3030 East Sixth Avenue 303-393-1040
If there was any doubt about the enduring popularity of Barolo Grill, one of Denver's longest-running white-tablecloth establishments, it was erased one night as I stood in front of the hostess stand, waiting for the hostess to finish a phone call before showing us to our seats. "I'm sorry," she said to the person on the line. "At this point, I couldn't fit in the President of the United States."
Her words caught me off guard, and they might come as a surprise to you, too, if you've been so busy crossing off all the new places on your list that you haven't ventured into Blair Taylor's Cherry Creek North institution in a while. They also might startle all you trend-followers, who've watched the pendulum swing so far away from fine dining that tables themselves, not just the tablecloths that cover them, are increasingly optional when you order a meal.
The allure of the casual isn't strong only in the West. Bon Appétit's recent list of the country's best new restaurants named a few spots that wouldn't have even qualified as restaurants a decade ago, including a market and a food truck. So if ever there was a time to predict a half-empty dining room at a restaurant that's been synonymous with fine dining for more than two decades, this is it. Instead, Barolo Grill is too full for the (hypothetical) president.
This despite the fact that on one night, so many service glitches indicated a place past its prime that I wouldn't have taken the president of my son's PTA there, much less Mr. Obama. The hostess forgot our napkins, which are supposed to be hand-delivered along with menus, leaving us in a messy predicament given the grissini's green dipping sauce. The server didn't mention that pastas can be ordered in half and tasting portions until we inquired, forgot to explain that courses unique to the tasting menu were available à la carte, and failed to share any of the charming stories that bring Barolo's menu to life. Those we gleaned from servers at surrounding tables, who visibly charmed their guests with descriptions of balsamic mixed with agar agar until it congealed into purple caviar, of tuna-stuffed veal pockets called vitello tonnato modeled after those enjoyed on the staff's recent trip to Italy and France, and of the duck that's been the restaurant's signature from the beginning.
Even without the backstories, though, we found much to savor in many of the dishes that came our way, especially in the five-course tasting menu, which isn't cheap at $65 but ends up feeling like a good value considering the ample portions and extras, such as the amuse-bouche and pre-dessert offering. Tender strands of rabbit, braised in a sultry combination of wine and beer, made my husband wish he'd ordered the full portion, not the tasting size, of the tajarin, a Piemontese specialty pasta rich in egg yolks.
Long-stemmed squash blossoms, coated in crisp tempura and fresh from the fryer, broke open to reveal pearls of sheep's-milk ricotta. An oversized raviolo concealed an egg yolk nestled inside a ring of ricotta and foraged mushrooms. Tonnato (tuna sauce) blended with soy milk rather than mayonnaise resulted in vitello tonnato that was every bit as creamy as the original, but without the heaviness. And Colorado lamb, one of the menu's few offerings with roots in Colorado rather than Northern Italy, made our home state proud, with a tender, quivery flan of Olathe sweet corn, local green beans, corn shoots and tiny purple flowers, resulting in a dish that was as pretty to behold as it was to eat.
The lamb, along with the so-called Super Caprese, with imported burrata, coins of clear basil gelée (made of stems to prevent color transfer) and a dusting of powdered extra-virgin olive oil, is indicative of the direction taken by executive chef Darrel Truett, who assumed the top-toque position in 2011. "I'm trying to blend the simple trattorias that we go to with the super-nice one-, two- and three-star Michelin restaurants," says Truett, who has visited cheesemakers, prosciutto makers, wineries and all manner of restaurants on the seven trips he's taken to Italy during his nine years with Barolo Grill. "We've progressed more to fine dining; we're not as rustic anymore."
The menu reflects that, but Michelin-starred restaurants would have sent a supplier packing rather than accept mealy tomatoes -- inexcusable in a Caprese -- or blueberries that tasted like plastic. Kitchens in those restaurants would also have tasted the tomato crema underneath the squash blossoms and added more salt, and wouldn't have sent out a red-pepper risotto so saucy it could've passed for tomato-rice soup. And surely someone would have checked with my husband to see when he wanted his two tasting portions of pasta before delivering them at the same time. (His intention was to keep up with my tasting menu, but he ended up with too much to eat, then twiddled his thumbs.)
We left not exactly disappointed -- the lamb was too good, the raviolo and tajarin unforgettable -- but not quite convinced that this was where we'd want to celebrate a birthday or entertain friends, as many around us were doing, much less where we'd want to drop such a large portion of our paychecks.
So we went back, hoping to find the attention and polish we'd anticipated.
Keep reading for more on Barolo Grill. And while the server was gracious and knowledgeable, the night was riddled with lapses that are easier to overlook in restaurants that don't take themselves so seriously: long waits for plates to be cleared; no visit or even eye contact by the general manager/wine director, whose charm lights up the room but who seemed to lavish attention only on those ordering wines by the bottle; and braised duck that has been restored to its original, balsamic-free recipe but remains unappealingly flabby.
Aside from the duck, the kitchen was very strong. Poussin confit formed an innovative salad, strewn over mâche and frisée with a petite sunny-side-up quail egg in the center and sweet droplets of saba (cooked grape juice). Halibut was a creative experiment in temperature, with hot fish under a cool medley of halved cherry tomatoes and mini-balls of cucumber, zucchini and squash, tomato brodo poured tableside, and a scoop of spicy tomato sorbet to tickle the tongue. Too bad the server hadn't warned me -- as the chef later told me he'd advised the staff to -- that the broth was cool; I'd anticipated the interaction between warm broth and cold sorbet. Head-on blue prawns -- one of the best appetizers I've had all year -- came out crusted in an ultra-crisp mixture of panko and hazelnuts, with wild rice atop an earthy smear of smooth chanterelle purée.
This clever dish, an amalgam of several of Truett's favorites, was one of many to surface on the menu following this summer's trip to Italy, proof -- if Taylor needed it -- that the staff's annual jaunts pay off. More than that, though, it suggests a counter-narrative to naysayers who find the restaurant's devotion to Northern Italy stifling. Creativity doesn't always come trumpeting its own horn. Sometimes it's seen in more subtle touches: prawns over chanterelle purée, fragrant hazelnuts in place of almonds in a red-pepper-and-tomato romesco.
Perhaps that's the real secret to Barolo's popularity, not to mention its enviable longevity: When change does come to the restaurant, it's gradual enough not to disturb the regulars who have been dining here for decades. Taylor has a niche, a valet-seeking, pink-shirt-and-blue-blazer-wearing crowd that appreciates ample spacing between tables, cushions on seats, and fine bottles of wine poured by candlelight in order to make any sediment visible. These are good, albeit currently uncool, things, and the younger generation might appreciate them, too, if we weren't so busy doing what youth does -- i.e., swinging the pendulum away from styles that came before.
Who knows? When craft beer, small plates and bare bulbs hanging from exposed beams have had their day, hipness might be measured in white tablecloths, decanters and five-course tasting meals, and people of all ages might crowd in to Barolo looking for Truett's exemplary hazelnut-crusted prawns and housemade pasta. Even then, however, the restaurant might have to do a bit of work before I'd suggest it to the president.
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Select menu items from Barolo Grill:
Fiori di zucca $14
Vitello tonnato $12
Gamberi in crosta di nocciole $13
Confit of poussin salad $12
Super Caprese $12
Risotto ai peperoni rossi $21
Tajarin con coniglio $20
Anatra 360 $29
Ippoglosso con brodo $31
Lombo di agnello $33
5-course tasting menu $65
Barolo Grill is open 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5:15-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. For more information, go to barologrilldenver.com.