The roast pepper soup stared up at me, an edible riddle. Since it was from the special exhibition-themed menu at Palettes, the white-tablecloth restaurant inside the Denver Art Museum, I knew the dish must be related to the Modern Masters show, but how? Was it a riff on Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, only made with roasted red peppers rather than the iconic tomato? Was it a culinary take on Georgia O'Keeffe's poppies, the flowers' red petals transformed into red soup, their yellow and white accents brought to life through swirls of yellow romesco and citrus crème fraîche? Or maybe red peppers were Willem de Kooning's favorite vegetable, and the soup was a subtle tribute to the abstract expressionist.
See also: A Closer Look at Palettes
Like most casual attempts to make sense of the artistic masterpieces on display at the DAM through June 8, these were good guesses -- but nothing more. Turns out the soup, one of six dishes tied to Modern Masters, had a different inspiration altogether. "That's Jackson Pollock," explained executive chef Austin Cueto, who reviewed the show catalogue, researched images online and talked with a restorations expert at the Clyfford Still Museum prior to designing the special menu. "One of his paintings has a red background, with drip splatters of white and yellow and green. When we plate that soup, we try to make it a little messy and drizzled."
Cueto, who'd spent four years as executive chef at the recently shuttered Restaurant Kevin Taylor before moving over to Palettes, told me this by phone, long after I'd used broken bits of pesto-slathered toast (the green in the painting) to scrape my soup bowl clean. The homage was so subtle, I wasn't surprised that I hadn't caught it -- but I was surprised that the server hadn't said a word, much less described the connection to Pollock, as he delivered my soup. After all, running through a dish's dominant elements has become common practice at better restaurants, and Palettes is part of the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group, a name that's been synonymous with fine dining for decades.
This lack of explanation continued with other exhibition-themed fare, including a Snickers knock-off that was a bit too sweet and a Rothko-inspired parfait that was oddly rubbery. I thoroughly enjoyed the pork tenderloin, despite the fact that it came in a larger portion (and with a higher price point) than I'd normally want for lunch -- but I would have enjoyed it even more if the server had told me what Cueto later did, that the Brussels sprouts petals scattered around the pork were inspired by Salvador Dalí's melting clocks, and that the large wedges of pork belly and corn-studded polenta mimicked "random geometric shapes, like a Picasso painting."
And sadly, the failure to describe dishes wasn't the only flaw I encountered at Palettes. The crisp dining room is lovely, with gray and seafoam chairs, gallery-esque white walls accented with art, and wraparound windows framing views of stories-high sculpture and the shiny surfaces of the Hamilton building -- but hostesses regularly seated my group near the kitchen or along a traffic-way, even when the room was only a quarter full. Busboys walked away from puddles caused by sloshing water pitchers. Servers failed to apologize when they threw away leftovers rather than boxing them up as requested. And the kitchen was painfully slow, especially for all the business lunchers. Keep reading for the rest of our review of Palettes.
Since Palettes doesn't have a separate entrance, the restaurant's hours dovetail with those of the museum: It's open for lunch six days a week and dinner only on Friday, when the museum is open late. To handle this challenge, Cueto offers a globally inspired menu that not only finds a happy medium between lunch and dinner, but balances what you'd expect from a museum -- soups, salads and sandwiches -- with what you'd expect from a Kevin Taylor establishment. When I think of this restaurant group, I think of dedicated pasta teams, high-end ingredients and finesse, so initially I focused on the heavier fare. Some of those dishes deserved the attention, including a seared ahi with coconut pearl couscous, snap peas and dashi. But the pea-ricotta tortellini were buried under so many wild mushrooms -- sliced a quarter-inch thick, no less -- that the dish could have been called Ode to Fungus. (The fact that it arrived on the cooler side of lukewarm didn't help matters.) And the stack of fried eggplant, yellow tomatoes and mozzarella in the eggplant gateau was elegant in appearance only, the deconstructed ratatouille marred by greasy breading and a tomato sauce that needed more herbs.
The kitchen did much better with lighter options. The watercress salad, plated with stems aligned as if in a bouquet, was lovely to look at and even lovelier to eat, with a sprinkling of pistachios, lemon-scented spheres of goat cheese, candied pecans and grapes. The grilled cheese sandwich featured not cheddar but local Brie, along with caramelized onions and cranberry compote that proved mercifully un-cloying. The schnitzel sandwich, which rated rare words of praise from our server, lived up to its billing, with pounded, panko-coated pork, lightly pickled cabbage and melted Fontina on a pretzel bun that was fluffier than most I've had lately. (And I've had a lot of them, given how trendy soft pretzels have become.)
The charbroiled-salmon salad, with mixed greens, Gorgonzola and asparagus, was pleasant but predictable. The smoked-corn soup is predictable, too, if you've eaten at Taylor's restaurants over the past two decades -- but this signature dish never fails to delight, with a dollop of guacamole, barbecued shrimp and a huskiness that comes from vegetables grilled over wood chips.
And had the carpaccio appetizer -- micro-thin slices of seared beef tenderloin, capers, a palate-cleansing celery-leaf salad and crisp housemade breadsticks called grissini -- been presented on an oversized rectangular platter rather than a round plate, perhaps with green pesto and red romesco added to the white zigzags of truffle-parmesan aioli, it would have been the perfect tribute to Pollock. As it was, it was simply one of the best iterations of the dish I've ever had.
When Palettes opened in 1997, heads turned. Not as much as they did years later to take in the Hamilton wing, with its shiny triangular facade and vertiginous stairs, but they turned all the same. Until then, dining was an afterthought to art, and hungry museum-goers in Denver were faced with the same dilemma as art-lovers nationwide: Order something from the casual museum cafe or leave the premises for a fancier meal. Palettes, along with chef-driven restaurants at the Getty in Los Angeles, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Neue Galerie in New York, changed all that, proving that food could be as much a draw as the art. These days, however, people expect to find good food all over: in airports, train stations and out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Given the lapses in the front of the house and the kitchen's erratic timing, Palettes today seems like a sketch for an iconic work: You see glimpses of the brilliance that could be, but the lines are faint, the hand still feeling its way.
Select Menu Items at Palettes Roast pepper soup $9 Pork tenderloin $19 Beef tenderloin carpaccio $14 Smoked sweet corn soup $9 Watercress-endive salad $10 Brie grilled cheese $13 Charbroiled-salmon salad $14 Pea-ricotta tortellini $14 Ahi tuna $18 Eggplant gateau $15 Snickers $10 Passion fruit and berry parfait $10
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Palettes is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Find more information at ktrg.net/palettes.