In truth, I enjoyed this fish quite a bit less, even though I’d traded my white apron for a white tablecloth and a few glasses of wine. Psychologists might say that’s because we appreciate most what we work hardest for. But that would imply that writers don’t work hard, which isn’t the case. (Remember the trials and tribulations of high-school English?) No, if I enjoyed this fish less, it was purely because of the plate set before me. Supposedly crusted with pistachios, the mahi mahi had a bland shell that looked like nearly raw panko, not pan-crisped goodness. The risotto propped against it tasted strongly of sage, and the underlying smear of squash purée was as unseasoned as baby food, and cold, to boot. I may not have cooked this fish, but I was definitely working, continuing to take analyzing bites long after friends had waved the white fork. Still, I walked away from the Palate that night with a desire to return, suggesting that there was more to this fish tale than just the fish.
In other words, as with any good afternoon spent with a rod, waders and a vest of flies, success here isn’t measured by the one that got away. The process counts, too, and the process of dining at the Palate can be pleasurable, even if all the food is not.
Wine has something to do with that, and not because you drink so much that the flaws disappear. Owners Vivek and Sanju Beri owned a wine shop in Longmont prior to opening the Palate, and Sanju is a certified sommelier. Together, they have created a winsome list showcasing more than 150 old- and new-world wines. And you don’t need to order a bottle as you work your way through them; the vast majority are available by the glass, through a self-serve pouring system by Napa Technology, which uses argon gas to prevent oxidation. It’s like Dave & Buster’s for adults: You buy a card, then stroll past sleek black couches and banquettes to the perimeter of the dimly lit dining room, where bottles are lined up in illuminated cellars; when something catches your eye — either because you like the label or because you clicked through the notes on the iPad wine list and were hunting for something specific — you press a button and out it comes, in pours ranging from 1.5-ounce tastes to 6-ounce glasses.
That’s how I ended up with Gewürz-traminer, a varietal I’ve largely ignored since my last trip to Alsace and forgot how much I like. It’s also how I ended up with a rough-edged Spanish Tarima monastrell, an acidic red that didn’t play nicely by itself or with the small plates with which I’d paired it. That’s the lowly reality of this lofty concept: With so many wines to choose from, you either have to bury your head in the wine notes and ignore your dining companions or seek advice. But one night Sanju wasn’t around, and when I turned to the server for help in finding interesting, lesser-known wines, all she could say was, “I don’t really know.” (Later, a friend asked if the beet ravioli were vegetarian and got a similar response of “I’m not sure.”) Long after our appetizers were cleared, the server came back with notes scrawled on a piece of paper, courtesy of someone in back. While those wines were lesser-known — a crisp Hungarian white, for example — I felt sure that better pairings existed, and just as sure that if Sanju had been there, she would’ve listened to my dinner order with the warmth and intensity that make her an ideal frontman, then tailored a flight just for me. (There are no set flights on the menu.)
The interplay between food and wine is indeed a passion for the Beris. “Wine pairings can be such magical experiences,” says Sanju, who honed her hospitality skills as general manager at fine-dining restaurants in Longmont and Lake Tahoe. “If you have limited options in food, how are you going to do that?” Thus the menu, designed by executive chef Michael Contrado, who’s been cooking professionally for nearly 25 years and spent time at the beloved and dearly missed Papillon, far exceeds the meat-and-cheese boards of many wine bars. In addition to lengthy lunch and dinner selections, there are some seventeen small plates offered all day, convenient for people looking for a bite when the Landmark’s movie theater and comedy club let out at all hours — and just as convenient for curious types looking for a dish to pair with each new glass.
Much of the menu has a Mediterranean lilt. Lamb ribs are dusted with Moroccan spices and glazed with pomegranate molasses. (At least they’re supposed to be; one night, mine slipped out of the kitchen without that dusting.) Ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, though on the tough side, are an arresting shade of garnet thanks to roasted beets in the dough. Lentil-mushroom soup is finished with curry cream. Stacks of avocado, green-tea-cured salmon and crispy wontons rest atop a vivid vinaigrette scented with saffron and orange in a stunning Napoleon. And for dessert, there are pleasing, old-world selections like pear galette and chocolate-hazelnut tartufo.
But as with the expansive wine list, just when you try to characterize the menu as Mediterranean, you find other influences: a dash of Southern here, a drop of south-of-the-border there. Apple-cider-braised pork shanks play to the season’s strengths with sweet potatoes fragrant with allspice, cinnamon and cloves. Deep-fried risotto-crab cakes are topped with gussied-up apple slaw. Shrimp is served in a homestyle gravy of tasso ham, peppers and onions, with cornmeal-crusted okra and fried grit cakes. (Too bad bits of shell were left clinging to the shrimp.) Empanadas of duck confit and quince sizzle with pineapple-habanero salsa. Regardless of influence, all are plated artistically, remnants of the chef’s start as a visual-arts student. “I realized how creative I could be with food versus painting and drawing,” says Contrado.
And creativity pays off at the Palate Food + Wine Bar, both with the wine selection and the menu. Despite occasional shortcomings in execution and service, the Palate proves a stylish yet flexible addition to Greenwood Village.
In fisherman’s parlance, the Palate isn’t catch-and-release: It’s a keeper.
The Palate Food + Wine Bar
5375 Landmark Place, Suite F-105, Greenwood Village
Lamb ribs $13
Shrimp & grits $10
Risotto-crab cakes $12
Lentil-mushroom soup $6
mahi mahi $27
Salmon Napoleon $14
Pork shanks $22
Beet ravioli $18
The Palate is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at the palatedenver.com.