Cafe Society

With an updated menu, the revamped Barolo Grill is flying high

Let me get that for you," said the valet, smiling as he pulled open the door to the restaurant. Just across the threshold, an equally eager hostess collected our coats, handing me a claim check as she apologized profusely for not having a table immediately available for two reservation-less women on a busy Thursday night. "But we should have something in fifteen minutes," she promised. "Would you like to have a drink at the bar while you wait?"

We did, taking seats by a regular who peppered us with suggestions as we studied the drink menu. "Let me make you my favorite," the bartender interjected, after watching us debate bubbly for a minute. "If you don't like it, I'll get you something else." We consented, and he was back quickly with an Aperol spritz — a slightly sweet, slightly bitter, fizzy blend of Aperol liqueur and Prosecco that happens to be my favorite Italian aperitif. We liked it enough to order another.

Moments later, the hostess reappeared. "Let me escort you to your table," she said, leading us to a cozy corner next to the restaurant's fireplace and handing us menus. Our server soon arrived, delivering breadsticks, sparkling water and easy advice as he walked us through the menu and wine list, pointing out bottles firmly in our price range that would pair across the board.

As he spoke, my head was spinning. Where was I? Was this the same Barolo Grill I'd visited last December?

Yes and no.

A year ago, my dinner had been an utter disappointment from start — when a different valet failed to open the door because he was busy text-messaging a friend — to finish — an absolutely disgusting crème brûlée. In between, I'd suffered through bumbling service flaws and obvious upsells, as well as an unpalatable version of Barolo's signature dish, the Anatra 360. And for this abysmal meal for two, I'd wound up paying more than $200 — when I knew there were dozens of other places in town where I could have gotten more bang for that kind of buck.

Evolve or die, advises an essential mantra in the restaurant business.

I left thinking that the twenty-year-old Barolo Grill had long since outlived its reputation as Denver's fine-dining star. Like its signature dish, the restaurant seemed a dead duck.

But instead, it evolved.

Just weeks later, executive chef Brian Laird announced his departure from Barolo, and Darrel Truett, a seven-year veteran of the kitchen staff, stepped up to take his place. This past summer, when owner Blair Taylor took his staff on its annual trip to Italy, he used the time to give the interior an update, keeping the red-and-gold color scheme, the light linens and the softly glowing lights, but getting rid of the '90s-era wall hangings and artwork in favor of a cleaner, more classic feel.

Slide show: Barolo Grill is flying high

The menu, too, has been updated. Barolo still offers two ways to dine: à la carte, or from a fixed-price, five-course tasting menu. But Truett's offerings are more playful, with unexpected combinations — such as risotto and escargot — and unusual garnishes, including persimmon and pumpkin flakes. It appears that more of a French influence has crept into the kitchen, too, particularly with items like the cassoulet, on that night's Menu Piemontese. When I asked our server about that, though, he didn't miss a beat — pointing out the proximity of France to Piedmont, Italy, long the focus of Barolo's food, and describing the inevitable culinary cross-pollination.

We made our choices and sat back with our wine, watching the well-choreographed team tend to parties around the room, enjoying the buzz of diners making pleasing discoveries. And we were soon among them.

"This is our seared foie gras with winter squash bread, cranberry compote and crisp apple walnut salad," our server recited as he delivered a dish that was a perfect representation of the season. The savory fat of the quivering slices of liver played off the bread's warm spice; the tart bite of the cranberry and julienned apple balanced the richness.

We were still savoring the foie when the server returned with our salad. "The insalata di barbabietole is our chef's play on peanut butter and jelly," he explained, pointing out the earthy chestnut butter, sweet cubes of orange and beet gelee, and small, crunchy cylinders of beet meringue that had been added to the standard goat cheese and roasted beets. The composition was a delightfully unique twist on a dish I've seen on hundreds of menus — and a completely successful one, showing an attention to detail that included both flavors and textures.

For our pasta course, we'd taken advantage of Barolo's offer to do half portions of several options. The plin ai funghi e fonduta was my favorite: The squid-ink-infused pouches of pasta had been stuffed with an earthy, savory blend of cremini and chanterelle mushrooms, then bathed in a sharp, decadent Fontina fonduta. Nearly as good was the classic Bolognese, a nest of flat, housemade tagliatelle, cooked a perfect al dente and coated with a rich, porky sauce lifted with a bit of tomato. By comparison, the gnocchi seemed a bit bland. The little potato dumplings had been mixed with slightly bitter Brussels sprout leaves, leeks and slices of purple potato, then bathed in a rich Parmigiano cream sauce and drizzled with sweet, earthy chestnut honey. The combination was smart, but it needed a little salt to pull everything into harmony.

If I had stopped there, those dishes alone would have ranked this meal as among the best I'd had this year. But the next course, guanciale di vitello — veal cheeks — pushed it close to the top. The cheeks are one of the most tender parts of an animal, and these were rich and velvety, braised until they were practically buttery in texture. They'd been embedded in creamy mascarpone polenta and ringed with bitter braising greens and pearl onions, which lent just enough bite to bring everything into balance. Seductive, hedonistic, climactic balance.

"Did you enjoy the cheeks?" my server asked, as he swept in to clear the licked-clean plate away.

I almost moaned. "One of the best dishes I've had all year," I assured him.

The seamless service continued through the delivery of our check — another hefty tab, but this time one I was happy to pay. "It's night and day," I said to my friend as we claimed our coats. "I can't believe it's the same restaurant."

To make sure, I returned a few days later — and ordered the duck that had been so disastrous last year. The Anatra 360 has been on the menu since Taylor opened Barolo in 1992; the original recipe came from Mel Master, with whom Taylor had partnered more than a decade before on Dudley's, a legendary fine-dining restaurant (hence the "360" billing in the dish's name: It had come full circle). Over the past two decades, its ingredients have not varied, although how successfully they're put together certainly has. A braised duck breast and leg, pooled with a balsamic-laced sauce, come sided with green Castelvetrano olives, garlic potatoes and green beans, yellow wax beans and broccolini. The last time I tried this dish, the duck had been overcooked, and its accoutrements were unbelievably acrid. This version was definitely better — although the elements on the plate still didn't quite come together. While the astringent balsamic had been dialed down, it was oddly sweet. And although the duck was tender, it seemed under-seasoned; its flavor profile more closely resembled that of boneless, skinless chicken breast than rich, fatty duck. I'm sure the Anatra 360 holds sentimental value for Taylor — not to mention his legion of loyal fans — but I wish he'd pull it off the menu. After a dish as inspiring as the veal cheeks, this just didn't fly.

But Barolo definitely does. As this restaurant enters its third decade, it has not only reaffirmed its relevance to the Denver dining scene, but evolved into an exciting spot that sometimes really takes off.

Slide show: Barolo Grill is flying high

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk