THE DRAW: A convivial, modern atmosphere; a wide range of inventive Italian dishes; an enlightened wine list
THE DRAWBACK: At times, the pasta is overcooked and needs more attention.
DON’T MISS: Chicken in lemon sauce, tricolore salad, spiedini, grilled octopus, mezzaluna pasta, pizzas
DETAILS: Antipasti and contorni $6 to $26; pastas $10 to $21; mains $24 to $55; pizzas $10 to $17. Open Sunday through Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. to midnight. Street and lot parking.
One weekend night this past winter, seven of us sat at a high-top table in the back of Bar Dough, the now seven-month-old LoHi restaurant that’s been buzzed about since week one. We were celebrating the arrival of dear friends from 8,000 miles away, ordering and doubling down—More food! More drink!—every few minutes, and the business of a jam-packed restaurant whirred all around us. Plates arrived on time and were delicious: garlic squid, Italian kebabs, slices of coppa di testa, salads, pastas, and pizzas. Our server was cheerfully cool despite the chaos and took the time midmeal to make a canny recommendation from the wine list. It was exactly the festive scene I was after to show our Sydney friends that Denver, too, is a hot food town.
A few weeks later, Juan Padro, who co-runs the restaurant group that owns Bar Dough and Highland Tap & Burger next door, was making the rounds, genially asking patrons about the food. We began to chat—I didn’t identify myself—and I asked about the fruity acid flavors in the trumpet mushroom spiedino. (It was apple cider vinegar, apparently.) The conversation turned to the logistics of dealing with restaurant popularity. Padro strikes me as one of those operators who is happier to be understood as a keen manager than a food auteur. He reminds me of certain old-school Italian restaurant owners in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: In short, he is a presider. Later I found him and his wife, Katie, explaining to a YouTube interviewer their idea for Bar Dough. They wanted a “nice tight environment,” he says, with “East Coast style” and an “intimate” dining atmosphere. This makes sense: The room does have the squeeze-box feel of a bustling New York City joint. Its decor notes are all modern, though, tilting to the meta—movies like Moonrise Kingdom are shown in silent black and white on four big screens so that they read, until you look closely, as vintage Italian cinema.
Chef and co-owner Max MacKissock, formerly of the Squeaky Bean (both iterations), is the other critical player at Bar Dough. Right away I have to credit MacKissock with turning out the only plate of chicken I’ve had (in Denver, at least) that can rival that of Mercantile Dining & Provision. The pollo al limone was a masterpiece of mostly deboned bird, flattened, charred, and perfectly tender with crispy skin—the whole thing swimming in a shallow pool of exquisite, light, creamy lemony-buttery sauce. Half a charred lemon added burnt tang. The texture suggested careful brining, and slices of thigh, dragged through the sauce, tasted like marbled pork from a fire pit. I savored this with a bottle of 2012 Hauner from Sicily, a Nero d’Avola-Nerello Mascalese red that features fruit, acid, tannins, and slight funk in a bright harmony worthy of the Kronos Quartet. That chicken with that wine had me swooning.
The antipasti and primi sections of the menu are varied enough to justify an entire meal. There are always a couple of spiedini—Italian kebabs—which are consistently inventive, the sort of simple dish that Bar Dough excels at by paying attention to little details. One had local pork with pickled onions and a glaze made from balsamic and a hint of colatura, a garumlike fish sauce. Another had those trumpet mushrooms, charred and meaty yet not dried out, with tang from the vinegar. We also relished a little cast-iron pan of roasted sunchokes; every other piece was dabbed with lemon aïoli.
Though not a purist, MacKissock knows his way around the regions of Italy. A plate of pasta—half-moon shapes stuffed with sweet squash—came with bits of pickled squash and a pine nut and raisin agrodolce, each bite dancing the sweet-tart two-step of the Roman school. A garlic squid salad with white beans, raw fennel shavings, Italian parsley, and fennel pollen vinaigrette reminded me of the rustic seaside salads of the Tuscan coast: bright, clean flavors and distinct textures.
And when MacKissock riffs, he does so with less of the pell-mell approach that sometimes confused me at the Squeaky Bean when he was the chef there. Grilled octopus was served with eggplant done two ways, as a tangy caponata and a smoky paste. The dish was festooned with pistachios and microgreens and looked like something Captain Kirk might have been forced to eat to prove his diplomatic chops on an alien port of call, but it worked. A version of tricolore salad pushed that dead-simple dish into experimental territory with chopped radicchio, thinly sliced cauliflower, shishito peppers, oranges, more pistachios, and a honey-tempered citrus vinaigrette. So far, so good, actually, until a cameo appearance of bits of chewy dried cantaloupe introduced a trail-mix note that I found baffling. It was like Italy by way of REI.
Concerning the pizzas, of which I had two, the news is mostly good. Our server recommended the Mountain Man, with Gorgonzola and Montasio cheeses, onion, guanciale, Calabrian chiles, honey, and pistachios, and I ordered it mostly because I’d walk halfway across Umbria to revisit the pig-jowl flavors and mouthfeel of guanciale. With this pie, the kitchen proved three things: 1) Its pizza dough technique with the wood-fired oven is well above average, producing puffy, charred crusts of tender aspect; 2) The more baroque topping combinations are worth a try, though I’ve had honey on pizza twice in a month and have to say it’s an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire; and 3) Profligacy with nuts, a Bar Dough habit, is less impressive to your average diner than it might be to a squirrel.
What makes most dishes work, whether classic or experimental, is MacKissock’s attention to clear, complementary flavors and a kitchen staff that’s on top of its game. That’s not to say things didn’t derail here and there. Pappardelle came with a lovely lamb Bolognese, but the noodles had slumped into an overcooked wad upon arrival. Tagliatelle with surf clams, pancetta, lemon, and parsley had a nice light touch, but the pancetta had forgotten its funk, and there was too much oil and not enough clams. Garlic bread was a bit spongy. A version of a pisco sour from the bar didn’t have enough sour to quite kick through the silky egg-white consistency. Desserts were pleasant but not remarkable (though the daily gelati were vividly flavored and rich).
But most of these points, except the pasta mishaps, are quibbles—especially considering Bar Dough’s finesse with wine. The list is thoroughly Italian, breaking whites, reds, and sparklings into regions and producers, with an emphasis on grapes not usually featured: Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla, Ruché, Bombino, Kerner, Schioppettino, Groppello, Erbaluce. There aren’t many descriptions on the list, but the staff is eager to help and there’s a fun map on the back that serves as a guide. A dozen wines are available in six-ounce or nine-ounce pours. It adds up to one of the handiest, least stuffy wine programs I’ve recently seen. My only complaint was that a glass of Aglianico from the Basilicata region was served a bit warm.
Bar Dough is a good sign for Denver in general and LoHi in particular. With its convivial modernity and Italian focus, it’s a thoroughly local restaurant without assuming the farm-to-table, Americano-artisanal, porky-pickley, beards-and-tats default posture so many restaurants from Brooklyn to Portland adopt. That approach, with its elaborate code of values, represents the current achievement of the American food movement, but it risks self-parody. At Bar Dough, sourcing and citation take a back seat to the business of spirited cooking from a focused kitchen. We need more places like this. Until I next eat there, which will be soon, I tilt my glass of Nerello Mascalese in its general direction: Salute!