Museum food with flair.
Palettes at the Denver Art Museum
(3 out of 4) 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, 303-534-1455, www.ktrg.net
The Draw Kevin Taylor's sleek, minimalist dining room with well-prepared, contemporary cuisine.
The Drawback Service can be exceptionally slow, and dining room chairs are uncomfortable.
Don't Miss Anaheim chile goat cheese relleno, smoked sweet corn soup, lemon icebox cake.
Vegetarian Options Homemade macaroni and cheese, Anaheim chile goat cheese relleno.
A morning spent at the Denver Art Museum is nothing short of mesmerizing. After admiring Monet's Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Charles Deas' Long Jakes, The Rocky Mountain Man, and Winslow Homer's Two Figures by the Sea, or simply contemplating Daniel Libeskind's evocative architecture, breaking for lunch can seem like a rude interruption. Unless, of course, you're dining at Palettes, chef Kevin Taylor's dining room just inside the museum doors.
Originally opened in 1997 by Taylor and his partner, Denise Mease, Palettes is a fine-dining venue that helped break the old paradigm of marginal cafeteria-style food by serving finely prepared, beautifully presented, contemporary cuisine. Taylor, it seems, was at the forefront of a culinary trend, since super-chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and mega-restaurateurs like Danny Meyer have also begun combining fine dining and fine art. The result: a more complete museum-going experience here and in other major cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and New York City.
At the Denver Art Museum, executive chef Dan Gullickson oversees the renovated Palettes (which reopened in October 2006, along with the new museum addition). Open for lunch and Fridays for dinner, Palettes caters to a broad spectrum of guests. The tony setting, focused wine list, and the emphasis on clean, clear seasonal flavors draws docents, museum members, travelers, families, and professionals. Some might find the monochromatic dining room cold, but, in fact, the shades of white, gray, and black act as a neutral backdrop to the local artwork (pieces change regularly) on the walls. With crisp white linens, an airy dining room, and original works of art, the sophisticated space complements the museum experience perfectly.
However, Palettes' courteous and professional service can be unbearably slow. Occasionally waits for tables are long (although this can be mitigated by a stroll through the museum), and servers are sluggish checking on tables between courses. The result is often a lunch that stretches well beyond an hour. The extremely uncomfortable chairs only exacerbate the prolonged experience.
But when dishes finally arrive with a flourish of delicate garnishes and interesting architecture, the nuisance of waiting fades. Crispy potato-crusted scallops ($16 lunch, $26 dinner) come as a Napoleon-style tower of seared mollusks sandwiched by two crispy potato cakes, crowned with a tangle of fried, julienned leeks and sprigs of fresh cilantro. Tender, roasted flowerettes of cauliflower complement the scallops with a well-matched, creamy caper-raisin emulsion and dots of smoky chile oil. The combination is heavenly, and the flavors marry seamlessly across the plate. The Anaheim chile goat cheese relleno ($11) is another beautifully composed dish. Coated in a coarsely grained but delicate cornmeal crust, Gullickson's relleno is served on a pool of hearty cinnamon-tomato sauce with a drizzle of lime crema. A slightly smoky, roasted corn salsa brings nice contrast, while a touch of fresh cilantro adds a refreshing note.
The house-made spaghetti ($13 lunch, $18 dinner) is another winner, with noodles topped with a nicely layered, slightly spicy tomato-basil sauce accented with tender bits of prosciutto, caramelized onion, and a chiffonade of fresh basil.
Taylor's signature smoked sweet corn soup ($9) has wowed diners for 20 years. The balanced flavor profile starts with sweet notes of the corncob, followed by a hint of smoke and a touch of cumin and chile oil. A spoonful of guacamole and a solitary barbecued shrimp top this perennial superstar.
It's also hard to miss when ordering the mussels in refreshing Thai lemon grass broth ($14 lunch, $23 dinner), or the juicy roasted lemon and garlic chicken with spot-on frites. The Colorado lamb chops ($29) shine as another strong entrée, with fresh green lentils, lightly wilted garlic spinach, and a refreshing mint jus.
Don't pass up the crinkled tobacco onion rings that accompany the tender New York sirloin ($26 dinner). The rings are dipped into sweet batter accented by red chile and paprika, before being fried to a golden brown.
Like the rest of the menu, desserts from pastry chef Jason LeBeau are usually a pleasure. The lemon icebox cake ($9), with flavors that mimic classic lemon meringue pie, is the showstopper. A timbale of creamy lemon curd on a homemade graham cracker base arrives topped with a swirl of toasted meringue and a dollop of sweet blueberry compote. Avoid the red velvet cake ($9), however. The oddly colored dark-brown layer cake tends to be dry and unremarkable. The buttery toffee pudding, with a silky vanilla bean sabayon and crumbles of sinful house-made toffee ($9), makes a better choice.
If lunch or dinner finds you lingering a while, a fine selection of apéritifs and digestifs, as well as fine wines by the half bottle, are available from the small but well-edited list.
Whether it's the ultimate Friday night dinner date, complete with a stroll through the museum, or a leisurely lunch, Palettes is an important part of Denver's dining repertoire. Professionals and travelers in the Golden Triangle, as well as visitors to the museum, would be hard-pressed to find a more sophisticated setting for their meal. And as long as diners are not pressed for time, Palettes is sure to make a lasting impression.