(out of 4)
2785 Iris Ave., Boulder, 303-443-5100
The Draw An extensive modern Italian menu, contemporary environment, affordable wine list.
The Drawback The strip-mall location is a bummer, but you'll forget about it once inside.
Don't Miss Local beet and zucchini salad, house-made Vin Santo pâté, sausage and goat cheese penne, strawberry and balsamic scallops.
There are things I tend to notice when dining out. Underchilled wine. Overcooked meat. Servers who rush. Noise that offends. Tables too close. Split-plate charges...and drafts. I hate drafts. I don't think I'm more sensitive to annoyance than the average person, but I'll admit that once I become chilly or annoyed or disappointed, it can be tough getting me back to the table.
Yes, I know. In the overall scheme of life—and dining—these annoyances are relatively minor. But still. When you're paying precious dollars for a meal, you expect things to go well.
Which brings me to Arugula Ristorante in Boulder, a place that artfully manages to deliver delicious food in a thoroughly distraction-free setting. I've dined here multiple times now, and what I like most about the restaurant is all the minor distractions I didn't notice.
I didn't fixate on the servers because they always appeared exactly when I needed them. I didn't obsess about the noise, which was a steady, convivial hum. I didn't focus on my neighbors, who were close enough for companionship but far enough for me to gossip without worry. And I didn't agitate over cost because at Arugula a three-course meal without wine averages just $35. Even if you add wine, the cost remains reasonable, thanks to a list that emphasizes bottles in the $25 to $55 range.
I did take note of the environment, primarily because you enter Arugula from a nondescript strip-mall. But once inside, I felt calmed by the restaurant's clean, modern lines, pale green walls, and rustic artwork made of kitchen gadgets. Arugula is, in a perfect Zen-Boulder way, both calming and energizing at the same time.
In short, this is a restaurant where the pieces fit together perfectly, where there are no stone-in-the-shoe irritants to take your attention away from where it belongs: on chef/owner Alec Schuler's diverse, extensive, and highly creative modern Italian menu.
Schuler, 36, launched Arugula in February with the goal of creating a restaurant that combines expected Italian ingredients—gnocchi and polenta, Parmesan and pasta, grappa and Gorgonzola—with lighter and more inventive preparations than are typically associated with the boot-shaped country.
Knowing that, even in Boulder, it would be the kiss of death to market Arugula as a "health food restaurant," Schuler—who attended the Natural Gourmet Institute, a nutritionally oriented cooking school in New York City—opted instead to promote freshness and flavor. It was a smart strategy, especially for those who'd prefer not to think about carbs and calories when dining out. Here, you can eat exceedingly well from a health standpoint (Schuler eschews butter, cream, and deep frying, and 80 percent of his recipes are vegan-based) but, thanks to the elegance and full flavor quotient, still feel as if you're cheating.
Among the seemingly decadent starters is the house-made Vin Santo pâté, a smooth chicken liver spread blended with onion, thyme, and a touch of sweet Vin Santo wine. A generous portion is served with grilled bread and a satisfying sweet fig chutney laced with crunchy mustard seed. Our server also recommended—and rightly so—the salad made of thinly sliced red beets topped with a hillock of julienned zucchini, roasted pine nuts, a light splash of lemon juice, and shavings of full-bodied Piave Vecchio cheese. The tender earthiness of the beets provides the perfect base for the nutty vegetable topping.
Two other starters that fare well on red wine nights (specifically with Fontanafredda Briccontondo Barbera) are the savory sautéed mushrooms finished with pungent Gorgonzola cheese, and the house-cured pork belly, a crispy-creamy rectangle of tender pork served with garlicky wilted frisée.
Yes, the starters are rich, but not so much that your appetite hits the highway. Instead, Schuler's starters wake up your senses and make you eager for round two, where the toughest part will be deciding whether to focus your attention on the lengthy list of specials or on the four-page regular menu.
Try the sausage and goat cheese penne from the regular menu, a hearty dish that combines al dente penne with chunks of mildly spicy sausage, mounds of tangy goat cheese, strips of sweet, caramelized onions, and juicy, oven-roasted tomatoes. Or, for something on the lighter side, opt for the bright and surprising strawberry and balsamic scallops—four large, seared scallops served alongside a pool of balsamic reduction and a velvety, cheeseless risotto pierced by wedges of pink strawberry. Both dishes show Schuler's skill at turning traditional Italian into something unexpected.
Also on the surprising side: the ricotta gnudi and duck confit. Gnudi, while similar in texture and appearance to gnocchi, is actually lighter and more flavorful. Schuler blends his with ricotta with truffle oil, then weaves in thin spinach ribbons, and serves it alongside a crispy confit leg, a hash of roasted mushrooms, and a drizzle of slightly sweet Marsala reduction. What you'll notice most about this—and all of Schuler's creations—is how the flavors and textures vary bite to bite, from creamy cheese to crunchy duck to velvety mushrooms, and back again.
Thanks to Schuler's light touch, you'll have room to end the meal with a dessert from pastry chef Kathy Moore. Although the selections are not quite as inventive as the rest of the menu, they do provide a satisfying coda. I especially liked the lemon pudding cake: an off-center stack of two thin slices of light and spongy cake served atop stripes of aged balsamic reduction and sprinkled with triangles of sweet strawberry.
The lemon cake provides an ending that's focused, delicious, and not overwhelming—which pretty well sums up Arugula as a whole. Here, you won't notice anything more than the food on your plate, the friends at your table, and your own simple brilliance in choosing a restaurant that knows how to keep your focus where it belongs.