- The Draw:
- A deep, surprising wine list matched with lively Italian cooking.
- The Drawback:
- Pricey; a few dishes feel fussy.
- Noise Level:
- Don’t Miss:
- The course-by-course wine pairings.
You know the feeling, I hope: a slow-motion sense of wonder that marks the best eating experiences, when time stops and the universe collapses into the fundamental relationship between, say, a wild raspberry and a spoonful of yellow Jersey cream. I felt that several times recently at Frasca Food and Wine. One instance involved a faint hint of yuzu catalyzing Möbius strips of white asparagus and chunks of king crab. Another occurred when the fruity acid of Piennolo cherry tomatoes lent zing to wobbly fresh shellfish. A third contrasted the strange earthiness of crisp sunchoke chips with a resolutely bitter chocolate pudding.
These were sexy flavor moves for an Italian joint that, at 15 years old, is middle-aged by restaurant standards. Since opening in Boulder in 2004 under owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, also the founding chef, Frasca has assumed a mantle of impeccability. It earned 11 James Beard Foundation Award nominations between 2006 and this year, including wins for Best Chef Southwest (Mackinnon-Patterson in 2008), Outstanding Wine Program (2013), and Outstanding Service just this past month.
I was not in Colorado during Frasca’s heyday, and two meals over the past three years failed to wow me. The wine list and service were exemplary, always, but the food seemed a bit affected and even dated. However, in late 2017, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson recruited two executive co-chefs, wife-and-husband Kelly Jeun and Eduardo Valle Lobo, to run Frasca’s kitchen. Both had worked at New York’s gustatory temple of Italian luxury, Del Posto, and cooked in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the region that inspired Frasca’s founders. Early on in their Boulder tenure, I found one dinner uneven, but on the evidence of two more recent meals, Jeun and Valle Lobo have begun to shine.
It would take more of a regional expert than me to untangle the Friulian through lines in Frasca’s four- and seven-course tasting menus. The region borders Slovenia and Austria, giving its food Central European influences not tasted farther south. This past spring, that translated to menus featuring game, turnips, potatoes, mushrooms, and sweetbreads. So far so clear, but gnudi and lasagna, which I also enjoyed there, hail from Tuscany and Naples, and a server told me those Piennolo tomatoes came from the slopes of Vesuvius. Perhaps it’s enough to say that Frasca’s cuisine is a brilliant complement to the wines of Friuli and nearby regions.
The chefs’ best dishes have vivacity and grace borne by exacting technique. The aforementioned shellfish dish, for example, called “spaghetti al succo” (which translates as “spaghetti with juice”), had a silky, emulsified sauce whose sharp essence of tomato highlighted baby squid, clams, and mussels by somehow sitting forward of the seafood bites, a lively introduction to the oceanic tastes that followed. There were vegetal flavor bombs in the form of thin slices of dense caper berry. The dish possessed a wild, almost unbound aspect.
Doing things better, without performative explanation, is central to Frasca’s approach. My wife had her own collapse-of-the-universe moment over an egg nested in a bowl among four types of wild mushrooms that were buttery and lightly herbed. The egg had a creamy consistency unmatched by dozens of low-and-slow-cooked eggs eaten elsewhere. And the ethereal use of yuzu with white asparagus showed how heavy-handed most chefs are with that fashionable citrus.
As my wife ate the egg, I dug into a tangle of eggy “tajarin” (thin pasta ribbons from Piedmont), whose sauce was subtly flavored by rutabaga, of all things; it was slightly granular, slightly bitter, and maybe the most brilliant use of that turnip-type vegetable ever. There was sweet Dungeness crab, too, and salty sea beans, and a coastal essence that made me want to pack my bags for the Adriatic.
Jeun and Valle Lobo concoct dishes that you’ll want to pick apart slowly, archaeologically, such as their “pastitsio in primavera,” a single-serving mini lasagna barely an inch high. It was made with onionskin-thin rounds of egg pasta that sandwiched layers of braised rabbit and soft-ripened Harbison cheese. On top sat chewy black trumpet mushrooms amidst a bath of sticky demi-glace. I found the dish delicious but a bit cloying—until I took a swig of 2017 Domaine du Pélican Arbois Trois Cépages, a Burgundy-style red from the Jura region. The wine was splendidly fresh and balanced despite its youth, with a hint of Pinot Noir earth and abundant acid to cut through the demi-glace. The combination was a masterpiece.
Everyone uncorking wine at Frasca, from Stuckey and wine director Carlin Karr on down, deploys rapier-sharp knowledge without a trace of condescension or pedantry, making a meal there one of the finest wine experiences in the nation—by the bottle, glass, or, for more diversity, half glass. Frasca’s wine list is an opus, filled with lively explanations and organized by flavor and character, but with a staff so well schooled, it’s best to simply state your general likings and budget. I would never have put my finger on a Syrah clone from the Marche area on the east coast of Italy. But I was directed to Frasca’s last bottle of biodynamic 2001 Fattoria San Lorenzo Il San Lorenzo Rosso, which was aged in concrete and stainless steel. It cozied perfectly with a plate of sweetbreads coated in crunchy semolina.
Meanwhile, if you think you don’t fancy whites, let Frasca provide introductions to Friulanos from the Colli Orientali del Friuli DOC, Sylvaners from Germany, and Chasselas from Switzerland: The range of fruit flavors, acidity, and even bitter notes are delightful. There’s a selection of trendy orange wines, too.
Over two meals—one $95 four-course menu and one $130 seven-course special spring menu there wasn’t a wine misfire, but I cannot say that every dish managed the relaxed poise that marked the chefs’ best efforts. There were errors of experimentation, like when “funghi in pastella” (mushroom fritters) were jazzed up by stuffing morels with foie gras and frying them in tempura batter. The liver liquefied inside the morel sarcophagi, squirting hot foie fat onto the plate; the result weirdly tasted like something fried in overused oil at a state fair.
There were also errors of overdesign. A course of antelope loin stuffed with cured pork fat served with a smear of puréed sweet potato and a dollop of asparagus-y, foamy, flan-y stuff was blandly oversweet from vanilla. Nor did a tough duck entrée get me quacking.
In a restaurant that strives for perfection, these are not minor hiccups. But I’m a happy convert to Frasca. The room is not that interesting, with chairs that look a bit like they belong in an office and a generally beige-to-brown color scheme. The greeting is warm, however, and as you settle in and sip your complimentary splash of Friulian white wine, you may note how the staff moves with the precision of dancers, whether it’s to replace a dropped napkin or decant a bottle. Yet there’s no fuss in all this care-taking, which is where the art of Frasca lies. It’s old school in the best way: a gentle, graceful restaurant where you may experience moments of transcendence as you marvel at the ability of talented people to concoct such tasty things from bits and pieces of the world.