I work hard to keep an open mind when I visit a hotel restaurant, but I don’t necessarily walk into them with high expectations. The average hotel restaurant just has the deck stacked against it. Frequently under the management of a large corporate entity; many decisions that affect the kitchen and its output are not made by the executive chef. Instead, a corporate manager whose major focus is to contribute to the company bottom line is selecting the menu based on what he thinks will appeal most to the broadest audience possible. This generally leads to a pleasant enough atmosphere at the restaurant, decent enough service, and ok, if slightly lackluster food. Unfortunately, an exceptional meal just isn’t likely to be in the cards.
However, after several meals at Panzano, the Hotel Monaco Denver’s restaurant, I’ve been forced rethink my expectations. Yes, the Hotel Monaco is corporate, too; but Kimpton, parent company of this boutique hotel, has taken a completely different tactic with its restaurants. Control of the kitchen at Panzano really is in the hands of Elise Wiggins, the friendly but outspoken the Executive Chef. It’s hard to picture anyone from corporate telling Wiggins how to run her kitchen.
Kimpton's gamble on this restaurant model has paid off in a big way though, as Panzano can easily be numbered among Denver’s best Italian restaurants. Chef Wiggins has real culinary talent and a passion for good Italian food, which you can see in almost every dish. She also does her research by spending time Italy every year, exploring the cuisine, perfecting techniques, and coming up with fresh ideas to bring home.
Panzano’s menu is self-described as, “contemporary Northern Italian with a local twist”. This is a reasonably accurate description, as number of the items on the menu are up to date versions of Italian classics. However, don’t let the use of the word classic deceive you into thinking any of these more traditional dishes are boring. Traditional cooking is deeply valued in Italian culture, with good reason, it takes real mastery to perfectly execute the classic. It’s also a trick to find the balance between traditional and play; to know when a new flavor will complement an old dish without ruining the integrity of the original.
For example the Ragù di Agnello, about as classic as it gets, is perfectly executed comfort food. The house made mafaldine noodles are cooked just right, every time, and the lamb ragù, obviously slow simmered for hours, falls apart at the first touch of the fork. Topped with Pecorino tartufo cheese from Italy, what’s not to love? In other dishes you see the twist, like the ravioli. Though very traditional on the surface, interesting seasonal fillings give the dish a fresh feel. On one visit, I found the translucent full moons filled with a vibrant purple beet puree, which is not at all traditional, but completely delicious. The current iteration, Ravioli di Zucca boasts a filling of pumpkin, cranberry, and goat cheese. The flavors are very Italy meets sophisticated American Thanksgiving.
Another huge plus is Panzano’s dedicated gluten free menu, an impressive feat at Italian restaurant. Dishes on the gluten free menu are equally appealing to those on the regular menu. Gluten free dinners who are tired of pulling together meals a la carte at other restaurants will appreciate having a real selection to order from. A gluten free dinner (or anyone else) couldn’t go wrong ordering the Caviling di Bruxelles, fried Brussels sprouts in an apple cider reduction, topped with pistachios and green apple. Or the Capesanne, pan- seared scallops served on top of butternut squash and porcini risotto. The kitchen is also very accommodating for guests with other allergies and will happily put together a dish to meet your needs.
The only dish I really found myself objecting to on any dinner visit was a poorly cooked steak from a fall seasonal features menu. While the flavors in the sauce were very good, the meat itself arrived cooked somewhat past the requested medium rare, which didn’t do the texture of the meat any favors. Properly cooked it would be a wonderful dish.
As with most hotel restaurants Panzano serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to find an excellent breakfast and dinner at the same location. Restaurants who serve both meals often end up excelling at neither. While Panzano really dazzles at dinner, the breakfast menu is not particularly exciting nor especially Italian. The food is perfectly serviceable, the pastries are good, but nothing is over the top special. The exception being an intriguing chicken gnocchi hash.
I found the staff at Panzano to be friendly, pleasant, and knowledgeable about menu items; with one exception, the day I brought my children with me. Admittedly, Panzano wouldn’t be my first choice for bringing young children out to eat, but I wouldn’t have expected such poor service because of their presence. Perhaps our server felt we were too much trouble or not worth much of a tip since we had young children with us. Whatever the case, she clearly couldn't be bothered with us. It took 15 minutes to even get a hold of the gluten free menu, longer still to get a high chair, it was difficult to get attention when needed, and a few of the little items we asked for just never made it to the table. It really detracted from what otherwise could have been a stellar meal.
After so many other positive visits I was really surprised by the poor treatment and decided to reach out to the restaurant to see how my complaint would be handled. I will say that I received a gracious and apologetic reply from the restaurant’s general manager, who clearly wanted to help resolve the situation to my satisfaction. He really took the time to address my concerns, and intended to address the problem to ensure it would not be repeated. As they say a good apology goes a long way, and I’ve been appeased. Despite the poor experience, Panzano is well worth returning to, though perhaps sans-children. Plus, Chef Wiggin’s food really is too good to stay away.
Click here for all Denver coverage.