Farfalle pasta with braised Colorado goat, from left, Lombardy style stuffed quail, lil’ gems salad, doughnuts, The Boyner pizza, and wood-oven roasted carrots Thursday, Dec. 20, at Bar Dough. (Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post)
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Carrie Baird didn’t intend for “fancy toast” to become her signature dish. After a final-four finish on season 15 of “Top Chef” — and two Quickfire wins courtesy of her amped-up bread creations — the plate has become a permanent fixture on the menu at Bar Dough, where she’s a partner and executive chef.
The dish draws fans from across the country looking to taste Baird’s creations in person and see what imaginative toppings she’s cooking with today.
Thankfully, all the attention hasn’t changed the soul of the three-year-old LoHi eatery: a casual neighborhood restaurant and bar serving thoughtful, scratch-made Italian food with, as Baird puts it, a “Bar Dough twist.” This is a venue where regulars’ favorite dishes, like the bucatini ($26) and pollo al limone ($26), will always be available because, well, people love them.
Bar Dough was opened by the indefatigable restaurant team of Juan Padro, Katie O’Shea Padro, and chef Max MacKissock (the trio behind Señor Bear, Morin, and the upcoming Maine Shack, among others). Baird stepped into the executive chef role last year after stints at local restaurants such as Brazen and Just Be Kitchen, bringing classic techniques and a sense of fun to the bountiful menu of antipasti, house-made pastas, and pizzas.
Yes, you can go to Bar Dough for the fancy toast. But you’ll want to stay for the robust, all-Italian wine list, sharp service, and confident cooking, because even amid the chaos of Denver’s seemingly tireless dining scene, Bar Dough stands out as one of the city’s best.
A customer waits for the rest of his party to arrive Thursday, Dec. 20, at Bar Dough. (Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post)
Vibe: Lively. Bar Dough is almost always packed, from the marble-topped bar counter to the communal high-tops to the deep-red banquette seating. The restaurant is current — exposed wood ceilings, open kitchen, wood-fired oven — without falling into the realm of trendiness that makes many new venues indistinguishable from one another. Televisions flash unexpected films in black and white, like Bill Murray’s “The Man Who Knew Too Little” or new “Top Chef” episodes, to a wide-ranging audience that seats fiftysomething women celebrating a birthday near a couple of ski bros wearing flannel shirts and beanies.
Hits: One of the most enjoyable dishes at Bar Dough can be found in the insalata section: The wood-oven roasted carrots ($14) manages to make Peter Rabbit’s favorite snack an all-star. The oven lends the just-softened orange wedges a smoky flavor, and the carrot juice and cumin vinaigrette, enhanced with shallots and toasted cumin seeds, adds a subtle spicy sweetness. Tossed together with chewy farro, whole chickpeas, and shaved carrots, every bite is a perfectly composed blend of texture and flavor.
Another successful appetizer, or antipasti, as the menu notes, is the Italian wedding soup ($15). The caramel-hued dark chicken stock — made over the course of 24 hours and then infused with Parmesan rinds for hours more — imparts a French onion soup flavor, providing a luscious foundation for mini pork, pancetta, and beef chuck meatballs, just-past-al dente radiator noodles, carrots, greens, and large slivers of Grana Padano cheese. It’s a belly-warmer perfect for winter’s frigid temps. (Worth noting: The mushroom risotto, $34, is made using a similar stock.)
Carrie’s Fancy Toast containing house ciabatta, poached pears, grapes, prosciutto, Italian gorgonzola, almond, and thyme paired with an Aperol spritz Thursday, Dec. 20, at Bar Dough. (Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post)
Goats are having a moment on restaurant menus, and Bar Dough’s is no exception. Even tentative diners will find the goat farfalle ($18) a comfortable intro to the protein. Baird and her team butcher a whole, Colorado farm-raised goat once a week, using it to make a stock and braising all of the meat until it’s unctuous, not gamey (to use Baird’s spot-on description). The tomato-based sauce and shredded goat Gouda find their way into all of the chubby farfalles’ crevices, making the dish rich and creamy but not heavy.
Truthfully, you’ll probably be too stuffed for dessert, but there’s almost always room for a scoop of gelato ($3). Bar Dough’s satisfying flavors (vanilla, pistachio, and salted caramel were available on a recent visit) come from Boulder’s Ice Cream Alchemy.
Oh, did we forget to mention that fancy toast? As expected, that’s good, too. Though the exorbitant price ($19) for the current topping blend of baked prosciutto, poached pears, grapes, Italian gorgonzola, and almonds (an enjoyable surprise) on crispy-crusted, house-made ciabatta makes it something to order once, then move on to other, better — and more fairly appraised — dishes. (Because pears are almost out of season, expect this dish to change soon; Baird and team switch up menu items fairly regularly based on what produce is available.)
The Boyner pizza is topped with red sauce, roasted wild mushrooms, black olives, roasted garlic, aged mozzarella, and has an everything crust Thursday, Dec. 20, at Bar Dough. (Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post)
Misses: Bar Dough is an exceptional restaurant, but dishes sometimes founder under the weight of one or two bungled ingredients.
One of Baird’s favorite pastas is the tagliarini ($28), in which a squid ink noodle base is tangled with meaty squids and out-of-the-shell mussels. However well-cooked the pasta was, it was badly under-seasoned. The bigger issue, though, was a mention of orange zest on the menu which translated to an overpowering citrus flavor that muted everything else on the plate.
A tender roasted quail ($28), brimming with a cranberry-dotted ciabatta stuffing, was let down by a bland, thin sage polenta that lacked bite and any flavoring from the herb, even with the fried leaves on the plate.
The six pizzas on the menu all benefit from puffy, perfectly charred crusts — made from eight-year-old starter — but the spicy clam offering ($18) is light on clams, or really, any briny flavor, and spice, with the house-made chile oil adding grease but not much heat.
Ask a staffer which dessert to order, and they’ll all respond with “the zeppole!”, four doughnuts made from a ricotta batter that’s folded with walnuts, fried, and then stuffed with vanilla cream cheese ($8). The insides are soft and the accompanying caramel lick-your-finger good, but not all doughnuts were created equal: some had barely a drop of cream cheese, while others basically oozed filling, molten cake-style. With each doughnut nearly the size of a baseball, the portion was also much too large.
A Home Again cocktail containing rittenhouse rye, don ciccio nocino, calvados, and gifford banane brasil. Thursday, Dec. 20, at Bar Dough. (Daniel Brenner, Special to the Denver Post)
Drinks: Bar manager Shawn Williams oversees a noteworthy cocktail program that spans an array of spirits and introduces tipplers to new ingredients while not straying too far from the familiar. The current nine-drink lineup will change when the seasons do, so while it’s still available, order the Home Again ($14). You’ll whiff the rye and brandy as soon as the server sets the drink down, but the banana and walnut liqueurs give it a smooth finish. Four spritzes (all $9) are also on offer: classic, lemon-rosemary, grapefruit-basil, and Giffard passion fruit.
The beer selection ($6 to $14) leans toward draft offerings and is Colorado focused (there are some European appearances, too) but doesn’t limit itself to the expected. There’s an IPA from Lafayette’s Odd13 Brewing and a Belgian ale from Westbound & Down Brewing Company in Idaho Springs. For the indecisive, downtown Denver’s Tivoli Brewing Company crafts a pairs-well-with-anything Bar Dough lager for the restaurant.
Sommelier Chris Boyne’s all-Italian wine program has something for every taste and every price point. The slightly fruity Schiava from Kellerei Kaltern ($13 for six ounces) is soft enough to pair with most dishes but has enough body to stand up to some of the spicier offerings.
It’s also commendable to see a solid array of options for nondrinkers, including a variety of Italian cream sodas (all $5) and two mocktails, both soda-based.
Service: It’s a dance inside Bar Dough, where aproned servers in white shirts sidestep and twist between always-full tables. They’re well-versed in every menu item — drinks and eats — and are quick to make recommendations when asked. This is friendly, approachable, polished service as it should be.
Bottom Line: Bar Dough is consistently impressive, showcasing flawless technique and a deep understanding and love of food without being pretentious. Service is excellent, and while not every dish achieves equal success, diners can always expect an enjoyable — and filling — meal.
Price: Appetizers and salads ($6 to $19); Pizzas ($12 to $18); Pastas and entrées ($18 to $54); Desserts ($3 to $8); Cocktails ($9 to $14)
Fun Fact: Baird got a chance at redemption this month on “Last Chance Kitchen,” “Top Chef’s” accompanying web series, where toques vie for the chance to return to the main competition. She nabbed the top spot in the first two episodes of season 16 but, in less fun news, was eliminated in the third episode’s breakfast battle.
2227 W. 32nd Ave.; 720-668-8506; bardoughdenver.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday; happy hour, 3 to 5:30 p.m., daily.
Parking: Free street parking
Star Rating Guide: Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor. One star, satisfactory. Two stars, good. Three stars, very good. Four stars, excellent.