Brio gets an A for attractive, but not for authentic
I don’t customarily patronize chain restaurants, because I am a strong supporter of local ones (and local retail businesses too). But an editor asked me to visit Brio Tuscan Grille, one of a chain of ”Tuscan-inspired” restaurants described as “casual fine dining.” So off I went to Park Meadows (the other in the Denver area is in Cherry Creek) to look and to taste.
The restuarant is baronial in scale. Enter into a grandiose foyer complete with mosaic floor in front of the hostess station. Beyond is an even more commanding dining roon whose high ceiling is draped in grand swaths of fabric. Other decorative elements include reproductions of Renaissance sketches hung on faux stucco walls, archways, chairback covers of gold and burgundy stripes, flying saucer-size ceiling fixtures and a quasi-open kitchen. The corporate decorator has done a good job with a pleasing, unprovocative palette, good proportions and excellent lighting.
The food is certainly tasty enough, the portions are gargantuan and prices not out of line for the amount of food, but I can’t help but think that whoever wrote the menus has had only the most cursory exposure to the foods of Tuscany. And as for sustainable or natural, Fuhgeddaboutit! The salmon is farm-raised, and I didn’t even bother asking about natural meats or organic produce.
Then again, chains — no matter how well they live up to their “concept” — are more about marketing and profits than about authenticity, and Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, which launched three successful “concepts” and is on the verge of going public, must its pulse on mass American tastes. In addition to Brio, which they write as BRIO, they also have BRAVO! Cucina Italian and BON VIE Bistro.
Brio claims Tuscany as it’s inspiration and make no pretense to authenticity, so maybe I’m being hypercrtical, but I can live with that. Brio is a restaurant concept. Some Tuscan specialties do appear on Brio’s menu. For instance, you can order bruschetta, risotto and bistecca alla Fiorentino, but where is the traditional bean soup called ribollita (on a nightly specials menu, perhaps) or pappardelle, the region’s best-loved form of pasta, which marries so well with the region’s famous game dishes. No, I am not so naive that I expect to see wild boar, hare, pheasant, goose or other true Tuscan meats on the menu of many American restaurants — and never, ever in a chain that favors in large suburban shopping mall locations.
Brio does serve pleasing adaptations of Italian dishes from Tuscany and also other regions, as well as such anomalies (or more politely, hybrids or more rudely, freaks of culinary nature) as BBQ chicken flatbread, chipotle chicken panini, chopped salad with feta (the Greek signature cheese) and grilled chicken club (made with Provolone; I wonder whether they grill the lettuce or make a grilled cheese sandwich and layer it with a BLT). Even some of the allegedly Italian dishes are from elsewhere. No less an authority than Mario Batali says that the spicy sauce called Fra Diavalo that is featured in one of Brio’s most popular dishes (available with chicken or shrimp) is an Italian-American invention that is rarely served in Italy, and probably then only in restaurants catering to gringo tourists.
As I admitted, I’m probably being too persnickety about a shopping mall restaurant in these days of homogenized dining. I suppose in this contest that I shouldn’t really be digging in my heels for authenticity. Sorry if I’m obnoxious about this, because the dishes I tried were attractive and tasted good. But still, it diminishes the efforts of independent restaurants and their hard-working chefs and owners who try to serve the real thing.
That said, here’s what I tried:
Price check: At dinner, starters, flatbreads, soups and salads, $4.95-$14.75; buschetta and flatbreads, $10.95-$14.95; pasta, $14.95-$19.95; “Specialita de la Casa,” (entrees) and “Bistecca” (steak entrees), $16.95-$29.95.