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EATING IS FUNDAMENTAL

Judged by its cover, the Fourth Story is looking good. This restaurant has what might be my favorite dining room in Denver. There's an endless supply of books to pull down and peruse, and in this library, eating and drinking are not only allowed, they're very much encouraged. All the crucial stuff is here: shelves and trim of cherry wood, padded seats covered with bookish fabric, easy-on-the-eyes lighting, crocheted doilies strewn about, herb plants on every table, a foyer filled with comfy sofas. And, of course, books, books, books. A lot of thought and work went into turning this top-floor space above the Tattered Cover, the old home of the Chrysler and Cafe Santa Fe, into a mecca for bookworms.

For foodies, however, the Fourth Story is no bestseller.
Almost from the moment the place opened last March, the reviews had not been good. But that was seven months and two chefs ago. Head chef Teri Rippeto moved on in June, and sous chef Steve Jaeckel, a Peter Kumpf Cooking School graduate who worked at Tante Louise for more than a year, took her place. Jaeckel rewrote the menu, but it's the same old story: Sadly, the food just doesn't work quite right.

It certainly reads well enough. The menu overflows with combinations that evoked oohs and aahs as we carefully made our selections. But the execution drew nothing but blahs as one item after another failed to live up to its billing. And that's not all she wrote: The service was patchy, dishes arrived either steaming or tepid, and the kitchen seemed unable to pace courses. At least there's a plausible explanation for that last problem--the restaurant relies heavily on the crowds that mill through the Tattered Cover, which makes for unpredictable surges in business and an unusually diverse clientele looking for everything from burgers to salmon with orange couscous.

We had both on our first visit. The burger ($6.25) had been cooked medium, which was fine except that I'd never been asked how I wanted it done. The meat was decent and the bun fresh--all the baked goods come from Bobby Dazzler--but the roasted peppers and caramelized onions inside were as warm as the walls of a refrigerator. At some point, the grilled salmon ($9.75) had gotten too warm; the fish was overdone and dried out. The accompanying scoop of orange couscous would have been delicious if it hadn't been soaked with a lemon vinaigrette that tasted just like a fresh-squeezed lemon (drowning out any taste of orange) and topped with a lovely golden arch of hair garnish. Mmmm. I would have told my waitress about it, but she disappeared after delivering the entrees and didn't return until she dropped off the bill--never asking whether we wanted coffee, dessert or more hair.

The service was a little better on my second visit--again for lunch--and this time the food came with the more standard garnishes. When it came, that is. A hunk of bread arrived ten seconds after I sat down, but the pumpkin soup ($3.50) took forever and wasn't worth the wait. This soup was awful, nearly flavorless but for the heady taste of chicken stock--and not good chicken stock, either. Although I could see the pumpkin (the soup was thick and orange), I couldn't taste it. But, boy, could I taste the anchovies in the Caesar salad ($2.75 for a half). The waitress had asked whether I wanted the little fishies on top or mixed in; I asked for them on top. They came mixed in, which the waitress apologized for, explaining, "He must have mixed them in because he was in such a hurry." I'm sure "he" was in such a hurry because I had been waiting for my salad for twenty-five minutes after I'd asked the waitress to put my soup in a container so I could take it home and put some pumpkin in it. Twenty-five minutes is a long time. I might not have noticed how long, except that I was also waiting for my wine to make an appearance. The salad and wine arrived simultaneously, and I immediately regretted my wine choice, because it didn't go with a fish course. Not, of course, that I'd known I would be eating a fish course. Don't get me wrong: I like anchovies. I usually even ask for extra anchovies, because kitchens are afraid of the people who don't like anchovies. But there are Caesars with anchovies, and then there are salt licks. This was a salt lick.

When my sandwich showed up, late as usual, I breathed a sigh of relief: You can't really hurt a sandwich, I thought, especially not a simple one like grilled ham and Brie ($6.25) on Dijon rye bread. I was wrong. Each slice of bread was an inch thick and toasted to a crisp--biting into it was like chewing on glass. There was exactly one piece of ham inside and an uneven squish of Brie sort of coming out the side, as though the sandwich had stepped in it on the way out of the kitchen. I couldn't taste the Dijon until I saw a side of the mustard and put the thinnest smear on the bread; after that, I found myself eating a Dijon sandwich with a little ham and cheese. I put it aside and filled up on the overly large helping of fresh potato chips.

Needless to say, I was dying to come back for dinner. This time the staff had the great excuse of the computer system being down, which meant we were there for three hours instead of the two it took for lunch. This is not a three-hour-dinner place--no matter how lovely the setting, the food isn't appealing enough to linger over. One notable exception was the creamy corn-and-green-chile soup ($3.50), a well-balanced dish with a rich tone and a full-bodied pepper bite. Its complexity took us completely by surprise; had we been thinking, we would have just ordered more soup for the rest of our meal. Instead, we plowed through the mixed-greens salad ($3.25), which consisted of about a half-pound of lettuce slightly dampened by a teaspoonful of balsamic-and-roasted-garlic vinaigrette. We were a little suspicious of the mussels appetizer ($6.95) because the shellfish smelled and tasted so strong. Their fishy flavor permeated--nay, obliterated--the shallots, diced tomatoes and Tabernash Weiss beer in the broth. But once I realized the waiter wouldn't be coming back with our entrees for at least another half-hour, I slurped the broth down anyway, using an empty mussel shell as a spoon. We certainly didn't find much sustenance in the appetizer of grilled polenta ($4.50), which looked like it had been dusted with black talcum powder (it wasn't black pepper; we checked)--a sure sign that the grill needed to be cleaned.

On the other hand, the grilled scallops with fettucine ($14.50) looked like they'd never touched a grill at all. The fettucine was undercooked, too, and arrived in a big mound topped by those four barely cooked scallops, four blobs of gorgonzola and a thin, pasty tomato sauce that had been described as "fennel, tomato and herbs in a gorgonzola, garlic and wine broth." Not even close. We'd had some hopes for the roast duck ($16.95), but the meat tasted like bland beef and the sauce tasted like the meat, with none of the zest of the zinfandel it was purported to contain. That was a big disappointment, because even though the wine lends itself readily to cooking, it's not used in most kitchens.

Wines are obviously important to the Fourth Story, as evidenced by the list assembled by manager Chris Golub. Twenty wines--a generous, and rare, number--are available by the glass, and the roster is well-priced and nicely chosen, as is the after-dinner selection. We skipped the drinks in favor of two desserts: the "Fourth Story," a slice of four-layer chocolate cake ($3.75), and a combination of almond pound cake and fresh berries ($3.50). At least these weren't write-offs; both were perfectly adequate, if average.

Although it's tempting to judge the Fourth Story by its cover, man does not live by books alone. And if the food doesn't improve here, I'd rather eat my words.

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