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THE ROYAL TREATMENT

We screeched to a halt in front of the Brown Palace Hotel in our luxury Toyota, two minutes late because the first movie we'd seen in a theater in sixteen months--yes, that's how old our kid is; how'd you guess?--had 27 previews, 5 more than we'd counted on when we made our reservations. We were headed for the Palace Arms, the grand dame of fine dining in Denver, and didn't want to keep the old girl waiting. Resplendent in our Sunday best--my husband in a David Letterman look of navy double-breasted suit-coat atop beige Dockers, I in an outfit purchased in my maternity days, with the belt tied a little tighter than back then (hey, I'm not going to chuck a hundred-dollar dress)--we stepped out of the car. The parking valet didn't blink when a cascade of toddler toys spilled from their resting place on the floor next to the cat-hair-covered seat and out onto the pavement. As I picked cat hairs from my black outfit, the valet gingerly scooped up the toys--some of them were lollipop-sticky; it's a good thing he wore gloves--and asked, "Will you be needing these this evening?"

I wonder if he suspected we weren't Brown Palace regulars.
But it turned out it didn't matter, because the century-old Brown and its restaurants--the Mobil Travel Guide's four-star-rated Palace Arms, the classically casual Ship Tavern and the breakfast-lunch-and-blowout-Sunday-brunch Ellyngton's--treats everyone with the utmost snooty-free respect. And after three straight weeks of wanting to karate-chop fellow Christmas shoppers and clinging salespeople, it was wonderful to be ushered into the welcoming Palace Arms.

Against the backdrop of Napoleonic knick-knacks, booths of red leather (real--I smelled it when the waiter wasn't looking), and a crowd made up of old-money types and Asian businessmen, our holiday stress melted away like a cheap bayberry candle. The lighting--twinkling from seasonal decorations--was dim enough to hide wrinkles, and the staff was doing its best Jeeves impression, albeit an updated Jeeves impression. Even the time-honored tradition of bringing a phone to the table with a "Call for you, sir," has evolved: Rather than an elegant, old-fashioned model, we were confronted by a streamlined cordless with nasty blinking eyes.

With the help of Swiss transplant Rene H. Weder, the kitchen has also rung out the old, Escoffier-heavy menu and rung in the new, "fusion" style of mixing and matching international cuisines and lighter ingredients. Although we still found some of the classics (most dubbed "Memories of Menus Past") and even ordered a few, relics such as beef Wellington are now keeping company with seared pheasant breast with an achiote crust and basmati rice cake. This is the Palace Arms, though, so nothing too shocking surfaced, and even the more adventurous compositions erred on the side of good taste.

And they tasted good, too. The escargot phyllo purse ($7.75) looked more like a miniature suitcase that someone had to sit on in order to squeeze in all those steamy snails; pooled around the package was a fennel-scented, goat-cheese-thickened cream sauce studded with--here's the fun part--bits of fried horseradish root and horseradish sprouts for a wicked bite. As a counterpoint to that risky little appetizer, we'd ordered the more traditional smoked duck and goose liver terrine ($7.50), our third choice behind the Petrossian Beluga caviar with cornmeal and chive blinis (the current market value is $36 for about a tablespoon of fish eggs). The terrine was more filling, anyway, and came with a wonderful sweet-and-sour swirl of cherry chutney thinned at the edges by a character-filled port-wine syrup.

At a meal like this it's easy to get carried away, so we exhibited some moderation and split a hearts of romaine "California" salad ($5.75). The romaine leaves were so pristine that a diamond necklace draped across them would not have looked out of place; instead, they had been adorned with sliced melon and brushed with a roasted balsamic vinaigrette. We thought we were squelching further excess by ordering two of the consommes rather than a bisque. But the shellfish consomme ($4.75) housed heavenly lobster medallions and salmon roe (along with capers that had all the life rinsed and squeezed out of them); the smoked duck version ($4.75) came packed with venison sweetbreads and concentrated flavor. Both soups were served with plenty of pomp and circumstance, with the broth poured from silver boats into garnished bowls.

The soups were so good we could forget the Melba toast that had been waiting on the table. Although Melba toast was created by Escoffier--who was so inspired by an opera singer named Melba that he also invented that cornstarchy raspberry-currant jelly sauce for peaches--that doesn't mean the Brown has to serve the stuff. Intended as an accompaniment to soups and salads, melba toast is novel on first bite but quickly fades into why-on-earth-would-anyone-who's-not-teething-want-to-eat-this? territory. The Melba toast was a stodgy disappointment, and so was the fact that we had to pay $1.75 for a scoop of sorbet--you'd think that when a couple shells out $200 for dinner the palate-cleansers would be complimentary. But the peach concoction spiked with champagne was almost too tasty to be considered a real palate-cleanser, and the presentation was worth the additional price: The sorbet was served on a marvel of an ice ring in which several leaves had been frozen, and all that was served on a large piece of fern.

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