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"I'll take you anywhere you want to go," said my husband of seven years (as of that very day). "No review, no analyzing the food, no eavesdropping on conversations. We'll just relax. You pick the place."
I didn't need to give it a second thought: I wanted to eat at Tante Louise.
I'd been there before for numerous wine dinners, prestigious affairs that sell out fifteen minutes after they're announced--partly because Tante Louise pulls out bottles from 1958 instead of last year's overstock from the local wine merchants, and partly because of chef Michael Degenhart, who makes innovative yet reality-based dishes that always match the wines perfectly. In fact, it was Degenhart's way with a wine dinner--a pretty taxing proposition for a kitchen, since it has to put out a luscious six-course feast for forty while simultaneously maintaining the status quo in a packed dining room--that made me want to go back and see how Tante Louise handles a regular meal.
4900 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Region: East Denver
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Of course, Degenhart, who's been with Tante Louise for nine years and its head chef for five, could send out dog biscuits for the last course of a wine dinner and those schmoozy boozers (okay, not all of them, just the ones I end up sitting next to) would remark that baked horsemeat was the ideal choice with a 1986 Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse Les Menestaieres--that is, if they could get all that out without slurring their words. And if anyone does have trouble pronouncing anything wine-related at Tante Louise, they can always call upon Bob Mandeau, one of the few full-time sommeliers on staff in a Denver restaurant and that even rarer steward who isn't condescending, stuffy or a wine geek who thinks living on the edge is decanting for fewer than five minutes.
But as talented as Degenhart and Mandeau are, the real corkers at Tante Louise are the Corkys, as in William Corbin "Corky" Douglass II and William Corbin "Corky" Douglass III. "We're known as Corky Two and Corky Three around here," says Corky Three, who founded this restaurant in a snug little Victorian bungalow on East Colfax 24 years ago. "My father has been coming to the restaurant for dinner since the very beginning, and one night I said, 'Listen, Pop, I'm busy, so why don't you stand at the door and keep things going?' and I haven't been able to get rid of him since." So the two of them man the front of the house, exchanging pretend insults and generally keeping alive the younger Corky's philosophy of "making sure people feel like someone gives a damn."
At 85, Corky Two is one of those guys who makes everyone around him feel good--and he makes doing it look easy. He cusses often but judiciously, and he's a great kisser (don't ask how I know that, I just do). He also seems as though he'd like to call all ladies "toots" in a really nice, grandfatherly way but knows that in this day and age, he might get slapped. Corky Three inherited his father's warmth and engaging manner, and adds to that his forty-some years in the restaurant business. From dishwasher at the age of fifteen to fry cook to waiter to captain at the now-defunct Quorum--one of only a handful of Denver restaurants that offered traditional European service--Corky Three paid his dues and learned what worked and what didn't.
The poised Corky Three makes being diplomatic and charming look easy, too. I saw him carry on a conversation while simultaneously folding a napkin origami-style and then, with a flick of the wrist, scoop up a dime-sized piece of crumpled paper from the corner of a table and deposit it in his pocket. But you can't blame him for wanting to remove every blemish from Tante Louise's magnificent decor, which is his handiwork and without question the main reason for this restaurant's reputation as the city's most romantic.
"I love that we see people during their happiest moments," Corky Three says. "We had a couple in who were celebrating their two-week anniversary. And we are so fortunate that people want to do that here. I think there is only one ingredient necessary to making it in this business, and that is that you need to really love to serve people. For me, it's doing what your stomach says is right, and finding out what people want and need and showing them that you care."
Finding out often is as simple as asking, although a little intuition helps, too--and intuition that borders on the psychic is even better. We started looking under the table for hidden microphones after Corky Three asked us if we'd like to toast our anniversary with Tante Louise's customary complimentary glasses of champagne, and before he'd even exited the dining room, our waiter appeared with two just-poured glasses of champagne. Spooky. Then the waiter intuitively knew we needed some time to let the champagne take the edge off before he reappeared for our appetizer order.
And I guess it was just a coincidence that Tante Louise was offering foie gras that night. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most exquisite foods in existence, and I never pass up the opportunity to stuff my face with it. The roasted Hudson Valley (read: humane) foie gras appetizer ($11) featured three slices of the duck liver nestled in shiitakes, lovingly covered with thin blankets of goat's-milk cheddar, drizzled with pesto and then roasted. If I had any objection to this otherwise heavenly union, it was that the bacony-flavored roasted edges of the mushrooms were too strong for the delicate duck liver. Ah, but then I tend to quibble when it comes to foie gras.
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