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Stress for Excess

Reservations are required, however. A return visit was postponed until I could secure one--and then some bug in the reservation system canceled out the Friday-night spot I'd claimed a week earlier (under an alias, of course). Wisely, the restaurant leaves some room for walk-ins, and we lucked out with a window table.

Our second stroke of luck: a wisecracking waiter who was as good at giving dish as he was at performing more official duties. He deftly steered us away from dishes he knew wouldn't work, and perhaps as a result, this meal turned out much, much better than the first. So instead of ordering the soft lobster tacos ($10)--"not soft anymore," our waiter warned--or the "assortment of goodies" antipasti platter ($10)--"not full of goodies," he confessed--we enjoyed a marvelous wild mushroom and Asiago cheese tart ($7). The ratatouille of fall vegetables wrapped in filo dough and served with tapenade and lemon-basil vinaigrette ($7) was fine if you divided the dish in half. Although the little triangular pastry could have used more veggies, it was still delish with the vinaigrette, and the kalamata-packed tapenade was intensely tangy. But the tapenade overpowered the ratatouille, and there wasn't anything else to eat it with, like a cracker. Just more of those rosemary-speckled dough balls, this time blessedly free from an exterior coat of flour.

Our server was so intent on steering us correctly that there was confusion over one of our entrees, and we had to wait for the confit of duck served with caramelized-onion hashbrowns, toasted walnut jus and duck-liver páte ($22). In the meantime, we dug into penne rigate with braised wild boar and Asiago cheese ($12). Although most wild boars, close relatives of domesticated hogs, come from farms these days, their red meat still has enough of that gamey flavor to set it apart--and the shredded boar in this ragout was well-served by flawless penne and a rich, wine-flavored, stew-style sauce. But the dish didn't need Asiago at all, much less the abundance that covered the bowl. The Asiago, the most pungent of the grana cheeses, wasn't easy to avoid, and it crushed the rest of the flavors. The pan-roasted bone-in beef tenderloin with portabellos, wilted spinach, roasted new potatoes and brandy foie gras butter sauce ($26) boasted another prize piece of meat. The bone-in tenderloin was exquisite, pan-roasted into a soft, wet lump of flesh. But if there was foie gras in the butter sauce, I couldn't find it--and I'm a confirmed foie gras fanatic. The roasted new potatoes, portabellos and wilted spinach were impeccable, though.

When the duck finally arrived, it was accompanied by those same new potatoes rather than the caramelized-onion hashbrowns. But that wasn't the only thing apparently lost in the translation. We'd been very interested in seeing this dish, since our waiter had tried to tell us that the French word "confit" means "with fat." In fact, confiture is a jam, and the root is confire, "to preserve." For confit du canard, a duck is stewed in its own juices (fat) and then stored in its fat. Our duck didn't appear to have gone through anything resembling that process. Nor did we buy that the promised duck-liver páte had been put on top of the leg and thigh, then melted over and into it. "David Steinmann's duck-liver páte is considered by some to be the best in the city," our waiter said. Too bad we didn't get to taste it for ourselves. Still, the delectable duck was incredible. It tasted like old-fashioned deep-fried chicken. With fat, indeed.

Given the duck's delayed appearance, we were several hours into the evening when the desserts arrived. The chocolate espresso torte ($6) was a lovely, bittersweet thing. But the pear-passion fruit sorbet ($5) was another case of dress for excess. Why not just pear or just passion fruit, since the former is fine on its own and the latter leaves no room for the pear?

Sure, give credit to Steinman for trying. But it's high time for him to quit trying so hard.

The Fourth Story at the Tattered Cover, 2955 East First Avenue, 303-322-1824. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

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