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Stress for Excess

I'm now at the point where I let food magazines--Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet--pile up in the corner, unopened. Because if I grab one and start digesting those stories about fabulous food in other cities, I bawl like a baby.

Read it and weep: In New York, Jean Georges is offering a lemony daurade (a type of sunfish or sea bream) served with a green-tomato marmalade, as well as a squab served with a slab of foie gras atop a corn pancake; down in Greenwich Village, Borgo Antico stuffs its roast goose with sweet Italian sausage, juniper berries and chestnuts. On the West Coast, Berkeley's Cafe Rouge makes its own prosciutto and pistachio-studded mortadella; the menu also includes an escabeche of grilled sculpin in a vinegary marinade. In downtown San Francisco, Rose's Cafe makes farinata, a delectable Italian chickpea-flour crépe, and focaccie stuffed with runny Teleme cheese and ham.

Okay, you're thinking, but those restaurants are in New York and San Francisco. Wait. At Lidia's in Kansas City, the menu includes air-dried beef salad with truffle oil, and in Minneapolis, La Belle Vie offers ravioli stuffed with roasted yellow turnips. In Cleveland--Cleveland, for God's sake--Lola's Michael Symon (last year's Food & Wine Best New Chef, an award no one in Denver ever wins) makes skillet-roasted duck breast with butternut squash dumplings, duck confit and grilled apples.

Here in Denver, well, you can always find green chile.
Given the staid state of food in this city, it's no surprise that diners flock to any restaurant that offers some innovation, even faux duck confit. And so on weekends, you can't get anywhere near the Fourth Story restaurant at the top of the Cherry Creek Tattered Cover. Even though chef David Steinmann's dishes sometimes suffer from a heavy hand and a lack of subtlety, at least they taste like something. And you've got to give Steinmann credit for trying.

Under chef Jess Roybal, the Fourth Story kitchen had executed an amazing turnaround. Roybal was a treasure: He took chances, and they usually worked; he loved big flavors, and his bold style was a perfect fit with the big, polished dining room. But Roybal's loss came literally as a bolt out of the blue--he was killed by lightning in the summer of 1997.

Steinmann, the former executive chef at Barolo Grill, had taken a few months off to do something else but missed the kitchen. So when the chef's spot at Fourth Story suddenly opened up, he was available to step in. He was stepping into some big shoes, though, and in attempting to fill them, he may have overstepped. Steinmann tries--too hard, perhaps. He needs to quit relying on excess as a way to impress. He should relax.

For example, his chicken and scallion soup with rice stick noodles ($5) was all uptight; it looked as though someone had tossed a raw onion and red-pepper salad on top of a broth that was on its way somewhere but never quite made it. And the crispy-fried escargot encrusted with garlic and herbs and served with sweet mascarpone, puff pastry and port-wine reduction ($9)--whoa, say that ten times fast--got so busy that the escargot were a sad afterthought. Frying the snails turned them into dry little biscuits that dotted what looked like upscale French toast, with the mascarpone melting into a sweet--too sweet--syrup. Beneath all that was a bed of frisee, which wasn't mentioned on the menu, or by the waiter.

If I'd known about the frisee foundation, I wouldn't have ordered the redundant frisee with Maytag blue cheese ($8). Instead, I was delivered another mess, with the beautiful Maytag blue cheese--so special and so tart it needs very little to set it off (see Mouthing Off)--drenched in fresh lemon juice, so much so that every time I ate a bite, my mouth puckered up. The lemon juice not only rendered me breathless, it rendered the cheese tasteless. And then there were the rosemary-flavored homemade rolls, so thick and doughy on the inside and heavily coated with flour on the outside that biting into one was like eating a dirt-covered Nerf ball.

Fortunately, the lunch entrees were a bit less overwrought than the starters. The oven-roasted Prince Edward Island mussels ($10), swimming in a gentle broth of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon and garlic, were just fine on their own--but the suggested pairing (for another $3) with dill-flecked pasta was overkill. The housemade roasted red pepper and goat cheese ravioli ($12) were dry around the edges, and the promised roasted garlic and Marsala cream sauce tasted like nothing more than cream. For once the kitchen had been too subtle.

For dessert we'd ordered a dish so out to impress that it sounded like a surefire failure: the cherry marzipan pie ($6). But it turned out to be a wonderful combination of sweet-and-sour cherries set off amazingly by the almond paste. The creme anglaise, on the other hand, seemed like someone's first attempt at a vanilla custard sauce, with its runny-pudding texture and cheap vanilla taste.

After a meal like that, you might wonder why the Fourth Story stays so popular. But ambitious food isn't the only draw here. The space is wonderful: Beyond those big windows is an expansive view of Cherry Creek that's almost magical at night; inside, the light is kept low, and the bookshelves and cozy nooks give the large dining room a genuine warmth and charm. You can buy the New York Times downstairs and enjoy it along with jazz at the Fourth Story's Sunday brunch. Throw in an extensive, well-priced, well-chosen wine list and excellent service, and who needs food?

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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