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Kitchen Magician

Papillion is still flying high.

There aren't very many chefs who can take the night off and leave their restaurant in the hands of their employees -- at least, not without worrying that the next morning, the kitchen will look like a food warehouse exploded and the answering machine will be filled with forty messages from irate customers.

And even fewer chefs can disappear with confidence on a packed Saturday night.

But that's just what Radek Cerny does every week at his stylish Papillon Cafe the four-year-old restaurant that continues to be one of the city's best ("Moth Likely to Succeed," November 8, 1995). "Hey, I should be in a position finally where I can take some time to do something else besides being in the kitchen," says the Czech-born, French-trained Cerny. "At my age, I should be able to have a little bit of a life."

Credit Cerny's staff at Papillon and his other venture, the year-old Radex at Ninth Avenue and Lincoln, for making his time off possible. (Cerny also plans to open another eatery, Le Chantecler, sometime next month in Niwot; see Mouthing Off.) In fact, when we ate dinner there one recent weekend night, we didn't even miss Cerny. Our meal was absolutely perfect from start to finish, from our fifteen minutes in the bar -- we were early for our reservation -- to our prompt seating in a very cozy and romantic spot near the bar and away from the madding crowd that fills Papillon night after night, to the goodbyes from the cheerful valet who brought the car around.

Although the crowd is there to enjoy the Saturday-night fervor, it also appreciates the kitchen's savvy cooking. Although Cerny certainly laid the foundations there, the execution continues to astound, no matter who's cooking that day. Flawless food appeared at our table with precision -- partly because the kitchen knows how to time the courses and partly because we had one of the most detail-oriented servers around. She even whisked away the shell-discard bowl about thirty seconds after the last detritus had been tossed in so that my companion could eat the rest of his seafood dish without bumping his elbow.

Papillon has always been popular for seafood, but I had to start with my favorite foie gras ($14.95), a sumptuous preparation that involved pan-searing the duck liver and setting it on a honey-sweetened rhubarb coulis further sweetened by mango chunks and supplemented by slightly sour orange chips. We also sampled the unusual avocado carpaccio ($9.95), an innovative way to pair puréed avocado, which had been smoothed all around the bottom of the plate, carpaccio-fashion, with bits of roasted shrimp and diced red onion. All of this was meant to be spread upon one homemade beet chip and several potato chips made by slicing the spuds into thin sheets on a mandolin, but it would have tasted good smeared on anything.

We followed those starters with salads. The house version ($5.95) demonstrated Papillon's overall dedication to detail, offering a well-balanced array of field greens -- carefully chosen beet greens, arugula, mâche and frisee -- instead of the standard purveyor's mixed greens. Each fresh, fresh piece was very lightly coated with a heavenly Roquefort dressing. My companion hoovered through the Caesar ($5.95) so quickly that I was able only to run my finger through another superb dressing. His sheepish assessment: "It was excellent."

I managed to get a fork into his seafood fricassee ($19.95) the second it was set down. I'd had the Newburg-style sauce before, and I wasn't going to miss my chance to taste it again. It was just as sublime this time, a rich concoction napped with white sherry and ideal for the grilled seafood: to-die-for scallops and shrimp, plus half a lobster tail so soft and tender, it was like buttah. The only thing that rivaled it in texture was the accompanying chive-flecked whipped potatoes, another thing Papillon does exceptionally well. And then there was our other entree, the crispy veal sweetbreads ($19.95). These are going to show up on my autopsy report one day, but what a way to go: well-seared thymus glands, still satiny-centered, awash in an intensely mushroomy portabello sauce. They were sided by a double shot of Cerny's signature spuds: whipped potatoes inside a potato nest made from deep frying the grated vegetable in specially made baskets.

Dessert was merely a continuation of the skillfully prepared fare. It was hard to decide which was more opulent, the raspberry-and-chocolate mirroire ($5.95) or the chocolate-glazed, cream-filled Florentine puff pastry ($5.95). In fact, the choice was so difficult that we pondered it over a couple of glasses of Mumm's champagne, basking in the afterglow of a stunning meal.

So, Radek, go right ahead and take the night off. You've earned it.

The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.

 
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