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Table for None

La Brasserie Café makes a mess out of French-Swiss cuisine.

Welcome to the Hotel California, restaurant-style: You can order anytime you like, but you can never eat.

It wasn't always this way at Denver's former Hotel Paris, brought back from the dead a decade ago as the trendsetting La Coupole. But that restaurant closed mysteriously one day this past spring, with a notice on the door telling employees they wouldn't be working there that day...or ever again. And soon after, the elegant space was reincarnated as La Brasserie Café, where over the past two weeks I've spent a total of six and a half hours and several hundred bucks on two of the worst meals imaginable. The service was so slow that it would have been faster to fly to France and slay my own meat, hand-pick my own vegetables, cook up my own dishes and serve everything to myself. And don't think I didn't consider it -- I know the food would have been better.

My first clue that something was amiss came as we walked in the door for the first dinner. A server was at the bar with her back to the door, and she turned suddenly and jumped about ten feet in the air. "Oh, you scared me," she said. "I wasn't expecting anyone to be there." This was at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. We had made a reservation. Not that it was recorded anywhere, but that shouldn't have mattered: Only one other table was seated in the newly pink dining room, although eventually this crowd would grow to include another table of two and three of six each.

The pause that depresses: Slow service is a real pain in La Brasserie.
Q Crutchfield
The pause that depresses: Slow service is a real pain in La Brasserie.

Our server immediately confessed that it was her first night -- she needed us to point out everything on the menu, which it appeared she'd never so much as glanced at -- so we were prepared for some rough going. We were not prepared, however, for an hour-long wait before our first dish arrived. By then, we'd already eaten one loaf's worth of mediocre French bread and asked for a second, which was delivered still slightly frozen in the center, even though our server had repeatedly assured us that the bread's appearance was delayed because the kitchen was warming it up. And we needed that bread, because when the terrine de campagne maison ($5.65) finally showed up, it lacked any croutons on which to spread it. But the country-style pâté did have some cute carrot, onion and cucumber pickles on the side, and while it was a little heavier on the fat than is customary, it had a pleasant texture and a rich flavor. In fact, the starter would prove to be the highlight of two La Brasserie meals, although we couldn't have predicted that at the time.

First we had to dip our spoons under a topping of not enough melted cheese and burnt-edge bread to taste the soupe à l'oignon gratinée ($4.80). The predominant flavor was raw garlic, and the onions in the salty broth weren't much past raw, either. This was not the classic French dish we'd anticipated, but we were so hungry that we managed to eat most of it (and still more mediocre bread) while we waited another twenty minutes for the salade landaise ($6.90 for a small). The garden-variety greens were coated in an orange-flavored dressing and accessorized by mandarin sections and slices of allegedly smoked duck. But we had to cry foul over this bird: There was nothing smoky about it, and the duck had the dry, chewy texture of flesh roasted days before and left in the walk-in until needed.

Still, it was food, and we picked at the salad while we waited another twenty minutes for the entrees. Meanwhile, we feasted our eyes on the disastrous goings-on at the three six-top tables, which not only were having similar troubles getting their food, but apparently were then getting the wrong food, because they kept sending things back. I sympathized when I took one look at my monkfish ($18.50). The fish obviously had been frozen, and not well, because the texture was all wrong for monkfish and it had that funky fish smell. The orange sauce on top was supposed to be spicy, but it wasn't, and it was supposed to contain basil, but it didn't. In comparison, the side of overdone haricots verts was a gourmet treat. The monkfish also came with a whoop-de-do of potatoes duchesse that made it seem like the spuds had been piped out onto the plate, but underneath that top swirl was a blob of mashed potatoes too chunky to have fit through any pastry bag tip. And then there was the thing that looked like some souvenir of Pompeii, but turned out to be a wedge of onion gratin.

We couldn't complain too much about the house specialty, since we cooked it ourselves. The idea here is that the kitchen briefly sears the meat, then your server plops it down in the center of a heated cooking stone from the Alps so that you can cook everything just the way you want it. But we didn't get what we wanted from the start: Although we had ordered a mixture of meats (beef tenderloin, chicken and buffalo), we wound up with the eight-ounce beef tenderloin ($20.50) instead. Each time we cut a slice off the tenderloin, the rest kept cooking, and the whole procedure wound up a lot less interesting and a lot more work than we'd expected. The beef was served with "master butter" -- herbs in a butter ball -- and two sauces, one of which was a semi-demi-glace, the other so salty but otherwise bland that it was unclassifiable.

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