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Easy Does It

Chef Michael Degenhart brings a Zen-like clarity to Rue Cler's french cuisine.

For a beginning chef, the scariest unknown isn't whether you can get a job (particularly not in this market). No, when you're starting a culinary career, your worst fear is who will be your first boss.

Horror stories abound about head chefs -- screaming chefs, hard-to-please chefs, pot-throwing chefs, fit-throwing chefs. In my own decade of restaurant experience, I worked for an alcoholic chef who periodically ran off the line so he could throw up and who cooked with a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth (he removed it only to throw up); a German chef who yelled swear words at the top of his lungs whenever things got busy and who stuck his fingers in the peon chefs' food and then, unfailingly, announced, "Zis iz ze vurst sheet I've tested in my lahf"; a French chef who thought every female employee would be a good nocturnal replacement for his wife, who happened to be the general manager; and a cokehead chef who was so jiggy he was always trying to add one more thing to the plate as the server was on her way out to the table, and who'd clap his hands and yell, "Okay, okay, okay, here we go, here we go, here we go" about every twelve seconds.

Okay, here we go: Before I collect a slew of protest letters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Chefs or some other wingnut group, let me state for the record that, of course, not all chefs are like these. Still, there are quite a few culinary loose cannons in the business, and as mild-mannered as they might seem during an interview, you never know how they'll react to the ultra-stressful situation of a dining room full of people on a night when three kitchen workers call in sick and Shamrock delivers forty pounds of endive instead of steaks. Have you ever seen a grown European man drive a foot-long knife through a cutting board?

Easy street: Rue Cler serves up Michael Degenhart's straightahead cuisine.
Q Crutchfield
Easy street: Rue Cler serves up Michael Degenhart's straightahead cuisine.

About ten minutes into a conversation with the soft-spoken, even-toned Michael Degenhart, chef and co-owner of Rue Cler, it's hard to imagine he could ever be one of those Bad Bosses. And the truth is, in a town where rumors run rampant and the behind-the-dining-room-doors scene is very much chef-eat-chef, Degenhart is known as one of the more mellow kitchen leaders. "I'm not going to say that I've never made anyone cry," he says. "But I've never been one to yell and scream or purposely make someone feel like garbage because I was stressed out."

About twenty minutes into a conversation with Degenhart, it's hard to imagine that he could ever be stressed out. He sounds like chef Zen. And interestingly, his food comes out the same way: competent, soothing, calm. And above all, delicious.

The former top toque -- for ten years -- at Tante Louise, Degenhart became known for his consistency, his judicious use of ingredients (particularly seasonings), and his smooth savvy with difficult classics. He's clearly carried those skills over to his new venture, which he opened this past October with David Nomenson, also part owner of the Cherry Tomato. The pair met through a local seafood purveyor and found they shared an easygoing style and similar culinary outlook. "If you're going to have a partner or work that closely with someone, it's so important to be matched with a person whose goals are the same," Degenhart says.

Degenhart learned that working with his former boss, Corky Douglass, at Tante Louise. The two were well-suited, and the breakup was "very, very amicable," says Degenhart. Douglass agrees: "Michael came to me and said, 'This is where I need to go now,' and I support him 100 percent."

Where Degenhart needed to go was away from the more stringent rules of French cooking and into a "world view," as he calls it. "There are so many exciting ingredients out there and available," Degenhart enthuses. "So I wanted to move more toward the contemporary -- keeping my French basis, of course, but really embracing what's out there and going with it."

Degenhart, a native of Greeley, has been going with the flow -- both in food and philosophy -- since his college days at the University of Colorado. While he was studying French and existential philosophy there, he worked part-time at a Boulder restaurant that had a chef he respected. "Working with someone who is enthusiastic about food and conveys that is so magical," Degenhart says. "It's infectious." He caught the bug himself and hasn't managed to shake it during a nearly two-decade-long pursuit of culinary harmony. "I like simple, bold flavors," he explains. "And I like to play with them to see what will marry well taste-wise, what will meld without losing its whole identity."

The question now is whether Rue Cler can meld into its tony, boomer-laden neighborhood without losing its identity. Romenson had already chosen this Crestmoor/Hilltop location for an eatery before he and Degenhart hooked up, and the menu has an awful lot of character for a neighborhood that looks like it likes its food overpriced and obvious. But the two are aware of the incongruities, and they've endeavored to erase the white-bread feeling of the old strip mall that houses the restaurant with a decor that includes warm, simple colors, low lighting and blue velvet stools. Now all that's needed to shift a diner's focus from the vagaries of overdevelopment to the specifics of fine dining are some lacy, French-style curtains halfway up the windows to block out passing headlights and the view of cookie-cutter townhouses across the parking lot.

Degenhart's food certainly deserves our full attention. The menu is still in transition -- Degenhart expects to revamp it seasonally -- and he's playing like a very competent kid in a candy store, rediscovering flavors that he was unable to fully explore at the French-themed Tante Louise. Consider the complexities of his cornmeal-crusted oysters ($8.95), with the bivalves dripping sea juices inside crackly, chile-powered cornmeal shells that came drizzled with sweet-and-sour balsamic syrup and mustard-tinged wilted spinach. Another starter, the grilled gulf shrimp ($8.95), brought lightly charred crustaceans deeply -- and inexplicably, but pleasantly -- permeated with the anise taste of fresh basil, lounging on a bed of lemon-tart, mascarpone-enriched risotto. Basil also played an important role in the Caesar-style salad ($5.96), with the fresh herb adding a sweet element to the salty anchovy vinaigrette that coated the crunchy romaine hearts. A scattering of garlic-kissed bread crumbles and plenty of fresh parmesan made this one of the best variations on a Caesar that I've tasted. Thankfully, there wasn't a shred of grilled chicken in sight.

Until we got to the entrees, that is, and Mary Clark's chicken Asiago ($15.95). The recipe was created by Clark, now co-owner of the Bluepoint Bakery, but head chef at Tante Louise when Degenhart came on board; it calls for strips of moist bird to be coated with Asiago -- a sharply flavored grana cheese -- before being sautéed, then combined with fettuccine tossed in a rich, musky sauce made from portabellos. More star-quality sauce came on the semolina-crusted rainbow trout ($15.95). The moist fish had been pan-roasted and draped with an intense, not-too-rich rosemary-flecked Gorgonzola sauce that added an earthy element to the grilled corn, leek and shiitake hash that came on the side.

A second visit found us oohing and aahing over two appetizers that sounded richer than they turned out to be: succulent sea scallops wrapped in smoked salmon ($8.95) and crispy-edged veal sweetbreads ($8.95). The two scallops had been pan-seared, then enlivened by a warm relish of tomatoes and capers; the sweetbread medallions were fricasseed with portabellos and made more decadent with black-truffle oil. But while deep, buttery flavors were evident in both dishes, the straightforward preparations let the main components speak for themselves.

The monkfish ($17.95) arrived wrapped in prosciutto and braised in vermouth; a slightly wilted (on purpose) salad of frisee, fennel and frico -- fun, fun, fun! -- gave the dish extra oomph. The only flaw was the monkfish itself: This simply wasn't a very good piece of the often-great, oily, supple-textured fish. But the evening's special, beef tenderloin ($20.95), was superb. The fat slab of well-grilled, supple-textured meat came with a side of textbook-perfect garlic mashed potatoes and fresh grilled asparagus hardly thicker than strands of yarn; the combination was simple and striking.

Degenhart's display of Zen and the art of caloric maintenance continued through dessert. Some of these confections ($5.50 each) are made by Gerald Shorey, who owns a bakery on Gaylord Street (see Mouthing Off), and some are made in-house, but all of them were delicious and uncluttered, with no useless fruit goo gluing up the plates. The apple pie with vanilla gelato was a marvelous twist on an American standby; the crème brûlée had the perfect amount of vanilla and an ideal custard consistency; and the lemon meringue tart was enough to make lemon lovers weep with joy.

Does the food in a restaurant reflect the temperament of the chef? Rue Cler is proof positive -- very positive, I'd say, after two almost flawless meals there. In fact, zis is some of ze best food I've tested in my lahf.

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