By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Just another bistro.
You have no idea how much those three words piss me off. Just another bistro. How did the restaurant industry get so jaded that those three words would ever seem thinkable, much less appropriate?
While eating at The Kitchen (see review), I somehow stumbled blindly across one of those invisible borders of the spirit, a line that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed. It happened, I think, the moment I was handed the menu. A waiter -- dressed like all the others in a casual house livery of gray and soft black that made him almost disappear against the room's matching pallette -- appeared and offered me the instrument of my irrevocable passage. At first glance, the menu seemed innocuous. A little fish, a little fowl, red meat, moules of some exotic variety I didn't recognize. Just another bistro menu: I'd seen its like a hundred times before.
But when I sat down to write about the restaurant, those three words went off in my head like a command-detonated mine. I'd simply been to one bistro too many, seen the same tricks played once too often, finally taken one too many trips to the trough of pointless mediocrity, and I'd had enough.
It was like when you're sitting at a bar somewhere -- a quiet place, not too crowded -- and the guy a couple stools down gets up, feeds a dollar into the juke and plays Hotel California. That's fine, you like Hotel California as much as the next person (which is to say not much, but enough that you don't bleed from the ears), so you sit there, placidly rolling your longneck back and forth while the song plays and the other guy sits back down, calls for another boilermaker, and silently mouths every word.
Then the song ends, fades down into nothing, and what song follows it? Hotel California. Again. Maybe he punched it twice by mistake, you think.
The second play ends. The Wurlitzer clicks. And what comes up? Hotel fucking California. You shoot a sideways glance at the other guy and he's way down into it, eyes closed, head bobbing just a little with the music. There's some kind of connection there, obviously, some kind of dirty redneck back-story with the Eagles featured heavily on the soundtrack, and by the look of the guy, you guess that a woman's involved. A set of tail lights. Nasty heartache. We've all been there, and sometimes you gotta give a fella room to grieve.
The third play ends and that's his dollar. Quiet descends. Then you hear the scrape of his stool as he pushes back, another sweaty bill in his hand. Politely, you say something like, "Hey, buddy. That juke's got more than one song in her." He shuffles over, puts in his buck, and there it is: that same riff, Don Felder and Joe Walsh strangling their Telecasters. The next thing you know, you're halfway across the room, broken bottle in your fist, ready to kill. And no one's making the slightest move to stop you.
It was like that, only without the bar, the beer, the Eagles. The Kitchen was just one verse of Hotel California too many for me, but the explosion had been a long time coming.
Because I honestly believe that Denver has the chops -- the muscle, the passion, the pool of available and sometimes vastly underappreciated talent -- to be a nationally recognized food city; my field of comparison includes every restaurant in the United States. New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and everything in between -- it's all fair game. This is the Bigs, and if you want to play on this level -- even if you're in Boulder, the slightly brain-damaged hippie cousin of Denver's somewhat more respectable scene -- you play against everyone.
I looked over an old menu for Lutece, former home of André Soltner, under whom Kimbal Musk trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York. I had another from Les Halles, as well as a sample menu from the French Laundry. I compared them with the Kitchen's first sample menu -- a smattering of its spring board of fare -- and I could see immediately where things went wrong. At Les Halles: escargots, frisée salad aux lardons, nine kinds of mussels, choucroute garnie, hanger steak in a shallot reduction, fish and chips, steak frites. At the French Laundry: salmon tartare and crème fraîche in a pastry coronet, marinated figs and roasted fennel with a fennel vinaigrette, sweet onion mousse, pickled egg and truffles, salmon chops in brown butter, "bacon and eggs" with tête de cochon, poached quail's egg and sauce gribiche (a mustard-and-vinegar sauce most often served with calf's head, but here servicing a pig).
Then, at Lutece: Sautéed foie gras with bitter chocolate and orange marmalade; white bean soup with chorizo, calamari, mussels, clams and parmesan; monkfish with green-curry-infused artichoke broth, baby carrots and sunchokes; an Angus sirloin with glazed figs and ginger bordelaise. Keep in mind that this was a recent Lutece menu -- one dating from just before the restaurant closed after losing prestige and business to places like Les Halles. It had once been famous for its lobster minute, its onion tarts and côte de boeuf.No one cried too much over the loss of striped bass with vanilla jus.