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Bite Me

Get a 'Cue

Garages, gas stations, former motels and strip malls -- I've seen barbecue joints survive and thrive in the strangest locations. We're living in a fortunate time in the history of barbecue, a day when the generational knowledge and talents of the world's great pit men are finally starting to filter beyond the borders of the traditional Barbecue Belt.

The reverend Gene Washington, owner of Blest Bar-B-Que of the Rockies, was part of this barbecue diaspora. He learned his skills from his parents, with Mom bringing the heat of Texas barbecue and Dad the smoke of Oklahoma backyard grills. Washington began cooking for his parishioners on weekends -- doing all those racks and chickens that were so noticeably missing from my own brief and grim religious upbringing -- and eventually expanded his operations to include serving on weekdays in a spot on Prince Street in Littleton.

And the reverend was good. He had the history, the smarts and the instincts of a champion pit man, and they showed in everything he did. But now it's time to say a benediction for Blest, which had to close its doors when too many people failed to walk through them.

As penance, you sinners can all go eat Riblets.

Frog prince:Although I have no good explanation for why I developed such an atrocious obsession with barbecue, I do know where I got my hunger for French food: the kitchens. During my jungle years in the mid-'90s, I worked on line after line after line pumping out food that was a backlash to the plain, simple purity of classical French cuisine. I did fusion. I did California-influenced pan-oceanic. I did all manner of flailing Indo-Euro-Asiana, replete with all the vertical geometries and compound oils so hot in that day and age.

But when my work was done? I ate tarragon chicken, veal cheeks in sauce gribiche, stewed flank steak with root vegetables that otherwise would have been turned into nothing more useful than sculpted garnishes, and mountains of mussels in simple beurre blanc sauces kicked up with mustard or curry or precious threads of saffron. I was working for French, Austrian, Alsatian and Swiss chefs who hated everything about what they were being forced to do with their menus, who cursed every customer through the door and only served their sushi-fied fish plates and hideously sculpted and tortured entrees because it was that or unemployment. And when the last cover was cleared from the dining room and these guys were left alone with their ranges and the house supplies, they'd immediately fall back on la cuisine grand-mère and whip up the most wonderful staff dinners I've ever tasted.

What they were cooking was bistro cuisine -- ultra-classic and as pure a translation of real French cooking as you could find. It would be a few years before this food would make it out of the galleys and into the American food consciousness, but when it did? There was no one better qualified to cook it than I was.

Okay, so there wereguys more qualified than me. There were plenty of real Frogs out there still doing their thing. But I saw the world across the pass rails of the restaurants where I worked, and to me, this food seemed like a revolution.

Flash forward a bit, and now there are French restaurants all over the place -- haute French, low French, French farmhouse and bistro and brasserie. As it always seems to, the canon of French technique and recipes has survived virtually unchanged, despite all the attempts at fusion and deconstruction by smart-ass galley artisans and showboating knuckleheads too clever by half. Which is great, because we need more places where the food comes first -- before the lighting plan, before the altar of the open kitchen, before the arrangement of tables -- and where the chef's name gets billing above that of the guy who painted the walls.

Which is why I'm excited to hear that Marco Colantonio has just picked up two young, serious, classically trained heavyweights for Steak au Poivre, his Creeker bistro that's taking over the Manhattan Grill space at 231 Milwaukee Street. The gentlemen in question? Yoann Lardeux, who recently left his gig as exec at Le Central and more or less fell into Colantonio's lap, and Tobias Burkhalter, Lardeux's sous chef, who came tumbling right along after. (As of now, the spaces in Le Central's line are being filled by Lardeux's other sous, Mathias Rouvray, and owner Robert Tournier, but new blood and reinforcements -- French, of course -- are expected shortly). Both Lardeux and Burkhalter are highly pedigreed, with European educations and constellations of Michelin stars on their resumés; in addition to being excellent cooks (as evidenced by their work at Le Central), they also have backgrounds in pastry, baking and charcuterie.

Better still, they're workhorses. When Colantonio said he wasn't planning to offer brunch at Steak au Poivre, the chefs wanted to know why. When they thought his menu was too small, they said they'd be happy to take on the extra work of bulking it out.

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