By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
Every spring, Chinook Tavern celebrates white-asparagus season as long as the season lasts, getting only the best product overnighted from producers in Holland, Germany and France, using it in only the best ways. For ten years Chinook has been doing this, and just a whiff of the house's special white-asparagus menu was enough to send me scrambling to Cherry Creek.
The restaurant felt oh-so European, which precisely fit my mood. It was about three-quarters full of happy, pleasantly sated Creekers (a much more temperate crowd than the usually uptight, screeching Creekers at the neighborhood's trendier digs), with the last light of the evening slanting down across the luxe foxhole of a patio and streaming into the half-subterranean dining room. While we studied the menu, crusty, fist-sized rolls came to the table wrapped in purple linen like an offering, with good butter at room temperature -- not chilled and impossible to spread, one of my front-of-the-house pet peeves. Laura and I eschewed the wine bible, trading in our customary red-versus-white battle over the Jesus juice in favor of a couple of long pints from the bar. She ordered a hefeweisen with lemon served in one of those over-stretched pilsners that the Germans prefer, and, pissy EU isolationist that I am, I went with the only Irish stout on the menu.
Our server -- trailing a trainee who stood like a mute puppy at his heel the entire night -- was good. He was casual, opinionated, honest when engaged. "We have the best schnitzel you'll find outside of Austria," he insisted when Laura asked about the house specialty.
Mushroom strudel: $11.50
Sausage platter: $11.50
Shrimp cakes: $11.50
Jaeger schnitzel: $25.50
Wiener schnitzel: $24.75
Hangar steak: $20.95
"Really?" she asked. "I've had some pretty good schnitzels in Austria." Which was true. While her critic husband has never set foot on the Continent ("Ain't never been to no Paris, France" is how I usually put it when confronted by one of those well-traveled foodies who think their busy passports give them some sort of special knowledge, some insight into cuisine that I have been denied by my stubborn provincialism), she's been everywhere, so she would know if he was lying.
He remained unruffled, his voice half blustering game-show host, half amusement-park ride operator as he ran through a practiced "Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times and do not exit until it has come to a full stop" spiel, complete with rehearsed pauses and programmed jokes that we heard him repeat at each table under his care. But it worked for him, and his timing was excellent.
For a decade now, the Georg family -- brothers Clemens and Markus, who run the front and back of the house, respectively; father Manfred, who steers the ship; and mother Leise, who provides the art and runs the gallery next door -- have pursued their vision of a grown-up, serious restaurant. In all aspects of service and cuisine and the brute-force mechanics of putting three partial turns through the dining room on almost any given night, their Chinook Tavern gives an overwhelming impression of adept professionalism. There are no splinters here, no sharp corners. Everything about the place has been smoothly planed and polished, and if some of the dishes don't dazzle, they're never less than competent.
We ate an absolutely wonderful wild-mushroom strudel, fighting over forkfuls of what was essentially a croûte forestière just back from Manhattan -- shiitake and lowly button mushrooms sautéed together, ground into a rough chop, bound with Haystack Mountain goat cheese and gently herbed, then wrapped in crisp mille-feuille like a burrito, bias-cut and stood on end in a puddle of perfect Madeira reduction. Streaked with more goat cheese and lent a bit of muscle by an old-fashioned veal-bone demiglace, it was a great example of a classic being given a modern makeover. Alfred Portale be damned, I hate vertical food. And I hate button mushrooms -- those ugly, dull suburbanites of the fungal kingdom. But I loved this plate despite my ingrown, bitter and hard-earned prejudices. A good chef can do that to me. And Markus Georg -- a Culinary Institute of America-trained exec who went the pro's route with a long-term externship in Europe, cooking at the Michelin-starred Jörg Müller and thereby negating most of the damage done by culinary school -- is definitely a good chef.
Along with the strudel, we had a lovely slab of smoked trout with herbed chèvre, red onions shaved translucently thin, hard-boiled egg and capers served with grilled rounds of baguette. And brathähnchen -- half a chicken, the skin crisp and peppery over the buttery meat -- prepared à la minute, with a simple rosemary jus, fried slivers of potato (bratkartoffel in German, homefries to the likes of me) and unadorned haricots verts. We finished with crème brûlée done just so -- smooth custard, the easy sweetness of real vanilla beans, a torched-sugar crust. There was nothing weird in it, nothing freaky about it. It was just another classical recipe, perfectly executed by the kitchen.
And with that, we were done. It had been a wonderful meal, the food comforting and neighborhoody and straight bistro-with-a-little-b -- exactly what so many Francophiliac restaurateurs, in full retreat from fusion and world-food frottage, have attempted to create through force and advertising, but executed here through the easy sincerity of commitment. As a Continental European restaurant, Chinook is remarkably successful, with Markus closely following the cream-butter-stock-demi formula that gives all those dishes their unique sense of solidity and indefinable volupté. And unlike some of those juvenile flashes-in-the-pan that surround it -- places that try to fake, gimmick or cheap their way into significance -- Chinook doesn't need to try to be anything else.