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Z Whiz

This bistro is a beauty.

That was the best cassoulet I've ever had. Z Cuisine's is the second-best, and the more authentic. This version combines a leg of duck confit on the bone, mild sausage (bratwurst some nights, other styles other nights, all fresh and locally produced), stiff white beans, bitter greens and whole cippolini onions gone soft as roasted garlic cloves, all in a thin, oily, almost-but-not-quite-broken tomato broth, muscled up with stock and deeply, richly flavored with the mingled essences of each individual ingredient. It shows restraint born of long practice, an expert's sense of balance, a love of good stock, good product and classical technique. And one bite will remind even the most recalcitrant epicure why the French deserve their reputation as the undisputed masters of cuisine both haute and basse, because there is nothing more comforting, nothing more filling or charming, than a real cassoulet expertly done.

The cassoulet usually appears on the chalkboard that serves as Z Cuisine's menu, a small slate that lists the night's dishes, written out longhand and mashed together so that the change in colored chalk is the only way to tell where one ends and the next begins, then 86'd with a slash as they run out -- but never erased, because there's no better tease than knowing what you could have eaten if you'd only arrived earlier. The roast pork on the bone? Sold out on a Friday night before seven, before the rush even gets going. On a Saturday, no cassoulet, no celeri soup with crème fraîche. The fish is gone, too, but I get the last of the watermelon radish -- fanned, lovely slices of pink and white dressed with dots of mellow mustard -- on the house assiette de campagnard. Dupays had picked up the radishes just that morning at the Boulder farmers' market, and already they're gone.

The assiette is a wonder, a small masterpiece of garde-manger work and cheese-mongery, an overwhelmingly generous combination of locally sourced ingredients and house-made charcuterie. If it were a painting, it would be called "Still Life With Cornichons" and hung in some forgotten corner of the Louvre; as my dinner, it's as if someone called for takeout from some Left Bank bistro and had this Fed-Exed right over. The plate includes five cheeses (a French cow's-milk Camembert oozing from its rind, a local goat Camembert, a chèvre made in-house and topped with a dark, astringent tapenade, a true Muenster, and a hard Basque cheese that tastes of salt and ash and the smell of damp wool); a sweet, red jam that I can't identify; a scattering of olives, both green and black, that have to be chewed off the pit; a pile of acidic cornichons; a thick, dense slab of duck rillette still capped in white fat and tasting of earthy, concentrated, slightly gamey dark meat; and a pâté of duck and pork and wild mushrooms and figs (I think) and maybe olives, too, that falls to pieces at the touch of a fork and that I eat, bit by bit, folded into pieces of a baguette that comes to the table in a paper bag. I eat the cornichons and paper-thin slices of radish with my fingers. I spread the mystery jam (or chutney or whatever) on everything, then find a pile of sweet caramelized onions hiding under a corner of the delicious rillette and eat those, too. I wash everything down with two glasses of Beaujolais ordered off a second chalkboard that shows the nightly by-the-glass wine specials, because the actual wine list (with all its appellations and Château de Blah-Blahs) defeats my thoroughly schoolboy French-language skills.

Left Bank on it: Z Cuisine is small but mighty.
Mark Manger
Left Bank on it: Z Cuisine is small but mighty.

Location Info

Map

Z Cuisine

2239 W. 30th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Northwest Denver

Details

2239 West 30th Avenue, 303-477-1111. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday- Saturday

Cassoulet: $16
Beet carpaccio: $8.50
Crepes: $6
Soup: $6
Croque Parisienne: $9.50
Assiette: $15
Tarte tatin: $6

I sit alone in a window seat, lit by a single tea light, and pretend to read my battered copy of Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, because it's something I've always wanted to do -- to sit in a Parisian bistro drinking young Beaujolais, eating well and feeling entirely at home while I read and reread the memoir of that guy who wrote (and illustrated) the children's book The Little Prince but who also happened to be a pilot for the Latécoère Company, predecessor of Aéropostale, and spent a lifetime delivering the mails across Spain and North Africa.

By the time I'm done, closing time has come and long since gone, but there's no letup in the dining room. The bar is full, and Dupays has once again come down to join the fun, speaking of travel and food and helping the drinkers navigate their way through the best bottles on the wine list. Across from me, an older man in glasses, ill-fitting pants and argyle socks pulled all the way up his thin calves is trying to impress his companion by speaking French, but he's doing it so poorly, he sounds like a cat trying to sing "Frère Jacques." At the front of the room, a six-top clears out and the hostess seats a late-arriving two-top. Then another as I'm getting up to go. Then another three-top that comes through the door just as I walk out.

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