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Like any American chef (current or former), I've had a love/hate relationship with France for a long time. Before I knew enough to know better, I hated the country for producing some of the white-toqued, chain-smoking, red-faced bastards who trained me -- guys who bigfooted their way through the kitchen, who thought the appropriate punishment for almost any transgression was a hot spatula across the back of the hand or neck. I hated the fuckers for their snobbery, for their presumption of infallibility. And I hated their food because it was just so... right.
1011 Walnut St.
Boulder, CO 80302
Steak tartare: $12.95
Steak frites: $12.95
Simple salad: $5.95
Cote de porc: $17.95
Coq au vin: $12.95
Moules et frites: $13.95
Mostly, the love came later. Out from under the onus of Frog tyranny, I learned that the snobbery wasn't snobbery at all, but acceptance: The French knew French cooking was just better, and that was that. Better than what? Than everything. And this would have been maddeningly presumptuous in itself if not for the fact that it was also true. Just as the Japanese had committed themselves to perfection in serving tea, and the Americans to perfection in making bubblegum pop music, the French had turned their hearts and minds and hands to cuisine. Generations had labored not only to collect knowledge about all things culinary, but to canonize it; to write down the best way to do everything (crack an egg, hold a knife, cut a potato, zest a lemon), and then the second-best as well. Then the third...
We -- American cooks and chefs -- have accepted French kitchen superiority as inevitable. We mimic it with French brigades, French technique, a French understanding of sauces, stocks and prep. The French language (along with Spanish) is the de facto patois of the serious professional kitchen. French recipes form the backbone of much of what we do.
And because I grew up in the thick of this love/hate thing -- because I earned my scars and stripes in the brigade -- my understanding of Le Cuisine is very personal. Now that I eat food for a living rather than cook it, going to a French restaurant is like going to church -- a retreat back to faith. I don't have a religion to call my own or a God with whom I'm on speaking terms, but I have the canon -- mother sauces, perfect brunoise, mise en place and moules et frites -- and that's enough for me.
There was a time when the worst sin, number one on the charts, was blasphemy: Don't take God's name in vain. Sinning has evolved quite a bit since then, but I am old-school, a classicist right down to the floor, and in my world, to transgress by taking the French canon in vain is still the worst thing any cook can do.
When I walk into a French restaurant, my first instinct is to love it. But I made three trips to Brasserie Ten Ten and got my heart broke every time. There were some decent plates, some nice touches. I appreciated each of them. But not once did this restaurant bring it all together; not once did it validate this compulsive, rash, imprudent love of mine.
Weekend brunch should be an easy home run for any crew. Expectations are low, people are relaxed, and, busy as things get, the pressure is cut in half. But at Brasserie Ten Ten, the kitchen had a full staff laid on. They looked like cooks, they moved like cooks, and when something went wrong just below my line of sight, they certainly argued like cooks -- shuffling plates around, moving this and that, pointing accusatory fingers.
For a few minutes, I felt hopeful, reassured by all the trappings of the faith. The menu was written in kitchen French -- all oeufs this and croque that -- and specials were scratched onto a chalkboard hung above the pass. The room seemed deliberately cozy, with a lot of glass, tile, dark wood and an impressive bar; the Walnut Street location was certainly A-list -- within sight of the St. Julien spa, surrounded by other bars and restaurants (including the Mediterranean, which is owned by the people who started Brasserie Ten Ten a couple of years ago), prime for Boulder foot traffic. I lingered over French press coffee (brought with a small wooden egg timer to count down the seconds before a perfectly brewed cup was ready) and beignets dusted with snowcaps of confectioner's sugar and attended by a mound of fluffed lemon crème. And while I waited for the rest of the meal, I was as happy as I always am when falling head over heels.
Then another argument broke out in the galley, and I saw my steak frites put to the rail, pulled down, put up again. I saw one of the cooks reach for a squeeze bottle. Was that my béarnaise sauce? I shook off my concerns, turned away, waited. Laws, sausages and sauces -- you don't want to see how any of them are made.
By the time they finally landed on my table, the frites were badly burnt, the hanger steak a gnarly end cut further abused by at least two trips across the grill -- the tale told in a muddled set of hash marks. A proper French steak should be cooked in the pan, glazed with maître d' butter and a touch of whatever sauce will eventually top it. But even when cooked by the grillardin, there's no reason -- at least, no good reason -- for a double-fire. I'd ordered the damn thing rare. It came a length past medium, sloshed in béarnaise that was decent, though over-thickened for stability and insurance against breaking on the line.
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