By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Cotes courtes braises — lollipop short-ribs ("frenched," in the galley vernacular) with Swiss chard and toasted brioche. Loup de mer with beurre noisette and pine nuts. Soubise, béarnaise and a bouillabaisse done in the style of Marseillaise traditionnel, meaning with toast and rouille. While my waitress is away, pouring my drink, seeing to the tables that keep filtering in, I engage in a dozen small culinary fantasies, wishing once again that I was one of those dinosaur gastronomes of old — a Beard or an Escoffier, a man capable of putting away a dozen oysters with champagne ice, a soufflé de fromage de chèvre, two bowls of soup, six ounces of Roquefort, a loin of tuna au poivre with Lyonnaise potatoes, a gigot of lamb, two bottles of Petrus and a post-prandial bucket of the house's finest port, then still walking out under his own power. For a second, I toy with the notion of eating the menu's pages, too.
The waitress returns with my wine, gives me a moment to taste it, then opens the negotiations over my dinner: "How hungry are you?"
I tell her that I am famished, and that since French 250 has gone to the trouble of arranging this multi-course, haute French menu, I might as well eat that way. To begin, I've been thinking escargot.
250 Steele St.
Denver, CO 80206-5225
Region: Central Denver
And apparently, I've been wrong.
"The frogs' legs," my waitress says, "are the owner's favorite. He eats them every night."
Okay, I argue, but this is Denver, not Paris. In my experience, people in Denver aren't big on eating amphibian, and I'm concerned about how long said legs might have been kicking around in the sauté cook's cooler.
At which point my waitress laughs at me. Loudly. "No, no," she says. "You have nothing to worry about. Have the frogs' legs."
Having decided for me, she's already moving on: Soup or salad?
Soup. The consommé of rabbit with rabbit ravioli, grace note of mirepoix.
"French onion soup," she says. Again, owner Ted Reece's favorite. Depending on what kind of night the kitchen is having, she explains, the consommé is either a good consommé or a great consommé, but the French onion is always excellent, built up from a Madeira base, topped with Jarlsberg. French onion soup, no question, she says. Moving on...
"Cheese," I say thoughtfully.
No. Cheese at the end of the meal, because she has something special in the back, something not on the menu.
"What about an entree?" she asks, briefly giving me the illusion of control. "Are you thinking meat or fish?" She runs through the pros and cons — the chef's skill at breaking down the bison tournedos, the wonderful, classical sauces: the burgundy reduction, the mushroom bordelaise. Then there's the ménage trios de canard (duck, duck and duck — roasted breast, seared foie and confit leg), the roulette de sole. By now I've developed a bit of a love/hate crush on my waitress, transferring the lust I'd felt for the lobster bisque and snails in pastry to the woman who, shortly, will be bringing me the actual food she's describing.
Before she finishes praising the sole, I cut her off. "That sounds good," I say, agreeing to the roulette, the mushroom duxelles and sweet-potato rosti. "We'll worry about cheeses and dessert later."
She nods sharply, collects my menu and walks off. I am bereft. I don't know which I miss more: the bossy, opinionated, passionate girl with the weird French onion soup obsession, or the menu she's carrying.
I don't have time to decide, because soon she brings me frogs' legs that are better than any I've ever had (including those that I used to cook) — rich and buttery, with a flavor halfway between crab and chicken. The onion soup doesn't quite live up to her promise of being the best, but it's solidly good. And the stuffed sole is simply amazing — stuffed with braised Swiss chard, wild mushrooms and golden raisins, set precariously atop a bed of cubed and caramelized sweet potatoes so ideally roasted that the surface crunches with stiff sugar, then gives way to creamy and sweet flesh. When I take a moment to breathe between courses, I understand why my waitress laughed when I wondered about the frogs' legs, because everyone in the dining room is eating frogs' legs, snails, bowls of chunky, spicy-sweet Marsellaise seafood stew, or all three at once.
When the time finally comes for dessert, my waitress comes bearing truffles, berry coulis, wonderful bread (which she hadn't allowed me to eat earlier because it might have spoiled my appetite) and cheeses to die for: perfectly fresh fourme d'Ambert, French Morbier (a little stale) and a single ounce of Norwegian gjetost that's brown, unlovely, smelly and one of the most delicious cheeses I have ever tasted — her secret cheese. When I tell her how much I like it, how delicious it is, her face breaks out in a broad, relieved smile.
"Oh, I'm so glad," she says. "I was worried that you wouldn't be happy with it."
And now it's my turn to laugh.