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"The escargot," I say. "Ideally, tell me how that plate should work."
And he does. Bordeaux snails, poached in court bouillion in France and then canned and shipped to South Broadway. He puts them in potato cups in lieu of stuffing them back in the shell, then doodles the plate with tarragon aioli.
1294 S. Broadway
Denver, CO 80210
Region: South Denver
And they are terrible. The night I tried them, I was at dinner with the archetypal Man Who Eats Everything — a big fella and a serious gourmand of the old school, just as likely to lick clean a plate of chicken-fried steak as a plate of snails. He declared these inedible, the worst he'd ever had, and pushed the dish away, unfinished. I'd never seen that before.
"The first bite should have that hot, sour pop," Olav explains. Then the smoothness of garlic and butter, the savor of something delicious drenched in a luxurious veil of fat and flavor. But these had none of that; the escargot were rubbery from the can and from over-baking. The red bliss potatoes were of varying sizes, not turned evenly, and their blandness overwhelmed any little licks of flavor to be gained from the aioli. There was no butter, no garlic.
"Attention to detail," Olav says, after hearing this. "That's what it's about. Shit."
Then back into more successful territory: duck leg, fried, sticking bone-up from a heady cherry and rosemary stew with confit shreds of rib and leg meat. "It was my take on fried chicken," Olav says. "Did you get that?"
I did. The duck leg — star of the plate — was good in and of itself (fried whole in a thin, crisp batter, preserving all the fat and flavor), but I loved the stew for completely different reasons. For the perfect brunoise, mostly, and the meticulous attention to one of the most fundamental details of French technique. Brunoise is like meditation for cooks — nothing but a man, his knife and some veg. It is a rigorous cut, a challenge to make every one of the thousands of pieces the exact same size, the same perfect little cube, the process of it carving out a huge, blank and silent space in a cook's head, sending him into a pure communion with his stock.
There were potatoes, too, cut in the same style, so well handled and nicely cooked that I'd originally thought they were broken French lentils. The sauce, built up from duck stock and red wine, that brunoise, rosemary and cherry juice, was delicious; the shreds of confit lent a heft, the complicated play of sour and sweet and woody and savory making it like a well I kept needing to return to over and over again.
The fried-duck app is just the start of a nose-to-tail (or beak-to-tail) cycle with the ducks in Olav's kitchen. In the app, the bones are used for stock, the fat for frying, the leg at center plate and the dark meat as ancillary protein. Further up the chain on the entree menu is another duck dish, similar but different: a breast, seared in the pan, served over wild rice with mascarpone and cremini mushrooms in a tarn of cherry reduction. One duck, two plates — and both of them excellent.
My entree came missing the promised mushrooms, but I didn't miss them — in fact, I liked the plate better without them, I tell Olav — and this sends us on a long, looping tangent about the chef's temptation to always shoehorn one more ingredient onto a plate, one more element into the routine. "The duck?" he says. "That was like an homage to when I was living in France. A classic dish. But there's always this thing, isn't there? This temptation for a chef to use one too many ingredients. Maybe the mushrooms were that one thing too many, I don't know."
The mistake might have made the dish better, but it was still a mistake, an error of execution. "We're 70 percent," Olav tells me. "We're most of the way there. But there's still that 30 percent, or sometimes 20 percent, that needs improvement. Being a young restaurant, there's some stuff we're still working on."
And they'll keep working. "There's never been that moment of cool, you know?," Olav says. "Where we can say, 'Okay, we're done.' There's always a next step. There's always improvements to be made." He talks about his relationship with Alex Waters, Bistro One's owner, whom he has nothing but love for, nothing but respect. Waters is a rarity in this business: a patient man. The two of them sit down over coffee every morning, every afternoon, to discuss the previous night's successes, its disasters. They talk constantly.
"If I was writing this," Olav tells me, "I'd call it A Tale of Two Restaurants. Because we have some nights that are just so fucking fantastic, where we know everything is going right. And then there are nights that are just fucked up. We sit down, and Alex asks, 'What went wrong?' and I can say, 'Well, it was this and this and this.' You know, at 1515, it took over a year before we really started humming, but we're starting to get there now. Starting to get organized. We're a better restaurant today than we were. And we're going to be a much better restaurant. You'll see."
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