A Rocky Romance
So here's Laura and me, handling the logistics of dinner: I call; the phone rings; she picks it up.
Me: "Okay, sweets. How's dinner tomorrow at Tante Louise?"
She: "On a Friday night?"
Me: "Yeah, tomorrow. Nice romantic dinner on a Friday night."
She: "French food...." She sounds...unenthused.
Me: "Denver's 'Premiere' French food. Says so right here on the Web site. You know, I've been told some wives enjoy a nice romantic dinner on a Friday night."
She: "And I've been told some husbands actually act romantically and don't spend the whole night poking at their food and looking around like they're casing the place for a robbery."
Me: "Can you make the reservations, please? Call me back and let me know."
She: "Got it." Click.
I don't know what writers did before the invention of the Internet, but it was probably something that seemed a lot more like work than what I do. According to www.tantelouise.com, we're to "imagine a romantic evening in a quiet French country inn, with glowing fireplaces, stained glass windows, elegant table settings, fine cuisine, vintage wine and gracious hospitality...the perfect setting for comfortable, sophisticated dining in an atmosphere of quiet elegance." Displayed prominently at the bottom of the page are the AAA four-diamond and Mobil Guide four-star ratings that Tante Louise earned under the tenure of its previous chef, Duy Pham, and a long list of kudos from the press, both local and not.
But Tante Louise has a new chef in the house these days: Marlo Hix, who did time here both as garde manger in the early '90s, when Michael Degenhart was executive chef, then later as Pham's sous chef, before she headed out for a stint as chef de cuisine under Rick Kangas at the Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek, and another as executive sous at the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe. She's an inspired classicist, a devotee of the rustic French canon, and now she's back and wearing the big hat in the kitchen where she first earned her bones as a pro.
My phone rings.
Me: "Westword. This is Jason."
She: "You pick up your phone too fast. Makes you sound desperate."
Me: "Efficient is what I'm going for. We have reservations?"
She: "Yes. We had a choice of 6:30 and 8:30. I took the 8:30."
Me: "Good choice."
She: "Yeah, and get this. I asked if there was a dress code. The guy on the phone was very snotty and he said" -- her impression is dead-on, capturing the breathy, murmuring voice of a veteran fine-dining waiter exactly -- "'Certainly, many of our gentlemen choose to wear jackets when visiting us for dinner, but it's not required.' Made me want to punch him."
We arrive right on time for dinner. Tante Louise has free valet parking, but because I'm inherently distrustful of valets, we park on the street and walk up to the door. We're greeted warmly in the bar by owner and manager Corbine "Corky" Douglass, who's run the Denver landmark since July 1973, and, if the rumors are to be believed, never leaves his beloved restaurant -- overseeing, personally, every table, every guest, every server and every plate that comes out of the kitchen. He is an old-school champion floor-man, with a voice like liquid velvet and eyes like a casino pit boss. Nothing escapes him. I think he probably sleeps standing up in a utility closet so as to never wrinkle his flawlessly pressed dark suit.
Corky: "Yes. We have two of you for dinner" -- carefully not referring to us as Mr. and Mrs.: The wife and I didn't wear our wedding rings, and, like I said, he doesn't miss a thing --"and if you'll just wait a moment, we're preparing your table right now."
Me, the uncultured boob with mismatched tie and shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow: "No problem, man. Can we get something from the bar?"
Corky, without missing a beat: "Anything we can do for you sir," stretching out the 'anything' like a proposition. "Just let me know."
A server is at our side immediately and we are provisioned with drinks, which is good, because we're in the bar for twenty minutes, waiting. After almost thirty years in business, this place still packs 'em in on a weekend night. I'd say the joint was jumping, but that would be misleading: By the look of the clientele, any overly enthusiastic leaping would result in a whole lot of broken hips.
Tante Louise has a reputation for romance. It says so right on the matchbooks, the menu and the Web site: "A Very Special Restaurant." When she made the reservation, Laura was asked if there was a special occasion the staff should know about, and we were asked the same thing by our bar server. Over the course of two meals, we witnessed several birthdays, anniversaries and the like (no marriage proposals, but Valentine's Day is coming).
Because of the restaurant's layout -- filling, as it does, one fairly sizable early-1900s bungalow and the duplex next door that was absorbed at a later date -- the space is broken up into several cozy rooms with tables tucked away in corners or along the walls. Most of the rooms have fireplaces and are decorated in French-manor-farm style, with dark wood accents, shelved antiques, muted pastel wallpaper in floral prints and candy stripes, and oversized wine bottles stacked everywhere like the aftermath of a classy party at the home of a very rich alcoholic. All of the tables have candles, flowers and stiff, white tablecloths set with vintage Syracuse china and all the appropriate stemware -- from toasting glasses to brandy snifters, according to necessity.
I understand the backstage mechanics of setting a mood; I know the emotional hocus-pocus that can be worked with peach-tinted recessed lighting, the flickering of a good fire and the rattail snap of a server sharply shaking out a linen napkin before laying it gently across a lady's lap. And I could easily see how, had we been the focus of all this enchanting legerdemain on our first visit, we, too, might've been charmed by Tante Louise's legendary spell -- only we weren't seated off in some cozy corner. We weren't surrounded by antique knickknacks and oversized wine bottles, and we weren't treated to the gentle, unobtrusive care of a skilled waiter in soft shoes. No, we got stuck in a hallway, at a table jammed between a fireplace and a broom closet with big chunks of paint nicked off its frame from thirty years of chair backs being banged into it. We had a wonderful view of a staircase, a bus sink and the backs of the heads of people who seemed to be having a whole lot better time than we were; a mumbling, glassy-eyed server may have been just fine on the night shift at Denny's, but he didn't quite have the chops for fine-dining service.
Laura, playing dumb, quizzed our server about the tatsoi salad: "Tat sooey, am I pronouncing that right? Could you tell me what that is?" She elicited this bored reply: "Yes... ta-soy is a buttery green, rather like a spinach, which the kitchen prepares with crispy pancetta and a citrus vinaigrette."
In fact, the salad (officially pronounced ta-tsai) was pretty good, touched lightly with an orange-cranberry dressing that accented the soft greens without being overpowering, and tossed with garlic-toasted pepitas (fancy talk for hulled Mexican pumpkin seeds). Unfortunately, the "crispy pancetta" wasn't, and it had been so heavily crusted with pepper that it resembled chewy, peppered pork jerky. Along with the salad, we enjoyed an appetizer plate of half a baby Maine lobster, removed from the shell, curled as if napping on a bed of creamy, delicate sunchoke purée inside a ring of what that menu called a mâche and tomato confit vinaigrette, but tasted more like a smooth cloud of tomato-infused crème fraîche.
Had the circumstances been different -- had we been at a nice table in a nice room with a server who showed even the least bit of concern for how our meal was progressing -- a lengthy stretch between courses might've been, well, nice. The wife and I could've held hands and whispered sweet nothings to each other. But as it was, we occupied ourselves by rolling our eyes at the guy at the next table who had to burp loudly after every course, and taking bets on how long it would be before Lurch the Waiter stumbled back up the stairs and realized we were still around.
The Colorado rack of lamb was done perfectly, medium rare as ordered, with four little lollipop-cut bone-in chops set against a mound of soft goat cheese spaezle that didn't taste at all of goat cheese, but was kicked up with generous portions of yellowfoot chanterelle and soft, musky black trumpet mushrooms. The whole thing swam in a black-truffle jus -- a mild glace of meat stock and shreds of something black that definitely were truffles, but a cheap variety, salvaged from the processing of truffle oil. Had they been the good stuff -- the real articles shaved off a fist-sized fungus -- this plate would've cost fifty bucks, easy.
Much less successful was the degustation des legumes (more fancy talk, for a vegetarian plate). An excellent chive beurre blanc -- handled skillfully, simply and with great care -- coated a haphazard mix of sautéed veggies (entirely different veggies from what our server claimed were being prepared that night) done in varying degrees of awful. Limp fennel root had been cooked until all of its delicate flavor was leeched out. The quartered baby red potatoes were raw and inedible. Kohlrabi and tiny cubes of black radish were simply there -- going nowhere, doing nothing -- and although these would have made a fine base for mounting flavors had those other flavors been coddled and protected during cooking, they weren't. They were murdered. The wild rice at the center of the plate was just fine, though, soft and fluffy and saturated with that good beurre blanc.
She: "If that's how vegetarians are forced to eat when they go out, it's no wonder they're so grumpy."
Me: "If that's how vegetarians are forced to eat when they go out, I'm surprised they're not chasing down stray cats in the neighborhood or just pulling flowers out of people's gardens for a midnight snack."
This was not the romantic evening we'd been urged to imagine.
Fast-forward to a second dinner, and a very different experience. This time we were seated in the main dining room, with a server who'd been at Tante Louise for more than a decade and really knew his stuff. He was quiet and unobtrusive, neither patronizing (as our first server had been whenever he eventually made it to our table) nor haughty, and he had a gentle sense of humor. The smiling Corky was working the floor, poking at the fireplaces, making sure everything, everywhere was just right with everyone. And the courses were ideally timed.
We tried the butternut-squash bisque swirled with garam masala butter, which was thick and rich, heady with exotic, wintry flavors. At first taste, before the butter was fully infused, the bite of clove, turmeric, deep orange squash flesh and cinnamon hit me like a hundred Christmases. But as the soup cooled, the flavors mellowed and blended; their rough edges smoothed. The soup was served with braised lamb ravioli that initially seemed out of place, but finally proved a good match for the strong spices.
The kitchen had assembled a plate of veal sweetbreads with the necessary care, breading and gently pan-frying the thymus glands. This takes skill -- cook them too long and they become rubbery, like misshapen chicken McNuggets, too briefly and they retain a gooey greasiness that's an all-too-personal reminder of exactly what you're eating -- and Hix's kitchen, drawing from centuries of French charcuterie, pulled it off brilliantly. Three small, tender, golden-brown pieces arrived atop a smooth, herbed-root vegetable purée with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts and the same truffle jus I remembered from my first dinner.
My entree this time was a double-cut pork chop done well, medium and rare, depending on how close to the center I cut. The two beautiful chops were excellent-quality pork, smoothly flavored, juicy, well-trimmed and carefully broiled. They came propped against a dense bread pudding flavored with apples and creamy Bavarian cambozola cheese that was perfect for mopping up a puddle of glossy, sweet star anise demi-glace that carried only the barest hint of licorice flavor on top of a powerful veal-bone reduction.
But the pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto? Like the pancetta of our first dinner, the prosciutto was too heavily crusted in salt and pepper, ruining the pheasant breast -- which had been pulled from the oven at precisely the right moment and then rested before it was sliced into medallions that hit the table juicy and medium rare. Plus, the side of toasted quinoa was dry, flavorless and studded with an overcooked, pasty mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery that added nothing to the mix but disappointment.
Hix certainly knows her way around the classical French canon of recipes and preparations, and her kitchen shows a tremendous amount of skill when whipping up a complicated jus, demi or reduction -- but it frequently, and inexplicably, drops the ball on the elementary stuff, like forgetting the artichoke hearts that were supposed to be served with the rack of lamb or the peppered honey pecans with the pheasant. Her staff can work wonders with fruit -- both on the main plates and at dessert, as evidenced by a spiced apple and quince charlotte with fresh blood-orange ice cream that the wife and I fought over on the first night to get the taste of raw potatoes off our tongues. But hand them a few vegetables, and they're lost. And while they do disastrous, almost criminal, things with simple cured meats, they're brilliant with the tough ones, like sweetbreads and pates.
But an inconsistent kitchen isn't the only place where the grande dame of Denver's high-end occasion restaurants is showing her age. The inconsistent service, inconsistent timing and a certain air of cocooned, insular disconnection from the new wave of diners and dining is starting to drag at her classic heels. There's a reason why someone invented the phrase "raising the bar": to describe the effect that places like Adega, Opal and Opus are having on the restaurant scene, and to warn the old guard that they now have some competition. No restaurant can run on reputation alone -- especially in a town that now has higher expectations -- and even with a floorman as smooth as Corky, at this point, the old girl just doesn't have the legs to stay ahead of the curve.
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