The questions started coming up as soon as we sat down in Transalpin. First, there were the peculiar classifications on the menu--items were labeled both by style, such as "classics," and by geography. And then there were the incredibly low prices listed beside those items.
When a restaurant has really great prices, you know it has to cut costs somewhere. But at Transalpin, the economizing certainly wasn't reflected in the superefficient staff, the trendy decor (although the art for sale on the walls doesn't cost them a dime) or the crayons, thoughtfully provided at each table so that budding Picassos can doodle on the butcher-paper tablecloths. And the menu's descriptions of Transalpin's offerings don't portend cheap preparation, what with lamb shank, peppered salmon and other entrees promised in such elaborate ways that the restaurant can't skimp on the kitchen help.
One mystery was solved with the arrival of the food.
Surprisingly, most of it tasted good. Some of it even transcended good, and it was a tribute to the chefs--in this case Juan Gonzales and Roberto Chuliber--that they could do so well with the ingredients (many of which were borderline) at hand.
Case in point: the components of the cioppino. We tried the fisherman's stew at lunch, for $6.99; like the rest of the menu "classics," the cioppino can be ordered at dinner for just a few dollars more. But Transalpin would have to pay me before I'd even think of eating it again. The cioppino came in a bowl that looked like a deeper deep-dish pie plate and could have housed a whole school of goldfish. Instead, it was filled with some shellfish, lots of cheese tortellini and nearly a whole whitefish, cut up into big, squishy chunks. The previously frozen whitefish had that overly soft texture and off-smell that can mean one of several things: It wasn't thawed properly, it was frozen later in life, or it was very, very old. Whatever the reason, the fish was awful and the liquid it sat in wasn't much better. Purportedly a "spicy white wine tomato broth," it was only slightly spicy and tasted like the base of Campbell's vegetable soup. The shellfish--about four each of mussels, shrimp, scallops and squid--might have been fine on their own but were done in by the cheap-tasting base.
But things went swimmingly with our other lunch entree, the $6.95 trout. The fillet had been pan-fried in a white-wine-and-garlic sauce with a very light touch of saffron; the skin had a delightful buttery crunchiness and the flesh was tender, a perfect contrast with the slivered almonds on top. I was intrigued by the Spanish influence apparent in the fish's preparation, particularly since it had been given the regional classification of ...Boulder. General manager and sometimes-chef Zouhair Benjdya later told me that some of the regional assignments indicate only that "the dishes are popular in that area, not that the dishes come from that area." When I pressed him further, he pointed out that trout is popular in Boulder.
Salad must be popular everywhere, though, because the restaurant lists its geographic classification as merely "Transalpin." Offered only a la carte for $2.50, the mixed greens were served with an intense balsamic vinaigrette clogged with notoriously expensive sun-dried tomatoes. Perhaps to counteract that generous gesture by the kitchen, the clam soup ($2.50) contained exactly two bits of clam meat (and not even whole specimens) that sat in a suspiciously familiar, commercial-tasting base. Although Benjdya took credit for the soup recipe, he said the "classics"--including the cioppino--were all the creations of former Transalpin owner Robert Tournier.
We returned to that category at dinner, ordering the Dover sole ($9.75), which had been geographically assigned to "Club Med." No matter where it hailed from, the dish was exquisite. Two fillets had been wrapped around a stuffing of chopped shrimp and breadcrumbs heavily laced with parsley; the fat bundles had then been baked and smothered in a thick butter sauce studded with capers and lightly scented with lemon. The result was incredibly rich and equally appealing. The leek and artichoke flan on the side marked another worthy attempt. More the consistency of bread pudding than custard, the flan's only flaw stemmed from the use of canned artichokes that hadn't been picked over well--several hard, fibrous pieces popped up, making chewing a tedious proposition. The artichokes in another side dish had been sorted better and then creamed. "This is the best thing to do with canned artichokes," my companion pronounced. A small blob of red cabbage simmered with cinnamon and a useless mound of nearly naked rice rounded out the plate.
With the exception of the flan, those same sides appeared with the mixed grill ($9.25), a strange but workable combination of half a chicken breast, a piece of New York strip and what's called "sausage" on the menu, all grilled and served over cannellinis caramelized in a honey mustard and topped with roasted onion pieces and red and green peppers that added color and enhanced the sweet sauce. The chicken breast and steak were wonderful. The "sausage," however, was a hot dog. Granted, a hot dog technically is a type of sausage, but you don't expect to find that ballpark taste in this kind of place. When I asked Benjdya what the hot dog was doing atop an otherwise toothsome entree, he responded that the restaurant uses "all different kinds of sausage in that dish--Italian, sometimes chorizo. We can't get good Italian sausage year-round." Huh? In this case, the kitchen reported that it was using Polish sausage--which didn't clear up anything, since the dish was geographically linked to Casablanca.
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Similar oddities abound throughout the menu. For example, an appetizer of calamari, the Italian word for squid, is listed under "Portugal" and comes with Cajun mayonnaise. A Roman dish of tortellini contains a Swiss Gruyere cheese sauce; a Sri Lankan stir-fry of curried chicken is served over penne pasta. And what Transalpin calls "tapas"--a word that usually signifies the selection of small appetizers served with cocktails in Spain--are basically your everyday starters: chiles rellenos, feta cheese and spinach layered with phyllo and served with a marinara sauce, mushroom flambe with a white-wine soy sauce and feta cheese. The tray of these treats comes out only on weekends, Benjdya told me, and that's what makes them tapas. Oh.
The desserts are thankfully straightforward, although our waiter insisted on describing every one of them as coming in a "skiff" of some sauce or other. The only meaning of skiff I know is boat-related; maybe the waiter meant that all of the desserts are skiffs, since they're served adrift on seas of sauce that rival Cherry Creek Reservoir in size. Enough creme anglaise lapped around the bread pudding ($3.95) to swamp the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, it didn't entirely wash away the taste of the pudding itself. Although bread pudding benefits from a few days of aging, ours was so thoroughly chilled and compacted that it clearly had gone well past its prime. The creme anglaise was much better suited to the well-ripened strawberries ($3.25); the balance of fruit to sauce was just right. Unfortunately, the fruit was the sauce in the cloying strawberry "skiff" that held captive the chocolate decadence ($4.50), an otherwise fine flourless chocolate cake.
We ended our meal as we'd started it: confused. You can eat well at Transalpin, but you may need a map to find your way around.