BEAUTY AND THE BISTRO
At the beginning of the year, Pour La France! got the seven-year itch and decided it was time to try something new at its Denver and Boulder locations. So out came fresh paint, a snazzy set of china--and a revamped menu that no longer pulls solely from French roots. Still emphasizing less butter and cream as well as bistro-style dishes, the reworked roster now takes inspiration from areas that France has either ruled or owned, or places in which it has put in serious time--including Morocco, French Indochina and Haiti.
To update its menu, the corporate-owned Pour La France!--founded by Aspen mayor John Bennett in 1987 (there's a Pour La France! in Aspen, too, but it wasn't involved in the redesign)--hired Rozanne Gold, a consultant chef for New York's Rainbow Room who recently put out the popular cookbook Little Meals. In the kitchen, as in her book, Gold focuses on simple combinations that rely heavily on health-conscious herbs (basil, in particular) and vinaigrettes for flavor. The result is a richness that doesn't turn your veins into lead an hour later.
Despite Gold's efforts to make Pour La France! a more Mediterranean-based restaurant, I found that the most appealing offerings still derive from the traditional French. So, for that matter, does the decor at the Denver location: The red-brick walls, tidy tables and film posters create a bistro feel that somehow makes everything seem, well, more French. For example, the tomato and Brie pie ($5.95), a popular item from the old menu that we sampled at lunch, tasted like it had come straight from Provence. A wedge of oily (no cholesterol) crust housed melt-in-your-mouth Brie and ripe, ripe tomatoes; a generous helping of fresh basil imparted a sweetness that kept the cheese and tomatoes from becoming too much. We immediately decided that the name of the dish, while certainly accurate, was entirely too innocent-sounding for something so decadent.
The French influence was again apparent in the pissaladiere ($5.95), a southern-France-style pizza. Two slices of thick focaccia had been topped with roasted eggplant, roma tomatoes, more basil, and melted mozzarella and goat cheese. The ingredients melded well, though the kitchen would have been wise to spread the wonderful goat cheese around rather than glob it in the center of each piece.
Both servings were so generous that we had trouble finishing our sides--but they, too, were too good to let go. The field greens that came with the pie were enhanced by a lively poppyseed vinaigrette; the mild beef base of the onion soup gratinee ($2.25 a cup) provided a worthy backdrop for the inevitable French bread and Gruyere.
A cheeky waiter just added more spice to our lunch. At one point he homed in on the next table's reunion of elderly ladies poring over very old black-and-white photographs, exclaiming, "My, that takes you back, doesn't it?" A few minutes later he was heard telling a chef in the kitchen, "I'm sexually excited," but we never knew the motivation for his statement, and I'm hoping the two incidents weren't related. Later he roamed between the dining rooms singing "Unrespectable" to the tune of "Unforgettable."
Although the waitress at dinner took things a little more seriously, she was good-natured about our lengthy indecision over the entree choices. It was easier to pick the appetizer: Eggplant fans, we were drawn to the aubergine "caviar" ($4.75), a dip of chopped, smoky eggplant blessed with plenty of garlic. The assortment of crudites provided would have thrilled a rabbit but was crushed by the dip's strength; luckily, the strangely sweet toast points proved to be a perfect match.
Another good match-up surfaced in that day's soup, a Moroccan-influenced tomato curry ($1.95 a cup). "I know, it doesn't sound that exciting," our waitress acknowledged, "but it's great." She was right. Again, basil was the key to the right blend of smooth tomato puree spiked with mellow curry spices.
It was quite a leap from the soup's mildness to the wildness of the penne pasta pistou ($7.50). A shockingly garlicky pesto--augmented by even more bits of garlic and a touch of cracked red pepper--held together penne, broccoli, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and thoroughly melted parmesan cheese; Scope would have been an appropriate side for this pleasant mess.
The other pasta entree ($9.25) followed a French Indochina theme. Lots of ginger and soy and a little cilantro perked up a few pieces of shrimp and chicken that had been quickly sauteed with spinach and red bell pepper strips, then spread over linguine. Although the individual parts were excellent, they weren't team players, and the combination wasn't winning.
The chicken breast in a parmesan crust ($8.95), however, managed to put up a unified front. A large slice of eggplant--"Let me know if it's too dry and we'll redo it," the waitress said as she set down the plate--along with tomato slices and a sliver of Brie blanketed a whole chicken breast coated with breadcrumbs and parmesan. A piquant marinara sauce provided the necessary moisture, enough even for the absorbent eggplant. The side of green beans, though, could have used a liquid asset of their own; they were tough and dry, and they suffered from the restaurant's avoidance of butter.
Fortunately, for all its posturing about reduced-fat, higher-seasoning cooking, the restaurant doesn't stint on sinful ingredients when it comes to dessert. And at Pour La France!, a meal--no matter how low-fat and low-cal--invariably leads to dessert. The delectable items are made at the Bluepoint Bakery, which adds some of its own recipes to the restaurant's list. This felicitous marriage results in about a dozen top-quality finales that change each day, as well as breakfast pastries and, of course, Bluepoint's wonderful breads--which we slathered liberally with the restaurant's raspberry jam.
But it was the desserts that put us over the edge. A chunk of choux pastry filled with white and chocolate creams and smeared with apricot preserves...a dense Bavarian brownie cheesecake...a chocolate truffle cake with a ganachelike frosting...a moist chocolate carrot cake: All were heavenly and, with one or two exceptions, reasonably priced at $3.95. And then the restaurant really put the icing on the cake by serving an excellent cup of coffee. The cafe au lait ($1.85) was so smooth and rich it could have been a dessert itself, and the espresso ($1.10) and cappuccino ($1.85) were equally impressive.
If Pour la France! continues to pour it on like this from start to finish, I'm looking forward to the next seven years.
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