I tried to stay out of this fight. Really, I did. Way back in January, I made a promise to keep my nose out of politics and stick to food. I managed to give the whole Freedom fries/Freedom toast controversy a pass, because, frankly, it seemed too insipid to even comment on. I saw the boycott of all things French as a ridiculous, but temporary, phenomenon and trusted that the mercifully short American attention span would make it no more than a minor stumble in the greater fiscal scheme.
But then I heard from Chantal Martini -- owner, along with her husband, Jean, of The Savoy (535 3rd Street in Berthoud) -- that their covers have been down over 50 percent since the start of the war in Iraq.
"Business has been down dramatically," says Chantal, her heavy accent sending her tripping over words. "I'm French, okay? My husband is French. The restaurant is French. But I've been in this country for over thirty years! I'm American first. My weekend? I used to refuse people. I had to turn them away. Now it's 50 percent, 40 sometimes." She blames this almost entirely on the anti-French sentiment still lingering in the back of the American consciousness -- and she might be right.
Yes, the economy is still slumping along miserably. Yes, fine dining is down almost across the board. And no, not a lot of people are willing to drive all the way to Berthoud for any kind of dinner, French or otherwise. And yet the timing and depth of the Savoy's drop in business are rather suspicious.
So I checked some of the other French-friendly joints in and around town to see if they'd been feeling the bite. According to Corky Douglass, the venerable Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) has seen a noticeable dip in weekend business, with reservations being cancelled and seats going unfilled. "This is not an empirical equation, only a calculated guess," he says, "but I get the feeling that there is this sense out there. Normally, our weekends are the strongest time for us, but Saturdays were perceptibly slower." Things have picked up since the end of the Washington-Paris hostilities, he adds, but still -- he'd felt the chill in his numbers, and in the customers who weren't coming through the door.
La Chaumiere (12311 North Saint Vrain Drive in Pinewood Springs) is even farther off the beaten path than the Savoy, but chef/owner Vince Williams (who bought the space from its original owners, Heinz and Elisabeth Fricker, three years ago) doesn't seem to be taking the same kind of hits. Granted, his winter business is slow to begin with, but he blames any and all of the restaurant community's troubles on the bottom line. "The economy is still in the shit," he says. "Naturally, everyone is going to be down a bit. I have friends on the East Coast who are French. They're down 60 percent, some of them, but I don't see it here."
Even so, he's had to pull back on his wine list, because customers have been less interested in the French grapes. Once weighted 90/10 in favor of French over California vintages, he's now at a more even 50/50 split.
But changing the wine list wouldn't stem the tide at the Savoy. "Some people try to help," Chantal explains. "My regulars, they try to bring people in, but you know.... Up in Berthoud, we're completely lost. The people who don't come, don't come." She pauses, carefully choosing her next line. "This is...not stupid, but ridiculous. I don't want to be rude, but I don't know what else to say."
That's okay, Chantal -- I do. And I have no problem being rude to anyone who thinks that he's really sticking it to the French by not eating out at American restaurants. Seriously, do you really imagine that French president Jacques Chirac is going to shed one tear if you pigheaded dolts succeed in running a decade-old business in Berthoud, Colorado, out of town? Is it a victory to see empty seats at a place like Tante Louise, where the most French thing about it is the name? Are you so blind that you think renaming your fries (which, by the way, aren't French -- they're Belgian) is going to accomplish anything other than getting you made fun of behind your back? Yes, I know, it is your right as a red-blooded, knuckle-headed American to vote with your feet and make those mean little Frenchmen pay for disagreeing with Bush the Younger by getting drunk on good old-fashioned Kentucky bourbon rather than a fine Bordeaux and refusing to patronize French restaurants for fear that one of your fanatical right-wing friends might see you walking in and tell everyone else at the Klan meeting that you're soft on Hussein -- but come on. You're embarrassing yourself, and you're embarrassing the rest of us.
That said, I hope I'm preaching to the choir. I have to think that anyone interested enough in food to be reading this column is probably just as ashamed as I am of those people consciously avoiding restaurants like the Savoy just because they're French, but if I'm wrong, and there is someone out there guilty of such a blatant act of xenophobic imbecility, write me here at firstname.lastname@example.org and try to explain the specific focus of the political statement that you're trying to make by driving an American business owned by American citizens with American employees out of business just to get back at the French. And it's okay if you have to write your letter in crayon. I'll understand.
Mais oui: If you're as grumpy as I am about the whole frog-bashing thing, take heart. Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) was recently tagged by the U.S. Attorney General's Office as a place of cultural sharing where Americans and French natives can get together, interact and foster all those warm and fuzzy vibes that come with the combination of good wine, great food and open minds. On the first and third Thursday of every month, starting at 6:30 p.m., Robert Tournier and his Frenchified folks at Le Central will host an informal, lively, communal table that's meant to inspire interaction between the two cultures. Food and wine will be provided by the restaurant; conversation in English and French will be at the discretion of the guests. The cost is $30 a head (not counting tax or tip), and attendance is limited to thirty people per meeting.
Leftovers: The book of the dead grows longer this week, with a few favorite spaces now taking their places in restaurant Valhalla. The Shead's Fish and BBQ Heaven location at 15320 East Hampden Avenue in Aurora has gone dark; new signage points to some sort of coffee shop going into the space. My favorite Korean joint, DiDi Deli (1560 Kipling Street in Lakewood), is no more. Owners Duk Young and Mi Rae Park finally decided to throw in the towel, and something called Jumbo Thai Express has already opened in its spot. The Denver Deli next door to Oliver's Meat Market at 1312 East Sixth Avenue is closed while in the throes of a major overhaul; no word yet on a reopening date. But the address once occupied by Pico de Gallo (571 West Sixth Avenue) is back in business as Chub's, serving yet more Mexican. Ikano Bowl (790 East Colfax Avenue) is now Zhong Express, and what had been a tumbledown grill tucked into a weird corner at 2797 South Parker Road is now a thoroughly refurbished L.D. Chinese Buffet.
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There's also been a change on the floor at Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania), the restaurant where Larry Herz, the owner of Indigo (see review, page 67), first earned his chops. The entire management staff is gone, including front-of-the-house man Chris Linker, and general manager Jay Joralemon has taken on the task of revitalizing the onetime Denver hot stop. "We had some problems in the past," Joralemon says, "and I wanted to get back onto the floor to make sure everything was being done the right way."
Finally, we here at Bite Me World HQ would like to give a big shout-out to Elsa Padillo, Billy Ettawil, Julio Hermosillo and Garrett Dotsch -- the culinary team from Battle Mountain High School in Minturn that took second place in the National Restaurant Association 2003 National ProStart Student Invitational. Each of these young kitchen rookies took home two grand in scholarship money after beating out 22 other teams from as many states in a sixty-minute cookoff; their only stumble came when one of the crew (allegedly) decided to celebrate the win by lighting up a joint out back after the awards ceremony. Now, I'd never want to be accused of condoning drug use by a minor (trust me, I've already been accused of plenty of other stuff), but personally, I think this act showed remarkable restraint. Most cooks I came up with would've sparked up that fatty the minute the clock started ticking, wasted half their time giggling stupidly or having a deep, meaningful conversation with a shallot, then remembered that they were working under the gun and spent the last thirty minutes carefully arranging six dozen Twinkies into the shape of a giant Misfits skull garnished with a purple crème fraîche mohawk. Then again, that's also probably why my guys and I never won any cooking competitions.
And the fact that these kids drew a 7 a.m. start time (which means they had to be working at 5 a.m., putting together their mise and setting up their gear) makes their win particularly notable. Trying to do a niçoise salad out of the French Laundry cookbook at 3 p.m. for dinner service at 5 is one thing -- and tough enough -- but doing it at 7 in the morning, with judges watching and the clock ticking away and three other courses still to be prepared, is something else entirely.
So, stoned or no, the Battle Mountain team deserves major props. Keep an eye on those names, folks. A few years from now, they're probably going to be cooking your dinner.