Just another bistro.
You have no idea how much those three words piss me off. Just another bistro. How did the restaurant industry get so jaded that those three words would ever seem thinkable, much less appropriate?
While eating at The Kitchen (see review), I somehow stumbled blindly across one of those invisible borders of the spirit, a line that, once crossed, can never be uncrossed. It happened, I think, the moment I was handed the menu. A waiter -- dressed like all the others in a casual house livery of gray and soft black that made him almost disappear against the room's matching pallette -- appeared and offered me the instrument of my irrevocable passage. At first glance, the menu seemed innocuous. A little fish, a little fowl, red meat, moules of some exotic variety I didn't recognize. Just another bistro menu: I'd seen its like a hundred times before.
But when I sat down to write about the restaurant, those three words went off in my head like a command-detonated mine. I'd simply been to one bistro too many, seen the same tricks played once too often, finally taken one too many trips to the trough of pointless mediocrity, and I'd had enough.
It was like when you're sitting at a bar somewhere -- a quiet place, not too crowded -- and the guy a couple stools down gets up, feeds a dollar into the juke and plays Hotel California. That's fine, you like Hotel California as much as the next person (which is to say not much, but enough that you don't bleed from the ears), so you sit there, placidly rolling your longneck back and forth while the song plays and the other guy sits back down, calls for another boilermaker, and silently mouths every word.
Then the song ends, fades down into nothing, and what song follows it? Hotel California. Again. Maybe he punched it twice by mistake, you think.
The second play ends. The Wurlitzer clicks. And what comes up? Hotel fucking California. You shoot a sideways glance at the other guy and he's way down into it, eyes closed, head bobbing just a little with the music. There's some kind of connection there, obviously, some kind of dirty redneck back-story with the Eagles featured heavily on the soundtrack, and by the look of the guy, you guess that a woman's involved. A set of tail lights. Nasty heartache. We've all been there, and sometimes you gotta give a fella room to grieve.
The third play ends and that's his dollar. Quiet descends. Then you hear the scrape of his stool as he pushes back, another sweaty bill in his hand. Politely, you say something like, "Hey, buddy. That juke's got more than one song in her." He shuffles over, puts in his buck, and there it is: that same riff, Don Felder and Joe Walsh strangling their Telecasters. The next thing you know, you're halfway across the room, broken bottle in your fist, ready to kill. And no one's making the slightest move to stop you.
It was like that, only without the bar, the beer, the Eagles. The Kitchen was just one verse of Hotel California too many for me, but the explosion had been a long time coming.
Because I honestly believe that Denver has the chops -- the muscle, the passion, the pool of available and sometimes vastly underappreciated talent -- to be a nationally recognized food city; my field of comparison includes every restaurant in the United States. New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago and everything in between -- it's all fair game. This is the Bigs, and if you want to play on this level -- even if you're in Boulder, the slightly brain-damaged hippie cousin of Denver's somewhat more respectable scene -- you play against everyone.
I looked over an old menu for Lutece, former home of André Soltner, under whom Kimbal Musk trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York. I had another from Les Halles, as well as a sample menu from the French Laundry. I compared them with the Kitchen's first sample menu -- a smattering of its spring board of fare -- and I could see immediately where things went wrong. At Les Halles: escargots, frisée salad aux lardons, nine kinds of mussels, choucroute garnie, hanger steak in a shallot reduction, fish and chips, steak frites. At the French Laundry: salmon tartare and crème fraîche in a pastry coronet, marinated figs and roasted fennel with a fennel vinaigrette, sweet onion mousse, pickled egg and truffles, salmon chops in brown butter, "bacon and eggs" with tête de cochon, poached quail's egg and sauce gribiche (a mustard-and-vinegar sauce most often served with calf's head, but here servicing a pig).
Then, at Lutece: Sautéed foie gras with bitter chocolate and orange marmalade; white bean soup with chorizo, calamari, mussels, clams and parmesan; monkfish with green-curry-infused artichoke broth, baby carrots and sunchokes; an Angus sirloin with glazed figs and ginger bordelaise. Keep in mind that this was a recent Lutece menu -- one dating from just before the restaurant closed after losing prestige and business to places like Les Halles. It had once been famous for its lobster minute, its onion tarts and côte de boeuf. No one cried too much over the loss of striped bass with vanilla jus.
And finally, the Kitchen's menu. Back in April, it listed Burrata cheese and roasted olives, a torchon of foie gras with poached cherries and pan-roasted salmon with asparagus and fresh morels. That was good, but it also had Kumumoto oyster shooters with ginger vinaigrette, and pork shoulder with caper-parsley salsa -- and that spelled trouble, right from the start.
Calling cuisine "bistro food" used to mean something. It was simple, sometimes classical, often surprising, always fun. It was the solution to the stodgy formality of fine dining, which had both gunked up the American restaurant scene with its heavy sauces and elaborate presentations and effectively limited the exposure of haute cuisine (which back then signified French, exclusively) to that very thin layer of American foodies who could afford it and weren't intimidated by its stiff priggishness. Bistro food was a true food revolution, one that left many bloody corpses and dead houses in its wake.
It also freed chefs to break out of the rigid classicism that had bound them so tightly to the old European canon. Fusion, California cuisine, nouveau-whatever -- all that stuff came out of the bistro movement. But what's important to note is that those early bistros were staffed and lorded over by guys who truly knew their shit -- old hands and past masters who'd come up the hard way as apprentices in the brigade system. Hell, Thomas Keller was an award-winner in his twenties, then went on to fail and fail and get knives chucked at his head by irate execs, and then fail some more until he found his home at the Laundry. And Soltner had opened Lutece in 1961 and then held onto it like a dog until the mid-'90s; after he sold out, it was soon bye-bye, Lutece. Up until about fifteen years ago, there wasn't a decent bistro kitchen anywhere that didn't have in its ranks some chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, terminally pissed-off tank of an old-school lifer or, at the very least, a younger man who'd trained at the heel and hip of one and still bore the scars of total servitude.
Today, things are different. Keller got a Sabatier thrown at his head because his exec was pissed that young Thomas, a supposedly trained and knowledgeable cook, didn't know how to properly truss a chicken. Today, the knife act would be cause for a lawsuit, at the very least. But instead of calling a lawyer, Keller learned how to truss a fucking chicken, then went on to open Rakel, which closed a total failure, and then the French Laundry, which isn't, and now Per Se in New York, where the outcome remains to be seen.
These days, guys barely out of their rookie whites get their shot too early, get arrogant, get stupid and burn out. Nineteen-year-old, classroom-trained punks come out of the country's booming culinary-school diploma mills demanding the big white hat and the title of chef, thinking they really learned something in their three-month externship at the Gramercy Tavern or stint in the E-Room. They already have their eyes on the cookbook deal, the Food Network pilot, the glitz job in the stainless chef coat and Armani blacks. And this shows in the food. When you have a bistro run by a guy who doesn't know his alfredo from his semifreddo, a gribiche from a galette, his ass from a hole in the ground, what you end up with is a menu that --even if technically proficient -- has no soul, no history, no innovation more thought-out than rubbing a lot of buzz-word ingredients together in a pan and hoping for the best. Too often over the past five years, I've seen menus that are carbon copies of the menu being used by the guy down the street, across town or on the opposite coast. Too often I've seen the same bad ideas (vanilla bass, caper salsa) repeated over and over again just because the idea was floated in Food and Wine. And more often than not, I've been handed menus that offer nothing more than a mixed grill of re-warmed classics, badly done and misunderstood, served with a side of smartass fluffery and topped with a brunoise d'ignorance -- little bits of stupidity, pretty but bitter to swallow.
Is every restaurant that's still carrying the standard of the bistro revolution guilty? Of course not. There are many guys (and girls) out there on the side of the angels, serious food purists who'd rather die than serve fish in vanilla sauce or set their menus according to the cover shots of this month's Gourmet. But more and more, I'm seeing the other sort of restaurant open, bloom, steal tables from other, more deserving restaurants, then fail as it was destined to do from the start. We have no lack of good restaurants in this area, but are suffering a glut of mediocre ones that make the diamonds in the dog pile that much tougher to see.
So from now on, the gloves are off. No more points for trying real hard, no more points for looking good doing it. If you're gonna cook, do it like your life depended on it -- because sometimes it does.
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Just ask Keller. The way I hear it, that knife came pretty close.
Leftovers: I'm not the only one concerned about the current state of the restaurant industry. Chuck Koch, owner of the Bear Creek Tavern on Highway 74 in Kittredge, reports some disconcerting developments in his neck of the woods. "Just because I was thinking about it," he says, "I went out driving the other day, and I counted 45 restaurants open between here and El Rancho. Forty-five! That's counting everything, the little cafes and sandwich shops, but still that's a lot, don't you think?"
I do. "And you know," he continued, "a lot of these people, I'm sure, are what I call 'trust-fund babies,' right? People who say, 'Oh, wow! Let's have some fun and just open a restaurant!' They get money from divorce settlements, and they say, 'Let's open a restaurant.' What they're really trying to do is build a monument to themselves."
Chuck and his wife, Martha, have soldiered on at Bear Creek for 24 years, turning their place from a serious, country-fried biker bar -- "a very, very rowdy roadhouse," is how Chuck remembers it -- into a respectable restaurant. Today, it's not even a tavern anymore, but officially the Bear Creek Restaurant, remodeled into a romantic -- though still cluttered, country and quirky -- getaway restaurant with mahogany-topped booths bought at the Redfish property auction, new floors and subdued lighting. Of course, the stuffed bear is still standing right in the middle of the dining room. If a man learns anything after a quarter-century in the business, it's to never mess with the mascot.