Brasserie Ten Ten
Like any American chef (current or former), I've had a love/hate relationship with France for a long time. Before I knew enough to know better, I hated the country for producing some of the white-toqued, chain-smoking, red-faced bastards who trained me -- guys who bigfooted their way through the kitchen, who thought the appropriate punishment for almost any transgression was a hot spatula across the back of the hand or neck. I hated the fuckers for their snobbery, for their presumption of infallibility. And I hated their food because it was just so... right.
Mostly, the love came later. Out from under the onus of Frog tyranny, I learned that the snobbery wasn't snobbery at all, but acceptance: The French knew French cooking was just better, and that was that. Better than what? Than everything. And this would have been maddeningly presumptuous in itself if not for the fact that it was also true. Just as the Japanese had committed themselves to perfection in serving tea, and the Americans to perfection in making bubblegum pop music, the French had turned their hearts and minds and hands to cuisine. Generations had labored not only to collect knowledge about all things culinary, but to canonize it; to write down the best way to do everything (crack an egg, hold a knife, cut a potato, zest a lemon), and then the second-best as well. Then the third...
We -- American cooks and chefs -- have accepted French kitchen superiority as inevitable. We mimic it with French brigades, French technique, a French understanding of sauces, stocks and prep. The French language (along with Spanish) is the de facto patois of the serious professional kitchen. French recipes form the backbone of much of what we do.
And because I grew up in the thick of this love/hate thing -- because I earned my scars and stripes in the brigade -- my understanding of Le Cuisine is very personal. Now that I eat food for a living rather than cook it, going to a French restaurant is like going to church -- a retreat back to faith. I don't have a religion to call my own or a God with whom I'm on speaking terms, but I have the canon -- mother sauces, perfect brunoise, mise en place and moules et frites -- and that's enough for me.
There was a time when the worst sin, number one on the charts, was blasphemy: Don't take God's name in vain. Sinning has evolved quite a bit since then, but I am old-school, a classicist right down to the floor, and in my world, to transgress by taking the French canon in vain is still the worst thing any cook can do.
When I walk into a French restaurant, my first instinct is to love it. But I made three trips to Brasserie Ten Ten and got my heart broke every time. There were some decent plates, some nice touches. I appreciated each of them. But not once did this restaurant bring it all together; not once did it validate this compulsive, rash, imprudent love of mine.
Weekend brunch should be an easy home run for any crew. Expectations are low, people are relaxed, and, busy as things get, the pressure is cut in half. But at Brasserie Ten Ten, the kitchen had a full staff laid on. They looked like cooks, they moved like cooks, and when something went wrong just below my line of sight, they certainly argued like cooks -- shuffling plates around, moving this and that, pointing accusatory fingers.
For a few minutes, I felt hopeful, reassured by all the trappings of the faith. The menu was written in kitchen French -- all oeufs this and croque that -- and specials were scratched onto a chalkboard hung above the pass. The room seemed deliberately cozy, with a lot of glass, tile, dark wood and an impressive bar; the Walnut Street location was certainly A-list -- within sight of the St. Julien spa, surrounded by other bars and restaurants (including the Mediterranean, which is owned by the people who started Brasserie Ten Ten a couple of years ago), prime for Boulder foot traffic. I lingered over French press coffee (brought with a small wooden egg timer to count down the seconds before a perfectly brewed cup was ready) and beignets dusted with snowcaps of confectioner's sugar and attended by a mound of fluffed lemon crème. And while I waited for the rest of the meal, I was as happy as I always am when falling head over heels.
Then another argument broke out in the galley, and I saw my steak frites put to the rail, pulled down, put up again. I saw one of the cooks reach for a squeeze bottle. Was that my béarnaise sauce? I shook off my concerns, turned away, waited. Laws, sausages and sauces -- you don't want to see how any of them are made.
By the time they finally landed on my table, the frites were badly burnt, the hanger steak a gnarly end cut further abused by at least two trips across the grill -- the tale told in a muddled set of hash marks. A proper French steak should be cooked in the pan, glazed with maître d' butter and a touch of whatever sauce will eventually top it. But even when cooked by the grillardin, there's no reason -- at least, no good reason -- for a double-fire. I'd ordered the damn thing rare. It came a length past medium, sloshed in béarnaise that was decent, though over-thickened for stability and insurance against breaking on the line.
Laura had eggs Benedict, hash browns, ham and spinach, a little asparagus, everything dressed in a champagne holly. At the first touch of her fork, the poached eggs burst, spilling gray egg water all over the plate. The hash browns were burnt, too. While kitchen wisdom may hold that a little sauce covers myriad sins, this crew had already committed a myriad and one.
And it was only breakfast.
The second visit was on a Monday night, without reservations. Walking down the street, I could see candlelight flickering through the windows, sense a certain homey vibe -- invisible but discernable even at a distance. Pushing through the heavy doors into the lobby, then stepping into the dim-lit cosmos of paper-topped cafe tables, fire, glass and brass, I was hoping for the best. There were open tables, seats at the bar. We were told it would be a twenty-minute wait, which seemed reasonable (they could be on a turn, I thought -- condensing sections, waiting for reservations to arrive). Laura and I took a walk, giving the hostess her twenty minutes and another ten for good measure, then returned.
"I'm sorry, it's going to be about twenty minutes," the hostess told us. Again. I wondered if she didn't remember that we'd already waited. She had my name -- my fake name -- in her book. I reminded her of it.
"Twenty more minutes," she said, and walked away without offering us a seat at the bar or a table in the bar area, where overflow guests were already eating.
We waited. Why? Because it was a French restaurant and because I am a chump. Twenty minutes later, tired of seeing open tables going unused, I returned one final time and stood at the hostess stand, waiting until I was noticed. "I'm sorry, we don't have anything open right now," she said.
Laura and I gave up and went out for curry.
We returned on another Monday, this one much quieter. Dressed in our party clothes, we approached with confidence and were seated quickly. Still, the floor staff seemed wary until we ordered champagne and half the appetizer menu. After that, they didn't even blink when I held my menu too close to the candle and accidentally set it on fire, then proceeded to burn a hole in the tablecloth while trying to put out the menu.
The kitchen made a nice try with the escargot -- fat snails served in a soufflé dish under a dome of puff pastry and swimming in a bath of soupy, powerfully flavored green herb butter -- but failed, because the snails were chewy and tasted like they'd been done considerably less than à la minute. The special this night was some kind of freaky pan-Asian Frankenstein plate that screamed weekend leftovers. The Roquefort chips were burnt. An order of moules et frites brought mussels served in a citric herb broth with a mean streak that just came off sour. But the steak tartare was testament to a good garde manger man, at least, who'd rough-cut the meat by hand into a sort of beef brunoise rather than employing the traditional grinder. This gave the raw steak a surprising weight of flavor that easily stood up to the strong notes of caper, onion and rémoulade-like binder. And the simple salad -- butter lettuce, pine nuts, little tomatoes -- was lovely, beautifully composed and clean.
The cassoulet came in an antique (or at least antiqued) Chasseur pot that looked very cool, but even filled with picked duck confit, chunks of sausage, bits of bacon and beans, it lacked the depth, legs and solidity of an authentic cassoulet. The pot was more real than what was in it, and I'm not even sure the pot was real. The côte de porc was dull, at best, its gruyère crust and watery mash and forgettable spinach adding nothing but lipstick to a thoroughly disappointing chop.
Almost half the plates on the entree menu were finished with a lemon-beurre fondue that was really just lemon butter, melted. The coq au vin came with goat cheese. And the carré d'agneau la Dix Dix was almost fusion, with its truffled mac and cheese, burnt greens, lamb chop and bacon jus.
French is French, a devotion you stray from at your own peril. Executive chef (and partner) Anthony Hessel claims that his menu, his restaurant, is only "French-inspired." But you know what the French inspired? Everything. So a restaurant is either French or it isn't. There is no middle ground.
By the time dessert came around, I couldn't even work up indignation over the frozen profiteroles. My faith shaken and my love betrayed, all I wanted was to go home.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.