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Child Prodigy

You can have your low-fat, cholesterol-free, vinegar-sparked, olive-oil-slicked, healthy Mediterranean diet. I'm listening to my inner Julia Child.

At the Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic a few weeks ago, Julia, the woman who made French cooking user-friendly, titillated the closet fat addicts hanging on her every word by dumping enough butter and cream into her recipes to make the American Heart Association have a cow. "I'm risking a visit from the food police," she intoned in that oft-imitated Julia Child way, while creating a salmon dish that was essentially a mousse of cream with a little fish in it and Escoffier's original pound-o'-butter hollandaise. "This whole fear-of-fat thing has gotten out of control, really, so eat smaller portions if you've got a problem with it. But the food has to taste good, and this is the way to make it taste good."

Of course, at the age of 82, it's easy to be unconcerned over clogging your arteries--but Julia Child is right. If you're going to eat fat, stop going to McDonald's and put more effort into eating incredibly delicious meals. Like the ones at the Savoy.

This beguiling French restaurant in Berthoud produces the sort of food that inspires poetry and music--or at the very least, outcries of "Damn, this is good." It's certainly worth the hour-long drive--you're not going to find better French cooking in the state. In fact, the Savoy's distance from Denver has its benefits: The miles provide a kind of buffer from the foodie faddism that afflicts other restaurants--people flock to the latest find, rave about it, then abandon it for the next hot spot, leaving the restaurant to wither away into bankruptcy while they move on to Applebee's "international cuisine" ("Le Riblet," anyone?). And during the drive back to the city, you get to savor memories of a wonderful dining experience.

Owners Jean and Chantal Martini, both French natives, have been in the restaurant business a long time. Jean started cooking when he was fourteen, and Chantal's grandmother was one of the first women to earn a Cordon Bleu cooking award; the two met at Chantal's Parisian eatery, La Grillade, decades ago. They know their current location poses some obstacles. "Hmmm, sometimes we think maybe it would be nice to be closer to a big city like Denver," Chantal says in her halting, French-accented English. "But it is so beautiful out here, and the people are so nice." She and her husband first learned of the restaurant while they were living in Los Angeles, where Jean worked with Yves Menes at the Jonathan Club; the Savoy's owners, Jean-Pierre and Maria Teresa Barat, who now own Denver's Le Gourmand, put an ad in a French newspaper to sell their restaurant. The Martinis came for a look, saw the Rockies, fell in love with Colorado and bought the Savoy in the fall of 1992.

Wisely, they didn't mess with the restaurant's auberge setting. The dining room is so evocative of a French country inn that once the doors close behind you, it's easy to forget that outside lies Berthoud and not the landscapes of Macon. (Of course, if that were the case, a dry cleaner and the Berthoud Hardware Store probably would not be next door.) Chantal's warm "Bonjour," the French Frank Sinatra singing in the background and Jean's to-die-for food complete the illusion.

We started with the salmon ravioli au deux sauces ($7.50)--although everything on the menu has a French name, there's also an English translation and description--and the dish was so amazing, we felt as though we could handle three more orders. The delicate, handmade ravioli were like sachets of minced salmon scented with a ladling of one of the most perfect pestos I've encountered anywhere, including Italy. Beneath these pillows sat an innocent-looking pool of tomato coulis, a concentrated, multi-layered blend of fresh herbs and pureed tomatoes. No less masterfully assembled were the escargots ($8.95), six succulent snails smothered in butter made saltier and richer with Roquefort cheese--just enough to add taste without making the dish scream "blue cheese." Our third appetizer, the terrine of the day ($7.95), was a lightly seasoned country pate of ground rabbit with pistachios, coated with the traditional thin layer of pork fat (yes!) and served with cornichons and a chutney of what tasted like sweet-and-sour lingonberries.

That same French understatement with ingredients also pushed the soups and salads over the top. The Savoy's French onion ($4.95)--which we substituted for the soup of the day, since soup and salad come with the entrees--had teased the inclusion of port in its menu description, and while we definitely could taste the fortified wine, rather than grab attention for itself, it added more of a rounded mellowness to the stock. The port's sweetness was ideal against the cutting, nutty saltiness of the Swiss cheese that burbled over the sides of the crock. And the asparagus soup was a textbook version: a consomme-thin liquid containing all of the flavor of flawlessly fresh asparagus and none of the fibers, bolstered by a mere hint of cream. Even the salads were exquisite, and they were exactly what we wanted to eat at that moment: impeccably fresh greens faintly coated with a Dijon-kissed vinaigrette and ringed by a foot-long beet thread for color.

By now we were fairly bouncing in our seats in eager anticipation of the entrees, and the Martinis didn't let us down. The baby rack of lamb ($22.95) came draped with a pungent black-truffle sauce--as if black-truffle sauce could be anything but pungent. Having just returned from the Aspen eating orgy, where the scent of trendy truffle oils hung heavy in the air, at first I was leery of that night's sauce offering (the Savoy changes the lamb recipe daily); but again, the French emphasis on letting ingredients flavor rather than dominate put the fungus in the best possible light. The sauce reminded me of a Perigueux--the classic rich brown sauce with ruffles and Madeira--and turned the lamb ribs into food fit for the gods. And once the meat was gone, I tilted the plate and spooned up every last bit of it. The sauce on the kangaroo ($22.95) was just as spectacular, a condensed elixir of mangoes and meat stock that added to the sweetness of the meat. Although the waitress had described kangaroo as tasting like elk, it was more like sweet beef; Jean had pan-seared the medallions to a perfect medium-rare. Both entrees were complemented by a generous quartet of side dishes: wild rice studded with sun-dried tomatoes, summer ratatouille spooned into puff pastry, red cabbage cooked down with juniper berries, and a tricolor vegetable terrine with carrots, cauliflower and broccoli.

After all that food, it would not have been unreasonable to skip dessert. But this was no time to turn reasonable. I went with the chocolate mousse ($5) rimmed by a dainty, spongy cake over raspberry coulis, and my husband ordered the strawberry and peach Melba ($5). "You realize that's going to be a French version of a sundae," I pointed out, "with tons of ice cream and whipped cream?" He grinned. "Of course," he said. "That's what I want."

I guess there's a little Julia Child in all of us.

The Savoy, 535 Third Street, Berthoud, 970-532-4095. Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 4-8:30 p.m. Sunday.

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The Savoy Event Center

2700 Arapahoe St.
Denver, CO 80205

303-999-1028

www.savoydenver.com


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