Circus Maximus

Eat arty: L'Atelier serves pretty food that tastes pretty good, too.
Mark Manger

In fourteen syllables, the sign out front -- a small thing, almost understated, the color of wet slate -- manages to capture the kind of arrogance, the brash hubris, that would be celebrated in Los Angeles or Vegas with spotlights and names spelled out in hundred-foot-tall bonfires of neon.

That's how they draw attention to themselves in the Big City, but in Boulder there's just the sign hanging shoulder-high on the wall beside the front door, quietly but fully embodying the sense of shameless self-promotion that used to be de rigueur among chefs (especially American chefs, particularly foreign-born American chefs) and inspired an entire generation of quasi-celebrity butchers, bakers and coq au vin makers to name everything from neighborhood brasseries to four-star Michelin temples of haute cuisine after themselves. Anyone with a name even vaguely recognizable would slap it on a shingle as though he were naming his firstborn. Today, though, such blatant grandstanding is the exception rather than the rule. The cool kids give their new restaurants just a number (à la Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 66) or some barely pronounceable French name (like La Grenouille or la Goulue), and they assume that those in the know will simply find them.

But not here. This sign is an unabashed throwback to the days when chefs had to have their kitchens' swinging doors enlarged just so they could walk through without bumping their massive, swollen heads. It's so small you'd almost think it was subtle -- until you read it:


The Artistry Of Radek R. Cerny

Cerny, the man behind such legendary hot spots as Papillon Cafe and Radex, may as well have had the words "Super Genius" etched underneath, because when you see something like that hanging next to the front door, you know you're in for a show. A sign like that says you won't be eating tonight, you will instead be appreciating the style and skills of a man who was one of Colorado's first celebrity chef-owners, a guy who was at the top of his game just a few years ago, then stumbled, closed a couple of restaurants, and now is coming back strong with Boulder's four-month-old L'Atelier. Step through the door, and you are walking into a universe of very specific brilliance -- a space with one sun and many stars. Sit down, and you understand that you're in a place built first and foremost to house the ego of the guy whose name is on the bottom line. You're in the house that Radek built.

And apparently he wanted his house built to resemble a JC Penney home-furnishings department circa 1985, because it's filled with bright primary pastels, faux chrome and chairs with creaky, silver-white plastic-mesh seats. And inside that home-furnishings department, he apparently wanted a museum: tiny and spare, with glass sculptures in standing cases, silver serving utensils on open shelves, little ceramic figurines in courtly pose standing behind glass in lit boxes hacked into the lemon-yellow walls.

And inside the museum, Cerny wanted a circus -- or at least the impression of a circus -- with ugly, mottled-gray industrial carpeting instead of sawdust on the floor; tall dividing walls that look like rustic plywood; and high, big-top ceilings that capture all the voices and sounds in the room, then mix and amplify them. There are too many people on this floor, all taking orders, delivering food, busing plates, pouring wine, pouring water and shuttling from table to table to table. You could spend a night just sitting, watching, waiting for the inevitable moment when two will collide. It's three rings of manic activity, and because this place is the expression of one man and one mind, somewhere in the back is ringleader Cerny, the calliope music running nonstop in his head: Doot doot doodle-oo da doot doot doo doo...

Our server is a clown. At first he seems like the creepy kind, the sort who scares children and gets a little too close so that you can smell the sweat under the greasepaint. His shtick is an expertly realized parody of French service -- absolutely obsequious, almost sickeningly ingratiating, all monsieur this and madame that, and tiny little bows with his hands folded at his waist. But when he asks if this is our first time at L'Atelier, then launches into his speech about how anything we want is ours, how it would be his pleasure to provide any little thing we might need to make our night perfect, it clicks. His act is over the top and a little intimidating, but it gets him laughs from nearly every table and has me thinking that when he gets off shift at the end of the night, he must switch off the lights, have a last glass of sherry, then hang up his tuxedo in the back with his body still in it.  

His act works for this place, where everything is a little brighter, a little more excessive than absolutely necessary. It works because L'Atelier -- which means "the workshop" or, more appropriately, "the artist's studio" -- is almost farcical in its extremes. And that includes the food.

Cerny is a stylist, a chef with a signature so distinct that if you've ever eaten at one of his places, you will recognize his influence immediately at any of the others. Whipped, butter-rich Yukon Gold mashers piped out of the pastry bag; potato-starch tuilles (almost like pappadam) used as edible garnishes and pedestals; the heavy reliance on infused oils and Jackson Pollock squeeze-bottle art for decorating plates; cuisine that ignores international borders by borrowing liberally from the French, the Italian, the Spanish, American, Indian and Asian pantheon; and a total override of tradition with the blending of haute, classic and nouveau techniques: These are his trademarks.

And every one of them is in evidence here. Cerny has taken the approach that served him so well in the past and repeated himself at L'Atelier, which is dangerous sport in a business that thrives on innovation and the Next Big Thing. He's walking the tightrope without looking down, without falling too far on the side of indulgence -- style for style's sake -- or of tired repetition, and he pulls it off. Against all odds, his well-used bag of tricks produces a showstopper of a meal.

L'Atelier's menu is arranged for grazing, separated not in strict appetizer-and-entree style, but by amuse, land and sea, le coq, veal and pork. An amuse order of baked goat cheese brings two golden, breaded discs of musky Haystack Mountain cheese balanced on a mound of bitter greens dressed in a raspberry vinaigrette so thick it looks painted on the leaves and so potent it knocks you back in your chair. Sweetbreads arrive in a classic Cerny potato-starch tuille, floored with whipped Yukon Golds, on a plate done in triangles of black and white with doodles of pale green and hot-pink oils. The gently cooked glands are swimming in a dark sugarcane sauce rather than the traditional demi-glace or glacé de viande, which gives them a well-balanced, high, humming sweetness that's a surprise, but one I enjoy so much that I want a second serving as soon as the first is gone.

From the sea, there's the Big Fish -- a carpaccio of luminescent purple-pink tuna dressed in a fall of precious little sprouts and a veil of mirin rice-wine vinaigrette. From the land, a killer steak tartare served on a glass platter two feet long and six inches wide, laid out on the table like a sheet of corrugated ice.

Extreme? Absolutely. But at L'Atelier, plates aren't plates so much as they are canvases upon which the kitchen paints with food. Courses are events, presented with a flourish. I see tables of diners freeze as these landscapes and portraits and abstractions -- bounded only by their giant, white geometric frames -- are laid before them. No one eats immediately. They pause to appreciate, and then, when they do dig in, they share -- passing bites of this and tastes of that back and forth, oohing and aahing over the whisper of saffron in the fedelini con aragosta, the sharp bite of lemon punching up the veal scaloppine au citron.

No one wants to share my tartare, though. My dining companions don't care for the notion of raw chopped steak with an uncooked quail's-egg yolk quivering in a thumbprint notch in the center. And that's just fine, because I'm greedy, and I don't like to share when I find something as purely good as this. Yes, the presentation's jazzed up with little piles of chopped red onion, chilled capers, cooked egg white, crumbled dry yolk, red-pepper sauce and a spray of dry paprika dotted, heaped and smeared across the platter. But at its center is the tartare, and the meat is wonderful -- silky with fat, smooth and richly flavored. The serving is enough for two, maybe three, and I do the best I can, but eat only half.

As a silent busboy whisks away my leavings, our waiter corners him. "Did he like it?" he asks. Then the waiter comes over and asks me if everything was all right. It was perfect, I insist; I'd stuffed myself to the eyeballs with tartare, and to be honest, I miss it already. He nods, smiling, and fades away.

We could eat from this menu all night, jumping from element to element, quadrant to quadrant, mixing and matching everything with everything else -- except that tables are at a premium here. There are only fifteen of them, and they're always full, with anxious crowds packing the laughably small foyer, peeking in around the hostess stand to see if a table's almost done, if diners have ordered dessert, if they're lingering over coffee.  

We feel their stares as we eat our spicy Thai crevettes -- pale shrimp pungently spiced with coriander and turmeric, wrapped in lime leaves and served with jasmine rice and coconut-milk sauce. We're watched as we devour veal medallions sautéed in butter -- and tender as butter -- set in a tarn of smooth, mellow veal glacé, bordered with lobster oil and topped with a crabmeat mornay sauce that's gone a little rubbery and slick in its trip from the kitchen. Our audience closely follows the progress of the chicken supreme de volaille comte d'Armanac, delivered on a plate as big as a briefcase, sketched with almost a half-dozen sauces. The sautéed chicken breasts lie on a light brandy reduction (the d'Armanac) smoothed with veal stock, but the sauce is too weak to hold its own against the overwhelming heat and punch of the Madagascar peppercorns liberally sprinkled over the top. Cracking one with my teeth is like getting a face full of pepper spray, as though I've done something to insult the kitchen and I'm being punished. Scrawled across the bottom is a sweet soy reduction, good but weirdly paired with a green infused oil that adds more color than flavor. And along the top edge, there's a spectacular mushroom cream sauce, almost a forestière, bounded by long, dragging trails of piped, whipped potatoes and a small bunch of steamed haricots verts.

By nine o'clock on this Saturday night, the people waiting -- those who've arrived late or without reservations -- are starting to spill out of L'Atelier's small, four-table patio and onto 17th Street. The hostess is taking cell-phone numbers so she can call as tables open up. We've sat through two full turns of the dining room, and, by the look of things, there's still another seating to go. Yet we've never been hurried, never treated with anything but perfect, fawning, ebullient service.

And when we ask our server for something light and sweet from the dessert menu, he crouches down and goes through this night's offerings, point by point, carefully searching for that perfect cap to an excellent meal. Gingerbread is too bulky, shortcake too sweet, so we finally settle on a simple sorbet. It's peach, made in-house, gently sugary, and it arrives in three tiny white bowls, each holding a trio of little scoops garnished with a single ripe raspberry. They look like baby clown hats -- the floppy, pointed kind with pompoms that clowns are always wearing in black-velvet paintings. And now I can hear the calliope, too: the honking, breathy, slightly crazed music that must play all night, every night, in the back of this house that comes so close to being a ridiculous collision of extremes and indulgence, but works because of the infectious, reckless joy that seems to radiate from the walls.

So come one, come all. The circus is in town, and there are many wonders under the big top. Just don't forget your sense of humor. Or your reservation.

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