Try to remember the last time the tuxedo-clad manager of a restaurant ran, actually ran, outside into the parking lot so that he could breathlessly call "Thanks again for coming, and drive safely" because he'd missed saying goodbye to you at the door. Can you recall arriving for dinner at a fine dining establishment and finding a balloon tied to the centerpiece of your table and an extra napkin, spoon and bread waiting because you'd told the reservations-taker--sheepishly--that your toddler would be joining you? And have you ever watched as a bartender hand-washed every glass you'd used throughout a meal, lovingly polishing away even the most minuscule smudge?
All this service and more, much more, was handed out at Assignments, the restaurant attached to the School of Culinary Arts run by the Colorado Institute of Art. The smallish dining room (designed with veteran restaurateur Cliff Young's help) boasts an understated, minimalist ambience--black, white, a touch of burgundy and a few paintings focusing on cows--and a maximum of attention to detail. The dining room abuts an enormous fishbowl of a kitchen, inhabited by a school of students who hope one day to graduate into the big pond of the restaurant business. For now, though, they are content (if a bit nervous) to hone their skills on you. They do so under the watchful eyes of professionals, including the aforementioned evening dining-room manager--Charles Anderson directs the proceedings with all the diplomacy and decorum of a cheerful funeral director. At night the kitchen is overseen by Dominic Berardicurti (the students call him "Chef Dom"), late of the Lakewood Country Club and the Loews Giorgio; a different set of instructor-managers works the lunch crowd. But these four are the only Assignments employees repeat diners might recognize. The rest of the staffers are students enrolled in the eighteen-month School of Culinary Arts program, which includes two Assignments stints--one at lunch and one at dinner, during which they rotate through just about every position possible, from waitperson and bartender to prep cook and saucier.
You'd think that such flux would lead to chaos (heaven knows, most restaurants don't handle turnover well). At Assignments, however, it translates to a mostly smooth dining experience punctuated by the occasional oops--a dropped dish here, a stuttered menu recitation there--but highlighted by congenial service that rivals what you'd find at the finest restaurants in town. Although the kitchen rarely reaches the same level of competence, a meal at Assignments certainly makes the grade. The wine list alone earns extra-credit points; it's well-rounded and rife with good deals, including by-the-glass costs of $2.75 to $4. There's plenty on the list to match the items on Assignments' two alternating menus. One roster features regional American cuisine, the other French; both are relatively uncomplicated and emphasize the classics.
During our visit, the kitchen offered a limited selection from both menus. The soup of the day, French onion ($1.95 a cup), had an overabundance of thinly sliced onions crowned by a thick slice of French bread and an evenly browned cap of cheese. Those sound additions were almost enough to make us forget the broth, which tasted like watered-down water. In direct contrast, the vinaigrettes on our two salads were exemplary textbook emulsions bursting with flavor. A vibrant orange dressing came with the mixed greens ($3.95), which had been tossed with Asiago cheese and pine nuts (the nuts weren't mentioned on the menu, but the kitchen was out of the promised raisins); the caprise ($4.95), a classic layering of Roma tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil, was accompanied by a balsamic blend.
An entree of James Beard's roasted duck ($10.95) flew close to the revered late chef's recipe. The bird had been stuffed and coated in pan gravy, and it oozed roasted juice all over the plate. But while the meat itself had killer silky-tender portions (no breast, however, even though we'd been promised half a duck), the skin was fatty and greasy. And Beard wouldn't have recognized the inedible pellets--gristle or giblet bits?--that studded the sage-and-onion cornbread stuffing, although the rest of it was wonderful, smooth and sweetened by what tasted like bourbon. The sides (the same lineup came with every entree) were also a mixed blessing: summer squash tossed with oregano, two roasted cherry tomato halves, dried-out piped potatoes and a smattering of slightly salty, sauteed oyster mushrooms.
The kitchen did better by the New York strip steak ($14.95). The cut was serviceable if not stellar, and it arrived medium-well as ordered. While the Northwestern salmon ($13.95) was also a solid piece of meat, it had been overcooked and was inexplicably paired with two sauces--the red-wine listed on the menu and a white-wine sauce that looked like cream gravy. Both were sloppily executed and tasted overwhelmingly of uncooked flour.
With the last course, the staff upped its average considerably. The carrot cake was marvelous, slightly sweeter and less spicy take than most, and coated with a satiny smooth icing that wasn't sugary or cream-cheesy. The slice sat on a plate painting of orange liqueur, which added a savviness to the dish that had been missing from the main course. The bread pudding ($3.95) was standard, but the brown Betty ($3.95)--brown sugar pudding filled with almost liquidy apples and a few bananas--was like snuggling with your grandmother, it was so warm and comforting.
The food at the Eliot Street Cafe didn't score nearly as high as the fare at Assignments, but the Cafe earns extra points for entertainment value. This space at the Denver Public Schools' Career Education Center was known as Cafe Ecole from 1972 until this past year, when the Emily Griffith Opportunity School's professional food production management and service class merged with the CEC restaurant arts program. That marriage threw adult and high-school students into the same program, and you get to savor their interesting interaction when you dine at the facility (breakfast and lunch only). Under this program, students work in the kitchen for a third of the week, in the dining room for a third, and then sit in a classroom the rest of the time. Although they're often not far apart in age, it's easy to tell the Emily Griffith students from the high schoolers--the adults tend to have their pants pulled all the way up around their waists.
Picture the average angst-ridden, sagging teen, and you get an idea of what the Cafe's service can be like. During our lunch, the waitpersons were a bit reticent, although always polite. Questions about the meal, for example, were met with a blank stare and then a mumbled "Uhh, I'll have to check." The usual niceties--"Excuse me," "Thanks," "What would you like to order?"--were replaced with "Here's your food," "Oh," and a waiter who stood with an order pad in his hand, looking at us from behind seven inches of bangs, until we finally decided to just jump right in there and ask for something to eat.
Most of the diners lining up for these bargain meals (nothing tops $4.50) were from the over-sixty set, a group notorious for its--dare I say it?--hard-to-please qualities. This didn't seem to faze the students, though. When a woman pointed her finger at one of the waitresses and sternly said, "Young lady, I wanted this hamburger medium," the young lady smiled, replied "Okay," and took the offending burger away.
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Our burger ($3.75) came our way: lean, if bland, ground chuck broiled medium-well and sandwiched in a wheat bun. The French fries were the typical frozen variety but nicely fried, and the accompanying trimmings of lettuce, tomato and pickle were fine. So was the farfalle con pollo e broccoli ($4.50), a mix of chicken, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and bow-tie pasta in so much chicken broth that the traditional stew was almost a soup. And the fettuccine and harvest vegetables ($4.25) didn't have enough romano to make a dent in the bland cream sauce drowning the carrots, broccoli and peas.
The desserts--cherry pie ($1.25) and cake ($1.50) that the waiter had called "chocolate" but which turned out to be white with chocolate icing--were fresh and just like Mom's. But if I were to return to the Cafe for anything, it would be for the just-baked challah (85 cents), a hearty, airy egg bread made daily in the school's ovens. Actually, there's another good reason to return: to support this program. While the food isn't fabulous, it's better--and cheaper--than what you'll find at Denny's.
Both Assignments and the Eliot Street Cafe will shut down for the holidays after this Friday. When they reopen in early January, though, there will be no better place to go back to school.
Save me a seat.