Every spring, Chinook Tavern celebrates white-asparagus season as long as the season lasts, getting only the best product overnighted from producers in Holland, Germany and France, using it in only the best ways. For ten years Chinook has been doing this, and just a whiff of the house's special white-asparagus menu was enough to send me scrambling to Cherry Creek.
The restaurant felt oh-so European, which precisely fit my mood. It was about three-quarters full of happy, pleasantly sated Creekers (a much more temperate crowd than the usually uptight, screeching Creekers at the neighborhood's trendier digs), with the last light of the evening slanting down across the luxe foxhole of a patio and streaming into the half-subterranean dining room. While we studied the menu, crusty, fist-sized rolls came to the table wrapped in purple linen like an offering, with good butter at room temperature -- not chilled and impossible to spread, one of my front-of-the-house pet peeves. Laura and I eschewed the wine bible, trading in our customary red-versus-white battle over the Jesus juice in favor of a couple of long pints from the bar. She ordered a hefeweisen with lemon served in one of those over-stretched pilsners that the Germans prefer, and, pissy EU isolationist that I am, I went with the only Irish stout on the menu.
Our server -- trailing a trainee who stood like a mute puppy at his heel the entire night -- was good. He was casual, opinionated, honest when engaged. "We have the best schnitzel you'll find outside of Austria," he insisted when Laura asked about the house specialty.
"Really?" she asked. "I've had some pretty good schnitzels in Austria." Which was true. While her critic husband has never set foot on the Continent ("Ain't never been to no Paris, France" is how I usually put it when confronted by one of those well-traveled foodies who think their busy passports give them some sort of special knowledge, some insight into cuisine that I have been denied by my stubborn provincialism), she's been everywhere, so she would know if he was lying.
He remained unruffled, his voice half blustering game-show host, half amusement-park ride operator as he ran through a practiced "Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times and do not exit until it has come to a full stop" spiel, complete with rehearsed pauses and programmed jokes that we heard him repeat at each table under his care. But it worked for him, and his timing was excellent.
For a decade now, the Georg family -- brothers Clemens and Markus, who run the front and back of the house, respectively; father Manfred, who steers the ship; and mother Leise, who provides the art and runs the gallery next door -- have pursued their vision of a grown-up, serious restaurant. In all aspects of service and cuisine and the brute-force mechanics of putting three partial turns through the dining room on almost any given night, their Chinook Tavern gives an overwhelming impression of adept professionalism. There are no splinters here, no sharp corners. Everything about the place has been smoothly planed and polished, and if some of the dishes don't dazzle, they're never less than competent.
We ate an absolutely wonderful wild-mushroom strudel, fighting over forkfuls of what was essentially a croûte forestière just back from Manhattan -- shiitake and lowly button mushrooms sautéed together, ground into a rough chop, bound with Haystack Mountain goat cheese and gently herbed, then wrapped in crisp mille-feuille like a burrito, bias-cut and stood on end in a puddle of perfect Madeira reduction. Streaked with more goat cheese and lent a bit of muscle by an old-fashioned veal-bone demiglace, it was a great example of a classic being given a modern makeover. Alfred Portale be damned, I hate vertical food. And I hate button mushrooms -- those ugly, dull suburbanites of the fungal kingdom. But I loved this plate despite my ingrown, bitter and hard-earned prejudices. A good chef can do that to me. And Markus Georg -- a Culinary Institute of America-trained exec who went the pro's route with a long-term externship in Europe, cooking at the Michelin-starred Jörg Müller and thereby negating most of the damage done by culinary school -- is definitely a good chef.
Along with the strudel, we had a lovely slab of smoked trout with herbed chèvre, red onions shaved translucently thin, hard-boiled egg and capers served with grilled rounds of baguette. And brathähnchen -- half a chicken, the skin crisp and peppery over the buttery meat -- prepared à la minute, with a simple rosemary jus, fried slivers of potato (bratkartoffel in German, homefries to the likes of me) and unadorned haricots verts. We finished with crème brûlée done just so -- smooth custard, the easy sweetness of real vanilla beans, a torched-sugar crust. There was nothing weird in it, nothing freaky about it. It was just another classical recipe, perfectly executed by the kitchen.
And with that, we were done. It had been a wonderful meal, the food comforting and neighborhoody and straight bistro-with-a-little-b -- exactly what so many Francophiliac restaurateurs, in full retreat from fusion and world-food frottage, have attempted to create through force and advertising, but executed here through the easy sincerity of commitment. As a Continental European restaurant, Chinook is remarkably successful, with Markus closely following the cream-butter-stock-demi formula that gives all those dishes their unique sense of solidity and indefinable volupté. And unlike some of those juvenile flashes-in-the-pan that surround it -- places that try to fake, gimmick or cheap their way into significance -- Chinook doesn't need to try to be anything else.
Which is why it drives me a little nuts that it seems to be trying just that.
Although it's a successful Continental European restaurant, Chinook doesn't leave well enough alone. The menu takes some weird fusion/nouvelle turns through American-Southwestern-slash-Italo-Germanic-Frenchy-bistro-cum-tavern cooking, with a gentle Colorado accent and some serious Teutonic weight. On the appetizer list, there's that beautiful strudel -- incomparable proof of a master's hand -- along with steamed mussels in white-wine broth taken directly from the seaside menus of Biarritz or Cap Ferrat, and a smoked bratwurst and chipolata sausage platter with mashed potatoes, mustard and caramelized onions as German as Lili Von Shtupp. But there's also buffalo carpaccio with green-chile aioli. And gazpacho. And sautéed shrimp cakes that have no distinct heritage: They're not German, they're not French, they're not Southwestern. What they are is the most popular appetizer on the menu.
As promised by our server, Chinook's schnitzels -- both the wiener and jaeger versions --were commendable, the veal milk-softened and tender, gently breaded and nicely fried. The wiener was served with nothing but a squeeze of lemon, the jaeger somewhat more complexly paired with wild-mushroom sauce and spaetzle. Although it may not be the best schnitzel outside of Austria, it was certainly good enough for me. But it was odd to see such sturdy standards alongside the celebratory asparagus specials coming straight from the village grills of Holland, Germany and France -- the steamed asparagus with dimly yellow and lemony hollandaise served with pink cones of thick-cut ham, the asparagus with cordon bleu, the asparagus all by itself. And while the menu also features a classic calf's liver, a roasted veal shank over red cabbage and an Old World Rheinischer sauerbraten with potato dumplings, they're right beside Alaskan salmon with raspberry butter sauce and mango-chipotle hangar steak. True, by the time I tried the steak, the kitchen had gone through two versions -- first dumping the mango and serving the steak with a chipotle-garlic butter, then dropping the chipotle altogether and going with a decidedly more traditional green-peppercorn sauce. But simply seeing the original iteration of the dish on the menu was deeply disturbing to my classicist leanings.
I understand a chef's urge to branch out, to experiment and try new things. I've been there in my own (former) career -- serving Japanese squid salad on a Mexican menu, using wasabi on a Moroccan veal shank -- and I've since seen it happen a hundred times with chefs infinitely more talented than I ever was. But in many cases, the chefs are listening to the customers rather than following their own instincts. American diners are different from European -- awful to please, insisting on innovation and brilliance like it's owed them, and then, more often than not, satisfied with having their fireworks presented by Applebee's (or worse). Classically trained chefs can go bonkers when they try to keep up with the demands of a fickle public.
"We didn't want to tie Markus's hands," says Clemens Georg, when I get him on the phone after my third meal at Chinook. "We didn't want to be that beer-and-lederhosen German restaurant, you know?" Even he has difficulty describing the style of the menu -- but he knows that customers eat this stuff up.
To explain the reasoning behind such flights of culinary fancy, Clemens introduces me to a generic Mr. Johnson. He dines at Chinook once a week, Clemens explains, always on a Friday night, always with his wife. Every time Mr. Johnson sits down, he orders the jaeger schnitzel. He doesn't even look at the menu; it's been jaeger schnitzel every Friday for ten goddamn years. On the other hand, Mrs. Johnson (who secretly hates Mr. Johnson in my retelling of Clemens's story and has been slowly poisoning him over the past decade by slipping arsenic into his schnitzel) is bored to tears with jaeger schnitzel. She wants something new -- fish one week, maybe a salad and a piece of lamb the next. And Chinook has to be there for Mrs. Johnson, too. The house has a lot of regulars, Clemens points out, people who enjoy seeing Markus and his sous chefs experiment with new things. Bottom line, the weird stuff moves. When the kitchen does Markus's wasabi-crusted halibut, they can't keep enough in the coolers to match the demand. And they sell far more house-smoked baby-back ribs than they do their traditional bauern teller.
It's hard to argue with stats like that. Still, it hurts to see Markus and crew wasting their energies on that nouvelle, passport cuisine. Because they are pros, they do well with it -- as well as they can, at least -- but these are shrugs on a menu otherwise filled with bold declarations, handled with all the skill this talented kitchen can bring, but worthy of none of it. The true Continental preparations are intrinsically better dishes -- time-tested and dependable -- and I would rather see more of them than watch the kitchen hang it all out there on yet another world-food pork loin.
"It's just a question of listening to our customers and giving them what we think they want," Clemens says. If Mrs. Johnson wants her prawn scampi and risotto, she's going to get it; Mr. Johnson can have his schnitzel. And when the non-world traveling critic comes in looking for his moules et vin blanc, sauerbraten and sublime mushroom strudel, he's gonna get it, too. This is tableside democracy in action, a choose-your-own-adventure type of restaurant. And while Mrs. Johnson might have a thing or two to say about it, I'll take the Old World every time.
Lucky for me, I know I can always find a taste of it at Chinook Tavern.
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