The host at French 250 is young — new to the business, I think, because as he walks me down the narrow space between tables, I can see that he doesn't yet have the smooth grace of the servers, who move like dancers: smoothly, fluidly, and with the confidence of many nights behind them.
"Will this be all right?" he asks, gesturing at a half booth set for two in the middle of the central banquette.
"Absolutely," I say, shrugging out of my jacket and trying to shake off the cold.
"And will someone be joining you tonight?" he asks as he lays down the thick, heavy menu, the equally thick, equally heavy wine list.
"No, it's just me, thanks."
"Oh," he says, hesitating for a split second, waffling internally, uncomfortably. "Okay, then." And he starts clearing the second setting, hurrying a little.
I like dining alone. Always have. I can't say that I prefer it to a nice, sweet dinner with Laura by candlelight, or to lounging with a raucous gang, drinking too much, all talking at once. But a solo dinner has its own charms — including watching the way the staff responds to someone showing up alone, sans reservation, at prime time on a Saturday night, watching that flicker of uncertainty in their eyes as they wonder, what's the matter with him?
At seven o'clock, diners are just beginning to trickle in. By the time I am done here, every table will be committed, the floor staff rushing to see to the highbrow needs of two dozen parties. By nine, this basement space with its lovely bar, comfortable seats, crisp linens and sparkling glassware will seem like the dense, noisy center of the culinary universe — as French as any Parisian temple of gastronomy, as far from a basement in Cherry Creek as I can imagine.
But then, French 250, which opened last summer in a space that had swallowed up several restaurants before it, is nothing like I'd imagined. My surprise begins with the menu: a solid and serious document, printed in cursive script that almost approximates a written hand, the pages thick and divided, lined with gold leaf. It is the menu I've hoped to find every time I've wandered blindly into one of Denver's new French restaurants but never have — one that aspires to nothing so much as the stodgy, imperialistic classicism that a generation of young galley turks fought so hard to do away with while I was still too young to appreciate the turks, while I was still too young to be oppressed, constrained or smothered by the weight of culinary history. Presented by course and therefore severely dictating the slow, delectable progression of the meal, these are the old warhorses, the classics upon which La Cuisine grew in the United States — presented with no modernist sops, very few nouvelle innovations, and with a grand and almost giddy adherence to the flour-cream-and-butter basics of haute gastronomy. There are escargots dans la patisserie; foie gras saisi served over brioche toast with apples, onions and a St. Germain elderflower syrup; traditional steak tartare with egg, capers and toast points; and cuisses de grenouille — frogs' legs, sautéed and served with a trio of sauces: a rich and decadent beurre blanc, a beautiful sauce verde made of puréed green peas, and a red-pepper coulis that makes me nostalgic for the days when a red-pepper coulis in a French kitchen was seen as cutting-edge, bizarre and almost too risky to be attempted lest Phileas Gilbert himself rise from his grave, come into the kitchen and rap someone across the knuckles with a soup ladle.
And this is just the first page of the menu. Like a perfect first kiss (French, of course), it draws me in. Fascinated, I flip forward through soups and salads (consommé de lapin! Bisque de carotte et homard!), through a huge list of cheeses (some modern, some ancient) and on to entrees, where I'm so distracted by a gigot of lamb with white-bean purée and a plate of coquilles St. Jacques that I don't notice the waitress standing patiently beside my table, waiting to discuss wines with me.
"Sorry," I say. "I was...distracted."
"Is this your first time dining with us?" she asks, smiling. In response, I just bob my head like a moron — completely gone on whatever weird cocktail of hormones and brain chemicals it is that makes a grown man fall in love with a menu, with nothing more than words on a page. Patiently, she explains to me the basics of dining at French 250: the multiple courses —
— the carefully paired wines —
— the spacing of portions —
She speaks to me as though I am a little dim, for which I don't blame her at all.
"So, how about a drink? Can I bring you a glass of wine?"
Yes. I ask for suggestions and, reading me (somewhat incorrectly), she offers a heady, powerful pinot from the long list. The discussion of the wine, the menu, the possibilities for dinner, takes us probably five minutes. Not once does she appear rushed or hurried. She has that waitress's magic of making whatever customer she's dealing with feel like he's the only one in the room — a gift completely wasted on me, because all I want is to get back to the menu.
Cotes courtes braises — lollipop short-ribs ("frenched," in the galley vernacular) with Swiss chard and toasted brioche. Loup de mer with beurre noisette and pine nuts. Soubise, béarnaise and a bouillabaisse done in the style of Marseillaise traditionnel, meaning with toast and rouille. While my waitress is away, pouring my drink, seeing to the tables that keep filtering in, I engage in a dozen small culinary fantasies, wishing once again that I was one of those dinosaur gastronomes of old — a Beard or an Escoffier, a man capable of putting away a dozen oysters with champagne ice, a soufflé de fromage de chèvre, two bowls of soup, six ounces of Roquefort, a loin of tuna au poivre with Lyonnaise potatoes, a gigot of lamb, two bottles of Petrus and a post-prandial bucket of the house's finest port, then still walking out under his own power. For a second, I toy with the notion of eating the menu's pages, too.
The waitress returns with my wine, gives me a moment to taste it, then opens the negotiations over my dinner: "How hungry are you?"
I tell her that I am famished, and that since French 250 has gone to the trouble of arranging this multi-course, haute French menu, I might as well eat that way. To begin, I've been thinking escargot.
And apparently, I've been wrong.
"The frogs' legs," my waitress says, "are the owner's favorite. He eats them every night."
Okay, I argue, but this is Denver, not Paris. In my experience, people in Denver aren't big on eating amphibian, and I'm concerned about how long said legs might have been kicking around in the sauté cook's cooler.
At which point my waitress laughs at me. Loudly. "No, no," she says. "You have nothing to worry about. Have the frogs' legs."
Having decided for me, she's already moving on: Soup or salad?
Soup. The consommé of rabbit with rabbit ravioli, grace note of mirepoix.
"French onion soup," she says. Again, owner Ted Reece's favorite. Depending on what kind of night the kitchen is having, she explains, the consommé is either a good consommé or a great consommé, but the French onion is always excellent, built up from a Madeira base, topped with Jarlsberg. French onion soup, no question, she says. Moving on...
"Cheese," I say thoughtfully.
No. Cheese at the end of the meal, because she has something special in the back, something not on the menu.
"What about an entree?" she asks, briefly giving me the illusion of control. "Are you thinking meat or fish?" She runs through the pros and cons — the chef's skill at breaking down the bison tournedos, the wonderful, classical sauces: the burgundy reduction, the mushroom bordelaise. Then there's the ménage trios de canard (duck, duck and duck — roasted breast, seared foie and confit leg), the roulette de sole. By now I've developed a bit of a love/hate crush on my waitress, transferring the lust I'd felt for the lobster bisque and snails in pastry to the woman who, shortly, will be bringing me the actual food she's describing.
Before she finishes praising the sole, I cut her off. "That sounds good," I say, agreeing to the roulette, the mushroom duxelles and sweet-potato rosti. "We'll worry about cheeses and dessert later."
She nods sharply, collects my menu and walks off. I am bereft. I don't know which I miss more: the bossy, opinionated, passionate girl with the weird French onion soup obsession, or the menu she's carrying.
I don't have time to decide, because soon she brings me frogs' legs that are better than any I've ever had (including those that I used to cook) — rich and buttery, with a flavor halfway between crab and chicken. The onion soup doesn't quite live up to her promise of being the best, but it's solidly good. And the stuffed sole is simply amazing — stuffed with braised Swiss chard, wild mushrooms and golden raisins, set precariously atop a bed of cubed and caramelized sweet potatoes so ideally roasted that the surface crunches with stiff sugar, then gives way to creamy and sweet flesh. When I take a moment to breathe between courses, I understand why my waitress laughed when I wondered about the frogs' legs, because everyone in the dining room is eating frogs' legs, snails, bowls of chunky, spicy-sweet Marsellaise seafood stew, or all three at once.
When the time finally comes for dessert, my waitress comes bearing truffles, berry coulis, wonderful bread (which she hadn't allowed me to eat earlier because it might have spoiled my appetite) and cheeses to die for: perfectly fresh fourme d'Ambert, French Morbier (a little stale) and a single ounce of Norwegian gjetost that's brown, unlovely, smelly and one of the most delicious cheeses I have ever tasted — her secret cheese. When I tell her how much I like it, how delicious it is, her face breaks out in a broad, relieved smile.
"Oh, I'm so glad," she says. "I was worried that you wouldn't be happy with it."
And now it's my turn to laugh.
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