Aix not only marks the spot for a marvelous meal in this city, it hits the spot, dead-on, for local foodies longing for the sort of Provençal dishes that put the South of France on the culinary map.
Naming a restaurant after Aix-en-Provence, considered by many to be the heart of France's culinary soul, was risky at best. As anyone who has been to Aix knows, it's a magical place that elicits tears from the sentimental and sighs from even the cynical. Founded in 122 B.C., the tiny city oozes culture and history and exemplifies Provence: the town center lined with fountains, trees and cafes; the bookshop-dotted Cours Mirabeau that's the epitome of picture-postcard material; the surrounding countryside, velvety with lush vineyards and vibrantly colored flowers that have captivated centuries of painters.
Now, how could a restaurant run by Americans in the heart of this country's cowtown possibly capture that soul ? It's simple, really: by focusing on the food, letting the ingredients do the talking -- and cooking them right.
Aix's owners, Cyd Anderson and Rachel Wolcott, were in a unique position to do just that: They're both chefs. Originally from Denver, Anderson graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and cooked for several well-known Frisco and L.A. restaurants, including the infamous Stars. Wolcott, who's from California, came to this state to study psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but realized she wanted to be a chef. So she went to Boston to cook, and then wound up at Restaurant Sent Soví, a well-regarded contemporary French eatery in Saratoga, California. While she was there, her old friend Anderson called from the Arrowhead Country Club in Littleton and offered her a job.
The two found that they worked well together and shared a passion for all things Provençal. So when Sean Kelly closed the Biscuit at the beginning of this year, they decided to see if they could make that space on 17th Avenue work with their own restaurant concept.
It's a difficult space. Before the Biscuit -- where the most elaborate cooked item was poached eggs -- the building housed a crêperie and deli, and before that an ice-cream shop. Transforming the spot into a full-fledged restaurant required putting in a hood, creating a bar and coming up with a way to put in enough tables to make money but not have the small dining room seem like a sardine can. For the most part, the transformation was successful -- although Aix can get pretty noisy.
The noise has never dampened our fun, however, and Wolcott says they're trying to make further improvements. Already there are groovy, crinkly screens hanging between the bar and the dining area, helping prevent bar sounds from spilling over into the restaurant and keeping the shuffling of servers going in and out of the kitchen to a minimum. The screens also jazz up a space that otherwise has a placid Mediterranean feel, with walls the color of butternut squash and honey-hued hardwood floors. The two owners did almost all of the interior work, which meant adding welding to their list of skills.
In keeping with Provence's cooking style, the small menu -- we were able to eat our way through the regular roster in just two visits -- has a Mediterranean taste, too, and a gently marked-up wine list designed with the food in mind. "The recipes are collaborations between the two of us," Wolcott explains. "To keep us fresh, I cook one week while she runs the front of the house, and then we switch the next week. That way, mentally, we know that we only have to get through this weekend of cooking before we get a break."
That system keeps the cooks fresh -- and it shows in the freshness of the preparations. Nothing seems tired or overwrought, a common pitfall when chefs cook all Provençal, all the time. True Provençal combinations are usually so simple that cooks can't stop themselves from messing with them, and then everything quickly turns pretentious. Not so at Aix.
Dinner starts with an amuse, a complimentary little tidbit -- the descriptions were bigger than the items themselves -- from the chef to get the juices flowing. On one visit it was a sweet-and-salty combo of six ingredients, the most important of which was foie gras mousse; on another, it was a fruity, cheesy little number. In both cases, the amuse was more than enough to get our hopes up for what was to come -- and we were never disappointed.
All of the starters were sublime. A tart of wild mushrooms and goat cheese brought a well- balanced mix of earthy and creamy richness tied together with a truffle-scented vinaigrette. (Because of the cow-unfriendly terrain, Provençal cooking involves a lot less milk and cream and a lot more goat cheese than in the rest of France.) The lobster Napoleon matched a generous portion of the crustacean's sweet flesh with the anise qualities of a tuile made out of fennel, and that motif carried through to an anise-flavored tarragon aioli. While the seared foie gras cost a little more than it does at other restaurants, Aix threw in a second piece of duck liver, sticky-sweet with a mixed-berry reduction that exquisitely highlighted the meat's natural sweetness. By far the best starter, though, was the wild-mushroom soup, a combination of smooth purée and chunky 'shrooms so strongly flavored it was hard to imagine that there was anything but mushrooms in it -- except for the white truffle oil, which heightened the heady taste.
That concentration of flavors is a hallmark of the cuisine of Southern France, and the roasted chicken provided another fine example of it. "Lacquered" in lemon and herbs, which did indeed give the skin a shiny sheen, the moist bird was as comforting as the oven-warmed, tile-lined kitchen of a typical home in Provence. The split chicken surrounded potatoes roasted until they had the crunchy, golden crust of hash browns and centers so soft they were reminiscent of pasta, as well as a braised mirepoix, the traditional French mixture of onions, carrots and celery tossed with herbes de Provence (a varying blend of dried rosemary, sage, marjoram, savory, basil, fennel and lavender) and sautéed in butter. Often mirepoix is used as a base for soups or sauces; here it had been coated in the bird's juices until the vegetables were saturated with the oily essences of lemon and chicken.
Also soothing was the dreamy, creamy polenta that came with the roasted rack of lamb: juicy chops slicked with an intriguing demi-glace sparked by spearmint and cardamom, which moved this dish farther along the Mediterranean. The sauce worked beautifully, though, because the kitchen had employed a light touch with the cardamom -- a little goes a long way with this pungent relative of ginger -- and created an exemplary demi, reducing it to a thick glaze that clung to the tender lamb. Aix also did a great job with the filet mignon, which was grilled to a flawless medium-rare and smothered in a deep, darkly flavored bordelaise sauce; the sweet-potato gratin on the side was part upscale Thanksgiving, part down-home comfort food.
The salmon, seared until just done and sitting atop a ragout of vegetables and an artichoke-kissed aioli (along with a creamy carrot purée that Wolcott says she threw in on a whim), was both deceptively simple and ultimately addictive. So was the red snapper, salted and seared so that the skin was crispy and sharply flavored while the center of the fillet was luxuriously supple and moist; it came with slightly bitter wilted greens and plush cranberry beans. Even the vegetarian Provençal-style polenta was a crowd-pleaser. Although not as creamy as the side with the lamb, the polenta had a soft, almost silky texture; the subtle bitterness of braised endive and the sweetness of caramelized onions, sweet-and-sour cherries and a sugary beet jus added a yin-yang of tongue-teasing tastes.
The only way to follow up such sumptuous entrees was with a sumptuous dessert. Aix delivered with a double-chocolate torte, hot from the oven and gushing a thick, dark chocolate goo that was oh-my-God good. Suffering only by comparison was a delightful cheese platter -- Aix gets its cheeses from the two best shops in town, the Truffle and St. Kilian's Cheese Shop -- that on one visit featured some killer Spanish options, served with toasted baguette slices and dried apricots.
Aix, by the way, is pronounced "aches" -- which is how our stomachs felt after we ate way too much there. But those pains were a small price to pay for the pleasures of Aix.
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