French Toast

In France, love and food and passion and wine and sex and cheese are all mixed up, a steamy potage of appetites as intoxicating as it is exhausting. How fitting, then, that La Chaumiere, a charming French restaurant just outside Lyons--Colorado's Lyons, that is--is the culmination of a decades-old romance between two people as devoted to food as they are to each other.

When Elisabeth first met Heinz in Munich nearly fifty years ago, she was sixteen and he was eighteen. For her it was love at first sight; for him it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that continued through their respective marriages, children and divorces, as well as a slew of jobs that found Heinz working at some of the best restaurants in Europe. But in 1959 Heinz moved to the United States, where he cooked in a Maryland restaurant until he'd had enough of the climate there. "He went to a realtor and said, 'I can't stand the weather here. I want mountains,'" Elisabeth says. "So the realtor found him La Chaumiere."

The restaurant right off Highway 36, about nine miles past Lyons in the tiny town of Pinewood Springs, had been built in the Fifties; it was a pizza place when Heinz acquired it in 1975. He wasted no time in changing the name and turning the place into a French restaurant, and a good one--but something was missing.

In 1990 Heinz called Elisabeth in Munich, where she still ran her parents' bakery. "He said, 'I need you,'" Elisabeth recalls. "He wanted me to come and run La Chaumiere with him. But I said, 'No, Heinz, I loved you all my life, but now it's too late,' and he just said, 'You've got to come see Colorado.' So I came, and you know, Colorado in January, and it was snowing and there was a fire in the fireplace..." Needless to say, it didn't take Heinz long to convince Elisabeth that it's never too late, and a year later they became Mr. and Mrs. Fricker.

Today Elisabeth is 65 and Heinz is 67, and they have parlayed their love of food and their love for each other into a delightful eatery. But Elisabeth is quick to give Heinz the credit for everything from the decor to the cuisine. "It's all Heinz, you see," she says. "I do the pantry and the books and the spirits, and I handle the dining room, and Heinz thinks that's what I do better. I like to touch pretty things and be around good-smelling things, and I appreciate them, and Heinz is so amazing with food and with ambience."

He certainly has the experience to back it up. Heinz started apprenticing to French chefs in his teens and went on to work in Switzerland and France, as well as in England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany. Along the way, he developed a keen sense of setting, as evidenced by La Chaumiere's coral-and-cream color scheme, its stone fireplace, the appealing flowered fabrics on the furniture and the fresh flowers on each table. It looks like the sort of restaurant you'd find in rural Provence, a country eatery frequented by locals but relatively undiscovered by tourists.

At La Chaumiere, though, the opposite is true, at least in the summertime, when tourists fill the place. But none of them could be as appreciative of Heinz's exquisite mix of cuisine bourgeoise and haute cuisine as we were when we visited the restaurant two days before leaving for France.

We wanted an authentic taste of where we were headed--and that's just what we got, from the warm, friendly service (the kind usually found in French country inns but rarely in the big cities) to the elaborately garnished entrees (the French take the issue of sides very seriously and would consider an unadorned pile of steamed broccoli and carrots a mortal sin). And the prices for La Chaumiere's sophisticated fare were surprisingly low, in line with the comparatively small amounts eateries in France charge for their elaborate creations.

We started with two classic appetizers, the first an excellent duck-liver pate in aspic ringed by cornichons ($4.50). The thick slice of pate was rich and smooth, ideal for spreading across pieces of crunchy baguette. Our second starter, escargots in garlic sauce ($5.75), was astoundingly good: six snails almost melting in a buttery sauce packed with scallions and garlic that revealed Heinz's expertise, since the garlic had been cooked just past the point of bitterness but short of losing any of its potency. The soup course provided further evidence of his skill. The cream of mushroom ($2.50) contained so much elegant flavor that we were convinced it had been made with more exotic mushroom types, but the server informed us that Heinz had coaxed all that flavor out of the lowly button. And while the idea of cream of elk soup ($2.50) gave us pause, the reality was a "cream" soup in name only; velvety bits of elk meat were suspended in a thick, elk-based broth.

If French food is known for anything, it's richness--and the entree of sweetbreads with pine nuts and wild rice ($15.50) paid off in spades. Large bundles of thymus gland had been sauteed and then coated in a plush demi-glace-enhanced sauce studded with the nuts, which contributed a slightly bitter, richness-cutting quality that carried over into the nutty rice. And although the sauce on the poached salmon ($14.50) was supposed to be shrimp-based--it tasted more like an intense butter sauce strong with onions--and the spinach souffle that was supposed to come with the fish wasn't there, we were still bowled over by the texture of the salmon. Anything described as "satiny" would seem like sand in comparison. Really. The filet was so soft and silky, it didn't seem real--except that it was full of genuine, delicious salmon flavor, so often lost in the flavor-leaching poaching process.

The entrees came with salads stunning in their simplicity: fresh, crisp greens adorned with red onion rings and drizzled with our dressing choices of a superbly subtle honey Dijon and a creamy bleu cheese. And then there was a collection of sides, the hallmark of French cuisine: piped potatoes the texture of whipped cream, mace-laced brussel sprouts, steamed baby carrots, haricots verts in garlic butter, and sweet red cabbage, one of the few giveaways that the people in this French kitchen might be German.

The desserts were pure francaise, however. The unusually dense chocolate mousse ($4) boasted an imported-chocolate taste and a textbook creme anglaise, while a trio of homemade ice creams--banana, coffee and pistachio--carried such intense flavors that they could only be French.

Although Elisabeth's background is in patisserie, the desserts are made by Heinz. "It works this way, it really does," Elisabeth says. "We each have worked out the things we like to do and the things we are good at, and we have been able to put them together and make them work. It isn't always easy working together in the kitchen, but I think we've made a successful go at it."

And you've got to love that.

La Chaumiere, U.S. 36 in Pinewood Springs, 823-6521. Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2-10 p.m. Sunday.


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