On a perfect mild afternoon before the last cold snap, I found myself perched on a stool before the small, half-moon bar at Bistro Adde Brewster, contemplating a late-day snack. I'd been poking around Cherry Creek looking for something interesting to do in the neighborhood, with a vague notion of checking on Aquarela's renovations and then dropping by Cook's Mart to pick up a new sauté pan and a good wooden spoon. Instead, I'd walked into Adde Brewster and discovered the perfect pomme frite.
Now, I haven't been to Paris. I've never had the time nor the means to make the obligatory pilgrimage to those Left Bank bistros and venerable Michelin-starred fortresses where haute cuisine was born, and so there are some people (and I can hear you already) who'd say I have no business passing judgment on something as central to the French experience as the humble frite. But I do and I will, because I earned the right years ago while working in New York for a chef we'll call Hans.
Hans was big. Hans was loud. Hans was Alsatian, but he'd been schooled and brought up in kitchens around Paris, working like a dog until one day -- burned out on the obsessive hero worship and stifling apprentice system that governs any advancement in French kitchens -- he fled Europe for the States. Hans was a working chef, always buttoned to the throat in bloodstained whites with a smoldering cigarette hanging from his lip and a ten-inch French knife stuck through his apron ties like some mountainous, prematurely balding pirate captain. When I joined his crew as a young, bone-stupid line cook, I was rightly assigned the lowliest position in his brigade. I made the frites. That's all I did and all I was allowed to do, and God help me if I ever dared try to lend a hand at one of the other stations.
Hans called me Chou -- French for "cabbage" -- in honor of my red hair and Irish surname. But everyone else who slaved in Hans's galley might as well have called me "Frites," because that's all I ever heard from any of them. "Frites on two....Going down, frites on four. Goddammit! Refire on table eight. I need one lapin, green salad, and Chou, gimme frites on the fly!"
Hans had shown me how to make the pommes frites to his specifications -- once -- and I was expected to make them perfectly every time after that, a hundred times a night. I'd learned to come in early to peel and cut potatoes by the fifty-pound bag; to keep the sliced frites in water with a couple slices of lemon and a handful of ice; to have at least four big tubs of them stacked up in the lowboy cooler behind me, plus an emergency fifth tub in the garde-manger's cooler, just in case I started running short in the middle of a rush. I'd learned the proper way to prepare them -- plunging my hands into the cold water and grabbing a double handful as soon as the order came in, giving them one good shake to get most of the water off before spinning around, dumping them in the fryer basket and blanching them in hot oil for ten seconds. Not nine seconds, not eleven, but ten exactly. Then I'd pull them up out of the oil, allowing them to drain and cool slightly until I heard the fire order from the expeditor, then back they went into the fryer oil to develop that perfect crisp and golden shell. When they were done, I'd lift them out, give the handle of the fryer basket one good smack to shake off some of the oil, then dump the finished frites into my favorite steel tossing bowl and give them a few one-handed flips while adding a good pinch of kosher salt and keeping an eye out for any burnt ends or discolored bits that would have to be purged before plating under Hans's watchful eye.
This was my life six nights a week for almost five months -- until the restaurant critic decided it was time for our review. We never knew she'd been there until the day the paper came out, but I remember walking into the galley that morning and seeing everyone hunched over one of the stainless-steel prep tables, stabbing at the column with greasy fingers and shouting at each other. Then Hans saw me and bellowed at the top of his lungs: "Chou! Come look! You're famous!"
The critic, who'd been trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, had devoted two whole paragraphs to the pommes frites -- to my pommes frites -- and how much they'd reminded her of the ones she'd enjoyed while wandering the streets of the Sixth Arrondissement as a starving culinary student. Hans clapped me on the back hard enough to numb my entire left arm, grinned at me, then went back to reading the review for probably the tenth time, picking it apart word for word and either congratulating or vilifying each cook around him in accordance with what had been said in the paper about his work. A couple of nights later, there was a new guy at the frites station, and I stood in front of the grill, desperately fighting to keep up with all of the orders coming in. I'd graduated. And the former grillardin whose spot I now stood in? We never saw him again. Apparently, a steak onglet had arrived at the critic's table somewhat overdone...
Adde Brewster's pommes frites were as good as I've had anywhere. They came hot and lightly salted, every one of them uniformly golden, crisp on the outside, soft and slightly chewy within. I could taste how they'd been blanched and left to hang, draining, in the fryer basket for just the right amount of time before being plunged back into the oil to finish them off for that final crispiness. It was only a little thing -- an order of fries to which the kitchen probably never gave a second thought -- but the little things matter. Serve me limp frites, or worse, plain old American french fries that the menu just calls pommes frites, and you're doomed. Do that, and I couldn't care less about your côte de boeuf or your fancy-pants heirloom-peach-and-port-wine sabayon. Because if you can't get the little things right, what hope do you have when it comes to the big ones?
Along with the frites, I had a nice sandwich of thick-sliced Black Forest ham, Brie and cornichons on a crusty baguette smeared with wonderfully sour French mustard. It was a classic schoolboy's lunch -- the Paris equivalent of an American bologna-and-cheese on Wonder bread.
"You know, there's a story behind that," owner Adde Bjorklund later told me. "I call that my train-station sandwich." When he was sixteen, he explained, he and a friend decided to travel from their native Sweden to Germany. They did so by train, chugging through London and Calais, all the way across France, then into Germany. Alas, neither of them spoke any French. The only thing they knew how to say was the name of that one ubiquitous sandwich: ham and Brie on baguette with cornichons. "So that's all we ate the whole time," he finished, laughing. "Train-station sandwiches every day."
Talking with Bjorklund, I get the impression that there's a story behind everything on the menu. The offerings are mostly classic Continental fare, a border-jumping hodgepodge of Swiss, French, Swedish, German and Italian specialties. It's a greatest-hits collection of time-honored Euro standards arranged by Bjorklund -- himself a Swiss/German-trained cook, brought up through the kitchens of second-generation chefs schooled under the old French masters -- along with his wife, Halleh Hessami, and Joe Sinopoli, his chef. "My wife is a big part of it," Bjorklund says. "She's Persian, and she grew up all over Europe. She adds a beautiful touch to it. And Joe...you know, there's a story behind that, too."
Of course there is. Sinopoli-- who stepped up from sous chef to top dog in July -- has been in this kitchen for four years straight, except for a brief and unsuccessful stint with a local catering company. "He's just this hardworking tattooed guy," Bjorklund says of Sinopoli. "Part of that...what do you call it? That Kitchen Confidential culture. He just wants to work hard and party hard, and he's taking things very, very seriously now, you know? He takes food very seriously."
It shows. The travel, the training, the solid European influences, the commitment of the kitchen -- all of these good things are echoed in the food. From a simple, rich and buttery house-cured gravlax (raw salmon cured in a combination of salt, sugar and dill), drizzled with a biting dill-mustard aioli and served with toasted bread rounds, to an excellent, tender Wiener schnitzel (a Viennese classic that actually originated in France, though most people consider it German) done either with the standard cut of veal scallop or à la holstein, Bistro Adde Brewster turns out plates that consistently display maturity and a respect for culinary roots sadly lacking amid all the fuss and tired fusion of today's flashier newcomers.
Stopping back in on a Saturday night for dinner, I sampled the kitchen's croûte forestière -- a kind of chunky duxelle of wild mushrooms, butter and herbs served over a crossed pair of crostini and thick with the perfume and flavors of the pine forests from which it takes its name. This was followed by a fat beef tenderloin that came to the table blue, just like I ordered it (no complaint with the grillardin here). Nicely seared on the outside, rare and just barely warm inside, the beef had been properly rested after cooking, giving its juices a chance to be reabsorbed into the meat after the stress of hitting the pan so that they didn't bleed all over my plate when I cut into it. A single, wisp-thin slice of foie gras -- cooked only by its contact with the meat -- crowned the tenderloin. And while I would have liked that single slice to have been a bit larger (for that matter, I would have liked them to send out the whole lobe and a free bottle of Cristal, to boot), it made for a classier presentation than the bitter blob of compound butter that many places are glopping on top of their steaks in lieu of the careful clarified butter, salt and parsley mix familiar to anyone who's done time behind a real bistro grill.
The tenderloin sat elegantly in a shallow tarn of deep-purple marrow bordelaise -- a wine sauce mounted with roasted bone marrow rather than butter. The menu's mention of this sauce alone had convinced me to try the dish, but unfortunately, it was the one thing on the plate that left me unsatisfied. Using marrow rather than butter to finish a wine reduction should give the sauce an unearthly richness, a silkiness that coats the tongue in velvet and fills the whole mouth. But this one fell flat.
The dining room does not. Adde Brewster's subterranean location, with its windows opening onto a gray cement retaining wall, might have been enough to kill any other restaurant. But somehow -- it could be some weird Swedish feng shui that's beyond me to understand -- the space works. The bar is small, intimate and now allows smoking again (see Bite Me, page 72). "How can you have a bar without smoking?" Bjorklund asks. "Classic rock and roll, a classic bar, classic drinks and a good smoke -- they all go together. How can you have one without the others?
The tables are simply dressed, with white plates, plain silver and single candles in tall, slim holders. The art on the walls is abstract and patently uninteresting, and the room itself has a funny shape with walls meeting at odd angles. Things can get pretty crowded during busy seatings, with a half-dozen friendly, professional and well-informed servers twisting their way through the close-set chairs, and it can be loud when the place fills up -- usually with hordes of graying Cherry Creek yuppies awkwardly flailing their way through doomed first dates, and with so much botulism toxin in evidence that had this been twenty years ago, before the advent of beauty-by-injection, it would have been cause for the health department to kick in the doors and quarantine everything in a thousand-foot radius. But still, it works.
This is one of the few Denver restaurants I've been in that actually feels like a restaurant. It's not an art gallery, not a fashion show, not some glammed-up retro-chic pit stop where the young and fabulous come to compare body piercings and scarf up overpriced California sushi. It's just a restaurant -- somewhere you go for a good meal and a nice glass of wine with your best girl (or fella). Over its dozen-plus years in the business, this restaurant has recognized that you have to find what works and then do it over and over and over again until every little thing is right, until all those little things add up to the big things, and the big things are no sweat.
I'm pretty sure Hans would agree.
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