Not many people know how to make a demi-glace, or coulibiac, or osso buco, or banh trang. This is a good thing: It keeps down the number of folks who delude themselves into thinking they should open their own restaurants.
But any idiot with a skillet can scramble an egg (or at least assumes he can), which is why this country is overrun with lousy breakfast places.
There's a world of difference between throwing a couple of huevos into a butter-slicked pan on your stove, stirring them around until they look done and then throwing them onto a plate with a few pieces of toast--and actually mass-producing egg dishes with all the sides for dozens of diners. I know. It was in 1993 that I first foolishly attempted to cook breakfast professionally, during a busy Sunday brunch. There was just me, a creepy line cook and a stack of a hundred or so eggs, and I couldn't stop an over-easy from breaking to save my life. I sent out beautiful eggs Benedicts with perfectly poached eggs smothered in just-made, real hollandaise. I cooked up flawless pancakes and waffles, crisp bacon, fluffy muffins and textbook omelettes--but it took me eight or nine eggs to get two intact fried ones. Thank heavens the restaurant decided soon after to stop serving breakfast.
Since then, I've always been impressed by eateries that do eggs well. Most of the restaurants around town lay an egg--but not the Iris Cafe.
This delightful spot is tucked away in an old house on a side street in picturesque downtown Littleton. The owners, Brad and Tracie Winters, bought the 87-year-old building four years ago, after several years of catering and operating the Mega Bites food cart on the 16th Street Mall. "That was tiring," Brad says. "It was just like having a restaurant, only after you're done for the day, you have to pack up the whole business and move it."
Brad learned how to cook from a chef in Guadalajara, where he went to school decades ago. "This guy had just come back from the Cordon Bleu," he explains. "But he was looking to learn more about traditional American cooking, like roast turkey and pot roast. I wanted to learn classic Spanish cooking, but his thing was really French, so I picked that up, too."
Brad's mom was also "tremendous inspiration," he says, and such homey touches continue in the Iris Cafe's interior, which Tracie decorated with teacups and dried flowers. The restaurant is truly a family affair: Both Brad and Tracie cook, and their son, Josh, is the server. He was also the only server each time I visited, which occasionally made for longer waits, but nothing too serious. And Josh's boyish charm certainly adds to the eating-in-someone's-home atmosphere.
But you won't find food like this on most Denver tables. Where west of an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago could you get goette ($5.95), for example? Winters says the dish is Bavarian and pronounced "gutta"; a former Pittsburgher, I remember it as the Pennsylvania Dutch "ghetta." Either way, it's a kind of scrapple, made with the standard pork but substituting oats for cornmeal. The Winterses added onions and spices to their loaf, then paired the goette with impeccable over-easy eggs and thick-sliced toast made from their homemade bread. The meal also came with a side of homemade raspberry jam and a tiny cup of cinnamon-enhanced applesauce that was not homemade, despite the menu's claims. "These things just keep getting away from us," Brad admits. No matter who made the sauce, though, it would have been better warm.
A German accent flavored the potato pancakes ($6.50), which were bolstered by onions and black pepper. And their texture was ideal: soft and creamy inside, crunchy and golden outside. Rich German sausage, two more perfect eggs, toast and applesauce rounded out the plate. Still more eggs did duty as filling in the excellent French country crepe ($5.95), whose thin, parsley-flecked crepe wrapped around a farmer cheese-gooey scramble. Although the vegetable omelette ($5.95) was another faultless egg preparation--with cooked-through zucchini, mushrooms and onions encased in a smooth shell topped with diced tomatoes--the side of potatoes à la lyonnaise was the real star of that combo. These tubers were exactly what Charles Grodin craved in Midnight Run: almost caramelized onions mixed with plush slips of potato.
While breakfast at the cafe was a real eye-opener, lunch wasn't as impressive. There was too much salt in both the salmon terrine and the pasta primavera. Otherwise, though, they were respectable, and the price was right: $8.95 bought not just the entree but grilled and buttered French bread, an adorable small salad with an excellent tart vinaigrette, and a dessert that wasn't the promised strudel but a strange combination of poppyseed cake and chocolate-flavored whipping cream.
The cafe serves more of those desserts at their afternoon teas, which the Winterses offer Tuesday through Friday at 4 p.m. After that, they close for the day--unless you call in advance with a reservation for ten or more, in which case they'll also whip up dinner. (Note, too, that they don't take credit cards.) But it's in the morning that the Iris blooms: Breakfast is what raises it above garden-variety eggeries.
I'd rather eat dirt than go back to Englewood's The Egg & I. As my husband put it, "I blew my cholesterol count for this?" The overly cheery-looking breakfast spot is full of bright wake-up colors and cute signs that say things such as "What's Special Today? You Are!" This is the fifth Egg & I location--the others are in Loveland, Fort Collins, Greeley and Cheyenne--and when it opened, the management made a big deal about how they were voted the "best breakfast" in those towns. Well, I've eaten in Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland, and I'm here to tell you, the competition ain't too tough.
And this sure isn't the best breakfast in the Denver area. The place is trying--it serves honest-to-goodness fresh-squeezed O.J. and is attempting some ambitious dishes--but it just isn't succeeding. The chicken Florentine frittata ($5.95) contained about three pieces of chicken, a few mushroom slices and a tablespoon of spinach, all doused with a horrible hollandaise that was the usual low-grade sauce-from-a-packet with a twist: It tasted strangely like the liquid from a beef bouillon cube. I understand places like this don't have the expertise or the time to make the real thing, but those "hollandaise" package deals can at least be embellished with lemon juice. The frittata was "complimented" (their word, not mine) with ranch potatoes, which were the high point of the meal. The soft, diced chunks had been quickly fried, just long enough to form a slight crust on some of the spuds without drying them out.
The potatoes "complimented" everything: the eggs Benedict ($6.25), which I never would have ordered if I'd known in advance about the repulsive hollandaise that drowned the nicely poached eggs; the "say cheese" omelette ($5), which was folded in half and covered with a quilt of cheddar and Jack cheeses; and the "fender bender" ($5.95), an okay cross between a crepe and an omelette that was filled with cheese, avocado, mushrooms and alfalfa sprouts--and sided by a bizarre poppyseed dressing that looked and tasted like corn syrup.
These meals weren't worth waiting for--and wait we did, with forty minutes elapsing between the time we ordered and the time our eggs arrived.
Morning became electric at Dumitri's, one of the bright-bluest, merriest places I've ever seen. Really, this Aurora spot makes the Mediterranean Sea look positively pallid. Dumitri Palea and his family have been serving American-Greek-Mexican breakfasts here for six years. Unfortunately, they haven't been serving very good ones, judging from my meals there. Except for the warm mini-muffins that greet each diner, the food suffers from cheap ingredients and poor cooking.
So I was puzzled when Palea, who seemed very suspicious that I'd called to ask about his place, pronounced this as his philosophy: "Leave it very simple, use the best foods, and make the restaurant the cleanest around." His place is clean, all right, but the lamb featured in the souvlaki and eggs ($5.50) looked like it had been run over by a car before being grilled to death. If this was the best, I'd hate to see the worst.
Palea does know his way around a kitchen; he's worked in them for thirty years, some of that time at Chateau Pyrenees. But he's not doing the cooking at Dumitri's, which could be part of the problem. If he were, maybe the huevos rancheros ($4.95) would have had some flavor. I had asked the waitress if the dish was spicy or very spicy. "It's, well, it's pretty spicy," she said. Not. The runny red chile had about as much bite as a muzzled Chihuahua, and there was so much of it that I could hardly find my over-easies. A pathetic pile of sliced potatoes--erroneously called "hash browns" (hashed means chopped, which is why these spuds may be grated but never sliced)--were also swimming in the bland soup, along with some smooshy refried beans. Surprisingly, the two pancakes that came alongside weren't bad. They had the malty characteristics of a mix, but they had been griddled properly and were soft enough to absorb copious amounts of syrup.
Dumitri's was still nothing to crow about when I returned for a second breakfast. The insipid eggs Benedict ($5.50)--covered, of course, with that instant hollandaise, although at least this sauce didn't taste like bouillon--featured Canadian bacon that was more like cheap ham. But the Belgium waffle ($3.95) was fine (even if it was a Belgian waffle--hey, you don't call them "France fries") and proved that the griddle is the way to go here.
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If you have to go at all. Remember, any idiot can scramble an egg--so if you can't make it to the Iris Cafe, you might want to try it yourself at home.
Iris Cafe, 5641 S. Nevada St., Littleton, 798-5238. Hours: 7:30-10:45 a.m., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 7 a.m.-noon Saturday.
The Egg & I, 6818 S. Yosemite St., Englewood, 804-0902. Hours: 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.
Dumitri's, 1911 S. Havana St., Aurora, 752-0553. Hours: 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily.