The Soviet bloc crumbled almost a decade ago, but Boulder's Little Russian Cafe held on until last fall, when its owners finally decided that the stuffed cabbage and borscht had to go. "We knew we had to do something, because the business just wasn't there anymore," says Sasha Ionikh, who ran the place with his wife, Olga. "We knew we wanted to try something new." And not just new, but the polar opposite of the heavy, dense, carbo-loaded, substantial (did I mention heavy?) fare they'd been serving for years.
The food isn't the only thing that's been changed at the Ionikhs' restaurant just off the Pearl Street Mall. They gave the heavy, dark-red room a facelift, transforming it into a bright, squash-colored spot with a lighthearted name to match: Amuse. While "amuse" has the same meaning in English and French, the French also use it as part of two culinary terms: amuse-gueule, an appetizer or snack, and amuse-bouche, a "mouth teaser." And that's exactly what Amuse serves -- pretty, tasty little packages, presented with a flourish.
Those packages are the work of the Ionikhs' son, Maxim, who's fresh from a round of European restaurant apprenticeships. Maxim calls his creations "contemporary European," but they sure look like nouvelle cuisine to me. And while nouvelle may have reached landmark status long before the Berlin Wall came down, what's old is new all over again at Amuse.
1430 Pearl Street, Boulder
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Pav of house-cured salmon: $8
Seared sea scallops: $11
Mushroom bisque: $6
Black truffle risotto: $10
Roasted loin of lamb: $25
Pan-seared Muscovy duck: $23
Filet of striped bass: $20
Grilled tenderloin: $24
Chocolate cake: $9
Pistachio torte: $9
Banana mousse: $8
By now, everyone knows all about nouvelle cuisine -- or at least people think they do. For example, nouvelle cuisine usually involves portions that are about half the size you would get at other restaurants, at twice the price. The smaller portions generally don't bother me; I'm an avowed grazer and harsh critic of the piggy-trough eateries that overload plates, waste food and have a hand in making ours the most obese nation of people on the planet. Besides, when nouvelle's done right, you get what you pay for: The nouvelle approach, with its focus on natural flavors (as opposed to the smother-it-in-a-mother-sauce method of haute cuisine), shortened cooking times (as opposed to haute's more time-consuming, multi-step preparations) and imaginative combinations (as opposed to haute's by-the-cookbook stringency), justifies the higher price tag with quality ingredients. And while nouvelle at its worst mixes the most unlikely ingredients into a caricature of the cuisine (potato-encrusted salmon with a blueberry hollandaise, anyone?), Maxim and other smart chefs wisely avoid such tomfoolery.
But intimate food such as this borders -- teeters, sometimes -- on the precious and really needs an intimate setting, which Amuse fails to provide. The place has a stripped-down, wide-open feel that's more reminiscent of an upscale Bavarian pancake house than a chic European eatery. Sasha runs the front of the house and runs it well, with grace and a minimum of wasted motion. Still, we were constantly aware of the movement around us, so we were never able to settle into the sensuous rhythm that a repast like this -- a real appeal to the senses -- should have. The kitchen's terrible pacing didn't help -- we waited 45 minutes between appetizers and the main course and then another half-hour for dessert.
At least the dishes were worth waiting for. The meal started with an amuse-bouche, a little bauble of buttery codfish that had been sauteéd until golden on each side and resembled a breaded scallop in both appearance and texture, at once soft and crunchy. This course did just what it was supposed to: lead us into the temptation of the next. Amuse divides its starters into two categories, appetizers and first courses, and while we couldn't really figure out the difference between the two -- the portions were similar, and both rosters offered salad-type items and starchier fare -- we decided we didn't care, because we were wowed by everything we tried. As is common with nouvelle cuisine, some of the dishes had been fashioned from one thing to evoke something else, such as the pavé of house-cured salmon and gaufrettes. French for paving stone, "pavé" is usually used in reference to a square or rectangular pastry, especially one made from layered cake and buttercream. Here, the salmon was the cake and a sour-cream concoction served as the buttercream; the gaufrettes, normally crispy, paper-thin dessert wafers paired with ice cream, were savory rather than sweet and acted as crackers normally would with smoked salmon. The result was light and zippy, with familiar flavors presented in a fun, refreshing way.
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Other dishes, while more straightforward, were no less innovative. Impeccably seared sea scallops came with fresh spinach and confit tomatoes (the description referring not to the method of meat preservation but to "confiture," or jam). The sugary tomatoes played off the sweetness of the scallops, which had been spiked with a sticky-sweet, citrus-sharp Grand Marnier sauce. Our favorite starters, though, were the most simple: an uncomplicated mushroom bisque so strong and rich that it tasted as though the mushrooms had been milked instead of the other way around, with the cream drawing out the earthy flavors, and a black-truffle-enhanced risotto that captured the essence of that revered mushroom. "Now I get what you've been trying to tell me about truffles," one friend said after the first delicious bite. But corn also played a part in the dish's success, because its sweetness inspired the earthy truffle to dig deeper before releasing that musky taste.
Another excellent risotto, this one dotted with chives, came with the stunning roast loin of lamb. The medium-rare slices oozed juicy flavor that was well-matched by a cranberry-kissed jus into which cloves of roasted garlic had injected their own essence. Maxim's skill with sauces was further evidenced by the addictive honey-fig elixir that turned the pan-seared Muscovy duck into dinner/dessert. The duck's slightly crispy skin boasted a richness that hit right in the pit of your stomach, and it came with a pile of braised red cabbage that harked back to the Little Russian days. A simpler red-wine reduction married an intense slab of grilled, free-range tenderloin and its sweetie of a potato confit (another jam variation). A basil-freckled velouté -- a white-roux-based, fish fumet-flavored mixture -- was one of the meal's few concessions to haute; it lapped at the edges of a pan-seared fillet of striped bass. A farmed hybrid of the true striped bass, which is never available commercially, and the white perch, this fish was a nice choice -- it has a fatty, sweet taste and a beautifully flaky texture.
One of nouvelle's lasting lessons is that diners can eat several small courses and still have room for dessert. Olga makes these finales; like the rest of Amuse's offerings, they're designed to highlight a particular set of flavors. The flying-saucer-shaped cake was all about rich, deep chocolate, for example; pralines and pistachios starred in the torte; a set of sorbets was so vibrant it was like eating puréed fruit; and even the odd little mousse was surprisingly likable, because it delivered so much banana flavor.
Nouvelle may not be a fresh concept, but at Amuse, it's far from the same old, same old. Welcome to the brave new world.