King of Tartes
Phil Collier, owner and executive chef of A La Tomate Cafe and Tarterie, is a nervous sort of fella. I can see him in the kitchen -- a big space for such a small place, full of tall bakery racks, new ovens, antique slicers with exposed motors, bright stainless steel snow-drifted with flour. One minute he's at the cold table, puttering like an old man in the garage, while his kitchen manager, Majel Kimbal (formerly of Aix), watches a half-dozen people standing by the front door with their necks craned as they try to decipher the big chalkboard menu hung high up on the wall. Then they switch positions: Collier with his head and hands in the bakery case, rearranging the oatmeal-raisin cookies, scones and crisp croissants (some of the best you'll find this side of the Left Bank) for maximum irresistibility, and Kimbal in the kitchen, poking at a batch of something stacked up on the rolling Queen Marys that crowd the prep table.
Then Collier is up again, surveying the small dining room and empty patio with squinting eyes -- concentrating like a man trying to suss out the board at the OTB or like a cat trying to do long division. When things are slow (and they sometimes are at A La Tomate, which has been open for ten months and is still fighting for every regular it can find), Collier will get out in front of his place with a sign and try to lure commuters. "As an artist, you open a place and expect the people to flood in," he explains. "Then sometimes you scratch your head when they don't. I just gotta do whatever I can to let people know we're here."
A La Tomate is here seven days a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It offers a Provençal-style happy hour, with buck-off beers, discounted wine and snacks -- fresh bread and herbed olive oil, spiced olives, a Mediterranean ploughman's plate of sliced meats, seasonal fruit, veggies, more bread -- and weekend brunches with breakfast tartes, croissants and scones, muffins and you-call-'em omelettes. Collier puts in about ninety hours a week at his cafe, and there are days when he still only clears three, maybe four hundred dollars on the register. He'll have a great breakfast, then no lunch crowd. Or a killer lunch but no dinner at all. He hasn't had too many days when all three turns were a bust, but he hasn't yet had a day where the kitchen rocked it through all three meals, either. So on a slow Tuesday or Sunday between hits, there he is, out on the sidewalk with his sign. There he is with his head in the bakery case. Collier carries a bit of extra weight around the tum-tum. "Quality control," he calls it.
The kitchen's croissants are pure murder -- buttery like you wouldn't believe, with crackly shells and insides like clouds. When this job finally, inevitably, kills me, A La Tomate's croissants (along with a thousand other good things to eat) will be listed under "Cause of Death." The coroner will have to attach extra pages to the autopsy report to include everything that put me down, but these croissants will be near the top, and I will have gone out with a big smile on my face and crumbs on my lapels. I eat them plain. I eat them with chocolate, with jelly (and sure, I'd like to see A La Tomate make its own jam, but jelly works in a pinch) or -- because I am into culinary extreme sports -- with even more butter that I have to ask for at the counter, a request always met with a look that says, "Well, they're your arteries...." I eat them with a latte and a good book, and when I show up for lunch -- or an early dinner that I call lunch because I missed breakfast and still have another dinner waiting -- I eat one while I wait for my tarte à la tomate or chausson.
"Best thing since sliced pizza," Collier says of A La Tomate's namesake tomato pie. And I don't know about that -- I think the best thing since sliced pizza is an unsliced pizza -- but I know that the tarte is good. If, in some Twilight Zone-esque twist, Italy and all things Italian were to suddenly disappear from the world, leaving yours truly as the sole surviving human to remember the joys of a thin-crust New Yorker or a high-wall Sicilian, I could get by on Collier's Provençal version. In time, I might even come to prefer it, but there would be a grieving process.
When I first tried the tarte, I hated it. The flavor was strangely dissonant, so unlike what I thought it would taste like that I was momentarily stunned. I racked my brain for what I knew about Collier. He was from Boston, had started his cooking career at thirteen -- scraping dough off the floor of a bakery -- then had cooked around Beantown and New York before giving it all up for the wild life of an electronics engineer for fifteen years, hating every minute of it, until he found himself back in the restaurant business again. So I thought, okay, this is what a pizza made by an engineer tastes like.
But baker-turned-electrician-turned-foodie was not the whole of Collier's story. He'd been to France many times, falling in love with the ingredients, the presentation, the good simplicity of the straight-French tarteries around Provence and Toulon. Eventually, he married up in the best sort of way, to Michelle, a Frenchwoman from Toulon who was as into food as he was. "Food is it for me," Collier says. "And wine. And my wife. That's it."
So I tried the tarte again, knowing what to expect this time, and found the taste less jarring. By the third bite -- my fork snapping through the lacquered, shiny crust, then pushing into the soft, dry, perfect dough -- I had brokered an understanding between mouth and brain. This is not what it looks like, I kept thinking. This is not what you expect. And by the time I'd finished the last crumbs of my first tarte, I was ready for seconds. And thirds.
What Collier has done with this tarte is to bring the flavors of summer in Provence to 17th Avenue in Denver. The crust is beautiful on its own, a folded-down tart shell of pâte brisée origins that breaks exactly as it should (cleanly on the line, but not without crumbling) and has been painted with butter for that excellent glaze to which all great French pastry aspires. The tomatoes are Roma, bloody-red, fresh, a little sweet, and tough enough to take the heat of baking without going to mush. And they're left pure -- not processed, soaked, oiled, skinned or fussed with in any way that would adulterate the natural goodness of Roma tomatoes before their meeting with the chef's knife.
Then come the herbs. "Secret" ones, according to Collier, but not too difficult to figure out. Not surprisingly, they are herbes de Provence -- a catch-all mix, like curry or garam masala, that evokes a balanced taste of a specific region. In this case it's fennel seed, marjoram, rosemary, savory and thyme. There may be sage in there, but I don't find it. No basil. No lavender, either. The thyme is right out front, strong as a punch in the mouth, then the rosemary, then the sweetness of the tomato, and everything else comes tumbling after in a flood. It makes for a big, brash flavor, and in the plain tarte there's almost too much for anyone not specifically looking for that taste of summer sun. But add some rock shrimp and bacon (among the fifty possible add-ons), balance the crush of earthy top notes with the salt of a good prosciutto and a sprinkling of mozzarella, or beat back the tide of thyme and woody rosemary with a lingering pesto, some green olives and caramelized onions, and everything smooths out into a balanced blend of flavors.
With the tarte's cousin, the chausson (a kind of mini-calzone native to the south of France), you don't get to mix and match your fillings. There's a beef version with mushrooms, roasted garlic and mozzarella -- almost a bourguignonne pocket sandwich -- and a sausage one that tastes like a San Gennaro festival wrapped in dough. The chicken chausson -- packed with dark meat, mushrooms, shredded artichoke hearts and brie -- is so overpowering that I couldn't finish it. A La Tomate even offers a fruit variety with poached apples, cinnamon and raisin that isn't much different from the sweet-and-savory apple-walnut turnovers with cumin that sometimes make it into the bakery case.
You know Collier loved his time in France because every plate the kitchen serves comes with a dollop of carrot-and-raisin salad with a couple of olives tucked in. No one who hasn't been to France would do that. No one who has been could resist. "It just goes, you know?" Collier says. "A little something extra."
He also offers specials du jour and a different soup daily, and I have yet to find one that isn't as shockingly good and deep with finessed flavors as the tartes are shockingly odd and bright with strong herbs. What's more, fully half the menu -- the half that isn't already loaded with tartes, pastries, soups, salads and Frenchy empanadas -- is devoted to sandwiches. Really, really good sandwiches. Sandwiches so good that I'd still recommend A La Tomate even if the tomato tarte were made with cat food and Windex, and the chausson stuffed with shredded newspaper.
There are no prepared versions, but the board offers about a dozen suggestions for how you might put together a sandwich from the available ingredients: sun-dried tomatoes, leaves of fresh basil, anchovies, crab, curried chicken salad, dilled tuna salad, chèvre, real French brie so strong it's like licking your hands after a visit to the petting zoo (but in a good way), olive-and-fig spread and black-olive tapenade made in-house, sausage, ham, roast beef, Genoa salami, capicola, herbed turkey and prosciutto that's not Parma but the next best thing, sliced thin as paper.
Collier understands that yellow mustard goes with ham and Swiss and that grilled chicken with brie needs Dijon, so both mustards are offered, along with a honey version and a coarse-grain. He also knows that a proper prosciutto sandwich requires nothing but a drizzle of quality olive oil and a little salt and pepper, so he has those, too. What he doesn't have is enough bread. Only two kinds are available -- a good six-grain baguette and a nasty ciabatta that tends to taste like burnt sawdust toast when made into a panini. I hate to see a perfect sandwich mounted on an inferior frame, but Collier just doesn't have room to make his own bread. So right now he's bringing it in from the bakery at Intrigue.
"This is an artisan shop," Collier says, his Boston accent growing thicker. "We make and bake everything here except the bread. And I know there's enough people out there for me. I know there's enough foodies who want good product at a fair price. Some people, they want to pay a lot of money for good food, so people come in and they say, 'You should really charge more for this!' I tell 'em, okay, I'll charge you double. But that's not the point. Everything we do here is about the food."
That shows in the kitchen, if not in the dining room, where most tables I see during my late-lunch are set with four coffees, four spoons, four saucers and one pastry being nibbled at by four dieting secretaries. But Collier is upbeat. He's doing enough business to hang tight for now, and he truly believes that if people come to A La Tomate once, they'll come back.
When we're done talking, Collier will head back out to the street with his sign. You never know when someone might drive by who doesn't know about the place, he says. So someone has to be out there to tell him.
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