LET THE GOOD TASTES ROLL
A restaurant doesn't have to serve big, important food designed by a celebrity chef who wallpapers the dining room with his diploma from a Serious Cooking School in order for a meal to be worthwhile. Sometimes it's enough that the food comes from someone who loves to cook and that the waiter who brings it knows the difference between attentiveness and acting like a golden retriever. And if the meal's consumed in an atmosphere as charming as a French Quarter balcony, so much the better.
The interior of Anastasia Vieux Carre, a three-month-old eatery in Greenwood Village, is so impressive that we immediately forgot we were across the parking lot from an orthodontist and a grocery store--partly because Anastasia's enormous windows face a lineup of gently swaying trees, not a sea of cars. The restaurant's name comes from the person responsible for its stunning looks. Patricia Anastasia Begbie, otherwise known as Patty, owns the place with her husband, Jim, who's the chef. Patty pulled from twenty years of interior-design work with the Marriott Corporation, among other businesses, to transform the space. Her efforts resulted in a front room--used as a waiting area and for drinks and appetizers--decorated as a cozy faux library with a retro deco couch and walls lined by trompe-l'oeil bookcases, and a dining room in which high-backed booths covered in rich, dark fabric surround a wall graced by one of T.F. Poduska's gold-enhanced weaves. Linear bamboo fans oscillate above Harlequin tables, and plants and screens hover in the periphery. The effect is a cross between a Key West bungalow and a New Orleans hotel lobby. Jim says it's really an extension of their home.
"We had so many people telling us that we should open a restaurant after we moved here," says Jim. The couple came to Colorado from Shreveport, Louisiana, where Jim had run a catering company and then owned Benedict's restaurant for three years. "I think it was because of the food I was making for our houseguests, the way Patty had decorated the place with all these antiques, and our Southern hospitality that made them think we could do it."
And do it they did, with Jim giving up his work as a stockbroker and Patty quitting the corporate design world in 1993, when they converted a double-wide trailer at the Cottonwood Country Club into the open-to-the-public Anastasia Cafe. "The guy who owned it wanted someone to do hamburgers and hot dogs for the people riding horses," Jim says. "We told him we wanted to do a white-linen, fine-dining thing. He didn't think we could make it." But, in fact, things went so well that the Begbies decided to move to a bigger, better location. The Vieux Carre version of Anastasia opened in May.
The setting may have changed, but Jim's approach to food has not. "I belong to the Pierre Franey school of cooking," he explains. "When someone asked Franey why he didn't paint the plates and drizzle sauces here and there, he said, `Because I'm a chef, not an architect.'"
This concentration on cooking, not clutter, serves Anastasia well. The menu is a compilation of mostly Creole preparations with a little bit of the rest of the world thrown in; the global contributions can be attributed to Jim's travels throughout Europe and the States, where, he's not ashamed to admit, he got down on his knees more than once to beg for chefs' recipes. For example, he wheedled the ingredients for Creole marinade, a relishy concoction that tops Anastasia's Gulf crab claws ($7.95), out of the owner of Ernest's Supper Club in Shreveport. Smart move: The marinade's tanginess brought up the sweetness of the fresh claw meat. There are plenty of recipes for mousse du canard ($4.95) floating around, but in these health-conscious times, few kitchens make the dish. Anastasia's has no such compunctions. Its delicious version of the country-style pate balanced duck and pork livers with the earthiness of wild mushrooms, offset by sides of sweet currant chutney and cornichons. So good--and so bad for you.
One recipe I begged for was that of Anastasia's flavorful French onion soup ($4.25). The secret to the strong broth, Jim says, is to use stock from the last batch of roasted bones when braising the next batch of stock so that by the twentieth round the stock is as dense as beef bouillon cubes--without the saltiness. Into this he melted a generous portion of an American Swiss that resembles Gruyere until the soup had just the right proportion of cheese and bread. We also were bowled over by the honey-basil-mustard dressing on the house salad ($3.95), a standard array of greens, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg wedges--standard, that is, until you slathered it with that divine dressing. We asked the waiter what was in it, and he sent for Jim, who said he wouldn't tell. Oh, sure, someone spilled the recipe to him, but now that he has the secret...
Jim did reveal that the blackberry vinegar sauce on the roast chicken Anastasia ($16.95) had been reduced five times, which gave it a demi-glace consistency and toned down both the fruity sweetness and the vinegar tartness. The menu had described the chicken leg as "carefully grilled," and while we weren't sure what that meant before we tasted it, we knew as soon as we bit into the super-tender meat. Had the chicken not been so good, we wouldn't have minded the small portion; the sides--a tiny Dairy Queen-like swirl of what might have been a carrot-and-potato puree, along with the requisite cost-cutting saute of summer vegetables--offered no consolation. And the stinginess made no sense in light of the mammoth serving of pasta Anastasia ($18.95)--only two things on the menu are named for the restaurant, honest--that fed me twice more later in the week. In its initial incarnation, the meat of four lobster claws and a quartet of jumbo shrimp, all sauteed in white wine, topped a mountain of spaghettini that had been doused in a sauce that resembled the base of a thin yet rich lobster soup.
Not so rich, though, that we couldn't tackle dessert. Most of the offerings on the lengthy list sounded sinful, but the kitchen was out of three of them--the ones we wanted, of course. We settled for the Chivas Regal souffle ($5.95) and the maple terrine ($5.25), an unbelievably potent layering of a brownie sort of cake and a cream that tasted like the maple center of a Whitman's Sampler chocolate. Compared to that stellar performance, our other dessert was a big disappointment. Our waiter had kindly informed us that it wasn't really a souffle but a lemon cake flavored with Chivas Regal; we could taste neither lemon nor liquor in the final product.
If dinner at Anastasia was as enchanting as an evening in the French Quarter, the restaurant--like New Orleans--showed its flaws during the day. A lunchtime order of crawfish beignets ($4.50) brought a batch of hard, hush-puppy things cooked to the consistency of golf balls. The sauce on the side, a mustardy tartar type, was a beaut, though; the gazpacho ($4.50), a liquidy-smooth and refreshing blend heavy on tomato, was another keeper.
But the baked Brie ($5.50) was boring, nothing more than cheese melted inside a phyllo crust and served with toasted bread. And while the Creole omelette ($6.50) came with an enormous helping of salty fried potatoes, it contained too few lumps of crab, none of the promised garlic and not nearly enough sauce. We rued its absence the most, since the tomato-based sauce featured the holy trinity of Creole cooking--green peppers, onions and celery--and what little we did get perked up the crepelike eggs. The veal Marsala ($12.95) was more successful, with a light touch of breading and an easygoing lemon-butter sauce. The eggplant parmesan ($6.95) was the best part of this meal: a pile of eggplant hickory-smoked on the premises by Jim, then moistened with a garlicky tomato sauce and encrusted with melted cheese.
The eggplant was proof that Jim knows what he's doing, but he still insists that Patty is the "more talented" of the two. "She's the best half when it comes to the restaurant," he says, and I'd have to agree. In a place this good-looking, it's hard not to expect what's cooking to be flawless, too.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.