You won't find the real thing at La Brasserie (see this week's review), and French food in general is not Denver's culinary strong point. But there are a few good choices out there -- especially if you're willing to drive an hour or so. One of my favorite French restaurants is The Savoy, at 535 Third Street in Berthoud. Owners Jean and Chantal Martini serve as chef and hostess, respectively, and not only is the food exquisite -- the ravioli is a must, and if kangaroo is on the menu that night, jump on it -- but Chantal is as warm and charming as the atmosphere.
Also worth the trip is La Chaumiére, on U.S. 36 in Pinewood Springs, nine miles past Lyons. Like the Savoy, La Chaumiere is run by a nice couple, Elisabeth and Heinz Fricker, who add a lot of character to the place. Heinz makes Colorado's best mousse and escargots in garlic sauce; his sweetbreads are heavenly, too. And La Chaumière has the inviting feel of a French country inn -- a feeling enhanced, come to think of it, by the short road trip that leads there.
Not so driven to find French fare? For spots closer to home, try Le Central, at 112 East Eighth Avenue, where an expanded kitchen and staff have made a big difference lately, or the Normandy and Chez Michelle, both housed at 1515 Madison Street. The forty-something Normandy offers haute and nouvelle cuisine; Chez Michelle is more of a cafe, with prices and dishes to match. And although I haven't checked it out yet, I've heard good things about Rue Cler, the spot Michael Degenhart recently opened at 5575 East Third Avenue, where he cooks up French food with a worldview. And although it lost an excellent chef when Degenhart departed, the venerable Tante Louise, at 4900 East Colfax Avenue, continues to put out some of the most flavorful French food around.
But another longtime French institution, Pour La France!, recently said au revoir to Denver. Opening two weeks ago in its place at 730 South University was the obviously named 730 South, which bills itself as "eclectic American," with a menu serving up soups, salads and sandwiches at lunch, and duck, snapper and beef tenderloin at dinner.
That's Italian: You'd think Denver had already hit capacity for Italian fare -- especially family-style, what with Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania), Santino's (1939 Blake) and Maggiano's Little Italy (500 16th Street) all offering variations on the same theme -- but Buca di Beppo has opened its very renovated doors in a former warehouse at 1400 Market Street, anyway. At dinner last week, I got to sit at the coveted kitchen table, positioned right across from the cooks, and thus was able to see pretty much every dish they offer as it went out of the kitchen. (Foodies, take note: The table, which offers the most entertaining seating in town, is booked through the next few months.)
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I got to taste quite a few things, too: the thin-crusted arrabiata pizza ($12.95) studded with sausage that carried quite a bite; the onion-heavy bruschetta ($5.95); the chunky, skin-on garlic mashed potatoes ($6.95) and the rich baked ravioli ($10.95). All were well-made and came in portions large enough to serve two easily -- and many more if kids are involved. I didn't like the veal marsala ($19.95) because of its sticky, sweet sauce, and the tiramisu ($7.95) was a squishy, low-grade version. Still, my assessment is that Buca will be doing boffo business for some time; its value is undeniable, and its loud, in-your-face decor is fun. The endlessly smiling staff works it hard, too.
Head for the hills: On your way down from the mountains this ski season, be sure to stop at Bubba's Bar-B-Que at 1600 Miner Street in Idaho Springs. The original Bubba's is in Jackson, Wyoming, where founder James "Bubba" Shivier III smokes his own meats the way they do back in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, a well-known pit stop. In addition to succulent 'cue, the Idaho Springs Bubba's offers a salad bar, too.
More adventurous carnivores would do well to stop by The Fort (19192 Route 8 in Morrison) this Sunday for one of the most innovative holiday meals ever. In honor of Halloween, the historic restaurant will again offer its "Awful Offal Dinner," complete with buffalo tongue, Rocky Mountain oysters, lamb brains, sweetbreads, broiled kidneys and calf's liver. The cost is $50 -- although really, shouldn't owner Sam Arnold be paying you to eat this stuff? Call 303-697-4771 if you dare.