Few caterpillars crawl as much as Radek Cerny has on his way to the butterfly stage.
After the Communist government took away his family's farm in Czechoslovakia, Cerny (pronounced "chair-nee") had to fight hard for his culinary training in Prague. He ultimately escaped the country by slipping away from a tour group in Yugoslavia, won asylum in Italy and arranged for sponsorship and passage to the U.S.--only to find he'd have to start his education all over again. Cerny returned to Europe and endured the rigorous training of several notoriously temperamental chefs, then came back to this country and established himself as a notable restaurateur. His eclectic culinary style--an aesthetically astute melding of European and Asian cooking techniques--earned him renown at his first Denver venture, the European Cafe. But the worm wasn't done turning. Cerny still had to suffer through an ugly and painful dissolution of the longtime partnership that had birthed the immensely popular European Cafe and Al Fresco (both now seemingly on their way to becoming chain operations, with multiple Colorado locations).
Once he survived all that, Cerny thought it was time to let fly with a new idea. So this past spring he took over the building that once housed the Creekside Grill and opened Papillon. Cerny and his crew--which includes general manager Jolie Robinson, a former wine rep who is responsible for the masterfully selected and appealingly priced wine list--did little to the space other than darkening the color scheme by adding richer tones in the linens and floral arrangements and putting up a painting depicting Cerny with famed French chef Paul Bocuse.
The real scenery comes out of the kitchen. Just as he did at the European Cafe, Cerny produces beautiful plates at Papillon, pairing paintings of oils and sauces with food sculptures that are almost too pretty to eat. Each dish comes with its own carefully chosen infused oil--one of Cerny's signature ingredients--or an exquisite reduction of intense, wine-enhanced flavors, as well as edible garnishes that neither distract from nor overwhelm the main attraction.
Except for those damn potato boats.
At first these huge bowls of grated, deep-fried potatoes look as impressive as hell, visions of art mixed with practicality (after all, they can be filled with all kinds of semi-solid food). They're certainly not easy to make: Cerny reworked the potato recipe over and over until he found a formula that would come out every time. Then he scoured the country to find a company that would coat the basket forms with silicone, so that the spud constructions would slide out easily. "People think they can just walk into Williams-Sonoma and buy the baskets and make these potatoes, and they are wrong," Cerny says. "That's why, when I don't make them, people ask me where they are."
But it's unlikely that any Papillon diners will miss the boat, because these potatoes come with almost every entree. In fact, a whole fleet of potato vessels is visible through the glass partition to the kitchen--which makes the presentation considerably less special. Cerny says he realizes that, and he's vowed to cut back on the tubers.
Until he does, though, the edible containers will continue to overshadow the often captivating food they hold. For example, perfumy jasmine rice arrived stuffed inside a potato boat that apparently had run aground atop a mound of mashed potatoes--starch filled with starch sitting on starch. This odd trio sailed alongside a lunch order of Bangkok scallops ($8.95), four pan-seared, melt-in-your-mouth mollusks the size of steak medallions, awash in a slick of concentrated sweet Thai vinaigrette thinned with a roasted pumpkinseed oil. The potato deal was too heavy for this delicate dish, but the rice alone would have been an excellent accompaniment.
No potatoes came with the lobster ravioli Alfredo ($8.95)--but the pasta had no problem keeping things together. The shells, stuffed comfortably full of lobster meat, were freshly made, with that slippery, fragile texture and the uneven edges that mark homemade pasta. They were gently draped with a thin, smooth sauce that bore almost no resemblance to a traditional Alfredo; there was only a whisper of cream and no cheese or butter burden at all, which resulted in a barely-there Alfredo that stayed edible to the end, without any of the usual gumminess. (Cerny has since changed this dish to a primavera Alfredo with fettucine, but he has kept the lobster ravioli--with saffron ginger sauce--on the appetizer list.)
Despite the lightness of the lunch entrees, we found it impossible to take on dessert. But then, we'd started the meal with a bowl of the soup of the day ($2.50), which the waiter had undersold when he called it "roasted eggplant." The dish was sheer Mediterranean madness, with roasted tomatoes, olives, capers, feta, artichokes and, yes, some eggplant. It had a roasty flavor and a hearty, semi-oily consistency; with a little less broth and a loaf of bread, it would have made a nice meal in itself. The salad "de maison" ($2.95 with an entree) was substantial, too: a massive pile of greens coated in a too-subtle champagne dressing.
On our second visit, this time for dinner, we went with more complex appetizers. The smoked salmon japonais ($8.50) brought seven pieces of salmon rolled around just-picked horseradish sprouts, with an intense wasabi cream for dipping and flavor to spare. The coconut shrimp ($8.50), on the other hand, had almost no taste at all--even though the three crustaceans were covered with a toasty coconut coating and ringed by a smattering of greens and the well-chosen garnish of beet strings.
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It was flavor ahoy when our next potato boat docked, this time sandwiched between two mounds of mashed potatoes--which, by the way, Cerny does exceptionally well--and garnished with an oar of acorn squash and a sail of parsley. The boat was escorting our tuna gingembre ($18.95), a heady combination of pepper-coated tuna, seared to a textbook medium-rare, and a blanket of pink-peppercorn-kissed sauce augmented with sweet soy and pickled ginger. The same potato rig accompanied the sweetbreads amarone ($19.95), an almost-too-generous portion of roasted veal thymus gland. Each tender morsel had been coated with a thin layer of sauce made with amarone, Italy's smooth red wine that's an excellent choice for sweetbreads because the wine has a bite that keeps the combination from becoming too rich.
But then, that lack of richness is a major selling point for Cerny's food--and it's a trait that even carries over to his desserts. A tasting plate for two ($13.90) brought a slice of marjolaine so subtly flavored it was difficult to identify the hazelnuts; a wedge of lemon-lime cheesecake so light and creamy that we could have eaten six more pieces; a chocolate raspberry miroir heavy with orange but light on chocolate mousse; and a ginger creme brulee that didn't appear to contain ginger but was a fine example of custard nonetheless.
Although Cerny keeps chasing that elusive butterfly of success, he has yet to pin it down at Papillon. Those explosions of flavor for which he's rightly famous often sputter here, and some of the dishes are inconsistent. With a little work in the kitchen, though, Cerny's new restaurant could be a major addition to Denver's culinary collection.