When Viagra sauce recently appeared on the menu of a hotel restaurant in France, not only did it give new meaning to the phrase bon appetit, but it also further blurred the already fuzzy lines between food and sex--especially where French cuisine is concerned.
Jean-Louise Galland, the chef responsible for inventing "beef piccata in Viagra sauce with fig vinegar and fines herbes," got into serious trouble with the French version of the FDA, which marched right into the kitchen and spoiled the fun by confiscating Galland's illegal Viagra supply (Europe has yet to lift its ban on the impotence-reliever). "I don't understand it," Galland complained to a reporter. "They make medicine to make love better, and they want to make war with me!"
But many gourmands in France--indeed, around the globe--would argue that, with all that truly superb French food, there's no need for Viagra. Other than the sex act itself, there's little in life more carnal than slurping the flesh off the bones of a still-steaming coq au vin, and anyone who's ever shaved a few Perigord truffles across an omelette knows what that can lead to. In fact, an impassioned French meal can even negate the necessity for sex. "Never underestimate the place of food in the life of the French," native Frenchman Phillippe Jullian once said. "When a couple, whether married or not, no longer has any desire for each other, the table remains a far stronger bond than the bed."
So before you call in an order for those little blue pills, you might want to explore the natural effects of eating at Le Delice, one of Denver's first true French cafes, which took up residence in Cherry Creek when it was still a modest residential area. Owned by Maurice and Nicole Cochard, this smallish space is the third restaurant for the couple, and they say it's the last.
"People ask us to think about opening another place with them or tell us they want us to do something in their part of town," says Nicole, a pastry chef who oversees Le Delice's extensive bakery. "But with all the headaches we are having with getting and keeping staff in this crowded market, we say, 'No, thank you.'"
The Cochards are originally from Macon, in the Burgundy region of France. They were working at a restaurant there (he apprenticed as a chef; she comes from a family of bakers) in 1968 when their boss said he had a cousin in Denver who was looking for some help at Cafe Bonaparte for eighteen months. Those eighteen months turned into thirty years--and counting. By the time Cafe Bonaparte closed, the Cochards had fallen in love with Colorado, and Maurice went on to work at Lafitte's on Larimer Square for eleven years before it shut its doors in 1982. The couple then moved to Berthoud and bought a restaurant called Chez Francois (its space is now occupied by The Savoy); a few years later they sold it and opened a French bakery and cafe in Fort Collins.
"That did not go well," Nicole admits, adding that she'd rather not go into details. "When we got out of it, we had $3,000 left to our name." They used that $3,000 to start Le Delice, in an area that they felt was rife with promise--with good reason. "We started with just sandwiches, and we could seat only 25 people," she says. "It was very small, and we built from that."
The restaurant eventually took over the space next door, giving them forty more seats. And they've needed them. While much of Le Delice's faithful clientele is heavily blue-haired--the dining room is peppered with ladies who lunch and people old enough to remember when Julia Child was a young hipster and duck à l'orange was the next big thing--in recent years the restaurant has been discovered by Cherry Creek's next generation of páte animals.
Maurice's straightforward menu offers something for everyone, at all hours. At breakfast I've sampled the sturdy Belgian waffles ($5.95), which came with two beautifully basted eggs and thick, hickory-sweet bacon, and the Mediterranean eggs ($4.75), scrambled the way only the French know how to do them (slightly undercooked and buttery soft) and mixed with diced potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, onion and green bell pepper, with just enough cayenne to bring up all the flavors. Bonjour!
At lunch, the French onion soup ($4.95), with its thick crust of Swiss cheese and sophisticated veal base, was a classic call. So was the croque monsieur ($5.95), which sandwiched good-quality French ham between bechamel-soaked slices of French bread, then topped everything with a blanket of broiler-melted Swiss cheese. On a much lighter note, the cold poached salmon ($7.75) came with two sauces that epitomized the sensuality of French cuisine: a tarragon mayonnaise and a milk aioli, both of which were eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head rich, perfectly emulsified and gone long before we finished the beautiful salmon fillet. The three-egg omelette ($5.95) was another rich offering, but more through taste than texture. Crammed with mushrooms and scallions, the omelette came with a Provençale tomato, steamed cauliflower and white rice, for the sort of satisfying cafe meal that makes Francophiles out of otherwise steadfast Americans.
But dinner was the true delice (the French translates to "delight" or "great pleasure"). From the appetizers--red-wine-braised tender escargots ($5.25); duck-liver páte with cognac ($5.25) served with baguette slices and cornichons--to the entrees of sweetbreads grand-mere ($12.25) and garlic-permeated frog legs Provençale ($14.75), every forkful was ecstasy, luxurious with the dense flavor that can come only from the use of butter, cream and oil. You know--fats. The sweetbreads were particularly sinful: plush baubles and mild onions sitting in mushroom-earthy cream under a pastry crust. (If you've never tried thymus glands, this is a great way to be introduced to them.) When the lid was lifted, such musky, earthy smells wafted out that I swear the elderly woman at the next table shifted a bit in her seat.
By dessert, we were all squirming. Everything I've sampled from the huge display case in the front room (prices range from $2.50 to $5 per portion) has been, at the very least, delectable: a creamy, spongy Black Forest cake encased in thin imported chocolate; marzipan in the shape of pigs and ladybugs; a polished hazelnut-and-chocolate torte; cakes and tarts topped and filled with custard, fresh fruits, chocolate mousse, liqueurs.
But if Le Delice is a straitlaced French cafe with satiny underpinnings occasionally peeking through, Petit Louis is a flustered, side-street version. It's run by the delightful Constantinos: Paris-born patriarch and chef Louis and his wife, Janet, who serves as prep cook, cashier and mother of Lulu, Mathilda and Julian. Two-month-old Julian divides his time between napping in a car seat on the floor and being carried around by Janet, who somehow also manages to garnish plates, take money and chitchat without missing too many steps. The only thing that would make this cheery little spot more authentic would be a few dogs sitting patiently beneath the tables.
Chaos reigns, but as long as you've got no place to go anytime soon, the Constantinos make every minute you spend here time well-spent. And if your meal is taking too long, chances are Louis will whip you up a tiny sampler of his crepes, complete with a schmear of chocolate and a dollop of whipped cream, by way of apology.
These crepes, as a matter of fact, are the reason Louis brought his family to Denver in the first place. He and Janet, an American raised in Connecticut, had been living in San Diego, where Louis worked at a cafe. "This was California, though, so we were doing mostly ice cream and salads," explains Louis, a French cooking school graduate who comes from a long line of chefs and says he was practically born in the kitchen. "What I really wanted to do was crepes, but it was too hot there. So we started looking around the country at cooler places, and we liked the mountains here in Denver."
First, though, he had to work on his English, which he admits still isn't perfect. "I started as a busboy and worked my way up in a few places here," he says, "but then this coffee shop was for sale, and we thought it would make a good place for crepes." And it is. In a neighborhood filled with fancier sit-down establishments, Petit Louis is the perfect place to go for cheap, delicious eats.
Four salads--two pasta and two green--are offered daily; the pastas each run $3.15, the green versions $2.95. My favorite pasta was the niçoise, with flaked tuna and green beans; I also enjoyed the grilled eggplant, which featured grilled zucchini and red peppers. The orzo wasn't worth the wait, however; although the mix of black olives, roasted peppers, feta and a mellow vinaigrette worked well enough, I still don't understand why Janet felt compelled to track down a banana so she could add four slices of the fruit to the plate. Of the green salads, the chicken was a straightforward plate of mixed greens, chopped grilled chicken, pine nuts and tomatoes tossed with parmesan and a mildly garlicky vinaigrette; the gazpacho was also pretty forthright, with greens, red pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, onion and garlic coated with a stronger, vinegar-based dressing.
The sandwiches generally come together better--and come to your table faster--than the salads. The ham croissant ($4.15) was a well-balanced combination of ham, Swiss cheese, chilled asparagus spears, lettuce and tomato on a croissant. Petit Louis's best sandwiches, however, appear as crepes. Although the menu doesn't mention it, any of the listed sandwich fillings can be slipped into Louis's light, slightly sweet pancakes for a flat $5.15. He makes his crepes on a large iron and puts the fillings in just long enough to melt the cheeses. The results are sublime. The roast beef with cornichons and cream cheese was wonderful; even better was the grilled eggplant with red pepper, scallions and lettuce, everything fused together by melted mozzarella.
Petit Louis also serves soup--two choices a day in fall and winter, one in summer. They're picked from a roster of two dozen tried-and-true recipes; at $2.95 a bowl ($2.45 a cup), they're all a great bargain. I've sampled the garlic-pungent pesto cauliflower, the hearty, country-style potato-leek, the incredible cream of mussel and the chicken with apples and leeks. All four were the sort of heady concoctions you'd expect from a Frenchman: based on enriched stocks and packed with fresh ingredients.
But Petit Louis's dessert crepes ($3.50) are the creme de la creme of the kitchen. Whenever Louis sends out a round of crepes for the two small dining rooms, exclamations--outright moans--can be heard all around. The sounds, as well as the tastes, make Petit Louis seem like the genuine article: The noisy banter of the Constantinos and their customers is reminiscent of the jovial atmosphere in a crowded Parisian cafe.
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During one visit to Petit Louis, I overheard five heated debates about the president's sex crisis. That reminded me that shortly after Bill took office, the Clintons made a big deal about hiring an American to do the cooking rather than following the longtime tradition of having a French chef in the White House.
Maybe if they'd kept the French guy, the country wouldn't be in such a fix.
Le Delice, 250 Steele Street, 303-331-0972. Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Petit Louis, 719 East 17th Avenue, 303-839-8120. Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m., 6-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.