Review: Amass Wants to Be a French Bistro, But It Lacks the Critical Mass
Amass 2240 Clay Street 720-287-1895
Imagine you're in a movie theater for a showing of your favorite film. The lights dim. The music starts. But instead of the opening scene, what flashes on the big screen is a montage of pivotal moments, snippets of the movie displaced from the chronology of the script. In two minutes, the house lights come back on and everyone shuffles out. You stand, blinking in the brightness, trying to figure out what just happened. The characters were there, the basic plot was revealed, but where was the depth? I asked a similar question after dinner at Amass, where I felt like I'd been served a trailer, not a full-length film.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Amass
Chef/owner Joe Troupe in the kitchen.
Launched this fall by chef-owner Joe Troupe, formerly of Lucky Pie Pizza & Tap House and, before that, North, Bloom and Brasserie Ten Ten, Amass took over this treehouse of a space in a new residential development across from Jefferson Park after Corner House closed following an eighteen-month run.
Amass bills itself as a French bistro -- but the restaurant doesn't look the part. Instead of candles, curtains and quaint photos of the French countryside, Amass's art-free dining room sports wood paneling set in light and dark horizontal stripes, contemporary bulbs and floor-to-ceiling windows that look like black mirrors after dark. (The room is much more welcoming in the daytime, when those same windows let in views of the trees across the street; it would make a lovely coffee shop.) The biggest change in decor from the Corner House days -- textured, rust-colored wallpaper where the wall-sized photo of an aspen grove used to be -- doesn't alter the fact that the restaurant still looks like a place to get drinks and New American-style small plates rather than boeuf bourguignon.
But French classics are what Troupe is serving here, because "French food is the best food in the world," he says. His statement echoes that of another Francophile, Julia Child. In the introduction to her recipe for boeuf bourguignon in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she and her co-authors wrote, "Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man." One night, I was led to hyperbole of a different sort after the friendly server brought my friend's beef stew to the table. Traditionally, the recipe calls for meat to braise for three to four hours in a sauce fragrant with wine, bacon, garlic and beef stock. Here, the short ribs were cooked much longer than that -- 24 hours, according to the menu. But they'd been cooked sous-vide in a vacuum-sealed bag and had met up with the sauce so recently, it was a marvel they'd even had time to swap names.
Other dishes proved equally superficial. Lamb loin was overly -- even oddly -- tender; that's a risk chefs take when cooking proteins sous-vide. Under-seasoned and strangely flavorless, the meat might as well have been tofu or chicken breast, and couldn't stand up to the boysenberry preserves spooned over the top. Sous-vide pork tenderloin tasted like it had been poached, lacking the hard sear that would've given it a more appetizing color and texture. I tried to content myself with the celery-root puree and Calvados reduction underneath, but the puree was marred by pickled apples that dripped cough-inducing vinegar, and the bland sauce must've only had a drop or two of the apple brandy I'd enjoyed so much when I was in Normandy. And coq au vin, another French classic, came out as chicken ballotine. Rolled inside the crisp skin wrapper was a dry stuffing of large pieces of chicken breast, not the moist, flavorful chicken sausage normally found in such logs. "It has all the same ingredients as traditional coq au vin," Troupe explained, as if the credits somehow encapsulate an entire movie. Keep reading for more on Amass.
We did find a few hits on the menu. Chunky duck rillettes offered a satisfying combination of spreadable fat and duck. The mushroom bisque was spectacular, thickened with cream and breadcrumbs and finished with truffle oil. And a sundae finished up one meal on a sweet note, thanks to crispy, buttery morsels of housemade caramel-toffee popcorn.
But most starters and desserts were simply soulless. A dish called "apple" proved to be coarsely chopped apples in search of dressing; I picked at the fruit, which should have been tossed with verjus but tasted plain, doing my best to avoid the droopy petals of what seemed to be one disassembled Brussels sprout. A salad called duck à l'orange earned its name mainly from a few orange segments placed over the greens; the sous-vide breast had been treated to salt and pepper only, not the citrus glaze that would have made the dish pop. Soupe à l'oignon resembled a pot of caramelized onions, with a burnt crouton and hardly any broth. A cherry tart tasted only of pie crust and was served cold, so that the ice cream on top didn't have an opportunity to melt. Steak tartare needed more cornichons and shallots, not to mention more of a salty pick-me-up than the house-fried chips could add.
Those chips did add something to our dining experience, though: a fried smell at times so strong we longed to open the door. Another night, the smell of cleaning products overpowered the room. Ventilation, or rather the lack of it, is indeed an issue for Troupe, who operates in a kitchen with no hood. "We don't have any open flames," he says. Hence his reliance on sous vide.
Given the space's limitations, it seems odd that Troupe chose to put in a French bistro, with cooking associated with layered flavors and long-simmered stews and stocks, rather than a wine bar. It's as much a wonder as the name, which was likely supposed to evoke a spirit of French sophistication and communal dining to go along with the communal table and style of eating that Troupe says he most favors. Instead, Amass -- short for ramasser, a French verb meaning "to gather" -- sounds more like the lump you hope the doctor never finds.
That's what you risk when you take shortcuts with something we love, be it a favorite film or a beloved cuisine.
Select menu items at Amass:
Steak tartare $9
Mushroom bisque $7
Soupe à l'oignon $8
Duck à l'orange $14
Duck rillettes $8
Coq au vin $18
Boeuf bourguignon $23
Lamb loin $25
Amass is open 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at amassdenver.com.