Welcome to the Hotel California, restaurant-style: You can order anytime you like, but you can never eat.
It wasn't always this way at Denver's former Hotel Paris, brought back from the dead a decade ago as the trendsetting La Coupole. But that restaurant closed mysteriously one day this past spring, with a notice on the door telling employees they wouldn't be working there that day...or ever again. And soon after, the elegant space was reincarnated as La Brasserie Café, where over the past two weeks I've spent a total of six and a half hours and several hundred bucks on two of the worst meals imaginable. The service was so slow that it would have been faster to fly to France and slay my own meat, hand-pick my own vegetables, cook up my own dishes and serve everything to myself. And don't think I didn't consider it -- I know the food would have been better.
My first clue that something was amiss came as we walked in the door for the first dinner. A server was at the bar with her back to the door, and she turned suddenly and jumped about ten feet in the air. "Oh, you scared me," she said. "I wasn't expecting anyone to be there." This was at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. We had made a reservation. Not that it was recorded anywhere, but that shouldn't have mattered: Only one other table was seated in the newly pink dining room, although eventually this crowd would grow to include another table of two and three of six each.
La Brasserie Caf, 2191 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-6963, Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Our server immediately confessed that it was her first night -- she needed us to point out everything on the menu, which it appeared she'd never so much as glanced at -- so we were prepared for some rough going. We were not prepared, however, for an hour-long wait before our first dish arrived. By then, we'd already eaten one loaf's worth of mediocre French bread and asked for a second, which was delivered still slightly frozen in the center, even though our server had repeatedly assured us that the bread's appearance was delayed because the kitchen was warming it up. And we needed that bread, because when the terrine de campagne maison ($5.65) finally showed up, it lacked any croutons on which to spread it. But the country-style pâté did have some cute carrot, onion and cucumber pickles on the side, and while it was a little heavier on the fat than is customary, it had a pleasant texture and a rich flavor. In fact, the starter would prove to be the highlight of two La Brasserie meals, although we couldn't have predicted that at the time.
First we had to dip our spoons under a topping of not enough melted cheese and burnt-edge bread to taste the soupe à l'oignon gratinée ($4.80). The predominant flavor was raw garlic, and the onions in the salty broth weren't much past raw, either. This was not the classic French dish we'd anticipated, but we were so hungry that we managed to eat most of it (and still more mediocre bread) while we waited another twenty minutes for the salade landaise ($6.90 for a small). The garden-variety greens were coated in an orange-flavored dressing and accessorized by mandarin sections and slices of allegedly smoked duck. But we had to cry foul over this bird: There was nothing smoky about it, and the duck had the dry, chewy texture of flesh roasted days before and left in the walk-in until needed.
Still, it was food, and we picked at the salad while we waited another twenty minutes for the entrees. Meanwhile, we feasted our eyes on the disastrous goings-on at the three six-top tables, which not only were having similar troubles getting their food, but apparently were then getting the wrong food, because they kept sending things back. I sympathized when I took one look at my monkfish ($18.50). The fish obviously had been frozen, and not well, because the texture was all wrong for monkfish and it had that funky fish smell. The orange sauce on top was supposed to be spicy, but it wasn't, and it was supposed to contain basil, but it didn't. In comparison, the side of overdone haricots verts was a gourmet treat. The monkfish also came with a whoop-de-do of potatoes duchesse that made it seem like the spuds had been piped out onto the plate, but underneath that top swirl was a blob of mashed potatoes too chunky to have fit through any pastry bag tip. And then there was the thing that looked like some souvenir of Pompeii, but turned out to be a wedge of onion gratin.
We couldn't complain too much about the house specialty, since we cooked it ourselves. The idea here is that the kitchen briefly sears the meat, then your server plops it down in the center of a heated cooking stone from the Alps so that you can cook everything just the way you want it. But we didn't get what we wanted from the start: Although we had ordered a mixture of meats (beef tenderloin, chicken and buffalo), we wound up with the eight-ounce beef tenderloin ($20.50) instead. Each time we cut a slice off the tenderloin, the rest kept cooking, and the whole procedure wound up a lot less interesting and a lot more work than we'd expected. The beef was served with "master butter" -- herbs in a butter ball -- and two sauces, one of which was a semi-demi-glace, the other so salty but otherwise bland that it was unclassifiable.
At the end of all this, the server/manager/bartender came by to lay on some apologies for the lengthy meal and to offer a complimentary dessert for our trouble. We chose the profiteroles ($4.95) because they would be the quickest: What could go wrong with ice cream and puff-pastry balls that had to be made ahead?
Plenty, apparently. After another fifteen minutes of waiting, we were fed up -- mentally, if not physically. We went to the bar, asked for the bill, and got the heck out of there.
The profiteroles were finished by the time I returned the following Friday, but I still had another entire dinner to go. In the intervening days, I'd learned more about La Brasserie's staffing problems. Chef Avit Dorffer had quit a few weeks before -- some of the staffers say Dorffer didn't even give notice, but according to owner Philippe Tuscher he was "very, very sick" -- and much of the rest of the kitchen staff had left, too. So Tuscher, who teaches French during the day and says he's owned four restaurants in France and Switzerland, has been doing all the cooking. From what we saw that first night, he has precisely four people to help him: one in the kitchen, one busboy, that brand-new server, and a server/manager/bartender who's trying to do everything else. But after a week, I figured, Tuscher should have been able to pull the place together. At the very least, our server would have had seven days to figure out the menu.
Misery loves company, and this time there were two other tables of two and a table of six all sharing our dismay at the fact that this meal took even longer. To ease the suspense, we'd ordered a bottle of champagne, which came straight out of a cupboard; it took a while for us to convince the server/manager/bartender to get a bucket of ice. While we waited, the busboy brought us three loaves' worth of bread. Knowing what might -- or might not -- be coming next, we downed them all. Between bites of bread, I studied my companion's photos of his trip to Europe. Fortunately, they did not include any mouth-watering shots of him sitting at a cafe on the Champs-Élysées eating duck confit.
We got as excited as the table next to us when their first dish, a bowl of mussels, arrived -- only to watch it return to the kitchen because the mussels were still frozen through. After that, the disappointed diners went over to the bar and smoked while they awaited a second attempt. By that time, we'd gotten our caracoles de Provence ($13.50), which was supposed to be tomatoes stuffed with garlic escargot. Instead, we were looking at one gutted, uncooked tomato containing four very expensive snails that had been cooked until their edges were black and the rest resembled dried rubber cement. But at least they were edible. This night's salad, the salade La Brasserie Café ($8.70) was almost impossible to stomach: two slices of bread each topped with one thin slice of smoked salmon, a smear of goat cheese and about a tablespoon of completely raw garlic. There were some mixed greens in there, too, but everything surrendered to that garlic.
A lot of water -- the attentive busboy rushed over to replace every mouthful I swallowed -- and another hour later I ventured to the ladies' room, where I encountered a woman from another table. Had we gotten any food yet? she wondered. I related our appetizer experience. "Oh, you're lucky," she replied. "We've been here for almost two hours, and we haven't eaten anything but bread."
A few minutes after I returned to the table, our main course miraculously appeared. The server/manager/bartender placed the plates with a flourish, obviously relieved that someone would soon be eating something. But not much something -- to be precise, about four total ounces of food. My St. Jacques en bouillabaisse ($16.50) consisted of five scallops in a sauce that did not in any way resemble anything that should have the word "bouillabaisse" attached to it. And they weren't even sea scallops, but slightly larger-than-usual bay scallops, sautéed until crusty. These were McScallops -- but even a fast-food franchise would provide more than five of them.
The canard l'effiloche ($14.50) was another sad bird. The plate held four slices of duck, each slice two inches long and the thickness of two quarters, covered with a sauce that was supposed to be honey and peach brandy but tasted only faintly of peaches when we thought about peaches. Rounding out each dish: exactly five haricots verts and a pile of pearl onions so small and burned they looked like rabbit pellets.
This time our server offered coffee or a glass of wine as compensation for the wait. We went with coffee, since we wanted to stay awake for the dessert we'd ordered. Neither was worth the wait. The profiteroles were dry and chewy, slathered with a chocolate sauce that tasted like Hershey's; the apple tart ($5) was a rectangular slice of previously frozen puff pastry into which had been pressed six barely cooked apple slices. As we attempted to eat it, the staff stood at the bar, obviously impatient for us to leave.
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We got the hint, and did.
Later I called Tuscher and asked why, if he's having so much trouble with staffing, he doesn't just close La Brasserie for a week or two until he can get everything together.
"I can't do that," he gasped. "It would ruin my reputation."