The Shlock of the New
Wild-mushroom-and-Fontina grilled cheese. Frittatas; toasted-oat pancakes that taste like giant oatmeal raisin cookies laced with wispy vanilla; seared tuna in a soy-ginger glaze. Eggs Benedict made with poached eggs wrapped in smoky Nova lox and topped with crème fraîche, and a breakfast pizza assembled from scrambled eggs, beef tenderloin, sprigged fresh thyme and the hollandaise that should have been on the Benedict but wasn't. Wild arugula and the pride of Napa, Laura Chennel goat cheese. An orzo salad threaded with orange zest on a bed of bitter greens. A Kobe-beef hamburger. Truffled french fries.
And that's it. Not the extent of the menu at Cafe Bisque, chef/owner Alex Gurevich's year-old New American breakfast bar in Lakewood, but possibly of my patience. For me, New American food is done. Over like the dinosaurs, like LA Gear sneakers and Members Only jackets. In the past few years, the New American moniker has become a catch-all descriptive, a lazy man's out for chefs who don't feel like cooking to any sort of standard, a crutch for those who want to mix the quasi-French technique and Old World classics on their menus with Italian preparations, Asian insight and American ingredients without taking the time to understand any of them.
Far be it from me to lament the bad old days of American haute, but there was a time when New American meant something. Granted, it was a broke-leg, cross-eyed, crippled offshoot of a méthode de cuisine terribly flawed in its own right (California cuisine, the original sin of American cookery from which a little good and nearly all evil has sprung), but there was a point to it, a reason for its existence, and at least the presumption of a method to the madness it unleashed on the world.
In the beginning (which means about thirty years ago), New American cuisine was exactly this: an over-the-top response by hometown chefs to the notion that all great cuisine began and ended in France. The advent of California cuisine, of Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and all their timely ilk, coupled with the sudden appearance of several classically trained chefs (most of them of Continental origin) who were eschewing the French canon and identifying their tastes and styles as purely American gave rise to the idea that honest American cuisine without a French accent was worthy on its own merits. We were poor in tradition, sure, stunted in appreciation, besotted with fast and frozen foods. But we were also possessed of an abundance of local product, a repertoire informed both by regional specialization and decades of virtual occupation by the brigades of Europe, as well as by a seemingly unique talent for culinary innovation. After being trained through long exposure to international haute cuisine to be ashamed of our grits, our pork chops and applesauce, our baked beans, étouffee and collard greens, the New American culinary revolt was a reactionary shedding of these froggish shackles. It was an attempt to prove that we as Americans had a culinary tradition and an undeniable style that deserved to be recognized as valid and true.
It was a war of grilled-cheese sandwiches versus coq au vin, tomato soup against consommé. And we lost. One of the reasons for this failure was that American chefs have yet to produce our own canon of acceptable practices, agreed-upon measures of absolute rightness, and standards for individual preparations that represent the best of our cuisine to the world without having to offer fries on the side and delivery in thirty minutes or it's free. Also sealing our fate was the fact that the New American label was almost immediately co-opted as a fantastically profitable buzzword that could be used to describe menus ranging from the successful, ironic playfulness of Thomas Keller's French Laundry (our New American avatar, the Luke Skywalker in this foie gras opera) to the new theme-bar roster at T.G.I.McPtomaine's Good Time Foodeteria. That irresistible urge for pandering that exists in the deepest heart of every American hack blew any chance we ever had of victory.
Still, we fight on. As American culinarians, we may never work our way out from beneath the mountains of crap that we're universally known to love so dearly -- our jalapeño poppers and flash-frozen fried chicken and half-gallon buckets of soda pop. But the struggle, doomed though it may be, is a noble one, because its premise is sound. We do have some great food of our very own, and some great chefs constantly trying to finesse it into something indisputably fine.
So you should be careful when bandying about the term "New American." It's a nom de guerre that comes with a certain weight, a certain responsibility -- and a few rules.
For starters, if you're going to call yourself a New American restaurant, as Cafe Bisque does, don't front-load your menu with French, Spanish, Italian and Asian dishes. Yes, those influences are present in modern American dining, but they are just that: influences. Not the body of the cuisine, but its adornments. If you choose, like Cafe Bisque, to play that globe-trotting culinary-melting-pot game and hype your imported Fontina, Bavarian ham and Madagascar vanilla, then suck it up, admit that you're really a fusion restaurant and take your lumps. Sorry, but one Napa Valley goat cheese does not a New American restaurant make.
For so many different reasons, you don't use Kobe beef (even American wagyu Kobe) in a burger. That's like making foie gras chili. For one thing, if you're playing at the New American game, what's wrong with Idaho grass-fed beef? For another, it was a friggin' burger: ground shoulder, cooked (by the chef's choice when I ordered it) to mid-well -- which wasted all the beautiful fat that's the whole point of Kobe beef in the first place -- and then dressed up with flash-fried shallots (which were rather good), chive aioli and fried Italian prosciutto. You're wasting a wonderful ingredient by turning it into a burger that expresses none of its worth or subtlety, then further confusing matters by pimping the burger out with competing flavors. And frying prosciutto? You want a fried top note to your Frankenstein burger, you use bacon or pancetta or goddamn baloney, for all I care, but prosciutto is special. Prosciutto is fucking sacred. The best of it is so delicate that the rind of fat can be melted by the heat of your fingers caressing its edge, so what do you think happens to all that fat and flavor when subjected to the sear of a 400-degree flat-grill? It goes straight into the grease trap, wasted forever, invalidating the sacrifice of the pig that died to give you that prosciutto you are unworthy to handle.
The kitchen's truffled french fries showed the same failures in concept, execution and usage. If Gurevich was offering the fries to make a point -- if he were Mr. Super Nouveau avant-garde big shot, if he were Keller or Ferran Adria or even Wylie Dufresne, if he and his kitchen were operating from a position of strength and deep understanding of their ingredients -- then maybe truffled french fries would be okay. Also, if truffle actually worked on a french fry (which it doesn't), and if some real truffle had been employed here rather than a truffle oil or truffle powder or some chem-lab truffle essence. I mean, I got the joke -- the juxtaposition of the common with the decadent. But the fries tasted like fried shoestring potatoes rubbed on a foot.
Sitting on the weird half patio outside the restaurant but inside the covered mall where Cafe Bisque resides, I sampled a castrated squash-and-pear bisque (the restaurant's alleged specialty) that seemed to contain only heavy cream and one blunted, flat note of squash. I picked at a ham-and-brie sandwich, whose excellent artisan bread had been ironed like a panini and stuffed with ham that tasted like leftover lox, probably because it had been grilled on the same spot where a salmon filet had recently been mangled. One spot for fish, one spot for meats -- that's schoolboy stuff, and Gurevich's crew should've known better. The stuffed French toast worked, even though it wasn't stuffed French toast so much as a French toast sandwich filled with Oregon cranberries and cream cheese, dosed with a nice compound cinnamon-walnut butter.
On another visit, there was an absolutely awful orange and orzo salad so out of balance that it smelled like citrus bathroom cleaner and tasted like I'd been flossing my teeth with orange zest. Zest is overused to begin with -- a false flavor booster added like garnish by chefs who don't realize that not only are fruit oils murderously overpowering, but they linger forever on the palate. The use of zest -- any zest -- must therefore be mitigated by something acidic, something to cut the wallop of its nuclear first strike on the tongue. In a salad dressing, for example, zest can be scaled back and shortened by vinegars, by whole complementary fruits, even by some astringent herbs. Here, it wasn't. Here, it was zest gone wild. Had someone in the galley just tasted the salad, it would have been obvious that the vile little thing was hopelessly out of whack -- but apparently no one did. Perhaps the cooks were too busy looking for new and interesting ways to abuse the truffle oil.
Yet somehow they found the time to ruin the lobster club sandwich I'd enjoyed on my first visit to Cafe Bisque. Artisan ciabatta, cold lobster meat, smoked bacon, avocado, red onion, romaine lettuce and a chive aioli had been stacked up in a pleasing combo, since lobster and avocado play well together, and the acid sting of red onion with some bitter chive pulled everything together. But for some reason (maybe the lobster was too expensive, or the sandwich wasn't selling), on the new menu the lobster club has been replaced by a Maine club, with all the same components -- smoked bacon, avocado, red onion, romaine lettuce and chive aioli stacked on artisan ciabatta -- except with salmon now subbing for the lobster. And not well. Salmon and avocado go together like nuts and gum, the buttery avo stretching out the greasy salmon flavor without end, coating the mouth and tongue in fish, making it impossible to taste anything else and guaranteeing that the unfortunate lunchtime diner (in this case, me) will still be yucking up fish oil when he brushes his teeth before bed. This was a very bad sandwich, wrong on every level from classical to chemical.
Cafe Bisque did a few things right. In addition to the French toast, the kitchen made a good, chive-spiked Maytag and baby red potato salad worthy of the New American label. There was also a duck confit sandwich with cherry compote, caramelized onions and goat cheese served on bread like a giant English muffin that's not at all New American and not even made with anything approximating duck confit but still fantastic. On my tour through the menu, this was the one instance where the kitchen took an original idea and managed to balance sweet and sour and bitter and salty for a unified harmony of flavors. And that's no small thing. I'd go back just for another crack at this sandwich.
The service was excellent, too -- not wise, not smothering, not snooty, but like a good coffeehouse crew transplanted into a comfortably casual breakfast and lunch place, doing its level best to make sure everyone was taken care of. When the hostess got crushed by the lunch rush, the cooks even left the inviting open kitchen to seat tables and take orders. Which was nice, but they needed to get back in the kitchen for some target practice. As it is, they hit the mark about as often as a blind man playing darts. And that's no way to win a war.
Not even against the French.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.