Have you ever dined with us before?" our server asked. She was penny-bright, scrubbed and polished in her house livery (black on black), standing with her hands folded in front of her and a spark in her eyes that bordered on fanaticism — a glow of barely contained glee at the possibility that we were new to the dining room, that we'd somehow wandered in blind, aching for conversion.
Warily, Laura nodded. Flinching inwardly, I allowed that no, we hadn't yet dined at Black Cat, chef Eric Skokan's restaurant.
Her smile, when it came, was like an artillery strike seen from above in one of those Vietnam documentaries on TLC: a small and distant flare of energy followed by the graceful blossoming of heat and light and fire that seems to go on forever, growing and widening and deepening just when you think it ought to go out. She seemed so happy that we'd come, so delighted that we'd chosen to spend our night in her care. And she wasn't faking it, either. Meryl Streep couldn't act this well. As she swung into her spiel — "organic...seasonal...powerful flavors of ingredients...right from Eric's garden...from Eric's house...from Eric's kitchen..." — I felt the fervor heat of the zealot baking off her: radiation in the Boulder frequency, equal parts lust and environmental stewardship. She said she'd give us a few minutes to look over the menu, to relax into each other's company, Laura and I, sitting side by side on a black loveseat facing the open kitchen. It was a full-book Saturday night in a small house that, prior to being transformed into one of the Republic's most rustic and focused restaurants, had been a Cold Stone Creamery.
Black Cat Restaurant
1964 13th Street, Boulder
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. daily
Black Cat $13Gnocchi $15Pork $21Duck $24Snapper $23
"This gourd," Laura said, in a perfect rendition of our server's breathless passion, pointing to a large green-and-yellow striped squash sitting atop the garde manger station, "comes straight from Eric's pants. He grew it there special for tonight..."
I laughed, drank my local beer, nipped at my local bread dipped in a puddle of artisan olive oil, thinking to myself that this food — whatever we chose to order — needed to be not just great, but superlative in order to warrant such zeal. After years of hearing gasping exhortations of servers about the freshness of the product, quivering approbation of the chef, his crew, the kitchen, I've come to feel that many houses use praise on the floor as a cheaper substitute for actual talent on the line: Tell them the chef is a genius with freshness and locality, and no one will complain about the dirt on the arugula.
Black Cat's menu looked good. Not exactly poetry, but an interesting exemplar of that trend toward borderless nouvelle — an Escherian strangeness whereby the constraints of keeping cuisine local forces a chef to be worldly in his influences, if only so he can find new and interesting ways to keep serving eggplant every night. The board changes daily, occasionally (as we would soon discover) in the middle of a service — making presumably best use of what was taken from the farm, garden, coop or field that day. There was a blanquette de veau, housemade mozzarella, preparations of blue crab (likely not gotten from Eric's house, unless he's keeping them in his bathtub) and rocket salads. I saw Italian influences, French (of course) and motes of Asiana, touches of American/Californian inspiration and a heavy hand of greenmarket garden porn: lovingly described grilled fennel, baby carrots, roasted shallots, eggs from Eric's coop, greens from Eric's garden.
Our server returned from spreading her love around her section and we ordered: pecorino pepato, a pissaladiere (basically a cheeseless French fish pizza) and gnocchi Bolognese to start; the slow-roasted Berkshire pork with chèvre polenta and pistachios for Laura's entree and, for me, the most ridiculous and pretentious-sounding thing I'd seen on a menu in a long time: the chef's "Juxtaposition of Duck." The server nodded, told us how wonderful our choices were, suggested wine pairings (including an excellent Côtes du Rhône that had apparently inspired Eric in the creation of the pork), then left.
Excepting the delivery of a one-bite amuse of fresh tomato tart with goat cheese and occasional suggestions that we drink more, this was the last service we would see for almost an hour.
Laura and I joked. We ate our bread, finished our first-course beers, sipped our water and watched the dining room swirl with trade. We joked more.
A half-hour passed. We ran out of things to say to each other, so we watched the kitchen instead. The line at Black Cat is gorgeous — a kind of dream galley that belongs in a totally inaccurate movie about cooks, not in an actual working restaurant. It is narrow, open to the public and lined with wood shelves holding cookbooks, bottled herbs, an unused tagine and other tools. Skokan, who came to Boulder to open Black Cat after a long stretch at Alice's Restaurant at Gold Lake Resort and gigs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville before that, worked the center position, sous to his right manning the burners amid a clutter of small copper saucepots that most working chefs can only dream of, garde manger man to his left composing salads and dessert plates and sides.
But no food seemed to be leaving the kitchen. At 45 minutes, the servers were clumped up at the pass, looking nervously around the room. There were other tables on the floor without food, a few that'd gotten stalled somewhere mid-meal, a couple that had been fully served and were clearing out. The largest number of checks I'd seen on the slide at any point was six. Looking in now, there were just two — one working, one holding. And still, no food forthcoming. Our first course was basically a cheese plate; how tough was that?
At fifty minutes, our second courses arrived. The servers dropped the plates without explanation, then retreated. The pissaladiere — or what passed for it — was a deconstruction: one thin breadstick, burned on top (perhaps deliberately), standing in for the crust of what is classically a tart-like pie; three smears of sauce (green and black, citric and savory in turn); some greens and shaved tuna in place of the anchovy. The tuna was roughly chopped and stringy, the bread tasted of scorched garlic. I ate it only because I was starving. The gnocchi were in a rather tasteless white Bolognese, the sliced tomatoes and basil leaves doing little to help the blandness.
Our first course was still MIA. In the kitchen, Skokan and his floor staff were convened in emergency council, going through spiked checks as work on the line ground to a standstill. The sous was consulted, then the garde manger man. Soon after, our server returned with two plates of salmon.
It was wonderful salmon — perfectly cooked, crisped in the pan and presented naked, with only a hat of crisped pancetta, a bed of brined guanciale and snap peas. This, I thought, was the essence of what Skokan is trying to accomplish at Black Cat: a locally focused cuisine minceur, the beauty of excellent ingredients, flavors unmarred by kitchen fussery or the over-application of sauce. I loved it.
Only one problem: We hadn't ordered salmon.
There was another long wait before the eventual removal of the licked-clean salmon plates. I couldn't take my eyes off the kitchen and the servers gathered at the pass, all of them frantically and quietly trying to recover from whatever colossal fuckup had brought an entire service to a halt. I was getting angry. The night hadn't been that busy (I knew, because we'd been sitting through most of it), and while I could see that the kitchen was obviously staffed by perfectionists (serious, concentrated cooks with the moves of veterans and the à la minute tools of the fine-dining elite), Black Cat had been open for almost a year — more than long enough to have worked out the kinks.
And then, after more than two hours, our mains finally arrived. The Juxtaposition of Duck was gorgeous, a woodsy muddle of autumn shades and smells, with roasted duck and confit duck and little, crunchy bits of unidentifiable duck offal tossed together with roasted fingerling potatoes. The texture contrast was restrained and idyllic, the smell alone so rich that I wanted to take a knife and fork to the steam. And Laura's pork, after twelve hours of controlled roasting and final plating over a smooth, almost whipped polenta and shards of pistachio, was so subtle and so tender that we both hunched over the plate, chasing after flavors barely sensed before they fled.
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Subtlety and lightness, control and a naked love for ingredients — these are the hallmarks of the food you ultimately get at Black Cat. I would return for a solo meal at the bar of market beets with Roquefort, hazelnuts and roasted shallots; for lemon snapper with wilted bok choy and Asian vinaigrette; for a dessert of cooked milk confiture as sweet as caramel, served with a smear of strawberry coulis and fresh madeleines, still hot from the oven — and for absolutely no disastrous drama in the kitchen. The duck that night was served with braised fennel and roasted cherries, the pork with grilled figs and braised chard from Eric's garden, of course.
That meal showed glimmers of an almost transcendent artistry — and more than enough to justify the ardor shown by our server.
It was like the fulfillment of a promise so often made these days by kitchens and almost never lived up to: one of excellence and thoughtfulness and genius kept, of passion with purpose and a chef as good as his word.
And his garden.