As the hostess seated us, she asked if this was our first visit to Déjà Vu. "Yes," we replied, adding that we'd eaten at the restaurant that had previously occupied the space. "Oh, we're exactly the same," she said.
But even if that were true -- and it wasn't -- it wouldn't be anything to brag about. By the time Michael's of Cherry Creek closed last summer, the restaurant was past its prime. For Déjà Vu to resurrect Michael's even-then flagging fusion roster would be about as innovative as serving weenies wrapped in Pillsbury crescent rolls with a side of Jell-O.
After Jeanette Cionetti and her husband, Dennis Beznoska-Cionetti, purchased Michael's from Michael Schiell and Anitra Carr, they not only kept much of the menu, but they retained most of the decor. And so Déjà Vu remains as elegant, cozy and dimly lit as Michael's was. It sits below street level in a mini-plaza set back far enough that diners are blissfully unaware of the world outside; in fact, they're trapped in a time warp. With the exception of a tipsy bar regular who likes to wear camouflage outfits, everyone who eats at Déjà Vu appears to be over fifty, as they were at Michael's, and either trim with shoulder-length blonde hair and way too much jewelry (the women) or paunchy with thinning hair combed over from one side and way too much jewelry (the men). This is still where the Cherry Creek elite meet to kiss-kiss on the cheek and discuss whose house is being turned into condos and why Whole Foods is a godsend. (Actual overheard comment: "Safeway was starting to scare me.") If you're under thirty and find yourself in Déjà Vu, you may feel like you've just snuck downstairs to watch your parents throw a bad cocktail party all over again.
Certainly, your parents would recognize the menu. It's laden with spuds, a big food a decade ago. Of the nine regular entrees, five come with whipped potatoes, one comes with roasted dill potatoes, one with roasted parmesan potatoes, one with Tuscan potatoes and one with potato chowder. It's as though rice, noodles, beans and polenta had never been invented. And the potatoes are paired with meats and fish that we've been eating all along, covered in sauces that are nothing new.
If the dishes sound dull, chef Dan Bushell's uneven cooking does nothing to improve matters. For starters, the jumbo lump crabcakes arrived cold and underdone, with no golden crust to hold together the sweet and succulent crabmeat. The sautéed veal sweetbreads, on the other hand, were overdone. What should have been tender baubles of thymus had turned into chewy, dry nuggets, and there was nothing the tarragon veal butter -- what is that, anyway? -- could do to soften things up. But the steamed mussels, one of Michael's signature dishes, were just fine, and while the serving wasn't nearly as enormous as it had been under the previous regime, the mussels were still fresh, super-soft, and sweet-and-soured by a gingery broth perked up with lime. The best appetizer, though, was the vegetable spring roll, a combination of worldbeat tastes and textures. Two crisp-wrapped tubes filled with velvety bits of wild mushroom and cooked-but-still-crunchy vegetables had been placed on a chile-lime dipping sauce that was at once sticky-sweet and sharply spicy, an upscale concoction reminiscent of both Vietnamese nuoc cham and Thai peanut sauce.
If the starters were uneven, the entrees tended toward awful. Not only was the pan-seared halibut poorly cooked -- this fish has a tendency to dry out anyway, and prolonged searing or a long wait under a heat lamp sends it over the edge -- but it further suffered from bad flavor matchmaking. Halibut is a low-fat, very mildly flavored fish, and it needs to be served either very plain, to showcase its delicate taste, or with a rich sauce that compensates for the meat's less-oily quality. Déjà Vu's fish was swimming in what had been billed as a "tomato caraway-seed butter" but appeared to be nothing more than melted butter studded with diced tomatoes and caraway seeds -- nutty, anise-tasting seeds that come from a plant in the parsley family. The tomato was so acidic that it was almost lemon-like in its mouth-puckering abilities; it overwhelmed both the caraway and the fish. The butter didn't do any better paired with the quartet of steamed mussels that came with the halibut, or with the side of lackluster whipped potatoes. The spuds were dry and floury tasting, with none of the richness this preparation should make possible.
We were never asked what temperature we wanted our black-soy-dipped filet of beef; it arrived medium-rare...and disappointingly small. But the otherwise tasty cut had been so poorly paired with sauces -- the soy sauce was acrid, as bitter as the herbs in an accompanying coulis -- that after a few bites we didn't want any more. The pork tenderloin came with a too-bold apple-marsala demi that was no improvement; it was so runny and weak that it had the thrown-together appearance of a demi-glace made by a first-year culinary-school student. Worse, the pork itself was nearly raw. Granted, pig tenderloin is a tough cut to cook because it dries out so fast -- all of the fat is on the exterior of the meat, which means the center gets little added moisture -- but to undercook it was to overcompensate in a very unappetizing way. And tossing bitter roasted garlic into those whipped potatoes just added insult to injury.
At least the fourteen-ounce New York strip steak offered a departure from those interminable tubers, but the roasted parmesan potatoes tasted as though they'd been cooked and reheated; they were chewy rather than crispy on the outside and had a weird smoky flavor within. Although this time we'd been asked how we wanted our meat, the strip arrived well past the requested medium. It had also been broiled with so much cracked pepper that it should have been called au poivre.
Déjà Vu's most successful course is dessert. We ordered two, both on the strong recommendation of our efficient server. The stacked cylinder of chocolate mousses was heavenly, packed with white and milk chocolate flavors. And the cheesecake was a work of art, a timeless recipe that merged rich creaminess with light fluffiness and topped everything off with a delectable caramel sauce. This was the sort of savvy update that could keep fusion from dying off altogether.
Still, given the choice of Déjà Vu all over again, I'd pass.
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