Cafe Society

A Tall Order

A half-foot high, the tower of alternating raw onion and underripe tomato slices was dripping with balsamic vinegar. The first bite was like doing a shot of vinegar. The second bite was like doing a second shot of vinegar.

There was no third bite.
Until that salad, every dish I'd tried over the past few months at the eleven-year-old Augusta had at least been edible. But this vegetable erection surrounded by four limp, brown-spotted arugula leaves was impossible to swallow. So, for that matter, is what's happened to the Augusta, once one of my favorite Denver restaurants (even if it is in a hotel, the Westin).

For starters, one of Denver's classiest dining rooms--highlighted at night by a spectacular 180-degree view of the surrounding city from its expansive windows--took a comical turn when the sensible art that had been hanging on its black-and-white faux-marble walls was replaced with stark Southwestern paintings. There's nothing wrong with the works themselves--they come from the estimable collection of Philip Anschutz, who owns 10 percent of the Westin--but they look ridiculous in this modern setting.

Then someone decided that the breads should be served in blocky, rustic twig baskets, which would look charming in a ski lodge but seem absurdly out of place here.

And finally, executive chef James Footit, a recent hire from the Westin Century Plaza in Los Angeles, took the well-chosen, stylish menu that had offered sort of a New-American-meets-New-European lineup and replaced it with a mostly Mediterranean roster augmented at lunch by California-style brick-oven pizzas. Been there, done that--to death.

It would be one thing if Footit's creations were compelling, but so far I've found them far from it. Even when the concept sounds promising, something usually ruins the finished product--an incongruous ingredient, an overwhelming presentation or just plain faulty execution.

Or too much balsamic vinegar.
At one lunch, we started with a scant bowl of white-bean-and-pancetta minestrone ($3.75) that, despite the stingy portion, was too creamy and rich to finish, even with two of us working on it. The "wood bowl salad" (salad in a wooden bowl, which the Augusta must have gotten in a deal along with the bread baskets) wasn't much better; the forgettable greens might as well have been wood shavings. The salad was included with an order of sun-dried tomato, pesto and feta pizza ($10.50); the pizza sported a beautiful crust but not enough of the sun-dried tomatoes, pesto or feta. Our second entree, a stir-fry of filet mignon with vegetables ($15), was heart-healthy but brain-dead and, like the pizza, far too pricey. Sadly, we'd picked it as the most interesting possibility on that day's list of specials, all of which seemed like rather odd detours from a mostly Mediterranean kitchen. But it was still better than anything on the regular menu. Fusilli Bolognese? Farfelle primavera?

The kitchen couldn't leave well enough alone, even with our tiramisu finale ($5.25). The dessert's classic timbale shape and spongy texture seemed promising, but then our forks hit something hard. A pear. "Why is there a pear in my tiramisu?" I asked. "It's kind of a twist on tiramisu," the waitperson answered. Aaahhh. Judging from his stern expression, the Native American hanging on the wall above us did not approve.

He appeared more cheerful when we returned for Sunday brunch ($24.95, which includes champagne), perhaps because several Central City Opera singers stood nearby, entertaining the sizable gathering. The Augusta's well-done buffet setup offered the usual mountain of peel-and-eat shrimp, as well as baked goods, chilled seafood, cheeses, salads, omelettes and a plethora of desserts. But the restaurant would do well to dump the curdling eggs Benedict and mysterious chicken concoctions in chafing dishes (signs identifying the food would be helpful) and instead concentrate on the excellent assembled-to-order offerings: The spicy crayfish with farfelle, the veal medallions in a cream sauce and the spit-roasted lamb were so good we went back for seconds and thirds.

Considering the inflated brunch and lunch tabs, we found the Augusta's prices at dinner surprisingly reasonable. The meal itself, however, got downright silly.

We started out with the warm duckling katafi nest ($7.25). The appetizer included a plentiful amount of succulent duck meat--shredded and reminiscent of beef brisket, it was so tender--atop a clutch of katafi (usually spelled kata•fi). These long, thin strands made from flour-and-water dough most often appear in Middle Eastern desserts, but they were an inspired element here. Like some fusion experiment gone awry, though, this nest was oddly garnished with enoki mushrooms. And while the menu had promised that the nest would rest "in a warm apple and onion chutney," it sat in a pile of mixed greens that had been doused with a balsamic-based liquid; the "chutney" had been reduced to four or five cold, vinegary slivers of apples and onions that showed up on the side. And this was just the first of several misleading menu descriptions.

The warm buffalo-mozzarella-and-tomato ragout ($5.50) was supposed to arrive "in flaky romano pastry," but instead the puff pastry appeared alongside a cascade of tongue-blisteringly hot ragout. Once it cooled off, though, the rustic tomato stew was a comforting version, filled with herbs and melted baubles of mozzarella. Under the ragout sat more greens that, while attractive, were so jarringly tart, they worked against the dish.

And then came the inedible sugar-charred onion and tomato salad with arugula ($6.50)--proof positive that either the kitchen was trying to empty an economy-sized party ball of balsamic vinegar, or someone back there actually thinks the liquid is the best thing since sliced focaccia.

Apparently the Augusta's waiters are accustomed to seeing people abandon almost-untouched dishes, because our server said nothing about the discarded salad. And he removed the remains of the French onion soup ($5) without noting our failure to consume the enormous bread lid--sort of a hollow hamburger bun on steroids--that topped the bowl. When I'd pierced this covering with a fork, it started to crumble into crunchy breadcrumbs that threatened to sop up what little liquid was actually in the bowl. Instead, I carefully excavated the few spoonfuls of excellent soup, a condensed stock teeming with translucent onions and strings of cheese. A corner of the Augusta kitchen must be piled high with uneaten bread shells, tossed there by oblivious waiters.

"How do your entrees look?" our server managed to ask as he set them in front of us. Fine, we replied, but to be honest, they looked like everything else we'd seen: tall. Eating them involved a certain amount of deconstruction. For instance, we had to remove extraneous bunches of thyme jammed into the centers of both entrees, as well as pick off 25 (yes, we counted) kalamatas that hadn't rated so much as a mention on the menu's description of swordfish Provencal ($18.95). Underneath it all, the fish had been beautifully grilled, even if the "fresh herb broth of tomatoes and capers" was more like a chunky tomato sauce that still tasted faintly of olives. The swordfish came with an innovative, crisp capellini cake that would have been enough to round out the plate, but the kitchen had also piped in some decent mashed potatoes and, of course, added balsamic-soaked greens, balsamic-soaked hearts of palm and balsamic-soaked cucumbers. The last item, listed on the menu as "pickled cucumbers," would be known anywhere else as what they really are: pickles.

The grilled filet mignon au poivre ($20.50) should have been billed as sans poivre, since there wasn't a speck of pepper in sight. But the two five-ounce-ish filets, nicely cooked to medium-rare, rested in a pool of exquisite port-and-shallot glaze. A slice of pungent wild-mushroom strudel perched against more of those potatoes; hidden behind all that was a smattering of homemade sauerkraut so pleasantly heavy on the caraway that it deserved a more prominent role.

After all this, we were ready for that fruity tiramisu ($5.95). This time the surprise inside was bananas, and the result was a concoction that resembled a wonderful, mushy banana cream pie. And I've never tasted better sorbet ($5.95): a scoop each of mango, lemon and raspberry in a chocolate-dipped tuile floating on a fresh raspberry coulis.

The success of that last dessert--straightforward, uncluttered and simply adorned, not to mention appearing as advertised--should be used as a blueprint for untangling the confused mess that's been made of the once-elegant Augusta.

Augusta at the Westin Hotel, Tabor Center, 1672 Lawrence, 572-9100. Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.