Cafe Society

Mouthing Off

The inn crowd: The Schmoozers sign that had hung over the space at 4400 East Eighth Avenue has disappeared, replaced by one proclaiming that the place is once again The College Inn, the name it had gone by since the Fifties. But while that identity crisis has apparently been straightened out--one employee told me they'd changed the name back for nostalgic reasons--the College Inn still has some kinks in the kitchen.

And in its lines of communication, too. Over two visits, no staffer I talked to was able to remember the names of the absentee owners, but the consensus was that they've owned it for "about three years" and that the place has been your standard joint since then. The interior sports a lot of wood, booths, televisions and a CD jukebox; the outdoor deck affords diners an umbrella-covered view of the cars whizzing by on Eighth.

Inside, the best views are orders of the housemade potato chips ($3.75) and the buffalo chicken wings ($4.50). The chips were made from big Idahoes that had been sliced medium-thick lengthwise, deep-fried and coated with salt and pepper. The wings came four ways--hot, spicy hot, sweet-and-tangy or barbecue--but our server admitted that "there isn't much difference between the hot and the spicy hot," adding that the hot were the ones most like the original recipe from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. He was right: The dozen well-fried, crispy-skinned wings had been coated in the proper buttery Tabasco sauce, and while they normally come with ranch dressing, we found out that you can ask for the more authentic blue cheese. (We never did get the celery and carrots promised on the menu.) On one visit, the wings were wonderful, hot and dripping with sauce; on the second, they seemed to have been made the day before and reheated in the microwave.

But that was tasty compared to the other items we tried. An order of fish and chips ($7.50) brought what tasted like frozen cod entombed in a tasteless cocoon of too-crunchy batter; while the skin-on fries were a good combination of soft inside and crispy out, the coleslaw was frighteningly close to room temperature, and the tartar sauce had a darkened film on top from lengthy exposure to the air.

I couldn't figure out what was St. Louis-style about the ribs ($7.95), but we weren't given much to go on. The oddly hacked-apart bones were supposed to have been treated to the "chef's special rub" and then slicked with a chipotle honey barbecue sauce, but all we could taste was black pepper, ketchup and a strange meaty flavor that reminded me of corned beef. We had no complaints about the Texas toast or the salty-but-meat-packed beef barley soup that came with the ribs, though. But we did about the chile rellenos ($5.95): While we'd been drawn by the promise of pepper jack cheese, the two Anaheims arrived so lukewarm that the cheese could have been sliced and put on a cracker. And the pork-packed green chile--which we'd requested extra-hot--would have been medium by most standards.

We'd also felt compelled to try what was billed as the College Inn's "famous eat-in or take-and-bake pizza," but "infamous" would be a better description. The sixteen-inch cheese pie ($9.95) sported a barely cooked crust, canned sauce and cheap cheese that tasted old and solidified about four minutes after the thing was set down in front of us. Later, when I reheated the leftovers, the finally cooked crust was better--slightly sweet, with a good, chewy texture--but the cheese was still nasty.

Hey, how about some menu changes to match the new/old name?

Ch-ch-ch-changes: After eighteen years as the primary chef at his Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue), Robert Tournier has turned over the toque. His new chef is Christophe Negrel, a thirty-year-old native of Toulon, France, who has worked at such prestigious places as the Hotel de Paris in Monaco and the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. Negrel has also served as a private chef for several French politicos, including a former president's widow.

Tournier, who's in Toulon (also his hometown) right now for a visit with his family, is a little concerned about how Negrel will adjust to the odd pace of Denver restaurants. "I am aware of the risks I am taking by bringing a chef with Christophe's background to Le Central," Tournier writes via e-mail. "I made him aware of the frenetic and chaotic pace of Le Central's kitchen, the affordable price structure, the hectic crowds on weekends and the differences in customers' tastes and the products we get here in Colorado as opposed to Provence. But from all the chefs I interviewed, Christophe was the most excited by the challenge."

Adding to the challenge: Christophe does not speak English. Yet.
Speaking not much--but with a French accent--is the new La Brasserie Cafe (2191 Arapahoe Street). Philippe Toucher took the space over after La Coupole closed this past January; Avid Dorffer is his chef. As for any other details, your guess is as good as mine. A manager who answered my call said he was very busy because Channel 9 was filming Dorffer that very minute, then added, "It's a new owner and a new chef and a new menu, and I have to go."

Who doesn't?