Second Helpings

Le Central: everyday French fare you could eat every day

SAT prep question: Z Cuisine À Côté is to Le Central as apples are to blank.

If you said toaster ovens, typewriters, shag carpeting or anything of the sort, you're correct — because Le Central and À Côté (reviewed this week) could not be more different. While À Côté is a beautiful, brand-new French snack bar, Le Central has been giving Denver a sit-down history lesson on the breadth of French cuisine — from the haute to the basse — since 1981. Over the years, chefs and cooks from far-flung locales (Burgundy, Paris, Kansas City) have passed through this kitchen, but the latest chef, Jason Debacker, seems to have the place well in hand. And owner Robert Tournier keeps a close eye on the proceedings.

At dinner, Le Central can be one of the city's most romantic spots — provided you order well and are fortunate enough to be looked after by one of the more experienced servers. For a relative pittance, you can have feuilleté d'escargot (snails over puff pastry with walnuts and bleu cheese), hake en papillote, a mushroom Madeira over the breasts of ducks raised by Mennonite farmers or one of eleven mussel preparations.

At lunch, the restaurant is more casual. Service is quick, the floor crowded with people who think it not at all strange to sit down for assiette du fromage (with Montrachet chèvre, Port Salut, Camembert and Roquefort), salade périgourdine, gigot of lamb and a half a bottle of wine on a school day.

When I stopped in last week, I had a delicious lamb and lentil soup, made with the French trinity: the mirepoix of carrot, onion and celery, which was used to excellent effect, offsetting the heaviness of the lamb and adding a base of flavor to a soup that might otherwise have been overpowered by the blandness of lentils. I followed this with a bavette sauce béarnaise — essentially a tenderized flank steak — grilled briefly, soaked down with a gorgeous and silky bearnaise sauce and served with a mound of fries, a baked tomato, a batonnet of carrots and a section of sweet corn on the cob. It was, in essence, a French picnic assembled on a single plate, and while I was not crazy about the frites (they were undercooked and, unless I am remembering other meals at Le Central incorrectly, cut thicker than normal) or the carrots (boiled carrots with tarragon have never been my thing), the steak was excellent, bloody and soft as veal, and the corn — though a weirdly American inclusion on an otherwise Gallic peasant plate — so unbelievably good soaked in bearnaise that, upon finishing what was on my plate, I immediately wanted more.