Cafe Society

A Rocky Romance

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She: "If that's how vegetarians are forced to eat when they go out, it's no wonder they're so grumpy."

Me: "If that's how vegetarians are forced to eat when they go out, I'm surprised they're not chasing down stray cats in the neighborhood or just pulling flowers out of people's gardens for a midnight snack."

This was not the romantic evening we'd been urged to imagine.

Fast-forward to a second dinner, and a very different experience. This time we were seated in the main dining room, with a server who'd been at Tante Louise for more than a decade and really knew his stuff. He was quiet and unobtrusive, neither patronizing (as our first server had been whenever he eventually made it to our table) nor haughty, and he had a gentle sense of humor. The smiling Corky was working the floor, poking at the fireplaces, making sure everything, everywhere was just right with everyone. And the courses were ideally timed.

We tried the butternut-squash bisque swirled with garam masala butter, which was thick and rich, heady with exotic, wintry flavors. At first taste, before the butter was fully infused, the bite of clove, turmeric, deep orange squash flesh and cinnamon hit me like a hundred Christmases. But as the soup cooled, the flavors mellowed and blended; their rough edges smoothed. The soup was served with braised lamb ravioli that initially seemed out of place, but finally proved a good match for the strong spices.

The kitchen had assembled a plate of veal sweetbreads with the necessary care, breading and gently pan-frying the thymus glands. This takes skill -- cook them too long and they become rubbery, like misshapen chicken McNuggets, too briefly and they retain a gooey greasiness that's an all-too-personal reminder of exactly what you're eating -- and Hix's kitchen, drawing from centuries of French charcuterie, pulled it off brilliantly. Three small, tender, golden-brown pieces arrived atop a smooth, herbed-root vegetable purée with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts and the same truffle jus I remembered from my first dinner.

My entree this time was a double-cut pork chop done well, medium and rare, depending on how close to the center I cut. The two beautiful chops were excellent-quality pork, smoothly flavored, juicy, well-trimmed and carefully broiled. They came propped against a dense bread pudding flavored with apples and creamy Bavarian cambozola cheese that was perfect for mopping up a puddle of glossy, sweet star anise demi-glace that carried only the barest hint of licorice flavor on top of a powerful veal-bone reduction.

But the pheasant breast wrapped in prosciutto? Like the pancetta of our first dinner, the prosciutto was too heavily crusted in salt and pepper, ruining the pheasant breast -- which had been pulled from the oven at precisely the right moment and then rested before it was sliced into medallions that hit the table juicy and medium rare. Plus, the side of toasted quinoa was dry, flavorless and studded with an overcooked, pasty mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery that added nothing to the mix but disappointment.

Hix certainly knows her way around the classical French canon of recipes and preparations, and her kitchen shows a tremendous amount of skill when whipping up a complicated jus, demi or reduction -- but it frequently, and inexplicably, drops the ball on the elementary stuff, like forgetting the artichoke hearts that were supposed to be served with the rack of lamb or the peppered honey pecans with the pheasant. Her staff can work wonders with fruit -- both on the main plates and at dessert, as evidenced by a spiced apple and quince charlotte with fresh blood-orange ice cream that the wife and I fought over on the first night to get the taste of raw potatoes off our tongues. But hand them a few vegetables, and they're lost. And while they do disastrous, almost criminal, things with simple cured meats, they're brilliant with the tough ones, like sweetbreads and pates.

But an inconsistent kitchen isn't the only place where the grande dame of Denver's high-end occasion restaurants is showing her age. The inconsistent service, inconsistent timing and a certain air of cocooned, insular disconnection from the new wave of diners and dining is starting to drag at her classic heels. There's a reason why someone invented the phrase "raising the bar": to describe the effect that places like Adega, Opal and Opus are having on the restaurant scene, and to warn the old guard that they now have some competition. No restaurant can run on reputation alone -- especially in a town that now has higher expectations -- and even with a floorman as smooth as Corky, at this point, the old girl just doesn't have the legs to stay ahead of the curve.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan