Two, please. For dinner. If it's okay, we'll just sit at the bar."
Twice before, I've eaten at Frasca, drunk at Frasca, allowed myself to be folded into the perfect ballet of service at Frasca, dining once alone, once with my wife. Neither time have I made it to a table, choosing instead to arrive with the rush at 5:30 p.m. -- the minute the doors open -- for the first-come, first-served seats at the bar. But both times my meals have been a dream, the culmination of a remarkable cash-and-carry culinary fantasy of "What would happen if...."
What would happen if a young chef -- one of those freak-of-nature genius nobodies, meticulously French-trained, apprenticed through some of the best houses in the world, yet flying below the big-money celebrity radar -- brushed up against one of the better-known, award-winning sommeliers working in the United States? What would happen if they became friends while working together in a legendary house, a sort of culinary genetics laboratory where the essential DNA of American cuisine and the dominant traits of the best cooks in the world are being constantly split and recombined? And what would happen if these two -- after being tempered by the fire and pressure of working under the microscopes and Heisenberg glare of every foodie, every restaurant cultist, every critic and fellow traveler in the food universe -- decided to move on and open a restaurant of their own in Boulder, of all places?
Frasca is what would happen. Owned and operated by chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey -- who met at the French Laundry while working front-and-back shifts for three years under Thomas Keller -- this restaurant is the answer to those hypothetical questions, the brick-and-mortar solution to that most pipe-dreamy equation.
In the food world, Keller has transcended mere stardom and reached the level of kitchen saint -- beatified and powerful, capable of bestowing upon his most devoted acolytes a mystical gleam of brilliance. And while those who work for him (as short-time stagiaires, mostly, because at this point in the evolution of American cuisine, Keller could staff his kitchen entirely with up-and-comers willing to work for free just for the opportunity to put his name on their resumés) may learn a trick or two, those who work with him (as did both Mackinnon-Patterson, as the French Laundry's chef de partie, and Stuckey, as wine director) come away changed. Rather than narrow-minded disciples, Keller produces partisans of cuisine, servants in the truest sense of the word, who understand the nobility of striving for perfection even while knowing that perfection is impossible to attain.
But Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey come very, very close with Frasca. At this point in culinary history, their eight-month-old restaurant -- dedicated to the cuisine and wine of Friuli in northeastern Italy -- is peerless.
And it's ours.
The room is smallish, with maybe twenty full tables, some booth-back seating, a wine wall (almost de rigueur in restaurant design these days) and a false-beam ceiling. The table settings are plain (if you can call Riedel stemware and heavy silver plain) but classic: starched white tablecloths, crisp linen napkins, everything gleaming, nothing overdone. The space is twice as comfortable and ten times less snooty than it has every right to be, staffed by a floor crew a thousand times more competent than any other in metro Denver -- even when the place is full, as it is every night, for every seating, with reservations stretching weeks in advance.
Still, in the midst of all this -- in the scrum of tables coming, going and turning, where those lucky few with reservations look like they're holding the foodie equivalent of one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets; with the crowds stacking at the host's station, being shunted to the bar and, when the bar fills, to the salumi bar, where the antipasto meats are carved and, when that fills, to an extra bar against the wall -- Frasca has an elegant calm. And when even all of the bar seating is gone (as it is by 6:30 almost every night), the host sends everyone else to the street with thanks, an apology from the house, and exhortations to please, please, try again another night.
In the midst of all this, there are servers pouring tajuts, half-glasses of decanted wine, kicking out freebies like they were trying to get someone elected, plus Stuckey floating through it all -- a single point of unruffled calm, exuding a palpable cool that settles every table he brushes past.
And somehow, in the midst of all this, every party is treated as though it's the only one there. Every woman is a princess, every man her witty, handsome and loaded consort. Doesn't matter if you're a shmuck in the real world, in the world outside Frasca's front door. Doesn't matter if you're possessed of all the wit of the doorknob on that door. Doesn't matter if you know nothing about food. This staff is here to serve you, in particular. Make a joke, and someone will laugh. Drop a napkin, and someone will be there to catch it before it hits the floor, a second someone placing a new one before you, a third someone appearing at your elbow to explain the forces of gravity and to apologize on behalf of the house that they haven't (yet) figured out how to overcome them.
At the bar, Laura and I are eating salumi -- Frasca's antipasti ploughman's platter, so simple and yet so perfect in its simplicity. Paper-thin slices of salty, stiff-fatty prosciutto di San Daniele (the best in the world, and from Friuli) are fanned alongside even thinner Italian speck, even thinner cured Oldani Filsette salami sourced through St. Louis, that undisputed culinary capital of the Midwest. Lying across the plate are grissini, long, skinny breadsticks that we're supposed to use as edible utensils, wrapping the meat around them with our fingers and then running them through the white smear of horseradish rafano. On the side, we have a bowl of spiced almonds and cashews and peanuts -- each nut differently spiced, ideally spiced, like bridge mix for the obsessive-compulsive -- and a stack of frico tuilles, discs of baked and hardened sheep- and cow's-milk cheese.
Somehow, on the other side of the room, Stuckey has heard me order. Or maybe he saw the plates making their way toward us across the crowded floor. Or maybe he's just telepathic, I don't know. But before I can take a bite of the frico, he's at the bar beside us, pouring me a short pilsner glass of Anchor Steam, setting it down, insisting that it's the best pairing and that I have to try it. And he waits while I do.
He's right, of course. The beer works so well alongside the cheese -- mocking the salts, giving legs to the earthy, hard tang -- that it immediately becomes pointless to even think of drinking anything else. Stuckey nods and is gone as quickly as he'd appeared, taking other things to other diners -- a taste of this, a sip of that -- and opening eyes and minds with unusual pairings that are almost always dead-on.
Courses follow courses, the next plate arriving precisely when it's needed, some overlapping with dishes not quite finished, others given the dignity of space, a pause between flights that allows diners to breathe. We have a slab of Big Eye tuna, barely introduced to the heat of the kitchen's grills, set on the bias in a bowl of melted leeks and fork-mashed soft-boiled hen eggs. Another bowl holds an egg of housemade ricotta cheese, veiled by a purée of d'Anjou pears marinated in brown butter, then sprinkled with toasted pecans. We spread the cheese on salt-crusted lavosh crackers, adding microgreens and a little shredded fennel, and eat. We could eat nothing but the ricotta and walk away happy.
At the bar, Steve Peters -- a veteran of more Boulder houses than I can count -- pours me another tajut, this one a Slovenian pinot noir (Movia, 1998) to follow my Australian Grenache (d'Arenberg, 2001). For Laura, he fetches another Rare VOS, a Belgian-style ale brewed in yet another culinary capital: Cooperstown, New York. Although Frasca was designed as an homage to Friuli, the house -- both front and back -- is borderless. Everyone is willing to go anywhere for the best of everything. Even to St. Louis. Even to Cooperstown.
My wife blushes and stutters every time Stuckey heads our way. He looks strikingly like one of her ex-boyfriends -- the one immediately previous to me -- and is smoother, smarter, better on his feet and more charming than I am even in my dreams. I get a little nervous when she blushes that way. But then Stuckey starts talking about wine, cracking bottles that I never asked for just for the joy of sharing, pouring tajuts until glasses surround my plate, and asking how I find the new pinot, the Australian riesling (a product of a friend of his, and wonderful), the real Italian chianti as opposed to its artisan Californian counterpart, made in painstaking imitation of the Italian original. I come up with something, talking in circles, no doubt making a complete ass of myself. But he listens, nodding as though my opinion were important even though I know he's thinking, "Idiot...." If it weren't for the fact that Laura already knows I'm an idiot (since I have about as much collected wine knowledge as your average housecat), even she might be impressed.
And then, worried that he's intruding on our dinner, worried that he's overserving us (as if there were ever such a thing), Stuckey's gone again.
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The food keeps coming, and it's all fantastic. The pork belly has been braised to liquefy some of the fat cap, then pan-seared to preserve a bit of it, leaving a crisp skin on top of each of the slices, which are then set over an apple- chutney-and-horseradish broth swimming with bits of smoked bacon and chopped hedgehog mushrooms. The kitchen pairs beef short ribs with beef marmalade; prepares 21 orders of hand-shaped, hand-stuffed agnolotti pasta a night, no more; glazes thick potato gnocchi with Montasio cheese and sauces the plate with a perfect, wintry profumato (Italian for fragrant, for luscious) of brown butter and sage.
The stufato translates to stuffed chicken, but it's so much more. It's breast of capon -- a rooster castrated young and slaughtered before it reaches a year old, the meat brought in from Wapsie Produce of Decorah, Iowa, which has been nutting birds since 1958 -- cooked sous-vide, vacuum sealed in plastic and poached long and slow so that none of the meat's juices can escape. The breast arrives sliced, spread with Yukon Gold potato purée, topped with a rutabaga salad, and set in a thin, powerful broth that thickens as the potato starches set to work. The capon is sweet and buttery and almost melts into the broth. The salad is crisp. Every element is in exactly the right place, inarguably wedded to each of the others.
The food at Frasca is so good that to parse a meal into a discussion of its disparate parts almost cheapens the experience of dining here, like looking at a Monet painting or listening to Charlie Parker play and saying, "Hey, that's good." Of course it's good; its goodness is not in question. A house as smooth as this, with Bobby Stuckey paving the way; a kitchen as skilled as this, with Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson taking brilliance to a new level -- they don't need that sort of praise. Frasca's excellence is inherent in everything it does, and even for someone as arrogant, opinionated and cultish about his favorites as I am, there's no sense in passing judgment.
For once, I'm silenced by my pure, unadulterated joy at eating.