I didn't need to give it a second thought: I wanted to eat at Tante Louise.
I'd been there before for numerous wine dinners, prestigious affairs that sell out fifteen minutes after they're announced--partly because Tante Louise pulls out bottles from 1958 instead of last year's overstock from the local wine merchants, and partly because of chef Michael Degenhart, who makes innovative yet reality-based dishes that always match the wines perfectly. In fact, it was Degenhart's way with a wine dinner--a pretty taxing proposition for a kitchen, since it has to put out a luscious six-course feast for forty while simultaneously maintaining the status quo in a packed dining room--that made me want to go back and see how Tante Louise handles a regular meal.
Of course, Degenhart, who's been with Tante Louise for nine years and its head chef for five, could send out dog biscuits for the last course of a wine dinner and those schmoozy boozers (okay, not all of them, just the ones I end up sitting next to) would remark that baked horsemeat was the ideal choice with a 1986 Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse Les Menestaieres--that is, if they could get all that out without slurring their words. And if anyone does have trouble pronouncing anything wine-related at Tante Louise, they can always call upon Bob Mandeau, one of the few full-time sommeliers on staff in a Denver restaurant and that even rarer steward who isn't condescending, stuffy or a wine geek who thinks living on the edge is decanting for fewer than five minutes.
But as talented as Degenhart and Mandeau are, the real corkers at Tante Louise are the Corkys, as in William Corbin "Corky" Douglass II and William Corbin "Corky" Douglass III. "We're known as Corky Two and Corky Three around here," says Corky Three, who founded this restaurant in a snug little Victorian bungalow on East Colfax 24 years ago. "My father has been coming to the restaurant for dinner since the very beginning, and one night I said, 'Listen, Pop, I'm busy, so why don't you stand at the door and keep things going?' and I haven't been able to get rid of him since." So the two of them man the front of the house, exchanging pretend insults and generally keeping alive the younger Corky's philosophy of "making sure people feel like someone gives a damn."
At 85, Corky Two is one of those guys who makes everyone around him feel good--and he makes doing it look easy. He cusses often but judiciously, and he's a great kisser (don't ask how I know that, I just do). He also seems as though he'd like to call all ladies "toots" in a really nice, grandfatherly way but knows that in this day and age, he might get slapped. Corky Three inherited his father's warmth and engaging manner, and adds to that his forty-some years in the restaurant business. From dishwasher at the age of fifteen to fry cook to waiter to captain at the now-defunct Quorum--one of only a handful of Denver restaurants that offered traditional European service--Corky Three paid his dues and learned what worked and what didn't.
The poised Corky Three makes being diplomatic and charming look easy, too. I saw him carry on a conversation while simultaneously folding a napkin origami-style and then, with a flick of the wrist, scoop up a dime-sized piece of crumpled paper from the corner of a table and deposit it in his pocket. But you can't blame him for wanting to remove every blemish from Tante Louise's magnificent decor, which is his handiwork and without question the main reason for this restaurant's reputation as the city's most romantic.
"I love that we see people during their happiest moments," Corky Three says. "We had a couple in who were celebrating their two-week anniversary. And we are so fortunate that people want to do that here. I think there is only one ingredient necessary to making it in this business, and that is that you need to really love to serve people. For me, it's doing what your stomach says is right, and finding out what people want and need and showing them that you care."
Finding out often is as simple as asking, although a little intuition helps, too--and intuition that borders on the psychic is even better. We started looking under the table for hidden microphones after Corky Three asked us if we'd like to toast our anniversary with Tante Louise's customary complimentary glasses of champagne, and before he'd even exited the dining room, our waiter appeared with two just-poured glasses of champagne. Spooky. Then the waiter intuitively knew we needed some time to let the champagne take the edge off before he reappeared for our appetizer order.
And I guess it was just a coincidence that Tante Louise was offering foie gras that night. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most exquisite foods in existence, and I never pass up the opportunity to stuff my face with it. The roasted Hudson Valley (read: humane) foie gras appetizer ($11) featured three slices of the duck liver nestled in shiitakes, lovingly covered with thin blankets of goat's-milk cheddar, drizzled with pesto and then roasted. If I had any objection to this otherwise heavenly union, it was that the bacony-flavored roasted edges of the mushrooms were too strong for the delicate duck liver. Ah, but then I tend to quibble when it comes to foie gras.
From there on out, though, our dinner was flawless. Another appetizer of six escargot swimming in a garlic sausage ragout ($7) merged the sharp bite of sun-dried tomatoes, the merest whiff of roasted garlic and quarter-sized slips of an intensely seasoned sausage with the snails. Unlike most chefs, Degenhart titles and describes dishes accurately; this was indeed the rich, well-spiced stew it is supposed to be ("ragout" comes from the French ragouter, "to stimulate the appetite"). The roasted yellow bell pepper and potato potage ($5) tasted wonderfully of peppers added to a vichyssoise-type base; an equally intricate melding of flavors starred in the wild mushroom salad ($7), which bestowed an understated rosemary vinaigrette upon chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms and the most beautiful selection of field greens I've eaten in this country. Really. It was as though the kitchen had hand-picked thirty of the crispest, most impeccable and flavorful leaves and served them just minutes later. (My enthusiasm may sound a little dramatic for lettuce, but these greens were truly perfect.)
It's that commitment to top-notch ingredients that propels Tante Louise to the top of the charts. "We could charge less for dishes," Corky Three later says. "I know some of them are on the high end, but Michael goes looking for those out-of-the-ordinary, flawless specimens that, frankly, cost more." For example, there was that venison we had during our anniversary dinner, a glorious roasted rack ($29). The meat came from New Zealand--and I'd gladly swim there for another taste. The venison was cooked to medium-rare with a glazed rind of orange juice and musky achiote whose richness was kept in check by salty prosciutto. Little baubles of painstakingly balled potatoes and translucent shallots surrounded the chops and soaked up an apricot demi-glace. Superb as that was, it was matched by our other entree: roast breast of duck ($19) in a rhubarb-sweetened red-wine syrup served with portabello sections, a mixture of heirloom beans (among them black-eyed peas and what looked to me like Colorado pintos) and a duck confit. Hey, there's nothing like duck with a side of duck, especially when the duck is this good.
Except, maybe, pastry chef Eric Caftor's wedge of a ganache-like, sinfully chocolate substance in a soft crust ($5)...or, perhaps, his super-creamy maple creme brulee ($5). Even our wine--which we bravely chose ourselves while Mandeau kindly treated us as though we knew what we were doing--was excellent. Toward the end of our dinner, Corky Three came by the table to pour out the last of our choice, a Spatlese. "This is a nice change of pace, wouldn't you say?" he asked.
I think he was talking about the wine, but since I have a newborn and a toddler and am teetering on the brink of insanity at my house, I was following a different train of thought. "Yes, this is wonderful," I said. "In fact, I don't think we're ever going to leave this place. We're moving in."
Without missing a beat, Corky flashed his notoriously warm smile. "Oh, that would be very nice," he replied.
You bet it would, toots.