The host at French 250 is young — new to the business, I think, because as he walks me down the narrow space between tables, I can see that he doesn't yet have the smooth grace of the servers, who move like dancers: smoothly, fluidly, and with the confidence of many nights behind them.
"Will this be all right?" he asks, gesturing at a half booth set for two in the middle of the central banquette.
"Absolutely," I say, shrugging out of my jacket and trying to shake off the cold.
"And will someone be joining you tonight?" he asks as he lays down the thick, heavy menu, the equally thick, equally heavy wine list.
"No, it's just me, thanks."
"Oh," he says, hesitating for a split second, waffling internally, uncomfortably. "Okay, then." And he starts clearing the second setting, hurrying a little.
I like dining alone. Always have. I can't say that I prefer it to a nice, sweet dinner with Laura by candlelight, or to lounging with a raucous gang, drinking too much, all talking at once. But a solo dinner has its own charms — including watching the way the staff responds to someone showing up alone, sans reservation, at prime time on a Saturday night, watching that flicker of uncertainty in their eyes as they wonder, what's the matter with him?
At seven o'clock, diners are just beginning to trickle in. By the time I am done here, every table will be committed, the floor staff rushing to see to the highbrow needs of two dozen parties. By nine, this basement space with its lovely bar, comfortable seats, crisp linens and sparkling glassware will seem like the dense, noisy center of the culinary universe — as French as any Parisian temple of gastronomy, as far from a basement in Cherry Creek as I can imagine.
But then, French 250, which opened last summer in a space that had swallowed up several restaurants before it, is nothing like I'd imagined. My surprise begins with the menu: a solid and serious document, printed in cursive script that almost approximates a written hand, the pages thick and divided, lined with gold leaf. It is the menu I've hoped to find every time I've wandered blindly into one of Denver's new French restaurants but never have — one that aspires to nothing so much as the stodgy, imperialistic classicism that a generation of young galley turks fought so hard to do away with while I was still too young to appreciate the turks, while I was still too young to be oppressed, constrained or smothered by the weight of culinary history. Presented by course and therefore severely dictating the slow, delectable progression of the meal, these are the old warhorses, the classics upon which La Cuisine grew in the United States — presented with no modernist sops, very few nouvelle innovations, and with a grand and almost giddy adherence to the flour-cream-and-butter basics of haute gastronomy. There are escargots dans la patisserie; foie gras saisi served over brioche toast with apples, onions and a St. Germain elderflower syrup; traditional steak tartare with egg, capers and toast points; and cuisses de grenouille — frogs' legs, sautéed and served with a trio of sauces: a rich and decadent beurre blanc, a beautiful sauce verde made of puréed green peas, and a red-pepper coulis that makes me nostalgic for the days when a red-pepper coulis in a French kitchen was seen as cutting-edge, bizarre and almost too risky to be attempted lest Phileas Gilbert himself rise from his grave, come into the kitchen and rap someone across the knuckles with a soup ladle.
And this is just the first page of the menu. Like a perfect first kiss (French, of course), it draws me in. Fascinated, I flip forward through soups and salads (consommé de lapin! Bisque de carotte et homard!), through a huge list of cheeses (some modern, some ancient) and on to entrees, where I'm so distracted by a gigot of lamb with white-bean purée and a plate of coquilles St. Jacques that I don't notice the waitress standing patiently beside my table, waiting to discuss wines with me.
"Sorry," I say. "I was...distracted."
"Is this your first time dining with us?" she asks, smiling. In response, I just bob my head like a moron — completely gone on whatever weird cocktail of hormones and brain chemicals it is that makes a grown man fall in love with a menu, with nothing more than words on a page. Patiently, she explains to me the basics of dining at French 250: the multiple courses —
— the carefully paired wines —
— the spacing of portions —
She speaks to me as though I am a little dim, for which I don't blame her at all.