Number thirteen wasn't lucky, either. As usual, the place was packed when we stopped in one recent night, with tables so jammed into the lower-level dining room that seeing the waitstaff maneuver through the space was like watching human pinball. The noisy, crowded feel of Le Central is part of its appeal, though; the atmosphere evokes all things Provençal, all bustle and good smells and flowing wine.
Robert Tournier opened this "affordable French restaurant" in 1981, after he'd already experienced success with a similar Le Central in Santa Monica. From 1984 to 1992, Tournier also ran Transalpin, arguably Denver's first fusion restaurant (ironically, it's now the new, haute French spot Sacre Bleu). Over the years, Tournier has become one of Denver's most popular chef/owners, and he's bolstered that reputation by keeping his prices very much affordable and by continuing to add touches to Le Central that improve the dining experience -- such as the charming enclosed patio. Earlier this year he also hired a chef, thirty-year-old Christophe Negrel, a native of Toulon, France, who brought with him a prestigious cooking background. But although Tournier essentially turned over his toque to Negrel, Le Central seems pretty much status quo. Which means that when things get busy -- and Le Central is almost always busy -- both the kitchen and the servers let some things slide.
Case in point: the appetizer of feuillete d'escargots ($5.95), a calzone-shaped puff pastry filled with brie, a blue-cheese béchamel and six snails and floating on a pool of three sauces (more blue-cheese béchamel, a heady demi-glace and a creamy butter sauce). The snails were soft and supple and the sauces divine, but the inside of the puff pastry had not cooked all the way through, and every few bites, it was like eating raw bread dough. Our other starter, however, was a textbook-perfect soupe a l'oignon ($3.95): The chef had started with a sweet chicken stock, then cooked onions in it so long that they'd nearly disintegrated, and topped everything off with a gooey, stringy lid of stock-saturated bread thickly blanketed by Swiss cheese.
Our entrees weren't error-free, either. The half lobster ($15.95) would have been a great bargain, but when lobster is so overgrilled it's as chewy as fatty beef, it's no deal; even a dousing of mellow béarnaise didn't help. And while the asparagus and carrots on the side were fine, the accompanying risotto ladled with a lobster-based sauce had the pasty texture of something cooked days ahead and left on the steam table. Almost as flavorless as the lobster was the escalope de veau l'Ancienne ($12.95), one of the poorest cuts of veal I've had in a long time, with a soggy, bland breading to match. The dry mashed potatoes on the side tasted as though they'd been scooped out of another days-old batch; we gave up on the fatty baby cow and instead used its sauce, a veal demi-glace flavored with chunks of bacon, mushrooms, onion and tomato, to save the spuds. But then our third dish, a Negrel creation, was superb: a saffron-pumped bouillabaisse ($14.95) made thick with big, soft hunks of potato, its concentrated, perfumy broth further enhanced by halibut, sea scallops, shrimp, mussels, leeks and onions. Too-hard croutons -- even diligent soaking in the soup failed to help these -- came on top, along with a large blob of rouille that went well with the broth's strong flavors.
I've never had any complaints with two Le Central features -- its well-priced wine list and well-priced desserts -- and this visit was no different. The mousse au chocolat ($2.95) remains the best in town, walking the thin line between bittersweet and milky chocolate flavor, with a consistency that'll melt your heart. The crème brûlée ($3.50) was fine, too: not too eggy, with a caramelized sugar coating that struck a nice balance.
But that sweet conclusion wasn't enough to make us forgive and forget not just uneven food, but poor service, which started out smart but soon flagged. As the place filled to overflowing, the timing between courses increased; twenty minutes after we set our forks down next to our appetizer plates, our server finally noticed we were done; another ten minutes passed before we received our main course.
When I last reviewed Le Central, several years ago, Tournier was very contrite about the production and service problems I'd cited and promised that a refurbished kitchen would make things better. Later he vowed that hiring Negrel would do the trick, since it would free up the owner to oversee things. So far, though, Le Central's average hasn't improved. Not that Denver diners seem to mind -- the place continues to draw a crowd.
I just won't be part of it for a while.