Cafe Society

FRENCH TWIST

If the dinosaurs had known ahead of time that all they needed to stave off extinction was a fresh, up-and-coming chef and a revamped menu, they would have put an ad in the Cretaceous Times posthaste.

The Normandy didn't have to go that far, however. Pierre Wolfe, owner of the fast-approaching-staid French restaurant, found his new chef at a culinary competition in Denver in June 1993--and the rest is history. Instead of suffocating under mother sauces and heart-hating haute dishes, today the Normandy is alive and kicking.

The evolution wasn't always easy. Regardless of who was wearing the chef's toque, the ebullient Wolfe had always been lord and master of the Normandy's kitchen. And even though he asked his 25-year-old Washington, D.C., discovery, Robert Mancuso, to revitalize the menu by adding breezier, happening dishes, he didn't want to scare away the customers who'd been coming to the Normandy all those years for the very classics that were dating the restaurant.

"Robert wanted to do away with all the old--the chateaubriand, the roasted lamb, everything," says Wolfe. "I had to convince him that old wasn't necessarily bad."

But Wolfe knew that old wasn't necessarily profitable, either. He and his cousin, Heinz Gerstle, founded the Normandy back in 1958, in the building that now houses Tante Louise; the duo moved the restaurant to its current location in 1972. Eighteen years later Gerstle bowed out and moved to California. That same year Wolfe closed the Quorum (a Denver institution located in the building that now is occupied by China Cowboy), and his daughter, Karen Herrmann, took over the day-to-day operations at the Normandy. In 1991 Wolfe came up with the idea for Chez Michelle, a bistro-within-a-restaurant that featured Karen's middle name as well as lower prices and lighter fare than the rest of the Normandy. But even this innovation didn't disguise the fact that the Normandy needed some serious updating if it was to make it in the Nineties.

"I knew I had to do something," says Wolfe. "I didn't want the Normandy to become only a place for birthdays and anniversaries." So he hired Mancuso, created a new menu and even dropped prices to a level--an average of $16 per entree--that didn't require special-occasion budgets.

So, naturally, we went there for our anniversary. How could we resist? The Normandy's atmosphere is still simple, understated and elegant. And while there isn't a truly sequestered table in the house, we did manage to hide ourselves back in the corner, at one of the half-booths in an area where Wolfe intends to add mirrors as one of the cosmetic changes that reflect his desire to modernize.

One thing he shouldn't change, however, is the wine list. Heavy on the French (Wolfe himself is Alsatian), the roster contains a wonderful mix of old and new, impressive and standard, as well as wines whose names you can actually pronounce--and afford. Of course, the restaurant still harbors a bottle of Mouton-Rothschild that's yours for a measly $5,250. If that bottle ever breaks, I'll be over to lick the floor.

In the meantime, Herrmann is almost always around to offer advice. We put her knowledge --and honesty--to the test by pretending to be torn between two wines. She steered us right without becoming condescending, then treated our 1967 Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux with care, decanting it over a flame to spot the sediment in the bottle's neck.

We received equally considerate treatment from the rest of the staff. Despite the fact that the menu boasts such froufrou items as fresh foie gras, no one gets carried away with the pretension of it all. Hey, it's just some dead goose's liver.

But what a liver it is--which is why we were crushed to discover that a businessman seated next to us had nabbed the last portion. After whining at length to our understanding waiter, we consoled ourselves with the duck liver pate ($5.25), three slabs of exquisitely smooth pate so rich it caught in our throats. The pate was supposed to be spread on the two accompanying slices of green-peppercorn-and-caramel brioche, but since it far outweighed that light baked good, we instead called into service the warm, anise-studded loaf of bread that comes with every meal and is made on the premises by pastry chef Lynette Liebman. The side of marmelade (not to be confused with marmalade, that bitter orange jam) was more like a chutney than a traditional marmelade, which is usually a thick, sweetened fruit or onion puree; this version included currants and shallots and provided a welcome break from the intensity of the pate. We countered that holdover from the old menu with the smoked salmon and lemon-cured gravlox ($8.75). Strips of fish were intertwined beneath a potato pastry made of tiny potatoes sliced paper-thin and layered with bits of basil until they formed a sort of way-upscale paper chip. An ocean salad of a fairly vinegary seaweed and a surrounding stream of dill juice completed this impressive nod to nouvelle.

Our attempt to pair something old with something new was stymied at the soup course, because the kitchen was out of the split-pea consomme. Instead, we opted for the roasted-corn chowder ($3.50), which had an excellent taste--it's hard to go wrong with roasted corn--but only one of the promised smoked mussels, and a rather listless one at that. The warm goat-cheese cake/field greens salad ($4.75), on the other hand, delivered all it promised and then some: greens at their absolute peak, along with whole chilled shallots and three slices of tart, chewy, oven-dried tomatoes, had been tossed in a beautifully blended vinaigrette enhanced, but not dominated, by Dijon mustard. This already incredible combination was topped by the delicious goat-cheese cake, which was light and airy, with a tempting spongy texture.

There were plenty of dishes, both traditional and trendy, from which to choose on the entree list. We had to go with the chateaubriand ($22), a Normandy institution that's survived the current renovation nearly intact. While the kitchen no longer sends out this tenderloin cut from the center of the fillet accompanied by a classic bearnaise (although the chef will make it, and happily, upon request), the chateaubriand sauce itself is almost unchanged, except for the dousing of stout beer at the end. The excellent piece of beef had an ideal companion in a tender, scalloped potato cake.

Mancuso clearly has a way with tubers, because the potato-encrusted mahi-mahi ($15.50) also was a charmer. The fish had been sandwiched between two layers of grated potato cooked crisp on the outside; their steamy, soft centers melded right into the juicy mahi-mahi. A gentle beurre blanc touched with basil and tomatoes provided the perfect topper.

We had been prepared to continue our alternation of old and new through dessert, but our waiter had other plans. "I'm sorry about the foie gras," he said, as he laid a plate in front of each of us. "Please accept this with our apologies."

Well, okay--especially since both of the consolation prizes were marvelous. A pecan tart sat atop a ganachelike chocolate concoction that made the one dessert seem like two: Sometimes we had a bite of pecan tart, sometimes a bite of very chocolatey pecan tart. The second delicacy, a white-chocolate box, was filled with a dreamy mousse supported by a sliver of white pound cake.

Apparently you can teach an old dinosaur new tricks. The Normandy may no longer be a special-occasion place, but it's still someplace very special.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner