French Twist

What's in a name: Okay, the pathetic, prejudiced people who wouldn't know a glace de viande if it bit them on their turned-up noses can stop sending complaints about Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue) that make the ludicrous charge that the decades-old restaurant is no longer truly French. "I went there on your suggestion expecting a French meal," whined one recent letter writer. "There was nothing French about the place." Another wrote: "I can't believe you gave it a Best of Denver award as a French restaurant. It hasn't been a French restaurant since that new chef took over."

That new chef is Duy Pham, a twenty-something wunderkind who's done wonderful things with the food and, yes, added a few Asian touches to some of the dishes. But Denver's Old Aunt still features the mother sauces in all their rich glory, done the traditional way; it also boasts one of the most extensive French-based wine lists in the state, and well-known French ingredients and preparations such as demi-glaces, escargots and foie gras continue to make up the bulk of the menu. And if anyone still needs further proof of Tante Louise's essential Frenchness, how about a taste of veal topped with sweetbreads, roast duck with a white-bean duck confit, a pâté platter, halibut with caviar and leek ragôut, or truffle pancake Napoleon with wild-mushroom fricassee?

The fact that Pham is Vietnamese -- which some would suggest makes him more French than a lot of alleged French chefs -- apparently bothers the anti-Aunt forces. Corky Douglass, the restaurant's owner, admits that he's picked up hints of that sentiment here and there; although Douglass is an ultra-diplomatic host-with-the-most who never, ever loses his cool, this current campaign seems to have his panties in a teeny-tiny bit of a bunch. "I simply don't understand what they mean," he says. "We're doing more out of Larousse Gastronomique than ever before, and if that's not one of the bibles of French cuisine, I don't know what is."

Douglass also points out that Pham is more of a student of French cooking than his predecessor, Michael Degenhart, a talented chef in his own right who's been cooking over at Highlands Garden Cafe (3927 West 32nd Avenue). While Pham pretty much sticks to the classics, some of which he enhances with Asian techniques and ingredients, Degenhart was much more about lightening the foods and injecting world ingredients. True, Pham's added a total of two Asian dishes to Tante Louise's regular repertoire, but to suggest that that takes the restaurant out of the French category is a load of merde.

Mouth of the border: Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street) has been going gangbusters since the elegantly spare, upscale Mexican eatery opened last week, but industry folks are speculating about its chances. "It's been tried here, but it's not been tried well," says local restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. "Things like guacamole and shredded beef, those commodities have a perceived value in Denver, and as long as they avoid those and do the more intricate, more interesting dishes, things that many Denver diners have never seen, it might work. Just like there's room for high-end Italian, high-end Japanese, why can't there be room for high-end Mexican in this town? As long as they execute their promise, they have a chance."

And Tamayo chef Sean Yontz promises to walk the walk. "This is a lot different from the places that have been tried before," says Yontz, who spent more than a decade working for and with Kevin Taylor before moving over to Tamayo this spring. "It's not a cafe, it's not waiters in T-shirts. It's very elegant, with white tablecloths and knowledgeable waiters." That couldn't be said for Cafe Iguana, Taylor's long-defunct Cherry Creek eatery (in the belowground 300 Fillmore space now occupied by Campo de Fiori) that focused on foods from Oaxaca and the Yucatán. "I never thought the food was the problem at Iguana," says Yontz, who worked there. "I think that people just expected more of Kevin. I think they were surprised when the food came with beer in a can, and I think they thought the food was going to be more involved than it was."

The food at Tamayo is plenty involved. In fact, Yontz recently spent six weeks at Mayo, the popular New York restaurant owned by Tamayo owner Richard Sandoval (who also owns Savann Restaurant and Savann East, which bookend Manhattan). There Yontz learned a lot of Mexican techniques and relearned a few more. "Richard is from Mexico, and he does things the traditional way, which means slower cooking, more involved steps, a lot of ingredients," explains Yontz, who is part Hispanic. "The most important thing I learned was about moles, which can be incredibly intense in a way I've never tasted before. They take six to eight hours to cook when you do them the right way, and all the while, you're constantly tasting and stirring, and I learned that it matters when you add certain things and how you add them. It's like a science, just incredible. This menu is filled with dishes you just won't find anywhere else in town. And that's what I think will put Tamayo on top."

Sound familiar? Here's what one of the owners of the defunct Señorita's Cantina (which occupied the space at 1700 Wynkoop Street that had been Sostanza and is now empty) said three months after that upscale Mexican restaurant opened: "I looked around downtown and saw that the quality of Mexican food is not really good. In Texas, people who want Mexican food want nicer places to go than they do here, and they want to spend more money on better-quality food. I knew I wanted to do something on my own at some point, and this seemed like the perfect space and the perfect type of cuisine for the area."

A much lower-end Mexican restaurant, Luna's on 38th (3380 West 38th Avenue), in the space once occupied by the troublesome La Bonita ("Food Fight!," March 13, 1998), has applied for a cabaret license -- the very thing that got La Bonita into trouble in the first place. But the Luna family, which opened Luna's Uno at 5410 West 64th Avenue in Arvada in 1989, knows how to work with this northwest Denver neighborhood. For starters, Rito Luna waited until his new establishment had been open nearly a year, with nary a peep of complaint from nearby residents, before submitting his application. And he's planning to use the dance room for weddings and catered events only, not for weekend house parties. "I don't need the headache of that," Luna says. "This is a family-run place, and so far we've had no complaints from the neighborhood." (Lisa Ferreira, an aide to Denver City Councilman Dennis Gallagher, corroborates that statement but says Gallagher wants to look at the space before making any comment himself.)

To keep things harmonious, Luna and his family have spent considerable time and money redecorating the cavernous building, including adding insulation to the rooms nearest the neighbors. "If they're not happy, I'm not happy," Luna says. "It wouldn't have done me any good to come in here and not make the people who live closest, and who could be eating here, upset." And more improvements are on the way, he adds, including a drop ceiling that will further soak up noise.

A guy who's really connected when it comes to Mexican food, Rick Bayless hits town this weekend for a live, in-studio visit at Rocky Mountain PBS (1089 Bannock Street). Bayless, who hosts Mexico: One Plate at a Time With Rick Bayless (it airs Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on KRMA-TV/Channel 6), will start at 9 a.m. on June 2 with recipe demos and culinary conversation; at 2 p.m., he'll head over to The Art Institute of Colorado Culinary Arts School (675 South Broadway) for a cooking demo. Call 303-620-5691 for much-needed reservations.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner