Cafe Society

In Vino Veritas

Page 2 of 3

Complicated? Yes. Overdone? Yes. But done -- and overdone -- well. Somehow, Adega manages to combine that million-dollar decor, obsessive attention to detail and quasi-French service without getting all stuffy about it and without once slipping over the line into formality, ostentation or pompousness. The floor staff is friendly and welcoming, educated not just about the menu, but about the temper and strengths of the kitchen and the depths of the wine list. When a busboy accidentally dropped a fork on his way back to the kitchen, I watched two servers and a captain silently materialize and catch it on the first bounce; when my wife dripped a dot of wine sauce on her new white blouse, someone was at the table immediately with a tumbler of club soda and a lemon wedge, handling things with honest care and discretion. We didn't have to ask; we didn't have to flag anyone down.

Adega's ownership group includes Ken Frederickson, a master sommelier who created the 800-bottle-deep wine list; he also made an excellent choice when he tapped Bryan Moscatello to run Adega's kitchen. Moscatello's a young chef -- younger than many of Adega's wines -- who submerged himself in the culinary culture of la cuisine de la maitre, the classic cooking style of the old-world French chefs, in houses as diverse as The Bristol in Panama City, Bistro Toujours in Park City and the Little Nell in Aspen, where he studied at the shoulder of George Mahaffey. Now in his mid-thirties, he brings to Adega's table both the solid tradition of a French classicist and the spirit of fresh, modern cuisine. He is well-schooled, grounded and gutsy in his work, putting together plates that range from a simple, rough salad of baby lettuces, crisp herbed wafers and thin-sliced artichoke hearts, to a more fussy, beaux artes presentation of a tiny spoonful of black American-sturgeon caviar snugged up against a dollop of crème fraîche, both set upon a brioche done like a tiny bit of French toast infused with citrus and Grand Marnier.

Placed side by side on the table, the caviar seemed dwarfed by the bulky salad -- as if my dinner companion had done something wrong by ordering it. But Moscatello's experience shows in the evenhandedness with which he balances his plates by flavor, not mass. Each appetizer -- whether two bites, ten or twenty -- was a tease, presenting a flavor, a hint of season and place, but never so much that you didn't want more. The salad was mild, spiked up here and there by a drizzle of mustard vinaigrette, yet still diffuse. The caviar, on the other hand, was intense, and it took a much smaller amount to carry the same weight of flavor. (I'm ignoring -- and not easily, either -- the plate's glassy squiggles that, tragically, tasted like lemon dish soap.) A remarkably rich, delicious pheasant risotto straddled the size gap of the other appetizers, providing a dozen bites of soft rice studded with currants and chunks of pheasant in a creamy, smooth broth without a whisper of gamey tang.

After that course was cleared, there was just enough time for my wife, our guest and me to crack a couple of jokes and have our wineglasses replenished before the entrees arrived in a marvelous display of perfect timing and swooping military precision. South African cèpes mushrooms were the centerpiece of a thick stew that used diced purple Peruvian mountain potatoes for sweetness and texture. Those recalcitrant spuds are tough to cook with -- they're very starchy and will go limp and rubbery if you look at them wrong -- but Adega's kitchen had done an admirable job with this stew; its only drawback was a strange, grainy texture that wasn't altogether bad, just unexpected. For a laugh, the dish was topped with two long sticks of candied leeks, battered and fried, that tasted like a grown-up version of beer-battered onion rings.

We'd also ordered a sweet-glazed chicken breast stacked on a charlotte of sherried wild-mushroom duxelle and chicken-leg confit all bundled up in a shell of oily, grilled brioche. The meaty, earthy crimini, oyster and bluefoot chantarelles were an odd choice to pair with the chicken, which, unfortunately, had been burned, so that the bitter taste of char overpowered the delicate, sweet garlic glaze. On its own, though, the charlotte (generally a dessert pastry) was a rich, delicious example of this kitchen's skill with the classics and Moscatello's ability to redefine them.

More proof was provided by his venison hash and eggs: a tower of purple, bloody-rare venison tenderloin, topped with a single over-easy egg, placed on a foundation of hashbrowns and a winter-fruit compote. The gently seared venison was done perfectly, lacking any of the deep-forest funk with which some game meat is cursed. The golden-brown potatoes had been cooked in a tight ring mold and looked like the sort you get at the Waffle House at two in the morning (an intentional similarity, I think), and the fruit compote was an interesting addition to the huntsman motif. But all of that was just the mechanics of a good meal. The real brilliance came when the egg yolk was broken and yellow egg goo drooled down across the tips of the tenderloin, ran through the compote and mixed with a velvety puddle of pan sauce. In a minor feat of alchemy, the yolk carried with it all the flavors of the layers through which it had passed, so that as it was darkened by the venison's juices and sweetened by the compote, so it darkened and sweetened the unmounted sauce at the bottom of the plate, turning it from a thin reduction to a thick, full, vivid gravy.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan