But baker-turned-electrician-turned-foodie was not the whole of Collier's story. He'd been to France many times, falling in love with the ingredients, the presentation, the good simplicity of the straight-French tarteries around Provence and Toulon. Eventually, he married up in the best sort of way, to Michelle, a Frenchwoman from Toulon who was as into food as he was. "Food is it for me," Collier says. "And wine. And my wife. That's it."
So I tried the tarte again, knowing what to expect this time, and found the taste less jarring. By the third bite -- my fork snapping through the lacquered, shiny crust, then pushing into the soft, dry, perfect dough -- I had brokered an understanding between mouth and brain. This is not what it looks like, I kept thinking. This is not what you expect. And by the time I'd finished the last crumbs of my first tarte, I was ready for seconds. And thirds.
What Collier has done with this tarte is to bring the flavors of summer in Provence to 17th Avenue in Denver. The crust is beautiful on its own, a folded-down tart shell of pâte brisée origins that breaks exactly as it should (cleanly on the line, but not without crumbling) and has been painted with butter for that excellent glaze to which all great French pastry aspires. The tomatoes are Roma, bloody-red, fresh, a little sweet, and tough enough to take the heat of baking without going to mush. And they're left pure -- not processed, soaked, oiled, skinned or fussed with in any way that would adulterate the natural goodness of Roma tomatoes before their meeting with the chef's knife.
Then come the herbs. "Secret" ones, according to Collier, but not too difficult to figure out. Not surprisingly, they are herbes de Provence -- a catch-all mix, like curry or garam masala, that evokes a balanced taste of a specific region. In this case it's fennel seed, marjoram, rosemary, savory and thyme. There may be sage in there, but I don't find it. No basil. No lavender, either. The thyme is right out front, strong as a punch in the mouth, then the rosemary, then the sweetness of the tomato, and everything else comes tumbling after in a flood. It makes for a big, brash flavor, and in the plain tarte there's almost too much for anyone not specifically looking for that taste of summer sun. But add some rock shrimp and bacon (among the fifty possible add-ons), balance the crush of earthy top notes with the salt of a good prosciutto and a sprinkling of mozzarella, or beat back the tide of thyme and woody rosemary with a lingering pesto, some green olives and caramelized onions, and everything smooths out into a balanced blend of flavors.
With the tarte's cousin, the chausson (a kind of mini-calzone native to the south of France), you don't get to mix and match your fillings. There's a beef version with mushrooms, roasted garlic and mozzarella -- almost a bourguignonne pocket sandwich -- and a sausage one that tastes like a San Gennaro festival wrapped in dough. The chicken chausson -- packed with dark meat, mushrooms, shredded artichoke hearts and brie -- is so overpowering that I couldn't finish it. A La Tomate even offers a fruit variety with poached apples, cinnamon and raisin that isn't much different from the sweet-and-savory apple-walnut turnovers with cumin that sometimes make it into the bakery case.
You know Collier loved his time in France because every plate the kitchen serves comes with a dollop of carrot-and-raisin salad with a couple of olives tucked in. No one who hasn't been to France would do that. No one who has been could resist. "It just goes, you know?" Collier says. "A little something extra."
He also offers specials du jour and a different soup daily, and I have yet to find one that isn't as shockingly good and deep with finessed flavors as the tartes are shockingly odd and bright with strong herbs. What's more, fully half the menu -- the half that isn't already loaded with tartes, pastries, soups, salads and Frenchy empanadas -- is devoted to sandwiches. Really, really good sandwiches. Sandwiches so good that I'd still recommend A La Tomate even if the tomato tarte were made with cat food and Windex, and the chausson stuffed with shredded newspaper.