Since seeing the movie, I've plagiarized that line whenever presented with a plate of museum food. You know the type: a dish that looks as though it should be accompanied by a little placard that reads, "Still Life With 47 Ingredients Assembled to Look Like the Beach at Trouville. Artist: Chef I.M. Pretentious." Unfortunately, the palatal reality rarely lives up to the visual promise.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by the Pearl Street Inn, a classy yet unpretentious Boulder bed-and-breakfast that last year started serving dinner and Sunday brunch to the public. The minimalist, white-walled decor of the turn-of-the-century house shows a professional's touch: No detail has been overlooked, from carved switchplates to well-placed vases of fresh flowers, but the overall scene is more House and Garden than Architectural Digest.
The food follows suit. It's prepared by Bradford Heap, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, but he doesn't hit you over the head with that. Instead, he knocks you out with food that tastes as great as it looks. From the complimentary appetizer of sliced Chilean potatoes drizzled with basil oil and accented by red pepper coulis to the delectable Granny Smith apple crisp ($4.50) with creme anglaise, Heap and his sous chef adhere to a philosophy that should be painted on the walls of every kitchen: Keep It Simple. "Treat it simply, store it well, handle it carefully," Heap says, elaborating on his philosophy. "Those are the rules I follow. I try to highlight the food's best qualities without drowning them."
Heap's asparagus soup ($4.50) offered delicious proof of his theory. A touch of cream gave the broth a velvety texture without overwhelming the taste of incredibly fresh asparagus. Like everything else that comes out of the inn's kitchen, this was one of Heap's recipes, but he's not afraid to give credit where it is due. "I learned the basics at CIA," he says, "but I've tried to keep learning, and I always say that the food I cook is a hybrid of where I've been and the people I've worked with." Heap even refers to those people on the menu--not to name-drop, he quickly adds, but "to let diners know that I know the food I serve comes from somewhere, that I didn't just make it up."
He doesn't hesitate to update and improve that food, though. At first the smoked fish appetizer ($6.50) had me worried that I was facing an evening of museum food, but my fears disappeared only slightly faster than the dish itself. Three layers of delicate fish rested on fried pasta squares; the pagodalike tower was sprinkled with chopped basil, parsley, thyme and shallots, a crucial ingredient that sparked up the fish and provided a nice counterpoint to the sweet herbs. Shallots also added some welcome zest to the potato gnocchi ($5.50). Potato gave these gnocchi a much better body than plain flour would have, and they'd been ever-so-slightly sauteed until they soaked up all the flavor that the shallots and plenty of chopped sage had to offer. And where a less confident kitchen would have drowned these delicious dumplings in an overwhelming sauce, Heap complemented them with chicken livers, sauteed in bits small enough to keep moist.
The gnocchi appetizer was one of many dishes with which Heap became enamored while working in France and Italy, after graduating from CIA and before realizing he wanted to return to Boulder, where he'd lived since he was an infant. In doing so, though, he knew he was leaving an area with a much more enlightened attitude about food--and cooking careers. "People don't understand food here," Heap says. "They think that fancy names mean fancy food, and they're afraid to try it; they'd rather make fun of it. My own brother always asks me if I'm making `steak la-di-da,' but then he'll turn around and eat processed meat by-products made with hydrogenated chemicals and never think twice about it."
Heap's brother may have been referring to the pan-roasted filet of beef au poivre ($17.95), one of the most elaborate items on Pearl Street's menu (which changes every other week). But even this dish was no more elaborate than a reduction of port with sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic poured over peppercorn-laced filet mignon--cooked precisely to our specification of medium rare. The accompanying potato pancake proved handy for soaking up every last drop of the sauce; the other sides of steamed asparagus and spaghetti squash needed no more augmentation than their touch of butter.
The Provencal bouillabaisse ($17.95) was a throwback to Heap's days in France with chef Louis Outhier, apparently the only other person in the world who knows what to do with the saffron in this fisherman's stew. Shrimp, mussels, halibut and cod all benefited from the herbal infusion, which was further enhanced by strips of spent red and green peppers. We used the three aioli-slathered croutons to mop up most of the wonderful broth.
Since I was looking forward to dessert and was already quite full, I somehow managed to leave the bouillabaisse unfinished. This worried the waiter, who asked specific questions about the flavors, the fish and anything else he could think of to ensure there'd been no problem with the meal. In fact, the staff showed an impressive concern for every detail of our dinners, asking when we would like our glasses of wine, inquiring as to whether the steak had been properly cooked, attending to our every need without becoming overbearing. And when we asked our waiter for an entire entree to go--a friend had been unable to join us--Heap himself came out to approve the packaging. As a result, the tender free-range chicken breast with polenta and wild mushrooms (jus and all) made it safely to its destination, heady funghi flavor intact.
It wasn't until dessert that I finally found something to criticize: The flourless chocolate cake ($4.50) adrift on a strong espresso anglaise was exquisite, but the portion was much too small.
Looks aren't everything at the Pearl Street Inn--but the entire meal adds up to a masterpiece.