Cafe Society

TAKING STOCK

Denver's spring weather has me on a dietary seesaw: One day I'm outside firing up the grill, and the next I'm craving whatever requires enough oven time to heat up the house.

It was during the recent cold wave that we got a hankering for the quintessential belly comforter: a bowl of hearty, soothing, fluid food that warms from the gut out and appeases so much more than hunger. Although soup has become almost a culinary cliche, the longing for it can be satisfied by nothing else.

And what better place to go than a restaurant named after our heart's desire? Surprisingly, however, the soups at La Bonne Soupe turned out to be the least of the fare we sampled.

Not that the soups weren't bonne; it's just that they were boring. The restaurant takes no chances with its choices, playing it safe with French standbys that lack spirited seasoning and complex stocks. For instance, the soupe a l'oignon had a light, visibly oily beef base filled with onions sliced both thick and thin; the French bread croutons were fine, but the melted Swiss cheese wasn't sharp enough to provide a flavor boost. The broiled parmesan on the soupe d'asperge au gratin, however, was a perky addition to an otherwise standard cream of asparagus--the soup was well balanced between cream and asparagus puree, but the vegetable itself wasn't very flavorful, and the dish cried out for fresh herbs. The chef could have borrowed some from the soupe paysanne a l'orge (peasant-style barley soup), which contained plenty of herbs, most notably parsley. Even so, the combination of fresh mushrooms, tons of barley and tiny bits of lamb didn't add up to anything more than mushroom soup, primarily because the lamb had been sitting in the broth so long it had lost much of its oomph to the overpowering fungi.

Apparently the restaurant recognizes that its soups are nothing special: They're offered only as part of package deals. The soup combo ($5.95 at lunch, $6.95 at dinner) brings a sizable bowl of soup, bread, a beverage and dessert or a salad that more than atones for the soups' lack of flavor. We found the piles of romaine lettuce, interspersed with field greens and colored by a few carrot shreds and red cabbage, the perfect foils for both a delicious French vinaigrette and a surprisingly good Dijon house dressing (which sells by the bottle for $3.50). At first I thought the Dijon tasted funny--but then I realized the mustard hadn't been paired with honey in what so many kitchens consider a mandatory marriage. Once I'd adjusted to the honey's absence, I appreciated the Dijon's pleasant tang, enlivened by a judicious application of lemon juice and just the right ratio of oil to vinegar. The vinaigrette was sprightly, too, so packed with herbs that each bite brought a new one to light: Tarragon and basil fought most for attention, with capers toning down the ensuing sweetness.

When we returned for dinner, we wished something would tone down our waiter. He and one other waiter were working the nearly full dining room, which left us with a lot of time on our hands and made him quite nervous--so much so that he took to announcing, at length, what he would be doing for us next. Reciting the litany always took longer than the actual activity, of course, which made the situation rather comical. "Okay," he'd say, "I'll be bringing your appetizers out soon and then I'll check on the status of your entrees and I'll bring you some more water." Then he'd get busy with other customers and forget about us, and we'd have to remind him of what we were missing, and he would say, "Oh, right, I need to get your appetizers and see how the entrees are going and then I'll get your water."

When the waiter finally delivered our appetizers, he realized we'd never been given bread. This oversight was apparently quite upsetting, because every time he stopped by our table after that he tried to bring us bread. Unfortunately, what we really wanted were more of the crunchy croutons that came with our pates. Along with those croutons, an order of the assiette des Trois Petits Cochons Pates ($5.95) brought a slice of smooth, creamy, mousse-style duck liver pate and a hunk of country pate. Both meat mixtures were from the Trois Petits Cochons (Three Little Pigs) Company, a favorite of the Paris-born Shep Brown, who opened La Bonne Soupe twelve years ago. Good choice: The meat mixtures were tasty, well blended and not too rich.

Rich is how I like escargots de bourgogne ($6.95), but the restaurant's maitre d'hotel butter, supposedly augmented with garlic and white wine, tasted more like watery butter--lacking not only garlic and wine, but also the standard parsley and lemon juice. The poor little snails were awash in the thin stuff. Not wanting to waste such noble creatures, we fought over who would have to finish them.

The entrees, on the other hand, were worth fighting for. The poulet chasseur ($10.50) almost transported us from La Bonne Soupe's classy, cozy bistro setting to a cottage in the hills of Provence, where a chicken's neck had just been wrung and the weather-beaten hands of a man who lived off the land were stirring wild mushrooms in a big kettle. All right, maybe not quite that far, but the hunter's-style sauce of red wine, mushrooms, shallots and tomatoes was about as close as it gets to country French. A chicken thigh and leg had been baked in this wonderfully simple reduction; we ladled every extra dribble of sauce on the dill-tinged wild rice. A second side of vegetables (a spring mix enhanced by pearl onions) sauteed in the bare minimum of oil provided a fresh counterpoint to the fowl.

The menu's description of bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise ($12.95) had failed to mention its most prominent component, cayenne. Although I love hot food, even I appreciate advance warning when I'm about to receive a nearly lethal dose of red-chili pepper. With all that cayenne I couldn't discern any of the requisite saffron in the dish, and the garlic was lost as well. But the potent broth did complement the shrimp, mussels, lobster and halibut (no clams; they may not have been good that day) in the stew, as well as the aioli-slathered bread. And the price was right for such a generous haul of fresh seafood.

My mouth cooled down just in time for the grand finale: the fondue chocolat ($7.95). Melted Swiss chocolate had been sweetened even more with honey and Cognac and served with squishy canned pineapple chunks, banana slices and an enormous chunk of La Bonne Soupe's heavenly poppy-seed-sprinkled lemon pound cake for dipping. When those were gone, we attacked the exquisitely rich fondue with our spoons until all that was left was the bottom of the dish.

In the end, La Bonne Soupe bowled me over.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner