Cafe Society

The French Connection

Le Central is what most people picture when they daydream of lunch at the perfect French cafe -- the perfect French cafe this side of France, that is. Whitewashed walls and sunlight streaming in through the windows. A cozy grouping of small dining rooms, with ten seats here, fifteen there. Tables set with simple silver, real cloth napkins folded into little blue crowns, white plates, paper menus. And French art on the walls -- not Monet, but cafe scenes and caricatures of tuxedoed waiters speaking in word balloons filled with a language I don't speak. Or at least not very well. The cafe's actual servers are quick, kind and considerate (in our dreams, no one is ever rude or snotty), but never overbearing. They bring plates exactly when we want them, watching each other's tables and timing courses carefully so that desire never becomes need. The background noise is a happy buzz of pleasant conversation in English, with enough French accents to make us feel that we're somewhere exotic. And in every breath are the scents of comfort: baking bread, roasting garlic, rosemary, lemon and saffron.

As I headed over to Le Central one afternoon for a late lunch, I could smell searing peppercorns from half a block away. The special that night would be lamb au poivre, and while it wasn't on the lunch menu, the kitchen was already getting ready, putting out test plates whose smell was enough to drive me mad. I consoled myself with a salade d'epinards -- a plate of spinach greens with roasted and sliced red peppers, sharp slivers of red onion, hard-boiled egg and chunks of thick bacon all covered in an earthy, pointed walnut vinaigrette -- and a plate of commendable, housemade pâtés Le Central.

At the first opportunity, I went back to Le Central sniffing after that au poivre, but it was already gone. Owner Robert Tournier explained that not only does the lineup change every night, but often the entire menu changes from one day to the next. Le Central has no specials, because everything is special. With the exception of some salads and appetizers and the moules et frites, each day's dishes are subject to the whims of the kitchen, the produce man, the fish supplier and nature. Whatever's good, that's what Chris Lynch, the executive chef for the past six years, will cook. "It's a matter of trust," Tournier said. "We know what's good and what's not."

For this lunch, I opted for the soupe a l'oignon and a glass of 1999 premieres cotes de Bordeaux off Tournier's incredibly reasonable and very French list. Wine is available by the glass ($4, in the case of my Bordeaux), by the bottle ($16 if I'd felt like getting loaded) and by the percentage of the bottle consumed. I'd asked the waitress for something "rough and red and powerful," and she'd brought the Bordeaux without a second thought. A crock of soup followed shortly. Underneath a topping of croutons and a cap of melted Swiss cheese, the broth was deeply flavored with onions cooked down and down again in chicken stock until soft and sweet, grounded by a liberal dose of rosemary, then lifted up from that earthy bite by the strong cheese. I dug in shamelessly with hunks of bread torn from the quartered baguette that arrives at the table even before the menu. Made in-house with full-fat butter and good flour, the bread tasted of Left Bank boulangeries. You'd pay a premium price for this bread at Denver's best bakery, but here it was given away, because it wasn't anything special -- only perfect.

At first glance, both Le Central's wine list and its menu are broad and full of surprises. At second glance (and third, and seventh, and probably twentieth), they're something more. They're classic. They describe a kitchen and cellar that have been doing only one thing in one place for over twenty years, and doing it better than almost anyone else in town: French -- old French. And the French have forgotten more about the art of cooking than anyone else will ever know.

The single biggest contribution of the French to the world's cooking culture is their infernal arrogance. For hundreds of years, they ate everything. They took every tiny bit of an animal, every leaf and root of any plant they could get their grubby little cheese-eating hands on, and they cooked them in every way they could think of. If the results were awful, they tried again. And again. They kept trying until they got it right, and once they did get it right, they wrote down how they'd done it, and that was that: The Way. Up until the last decade, the way they trained chefs was medieval by most modern standards, but their understanding of food and flavor was a thousand years deep and as wide as most of the world. The French canon of recipe and technique is huge. Like a religion, it names its saints, devils and holy places and clearly delineates the path to culinary transcendence. Anyone who cooks differently is doing it wrong, and anyone who argues with their methods is a fool. While the French cooks' smug conceit that they know better than anyone else how food should be made is occasionally laughable and the fodder for many good jokes at their expense, that conceit is also deserved. They do know better than anyone else.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan