Have you ever dined with us before?" our server asked. She was penny-bright, scrubbed and polished in her house livery (black on black), standing with her hands folded in front of her and a spark in her eyes that bordered on fanaticism — a glow of barely contained glee at the possibility that we were new to the dining room, that we'd somehow wandered in blind, aching for conversion.
Warily, Laura nodded. Flinching inwardly, I allowed that no, we hadn't yet dined at Black Cat, chef Eric Skokan's restaurant.
Her smile, when it came, was like an artillery strike seen from above in one of those Vietnam documentaries on TLC: a small and distant flare of energy followed by the graceful blossoming of heat and light and fire that seems to go on forever, growing and widening and deepening just when you think it ought to go out. She seemed so happy that we'd come, so delighted that we'd chosen to spend our night in her care. And she wasn't faking it, either. Meryl Streep couldn't act this well. As she swung into her spiel — "organic...seasonal...powerful flavors of ingredients...right from Eric's garden...from Eric's house...from Eric's kitchen..." — I felt the fervor heat of the zealot baking off her: radiation in the Boulder frequency, equal parts lust and environmental stewardship. She said she'd give us a few minutes to look over the menu, to relax into each other's company, Laura and I, sitting side by side on a black loveseat facing the open kitchen. It was a full-book Saturday night in a small house that, prior to being transformed into one of the Republic's most rustic and focused restaurants, had been a Cold Stone Creamery.
"This gourd," Laura said, in a perfect rendition of our server's breathless passion, pointing to a large green-and-yellow striped squash sitting atop the garde manger station, "comes straight from Eric's pants. He grew it there special for tonight..."
I laughed, drank my local beer, nipped at my local bread dipped in a puddle of artisan olive oil, thinking to myself that this food — whatever we chose to order — needed to be not just great, but superlative in order to warrant such zeal. After years of hearing gasping exhortations of servers about the freshness of the product, quivering approbation of the chef, his crew, the kitchen, I've come to feel that many houses use praise on the floor as a cheaper substitute for actual talent on the line: Tell them the chef is a genius with freshness and locality, and no one will complain about the dirt on the arugula.
Black Cat's menu looked good. Not exactly poetry, but an interesting exemplar of that trend toward borderless nouvelle — an Escherian strangeness whereby the constraints of keeping cuisine local forces a chef to be worldly in his influences, if only so he can find new and interesting ways to keep serving eggplant every night. The board changes daily, occasionally (as we would soon discover) in the middle of a service — making presumably best use of what was taken from the farm, garden, coop or field that day. There was a blanquette de veau, housemade mozzarella, preparations of blue crab (likely not gotten from Eric's house, unless he's keeping them in his bathtub) and rocket salads. I saw Italian influences, French (of course) and motes of Asiana, touches of American/Californian inspiration and a heavy hand of greenmarket garden porn: lovingly described grilled fennel, baby carrots, roasted shallots, eggs from Eric's coop, greens from Eric's garden.
Our server returned from spreading her love around her section and we ordered: pecorino pepato, a pissaladiere (basically a cheeseless French fish pizza) and gnocchi Bolognese to start; the slow-roasted Berkshire pork with chèvre polenta and pistachios for Laura's entree and, for me, the most ridiculous and pretentious-sounding thing I'd seen on a menu in a long time: the chef's "Juxtaposition of Duck." The server nodded, told us how wonderful our choices were, suggested wine pairings (including an excellent Côtes du Rhône that had apparently inspired Eric in the creation of the pork), then left.
Excepting the delivery of a one-bite amuse of fresh tomato tart with goat cheese and occasional suggestions that we drink more, this was the last service we would see for almost an hour.
Laura and I joked. We ate our bread, finished our first-course beers, sipped our water and watched the dining room swirl with trade. We joked more.
A half-hour passed. We ran out of things to say to each other, so we watched the kitchen instead. The line at Black Cat is gorgeous — a kind of dream galley that belongs in a totally inaccurate movie about cooks, not in an actual working restaurant. It is narrow, open to the public and lined with wood shelves holding cookbooks, bottled herbs, an unused tagine and other tools. Skokan, who came to Boulder to open Black Cat after a long stretch at Alice's Restaurant at Gold Lake Resort and gigs in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville before that, worked the center position, sous to his right manning the burners amid a clutter of small copper saucepots that most working chefs can only dream of, garde manger man to his left composing salads and dessert plates and sides.