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Mile Hi Life -- Places Worth the Splurge: Le Central
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Le Central epitomizes the (Denver) Capitol Hill Vision. The restaurant resides in an aged, converted house. It is painted, Victorian fashion, with technicolor accents: purple stairs, blue window frames, and a red door. Patrons enter by going up half a dozen tiled steps; bathroom facilities are located down a dizzying set of stairs inside. The eclectic layout includes a main dining room, a porch dining room, two back dining rooms, a side dining room, the outdoor patio, and a miniscule bar/waiting area. This seems like a lot of space. Though these areas are somewhat limited in dimension, it is a fair amount of space. Yet on a weekend night, there's a line out the door and a two-hour wait. The reason, besides the charm of Le Central, comes in their philosophy: French food that is not snooty, stuffy – or expensive.
True, $30-$50 a meal is not exactly budget – not compared to a $2 burrito at Gomez Burritos – but for French food, it is downright affordable. This Capitol Hill bistro has been around since 1981. More than thirty years later, they are still serving up their "taste of Provence." In addition to lunch and dinner they offer a Sunday brunch and a weekend Happy Hour. Dominique Deniaud, their pastry chef, prepares all their desserts in-house, including macarons (see below) and wedding cakes.
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Go to France, and you will encounter the prixe fixe menu: a usually multi-course meal at a fixed price. Le Central offers a traditional menu that changes regularly, but also the prixe fixe meal. This usually includes a soup or salad, a main dish, and a dessert; they are almost always paired with a theme. For example, the upcoming "Spring Menu" includes a poached pear salad (Salade de Poire), duck cooked two ways (Canard aux Deux Façons), and a cherry tart (Clafoutis). The price fixed for these menus is always $29.95.
On Monday and Tuesdays Le Central adds some panache to their prixe fixe menu: a lobster-centered main dish. A diner who comes in on one of these traditionally slow evening could enjoy toasted brioche with Brie, bleu, and Swiss cheese over petite salad (Fromages Grillés), half a lobster brushed with Pernod and Provence herbs then broiled (Homard Grillé au Pastis), and a dessert chosen by Pastry Chef Deniaud himself. The price still runs $29.95.
Every third Tuesday Le Central features a wine dinner, a 5-course meal, with a different glass of wine for each course, for $45. The most recent was a Far-East inspiration matched with French wines: Tagarashi-spiced frog legs (Cuisses de Grenouille à la Japonaise) paired with a 2011 Beaujolais Blanc (Printemps Gourmand), Ahi tuna steak salad in a Vietnamese style (Thon à la Vietnamienne) paired with a 2011 Rhone rosé (Tavel La Forcadière), braised pork belly over chive potato cakes (Ventre de Porc aux èpices) paired with a 2009 Syrah blend (Cotes Catalane), French-style surf-and-turf (Terre et Mer) paired with a 2008 Burgundy (Saint Romain), and a blueberry-ginger tartlet (Tarte aux Myrtilles) paired with a Domaine de Canton cocktail, wine mixed with the Domaine de Canton liqueur. In addition to getting insider information on French cookery, attendees get to enjoy the three-course meal and take home a recipe booklet. The cost is $29. Recently patrons learned to make both a sherry and fruit gastrique (see below), tomato bisque (Soupe de Tomate), chicken cooked two ways (Poulet á l'Aigre Doux), and Sabayon (see below)de Fraise for dessert.
Every February Denver runs its annual Denver Restaurant Week, two weeks' worth of culinary celebration. The event features a fixed priced menu of $52.80 per couple in honor of the city's altitude: one mile high, or 5, 280 feet. Le Central participated by offering the following menu:
First Course, one choice:
- Coquille St. Jacques aux Pommes:Seared sea scallops on a sweet potato and house cured Lardon hash with caramelized onions drizzled with a roasted apple pan sauce enhanced with crispy apple chips
- Confit de Canard: Duck confit morsels in a Mornay sauce gratinéed with Gruyere and garnished with oven cured herbed tomatoes and bread crumbs
Second Course, one choice:
- Ragout de Joues de Boeuf: Beef cheeks slowly braised in red wine, orange zest and winter spices nested on mashed celery root and potatoes and accompanied by glazed baby carrots
- Truite du Midi: Pan fried trout enriched with a ragout of fennel, golden raisins and coriander served with a saffron flavored rice pilaf
- Magret de Canard:Tea smoked duck breast on pan-fried lo mien style noodles complemented by a mango ginger chutney
Dessert, one choice:
- Crème Brulée: Lemon and sweet basil creme brulée
- Tarte aux Poires:Red wine poached pear tartlet with an orange bean crème anglaise
Le Central Deals
Friday to Sunday Le Central offers a mid-afternoon Happy Hour from 3-5 PM. Hors D'Oeuvres run from $7 (Escargots Bourguignons) to $12 (Asiette de Fromages). At this time they also feature $10 Crepes. For $3 patrons can enjoy select house wines, house gin drinks, vodka martinis, or sangria. In the warm months they often throw a Paella party on the patio. They've been known to turn the terrace-area in a communal table, Parisian-style.
Probably the deal for which they are most well-known is their Les Moules et Frites, steamed mussels served with unlimited French fries. They offer almost a dozen options from the classic (Provençale, with parsley and Pernod and topped with bread crumbs) to the nouveau (A la Mexicaine, with, for all intents and purposes, salsa on top.) All mussels start out steamed with white wine, butter, garlic, and shallots. The French fries are ultra-thin and crispy. They serve this specialty during lunch, dinner, or Happy Hour. And they always charge just $11.
Le Central can be enjoyed (somewhat) on the cheap, but it is a splurge-worthy restaurant. In addition to their high-quality ingredients, they feature to-notch chefs. They offer a variety of menus from the French prixe fixe to a five-course wine dinner to an exploratory cooking demonstration. Best of all, there are no snooty waiters who will curl their lip when you mis-pronounce a dish (true story in France). The intimate setting can become abit cramped on traditional date nights, but it is an excellent venue for celebrations. Let the mussels, though, do their beckoning to the little slice of Provence in Capitol Hill, Le Central.
Macarons (aka macaroons)
Macarons are cookies, French-style. They are somewhat like Oreos taken to haute cuisine levels. Yes, they are essentially sandwich cookies, but the fluffy cookie base must be moist and ready to melt in your mouth. It also features a poufy top, not unlike a bouffant for pastries. The pastry is made from meringue and almond flour, traditionally flavored rasberry, chocolate, etc. The fillings are often jams, ganache, or flavored cream. They also get spelled "macaroons," but this offers confusion with the coconut-based confection of that name.
Gastrique serves as a flavoring or base for many sauces. It consists of a reduction of sugar and vinegar. LikeBéchamelsauce, gastrique can be infused with different flavors. Chefs use gastrique to flavor savory sauces, fruit sauces, and the essential orange sauce for duck à l'orange.
Sabayon is a dessert made with egg yolks, sugar, and wine. For this delicacy, fresh eggs are essential as the yolk is only partially cooked. The method consists of beating egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine in a double-boiler until it thickens to a custard consistency. If the mixture becomes too hot – ie. the eggs actually start cooking – it becomes grainy and useless. French sabayon is a kissing cousin to the Italian zabaglione, made with Marsala wine. It goes well with berries and a light puff of fresh-whipped cream. Sabayon would sparkle with a Strawberry-Meyer lemon syrup addition.