Let's face it: The French cook circles around the rest of the world. If not for their influence, cuisine literally would not exist, and we probably still would be eating repugnant meat pies, or "puddings."
The French are the inventors of almost every culinary innovation making food edible, from the concept of sauce to the modern-day restaurant kitchen preparation called mis en place. It's no coincidence that modern English claims scads of foodie terms with French linguistic derivations; before that particular cultural invasion, our British forebears simply didn't know how to eat or cook -- or cook well, at any rate.
Enter Chef Henri Chapront. The talented cook swept in from Crested Butte, bought La Petite Maison and has spent the past few months refining the beloved West Side eatery. Those mourning the loss of excellent chefs Pete Moreno and Chris Adrian shouldn't fret. La Petite is only getting better.
Chapront hasn't changed the decor much. It's still the same cozy house, with Matisse prints on the walls and hand-tooled Hommes and Femmes signs on the bathroom doors. But the new chef has reworked the menu (which, until recently, offered mostly French-influenced world-fusion food), turning the restaurant's focus toward more traditional French fare.
You may need help translating the new menu; many of its items are likely to be foreign to an American clientele. Luckily, the waitstaff is tuned-in and informative, eager to explain magret and papillote to the uninitiated.
The Mussels Mariniere ($8), a generous portion of Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in a broth of muscadet, shallots and butter, is immediately impressive. The shellfish are prepared perfectly, steamed lightly and lovingly. We begged the waitress for more bread to mop up the broth. It was a savory, flavorful, completely wonderful dish, and a fitting introduction to the great things ahead.
When it comes to meat, Chapront deals with a deft hand. His duck bigarrade ($26) -- seemingly roasted by the hand of God Himself -- is half a bird done up in a citrus glace, sprinkled with crystallized twists of orange rind. (You know that idiom, "falling off the bone"? I didn't think much of it until I tried this masterpiece.) The duck is tender, firm and slightly sweetened by the citrus.
Likewise, the buffalo tenderloin ($29) is prepared gorgeously, a textbook-perfect medium rare, drizzled with sauce poivre, a creamy peppercorn mother-of-all-sauces that complements and enhances the buffalo's strong flavors. Presented with a small mound of buttery julienned vegetables and pommes dauphinoise, the dish is balanced and downright faultless.
Chapront has modified the lunch menu as well, offering some lighter fare along with a club sandwich, a buffalo burger, a blackened chicken breast and other friendly, more fusion-influenced cuisine. (Regular customers will be relieved that he's kept crab cakes on the menu, this time served over an Asian daikon slaw.)
The steak pommes frites ($12.50) is a classic, trs simple dish: an undressed, if impeccably cooked, steak with French fries. The onion tart, a quiche-like affair with caramelized onions and bacon, is baked into nearly meringue-consistent egg.
Dessert varies daily at La Petite. If available, the tarte Tatin is a must. This upside-down apple tart is gooey, buttery and perhaps the most wonderful thing that ever has touched my lips, my spouse excepted. The apples, butter and sugar caramelize while baking, making for an alchemically explosive ending to a meal that forced me to utter, "Ungh! Hotpants!"
During his long tenure, former La Petite owner Jeff Mervis assembled a fantastic wine list, and Chapront wisely has kept it intact. There are American and Australian wines for the non-Franco-chauvinists, but the bias here clearly is toward Burgundies and Rhnes, two styles that harmonize well with Chapront's food. With bottle prices ranging from $25 to $250, even Cte d'Or nerds like me, who like their Pinot to taste like water siphoned out of a dirty duck pond, feel accommodated.
A lack of vegetarian fare is the only downside to La Petite's new direction. This jibes with a lot of French cooking, which can include upwards of eight animals in reduced, jellied, boiled or shredded states. Because of this, the food is fairly heavy, but that's why it's so good; Chapront plainly understands that fat is a primary vehicle for flavor, so he doesn't scrimp with the butter, oil or stock.
Offering gracious, adept service and a menu to sing about, La Petite's new regime provides a nearly unequaled dining experience. With any luck, others will catch on. Welcome to town, Chef Henri. We hope you stay a long, long time.
-- Aaron Retka
La Petite Maison
1015 W. Colorado Ave.
Call 632-4887 or see restauranteur.com/maison for more.