Change is good, but hard. Change is inevitable, but hard. And change in beloved restaurants is hardest of all, at least for enamored patrons. Just when a chef settles in, just when a menu reaches perfection, change occurs. Such has been the case at La Petite Maison.
Chef Chris Adrian, one of the most inventive talents cooking in our little town, left some months ago (she will reappear when 32 Bleu opens). La Petite Maison is now in the experienced hands of Espiridion Moreno, who is the first to admit he's got big shoes to fill.
At the same time, he's got some great training and experience behind him -- three years at the now closed Chez Pierre, almost two years at Primitivo and a stint as executive chef at Blue Star. He's also got the good sense to proceed slowly and cautiously.
We were relieved on a recent visit to see that many of the dishes and preparations developed by Chef Adrian were still available -- the Curried Shrimp Crepe with Banana Chutney, for example, and the generous use of fruits in salads, sauces and side dishes. Chef Moreno shares Adrian's support of local purveyors and organic farmers. We were smitten with the new lighter patio menu, available as the lunch menu or as a supplement to the evening offerings. Diners have some deliciously difficult decisions to make.
One could dine on appetizers alone. Choose, let's say, between the Duck Pate with caramelized onions and a zippy cognac mustard sauce and the rabbit loin with fennel. Accompany it with a dish of asparagus served with tomatoes, Nicoise olives and Haystack Mt. Goat cheese. Finish with a cup of soup, perhaps the Chipotle Sweet Potato delicately garnished with bacon bits, and you will have saved just enough room for dessert.
A sensible approach, certainly, but one possible only if you look no further on the menu. Who among us could pass up Seared Black Angus Filet with a Peppercorn and Horseradish Crust, Duck Breast with a Cherry Sauce, Halibut or Striped Bass with fresh tomato relish? For old-fashioned comfort food, try the chicken with a wild mushroom fricassee and mashed potatoes perfectly tinged with roasted garlic. Entres on the Patio Menu range from Roasted Portobello Mushroom to a Seared Tuna and Udon Noodle Vegetable Salad to one of the best burger in towns, possibly in the world. (It was certainly better than the burger I had once at New York's 21 Club, but that's another story.)
If one were in a ratings mood, here's where things get a little schizophrenic. Everything sounded fabulous; many of our dishes were sublime. The Shrimp Crepes were as good as always. The Sweet Potato Soup was a perfect blend of sweet and spicy. The Blue Crab Cake was light and perfectly prepared. The vinaigrettes on the salads were delicate and applied with a wonderfully light touch that allowed the greens to almost explode with freshness and flavor. Other details and plates fell short of the mark.
The duck entree was tender but missing its honey nut crust (though the cherry sauce was tasty). The bread our attentive busboy served was cold. The halibut was cooked a moment too long. Some dishes were beautifully plated; others lacked the same attention. Whatever was going on?
For starters, the restaurant seemed short-handed. Our superb waitress, calm, smiling and efficient, seemed the only one working the front of the house. Our courses took an inordinately long time, suggesting the back of the house might be short-handed as well. A conversation with Chef Moreno indicated an awareness of staffing issues and a willingness to address them.
These are common and easily corrected flaws, and easy to overlook when the menu is as attractive and ambitious as this one is. Seafood with a Southwestern slant -- Shrimp cocktail is accompanied by an avocado relish and a tomato tequila sauce; a corn pico de gallo comes with the crab cake. Seafood with an Asian bent -- the lemon grass broth infusing the tuna, the delicious curry in the shrimp crepe. A delicate French influence in the judicious use of wine, brandy and cognac in sauces. An insistence on quality produce and ingredients, a support of Colorado purveyors. I have no doubt the kinks will be worked out in the next few months. By then the fall menu will be in place with some different salads, Tuna Tartare, Colorado Rack of Lamb and who knows what other delights.
I'll be back sooner, though, if only for that burger. It comes with blue d-Auvergne cheese, caramelized onions, watercress and a green peppercorn mayonnaise. Oh, and with a side of fried sweet potatoes that you'll have to protect from predators. If this is typical of Chef Moreno's intentions to move toward a lighter more casual menu, he's heading in the right direction.
La Petite Maison
1015 W. Colorado Avenue, 632-4887
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.