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Thursday, January 12,2012

An escape to Paris

By Clay Fong

Clear winter days often put me in a Paris frame of mind. This time of year, cold, crisp air, leafless trees and wintry light give the French capital a monochromatic yet nostalgic quality. For me, this romantic appearance evokes the black and white photography of Brassaï or the pre-World War II espionage novels of Alan Furst. It’s been some years since I’ve last ventured to Paris, and I was recently craving a dining experience reminiscent of the City of Light.

I thought Chef Radek Czerny’s L’Atelier, deeply influenced by classic French cuisine, would satisfy this hunger. The ambience here combines elements of the old and the new, melding retro Hummel figurines with an elegant yet modern palette of understated but not drab colors. As always, the service is among the most professionally rendered in town, and during a recent lunch visit, patrons were decidedly quieter than the livelier dinnertime clientele. Artistically folded cloth napkins, de rigueur white tablecloths, and a signed photo of culinary titan Paul Bocuse complete the scene.

At dinner, starters range from Thaispiced mussels to traditional escargot and shrimp Louis. Classicism marks the entrée menu, which includes filet mignon and rack of lamb. The lunch menu features lighter options like a tuna nicoise salad and a salmon, lettuce and tomato panini. Heartier appetites may opt for the steak frites or pork Florentine. Being somewhat familiar with L’Atelier’s offerings, I ordered a lunch of my longstanding favorites, and encouraged friend Amanda to do the same.

The $6 Caesar salad came on a long, narrow plate, and was neither a slavish duplicate of the original (coddled eggs, anyone?) nor a neutered facsimile. Amanda noted that the fresh flavor of the dressing made it seem as if it had been prepared to order, an impression that was reinforced by the crispness of the crouton. This adornment consisted of a hefty chunk of baguette, fried in olive oil. A high-quality anchovy served as additional garnish, adding just enough salt to complement the impeccable freshness of the greens.

Our main course was the $12 lobster ravioli, perhaps my favorite item here. I suspect some restaurants would simply throw together pasta and crustacean and call it good. Not so here. Overly thick pasta is replaced by a wonton skin-like covering, appropriate to the seafood’s delicacy. The light Alfredo sauce contributes richness without making the dish unbearably heavy, and a splash of lobster oil offers considerable flavor without upsetting the dish’s balance. This is one of my favorite pastas in town.

We splurged on dessert, sharing the extravagant $17.50 Chocolate Window for two. When I first sampled it years ago, I dubbed it the “chocolate aquarium,” given its presentation in a rectangular glass vessel.

Nowadays it comes in a squarish glass vase with rounded corners, packed with a cargo of berries, banana slices, cream and chocolate mousse. It appealed to my childhood fondness for banana splits, while adding a layer of sophistication via the addition of subtle hazelnut tones embedded in chocolate and the tartness of blueberry.

While L’Atelier’s lunch prices are a few dollars more than casual venues, the difference is negligible when you factor in the quality of food, service and ambience. Most important, lunch at L’Atelier provides a reasonable introduction to fine dining — and satisfies any Parisian meal desires.

L’Atelier 1739 Pearl St. Boulder 303-442-7233

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