Restaurant critics, too, find themselves theorizing about a chef's inner self, based solely upon what we find on our plates. So it is that spare meals with a Zen-like balance of flavors may make us deem one chef "spiritual," while dishes with a hodgepodge of tastes and textures may have us calling another one "exuberant," if not "undisciplined." For my own part, I've even been tempted to propose marriage to a chef or two, based on the notion that anyone who can demonstrate such passion in the kitchen must have other, more private talents as well. (My husband, bless his heart, takes all such silliness in stride.)
If there is any merit to such hypothesizing, it is to remind us that, like poetry, oil painting, or sculpture, fine cooking is an art. Serious gastronomes find food for thought by asking themselves, when facing an artful meal, "What is this chef about? What does his work say about how he relates to food, to flavor, and to life?" Oftentimes, unfortunately, the answer will be vague or undecipherable. But every now and then, the response will be clear enough and profound enough to add a level of pleasure to the meal that goes beyond sheer physical satiation.
All this philosophizing is a preface to my theory about Zachary Conover, the 28-year-old executive chef at Leopard, the very upscale restaurant at Aurora's new Bertram Inn and Conference Center. If asked, I would tell you that I think Conover is a man of energy, spirit, and generosity, whose expansiveness shows in his robust sauces, bountiful use of seasonings, and ample portions.
Who else, after all, but a generous man could create such foods -- an earthy cream of mushroom soup, say, wherein the musky perfume of Brie mingles with the woodsy scent of the fungi; or perhaps the autumnal sweet potato soup, stacking up a comfortable softness against the crunch of Red Delicious apple and a tickle of cinnamon? And then there is that signature appetizer of his, a beautifully vertical presentation of succulent duck confit (slowly cooked meat, preserved in its own fat), settled on a layer of sage-studded mashed potatoes and a dreamy marmalade of lemon and red onion, topped with a tangle of wispy fried leek, and drizzled with a trill of deep, dark balsamic reduction.
An enormous roasted rack of lamb is probably the most delicious entrée I've ever had: three meaty chops, so juicy and rich that I wanted to pick them up and chew the bones. Beneath them were more mashed potatoes, this time scented with truffle oil and draped with a sheer garlic reduction sauce. On the side sat the fried mushroom of my dreams: a huge, sliced portobello "truffle" in a breading that tangoed somewhere between Japanese tempura and the best of the county fair, making each bite a small explosion of contrasting textures and flavors. The crowning touch? An avalanche of crunchy onion rings!
Conover's current menu is large and enticing, with a half-dozen appetizers, three soups, five salads, and a dozen entrées. Still, we were captivated by one evening's tantalizing special: chargrilled mahi-mahi on a pile of quinoa and basmati rice, along with tender-crisp baby bok choy; shreds of roasted red, yellow, and green pepper; bits of sweet Vidalia onion; and plump slabs of piquant roasted tomato. Taken all together, the dish was an outpouring of delights, with each element perfectly seasoned and prepared. Just as good was the aptly named Swordfish Tower: grilled medallions of creamy fish stacked with mashed potatoes, Brie, and tomato concassée, finished with a jammy port-wine reduction.
Even when Conover's creations don't quite strike the bell of culinary perfection -- a lackluster appetizer of hot smoked salmon on a pedestrian pancake of shredded potato and chives, topped with a bit of warm crème frâiche and red caviar, say; or an otherwise-delicious Veal Oscar, marred by unanticipated streaks of fat in the veal chop and bits of membrane on the lobster -- they are lovely to behold, arriving at the table on ivory-colored, platinum-banded porcelain chargers. The elegant dinnerware is matched with hefty flatware, a bevy of sparkling goblets, white tapers in crystal candlesticks, and layers of white and black napery for an effect as sumptuous as the food itself.
In fact, the entire "jackets-required" dining space, located at the southeastern end of the Georgian-style conference center, speaks of contemporary elegance. Conover's bright open kitchen, flanked on each side by a guardian leopard, is the first thing guests spot when entering the dining room. Skylights top the vaulted ceiling here, filling the space with natural light; similarly, large windows provide the rest of the long but narrow dining area with a view of lush outdoor gardens and, from some windows, a pretty little patio. Several sets of massive black pillars -- sturdy, yet impressively sleek, like the supports of an ancient Egyptian temple -- as well as leopard-print carpets and russet-and-gold upholstery, subtly carry forth an African theme without becoming cartoonish. And after dark, with the lights turned down to a soft glow, the room is as intimate and romantic as anyone could wish. (For less formal diners, a separate lounge is located nearby, with a sushi bar, big-screen television, and a menu of casual fare.)
Our table was set for gracious dining immediately, when servers presented a tiny amuse bouche. The provision of this little complimentary "amusement" -- one night a tender artichoke heart, hollowed out and filled with lump crabmeat and a dollop of brisk Cajun-spiced rémoulade; another night a crisp miniature spanakopita, kissed with a bit of zesty Creole aioli -- is such a generous gesture, we can't help but wonder why more fine restaurants don't adopt it. And while entrée prices ($24 to $38) match the room's upscale atmosphere, the inclusion of a small house salad and assorted freshly baked breads with aromatic pesto butter add to a meal's perceived value. (Truth be told, we weren't especially captivated by the house salad on our first visit. Next visit, we substituted a tableside Caesar Salad, for an extra $6 per person, and enjoyed an excellent anchovy-studded version of this classic.)
As exciting and creative as first- and second-course options are, we found the chocolate-laden dessert menu to be a bit of a bore. Soufflés are the high point and are good, if rather heavy, after such robust main events. A slice of Bourbon Pecan Tart -- lots of pecans and a pleasant whiff of whiskey -- was OK. Crème brûlée (now off the menu) was perfect. But what we would have dearly loved to see was something wonderfully bright and fruity. The closest the dessert menu came to that was a cylinder of layered kiwi, strawberry, mango, and papaya custard, topped with chopped macadamia nuts and garnished with mango and raspberry coulis. While delicate and refreshingly cool, the fruit flavors were understated and nearly indistinguishable.
The restaurant has an impressive and mostly expensive wine list, with scores of domestic, French, and Italian reds and whites. On both visits, we opted for the least costly item on the list: a $17 bottle of 1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannesburg Riesling from Washington state (retailing for around $8.50), which proved to be a delightfully crisp accompaniment to our meals.
Service at Leopard is worthy of the spirited food and inviting decor. General manager Derrick Bryan and dining room captain Joseph Phillips welcome guests with warmth and style, and the waiters never miss a beat.
Good food is, indeed, a celebration of life. And despite a few rough spots, the party is heating up at Leopard.