Berthoud’s The Savoy rekindles elegance

BERTHOUD — This town hardly seems a logical place to start when one goes searching for a good French restaurant.

Not that the town is inherently bad or anything. It simply lacks the affluent population base that’s usually a prerequisite for a successful fine-dining establishment.

The Savoy beats the odds by drawing diners from Denver, Boulder, Longmont and Northern Colorado — in addition to the adoring local patrons.

The first thing you notice when you go to the Savoy, located at 535 Third St., is the fact that it sits next to a hardware store. “I gotta plumb that new sink … oh, hey, let’s stop next door for some gravlax and escargot”.

The side street location is, however, preferable to the strip-mall storefronts into which other nice restaurants are stuck.

And the quiet pace of Berthoud provides a nice backdrop to a night of dining at a destination restaurant such as The Savoy. Purchased in 1992 by Jean and Chantal Martini, The Savoy retained the previous owners’ given name but dispensed with their inconsistencies. I was there one night in 1991 when the chef became involved in a fight with the owner.

After the screams and crashing dishes in the kitchen subsided, our waitperson came to tell us our dinners “would be a while. The chef has left”. When they did arrive, they were pitiful. Unaware of the sale to the Martinis, I was reluctant to go back last year when my parents invited me to join them there around Christmas time. We had an outstanding meal, and my view of the place softened quite a bit.

We went again recently, and the place seems to be getting only better. The evening was perfect, and it dawned on me how long it had been since I had a truly pleasurable dining experience. If you have not been to The Savoy, don’t let the austere menu choices scare you off. I am suffering from a little too much Californication myself when it comes to restaurants, and it’s a bias I need to correct.

When I see French menus, I’m thinking “Hey, we created Wolfgang Puck so we don’t have to eat this boring stuff anymore. Where’s the mango ginger salsa?” I talked about this with the Savoy chef Jean Martini after our wonderful meal, and he said my perception was shared by a lot of people these days.

“Those other menus read like a newspaper. They have long descriptions, and they are full of trends and first efforts”.

Martini instead tries to focus on perfecting traditional French fare and leaves trendiness to the other hacks. It’s a formula we hadn’t tried in far too long. The French know a little something about food preparation, and in the hands of a talent such as Martini, the end result is sublime.

The dining room is cozy, warm and unpretentious. Dark wood, soft candles and beautiful country china set a relaxed but elegant tone. You won’t find acres of red velvet drapes or any such snobbery here. The Savoy feels more like a friendly auberge. Chantal greets guests at the door with a personal and welcoming air. There are only about 50 seats, so the room never loses its intimate appeal.

A full bar is available for aperitifs or after-dinner brandies. The wine list represents my only gripe with the restaurant. The selection is profoundly limited, prices are fairly steep and the consumer is not even sure what they may be ordering. Appellations are given, but detailed information such as the vintage and proprietor are kept secret. Our waitperson knew as much about the list as we did.

We had to have Chantal haul bottles out of the rack and show us the labels. We wanted a light Burgundy or Pinot but ended up with a bottle of Haut-Medoc because our choices were so limited.

Jean worked in Los Angeles at the prestigious Jonathan Club and with celebrity chef Michel Richard at Citrus before coming to Berthoud. He has a daunting resume and could be viewed as one of the premier chefs in Colorado. He was first trained in meat cutting at a charcuterie in Paris, where he also learned pate and sausage.

The Savoy features a special terrine appetizer that changes regularly. We had a rabbit and pistachio pate the night we visited that was outstanding.

After ordering, the presentations that appear before you are a stunning counterpoint to the menu’s simple descriptions. I ordered a pedestrian-sounding poached salmon with saffron beurre blanc and was shocked at the elaborate and beautiful creation that came to the table. Layers of intricate color and texture laid out like Martini had hours to prepare it. An elegant salad and delicious soup come with the entrees. We had a curried carrot soup that was subtle with both curry powder and salt. It was simply wonderful.

The Savoy has a special program right now that is quite a bargain. Titled the “French Country Gourmet Dinner,” you receive four courses plus coffee for $19.95. It is a truly great value. It’s a good way to sample the Martinis’ fine cooking and hospitality without breaking the bank.

Find something, anything, to celebrate, and head to Berthoud for one of Northern Colorado’s finest dining experiences.