Everyone knows one, hence the cliché Hemingway hath wreaked. Everyone knows one, but not everyone always has one. Back in Boston, mine was the bar at Sel de la Terre. That was where I often not so much went as ended up—when the weather was bitter & I could discern its glow, a hazy orange circle marking an otherwise drizzly gray or windy black street corner; when I was with someone I knew full well I wouldn’t see again; when a violet-infused sparkler or a café moresque—whipped cream–topped coffee blended with pastis, Frangelico & almond syrup—awaited along with the delicious awareness, though the windows faced north, that the harbor to the cold Atlantic was just a few steps eastward down Long Wharf away.
Here in Denver, I can’t say from my long-overdue 1st visit, joined by MO & Mr. MO, to Bistro Vendôme that it’s the off-hours haunt for me I’d fantasized it might be. I’ll just say I could see how it might be someone’s, tucked away in that tiny concrete courtyard off Larimer, with the early afternoon–late fall sunlight not really slanting through the dining room windows, but still somehow very much there—a neat trick of the broken-yolk-colored walls & the shiny mirrors & the lace trimmings.
Due to a camera snafu, I had to pester Mr. MO for better-than-nothing cell-phone photos; the e-mail in which he sent this one to was titled “Coffee.”
The misidentification’s understandable; my cup of French onion soup did rather resemble my cup of French-pressed coffee, only scabbier, with bubbling skin lesions that were, of course, actually half-submerged bits of gruyère-covered crouton. Since my interest in soupe a l’oignon is broth-based, not gloppy-topping-generated, I was pleased for the opportunity to really taste the liquid, beautifully balanced between beefiness & melted-onion sweetness. Still, a bit of salty crunch for contrast is the point of the traditional crouton; though it shouldn’t amount to a plate-tectonical mass, neither should it be dissolving into nothingness before bite 1.
Much more pulled together was the salmon choucroute.
Save for the surprisingly dried-out supposed centerpiece that was the fish, each element brought something to the plate-shaped table. Along with roasted fingerlings & cipollini topped with bacon strips were liver-colored &, I’d swear, subtly liver-flavored coins of duck sausage, as well as an absolutely delightful mound of savoy cabbage braised in beer to the point of intense caramelization—which further mixed agreeably with sharp mustard crème fraîche.
Meanwhile, MO found her salmon burger, the day’s special, bland with or without the accompanying avocado spread (kinda makes you wonder whether chef-partner Jennifer Jasinski should grill her fishmonger about the quality of the weekend delivery). Though I didn’t try it, I did swipe a few fries, which had that slightly granular aspect characteristic of frozen product—disappointing, since hand-cut pommes frites are one of the clearest hallmarks of a good bistro. If I’m misjudging, I hope I’m stood corrected.
By contrast, both MO & Mr. MO were impressed by their salad of julienned, roasted golden beets (the French word for which is betteraves; the fact that I’m resisting temptation & sparing you a belabored pun about better halves enjoying their betteraves is confounding even to me) with, according to the menu, oranges, sliced fennel, chopped walnuts, & goat cheese dressing—although I’ll be darned if I don’t detect some sliced red beets, a zigzag of beet coulis & some unidentified crispies in there as well; perhaps MO can tell us more.
She can also tell you how she kept filching forkfuls of Mr. MO’s curried rabbit crêpe only to wind up with lots of “bunny pellets,” as the 2 of them called the sprinkling of capers (much to my dorky amusement).
Hit that it was, we opted to split an order of dessert crêpes with maple ice cream, whipped cream & streusel-speckled rum sauce as well.
Woe was us that the chunks of brown sugar–glazed sweet potato within were underroasted, because the crêpes themselves were the lightest & laciest ever.
Service was the lightest & laciest ever too, by which I don’t really mean much except that it was way laid-back & leisurely, as well it should be between the noon rush & happy hour.
But all in all, I frankly expected a little more from the sibling of the stellar Rioja—which is precisely why I’m inclined to return sooner rather than later. I want to believe our decent but not dazzling experience at this cute-as-could-be little café was a fluke. Hence its assignment to the category of Eateries That Give Me Hope—& hence my assurance that a follow-up report will appear tout de suite.