Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

The siesta-esque pace of a clean, well-lighted place: Bistro Vendôme

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.”

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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.

BVchoucroute

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.

BVsalmonburger

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.

BVsalad

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).

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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.

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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.

Brasserie Felix, if you say so

Brasseries have been popping up like, oh, the bistros they often actually are cross-country ever since Balthazar stormed New York back in 1997. Even Boulder’s got the halfway decent Brasserie Ten Ten. So it’s about time Denver had one too.

Which may or may not have anything to do with the opening of Brasserie Felix, rocky enough to seem fatally premature.

It goes without saying that anyone wishing to assess the merits of a given eatery fully and fairly should wait at least a few weeks past day 1—6 to 8’s about right. But first impressions do count. And mine amount to the fact that Brasserie Felix has a long, longue way to go before it’s worthy of either half of its own name. Right now it’s less like a the French equivalent of a brewpub owned by un homme de félicité and more like Chez Whatever.

1st of all, back in 2005, former Post critic Kyle Wagner eloquently explained why Brasserie Rouge was something of a misnomer. What she said; the beer list here is noteworthy only for its lack of noteworthiness. For that matter, the wine list, though reasonably priced (the majority of bottles keep well within the bounds of $20–$40), is unreasonably narrow, comprised largely of Cotes du Rhone, cabs & merlots, virtually devoid of varietal quirks.

Granted, it’s got something of the look down pat—spacious enough to invite beaucoup bustle and clatter, dotted with vintage-style prints and such. Speaking of pats, however, the bread basket was the 1st sign of trouble, containing half a sliced, supermarket-grade baguette & a ramekin full of foil-wrapped butter squares. Quelle crappe!

2nd of all, while the long-lost twin of a Cabaret-era Michael York who served us at the bar was both kind & attentive, he was neither terribly knowledgeable nor apparently aware he wasn’t terribly knowledgeable.

The Director: Can I get the moules frites? 
Michael York: The what? 
The Director points to the moules frites on the menu
Michael York: Got it. Do you want fries with that?

Later he recommended the petits fours, describing them to us lovingly as it became embarrassingly clear he meant profiteroles (oh, j’excuse, profiterolles, as it’s spelled on the menu).

In between, he nonchalantly presented us with a bread plate containing 1 dollop of dijon & another of “careful-it’s-really-really-spicy” harissa dip, which had all the kick of an octogenerian donkey with advanced bone cancer. It was for the kinda dandy but skimpy Merguez sausage platter that we were by then more than halfway through with.

BFsausage
sausage platter the Director’s 1 bite through with

Skimpy & not even kinda dandy was (3rd of all) what, IIRC, the menu called frisée aux lardons. For every duck lardon you spot, you get 1 point. & if you get 1 point, you already win, because I never did find 1 amid the barely dressed greens & the bacon chips & the small croutons made, apparently, from yet another cruddy baguette, going soggy pronto in the yolk of the poached egg.

BFsalad

The broth in this bowl was excellent, heady with mussel liquor, anise liqueur & cream.

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Less excellent were the bivalves themselves, supposedly weighing a pound en masse but rife with empty shells—the Director estimated the loss at about 15%.

I had no beef with the steak tartare, under- if not downright un-seasoned but boasting all the more fresh, clean savor of raw ground cow for that.

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Still, at present I’d say felicity’s to be found in far greater measure mere blocks away at Indulge.

Indulge…well, you don’t have go that far

For one thing, this fairly new, assez véritable-blu French bistro on 38th is totally reasonable; what with appetizers averaging $9.75 and entrees $18 (exactly—I used a calculator), no splurging’s necessary. For another, the cooking doesn’t quite warrant it; it’s solid, not bud-blowingly sumptuous. I wouldn’t say we indulged ourselves, I’d say we moderately enjoyed ourselves. Granted, Moderately Enjoy French Bistro doesn’t really have the same je ne sais quoi.

Then again, & for another, you don’t have to indulge yourself—they indulge you. The service here is so gregariously disarming as to cause inner turmoil by compelling you to even consider using the phrase “Old World charm.” Ick, now I have to go spit.

OK, I’m back. The same can be said for the ambiance, all subway-tile-style brickwork and sweetly amateur oil paintings and intricate stained-glass panes and brown satin bunting and the vague sense that it might once have been a shag-carpeted den wherein some English professor & his former-student wife’s faculty parties got a little out of hand.

You get the gist:

Indulge

(That’s me at the edge. I know, it’s probably not how you imagined me at all. But I was born scribbled out and, at the time, there was nothing the doctors could do. Now, of course, medical science can work miracles with Photoshop.)

The shot was snapped by the indeterminately Euro bartender, Sabi (“like wasabi, but not so green”—whatever that means; we giggled anyway, smitten), who may or may not also have been the maître’d &/or owner. It was he who kept our wine glasses filled & brought us our hot, crusty rolls—hooray!—with cold pats of butter—aww. (They sure don’t make ’em like that Schoolhouse Rock anymore, eh?) He delivered our pommes pailles–toupeed steak tartare, nicely accompanied by nifty little mounds of minced cornichon, caper & red onion as well as sea salt but ultimately disappointing, the beef sort of crumbly & also mumbly, as in bland—its flavor didn’t speak for itself:

Steaktartare_2

Much better were the plats classiques. While the Director’s frites could have been crispier—as seems to have been the case all too often lately, the exceptions being those at Limón & Black Pearl—the steak au poivre vert itself was spot-on,

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pretty in pink within &, without, smothered in a gently musty green-peppercorn sauce that, like the deeply, darkly Burgundied marinade of the coq au vin,

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was so textbook it was in fact the Guide Culinaire, all dusty & warped in a box in an attic in a stone-built farmhouse in the Val de Loire. I don’t know that that elbow macaroni was so traditionnel, but it sure was cute with chunks of bacon & mushrooms & pearl onions so golden I thought they were chickpeas at first.

The likewise orthodox sweets—chocolate cake, apple tart & do I even need to say crème brûlée?—weren’t our thing, so we headed on home to “watch a movie,” which is our little secret code for “conk out slack-mouthed on the couch before the opening credits stop rolling.” Hooray!

As we gathered ourselves together, we overheard Sabi joke with the regulars seated next to us at the tiny marble-topped bar, “Where are you going to go that they’ll treat you better?” They didn’t really seem to have an answer to that.

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