By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Raise your hand if you didn't leave Sacre Bleu satisfied -- or get satisfied shortly after leaving.
No? You are soooo in the minority. This what's-old-is-nouvelle-again restaurant specializes in feeding all the appetites -- the hunger for attention, the hunger for food, the hunger for sex. Even the name is evocative and provocative, since it really isn't used in France to mean "Oh, my God"; we're talking about taking the Lord's name in a very vain way. At the moment, Sacre Bleu is the hottest place in town, and one of the harshest, with a setup that makes it impossible to take a step inside without everyone in the place swiveling their heads around like champagne-quaffing barn owls in heat. Meanwhile, the beautiful but slippery floors, complete with a barely perceptible ramp, make it almost impossible to take a step at all.
That slope is about the only reminder of this address's previous incarnations, JV's The Cork, Pinots and, long ago, Transalpin. Before opening the doors three months ago, owner Julie Payne opened up the space into one big room, with a large dining area along the front and a small bar along the back. Then she hired HAO Design to dress it all in shades of brown and gray that are classy in a subtle way: As with a little black cocktail dress, you're supposed to see what's inside rather than the dress itself. In fact, everything's so tastefully draperied and flowing that you feel better dressed yourself once you're inside. The look is stylish and still shy of pretentiousness, the feel warm and comfortable -- except for the table configuration, which makes it difficult for staffers to negotiate their way between parties. The bar is jammed, too -- not that anyone seems to care (particularly not the folks I spied doing lines on one of the little mirrored tables that are very easy to hide under your legs, as a gentleman demonstrated to the rest of his party -- none of whom, not surprisingly, seemed to be eating that night).
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight daily
If you're in an eating mood, you have to find your way to a table, which can be tricky even if you have reservations. Space is at such a premium here that once people are actually sitting somewhere, anywhere, they want to hold on to those seats. So when the bar is full, folks who've been dining decide to stay at their tables and drink and people-watch some more, which leaves the next parties slotted for those tables drinking and people-watching from the foyer. The situation has only gotten worse since a recent Rocky Mountain News series on dot.com millionaires suggested that Sacre Bleu is crawling with them. If it is, they're with their blond girlfriends and wearing black, like the vast majority of the people in the place. And apparently those girlfriends are concerned about the status of their dates' wallets, because they're forever patting their boyfriends' behinds, and the dot.com guys are patting right back.
Here's just a taste of the foreplay-like acts I observed during two visits to Sacre Bleu. A man and a woman didn't realize (forgot? knew damn well?) that the glass partition next to their table was clear glass, and they spent their entire meal with their shoes off and their feet jammed into each other's crotches. Two women in backless dresses sitting in the bar area passed the evening by running their fingers up and down each other's bare spines. Two men nuzzled outside the bathrooms. A man and woman stepped behind the glass door of the closet-sized telephone room and fell against the wall in a passionate embrace that rivaled any R-rated movie smooch -- in full view of the dining room. Even the waitstaff feels the heat: Witness the server who seemed blissfully unaware that just because his head and upper torso were behind the curtains that so diplomatically hide the nitty-gritty details of table-waiting from the rest of the dining room, that didn't mean we couldn't see him scratching his privates, which were very much not behind the curtains.
It's amazing that anyone actually remembers to eat here.
But it would be a shame to miss a meal at Sacre Bleu, because chef Don Gragg's food -- French-inspired, nouvelle-portioned, gently flavored -- is well thought out and often beautifully executed, if at times a little smarmy. Gragg first came to Denver diners' attention as head of the kitchen at Mel's Bar and Grill; he also worked at Barolo Grill and Starfish. Before coming to town, he did stints at San Francisco's Chez Panisse and New York's Gramercy Tavern, and all of that combined experience has given him the confidence to use fresh, interesting ingredients in interesting ways. Still, someone should tell him that he doesn't have to use all of the "important" ingredients -- truffles, foie gras, Meyer lemons, fava beans (or "fave," as the menu calls them), hazelnuts -- right away.
When those components are combined sensibly and simply, the results are amazing. An Alice Waters knockoff, the rocket salad ($9) that paired fresh, dark arugula with cured foie gras and hazelnuts, was the kind of starter that sets a mood for the rest of the meal. The paper-thin shavings of foie gras were so rich they tasted like butter, with the streaky liver slivers changing the whole experience of biting into peppery greens; the hazelnuts added a sweet nuttiness that tied the tastes together. Seared ahi tuna ($9) was another palate-pleaser: Tapenade, skinny spring beans and a few leaves of watercress were the ideal accessories for the five fragile slices of tuna, creating alternating bites of salty and sweet, bitter and buttery.
The pan-seared Diver scallops with coral butter and early truffles ($10) wasn't quite as savvy a dish. Although the two scallops had been cooked properly, the coral butter was so delicate as to be watery, and the early truffles were late with flavor, adding nothing to the mix. (In a lesser place, I'd suspect "early" meant canned, because either truffles are ready to be snuffled out of the ground or they're not. When I asked the server, he said the label referred to the fact that they were the first truffles of the season -- but everyone knows the damned expensive things are being cultivated now, anyway.) And two other starters were non-starters. The quick-smoked salmon ($7) was just a hunk of fish that had no smokiness whatsoever and tasted steamed; the accompanying English peas and wild mushrooms had been completely mixed in with the crème fraîche, so there was nothing to dip the delicate salmon into, and the dish became all about mushrooms. Meanwhile, the wild-mushroom soup ($8), which should have been all about mushrooms, was strangely bland -- and the intriguing "farm-fresh" poached egg didn't help. While the light, mellow mushroom broth was floating with fungi, they tasted leeched of their flavor. Since that flavor obviously hadn't gone into the broth, where did it go?
The entrees were much more successful. For the oven-roasted poussin ($29), a tiny squab was cut into four tender, crispy-skinned delights. But once when we ordered this dish, the side of foie gras ravioli was flawless, a soft pillow of pasta stuffed with melt-in-your-mouth organ meat, and the next time, it was a dry, chewy block of dough filled with overcooked foie gras. Both times, the amount of foie gras was so teeny (and the truffled pan jus so mild) that this dish didn't justify the price tag. A more economical choice was the grilled polenta and squash ($18), a vegetarian dream that boasted some of the best polenta ever, warm and wet inside with a crunchy but yielding shell. The sweet corn flavor was nicely matched by the soft-as-butter squash, a ring of rocket, grana cheese and a laid-back sauce verde. Also well-priced was the roasted sea bass with simmered beans ($20). The fish was roasted perfectly, and its pleasant mildness went well with the not-too-tart lemon relish and a mound of tomatoes that had been cooked down until they'd released most of their moisture and nearly caramelized.
After such ambitious entrees, the dessert list was unimpressive -- and the desserts themselves boring. The apple tart tatin ($6) was nothing more than a puff-pastry disk topped with six apple slices; without that ball of vanilla ice cream melting on top, we might as well have eaten a rice cake. The chocolate mousse ($8) was middle-of-the-road, with a tuille that was soggy-soft. Sacre Bleu did better by its simpler finales, but the fresh berries with a Meyer lemon granité ($8) and white- and milk-chocolate-covered strawberries ($7) still seemed uninspired.
It definitely wasn't the kind of finale we expected in such sexy surroundings -- but, then again, who says the evening has to end with dessert?