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In Japan they'd say it's otaku, or maybe a by-product of otaku -- that passionate, blind obsession with something long gone, something that maybe never existed at all. At Brasserie Rouge(see review), Leigh and Robert Thompson have created a place more real than reality, a reproduction that's not just a copy of a thing, but a facsimile somehow truer than the thing it mimics. Brasserie Rouge represents a perfect, weathered image of a brasserie amalgam -- not a copy of one French neighborhood place, but a combination of them all.
"Otaku" isn't a nice word in any standard sense. In fact, it's an insult in most cases. To call someone "otaku" is to impugn his social skills, personal hygiene and connection with what the rest of us call reality. People who build those fanatically detailed museum-quality models: otaku. Collectors of antique watch fobs, anime-heads, the guy constructing a 1:1-scale replica of a Sopwith Camel in his back yard. All otaku, man. Crazy on the one hand, but brilliant on the other.
The word, when applied not to collecting, but to the perfect reproduction of a thing, has an entirely different meaning. It denotes a zealotry of detail that borders on the spiritual. There are Ball-Hamilton railroad watches reproduced down to the scratch patterns made when the case chafed against the wool pants worn by trainmen in the 1920s; British military medals like the Victoria Cross that are die-struck in bronze from originals and hung from silk ribbons colored in the same crimson as the original dye lot, its number tracked down by obsessive researchers.
1801 Wynkoop St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Brasserie Rouge is a copy of a copy of a copy made all the more authentic through attention to topical details sometimes less actual than assumed. The way the steam from the kitchen halos the lights in the service area, giving the front quarter of the restaurant the look of some hellish European transit cafe; the effect of the light itself, which is somehow harsh and dim at once; the way sound carries, bouncing along the tin ceiling -- this was all purposeful, the result of a fixation on scrupulous, exquisite replication.
"We wanted it to be perfect," Robert says. "We spent a lot of time in France, in Paris, doing nothing but looking and eating. Then we spent two weeks in New York, a week in Chicago, just checking out brasseries." That quality of light? Straight out of La Coupole in Montparnasse, which the Thompsons visited in order to study the grand chandeliers for a custom reproduction done here in Denver. The mosaic tile floors are original, but designed to mimic patterns found in Paris, then weathered, scuffed and faded before they were even laid. The tin ceilings were covered with layers of faux-paint work, the glass and mirrors fogged, the chairs upholstered in three slightly different shades of red -- all so the dining room would look like it's on its third generation of replacement.
"We created this brasserie hoping to make it look 50 to 75 years old," Robert explains, and they've succeeded. It helped that they started out in the Ice House, a century-old building next to Union Station. (The space was previously occupied by Anita's Crab Shackand Cucina Cucina.) By combining touches of art deco and art nouveau with the underlying palette of fussy, antique classicism, the architects and designers from Knauer Inc. (brought from Chicago) gave the restaurant a depth and an entirely artificial surface history that glows with the sort of attention that can only be lavished by the most obsessive connoisseurs.
"We didn't feel like we needed to dumb this down for Denver," Robert says when I ask him, simply, why? "We always tell people that we're not doing anything novel here," but rather trying to duplicate something that's been around for a hundred years. "Brasseries are loud places, full of energy, and we thought people were ready for this here," he explains. "We didn't want to Americanize anything."
And soon the Thompsons will be doing it again. Toward the end of January, their Atomic Cowboy will open next to the Bluebird Theater and across the street from Mezcal, which is expected to debut in mid-December. They plan to keep the spot simple, again looking to the past for inspiration, but this time focusing on this country's cultural history. Atomic Cowboy will be "a tavern," according to Robert. "Just a restaurant and a bar, with Mark Miller-style cowboy cooking," a Southwestern flavor, and some killer robots thrown in for good measure. "We like to tell people...what is it we like to tell people? It's going to be something like a cross between David Lynch's version of the Wild West and '50s America. How's that?"
Leftovers: Speaking of obsessive attention to detail, alert reader Rachel Watson points out that in the lead-in to my review of the Cream Puffery ("Do you believe in magic?," November 6), I improperly referred to the "Smoot-Hawley Act" -- which, as "any fan of Ferris Bueller's Day Off will tell you," says Watson, "is the Hawley-Smoot Act, and it did not work, [sinking] the U.S. deeper into the Depression."