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Three months. For most critics, that's the amount of time that must pass before a brand-new restaurant is considered fair game for a review. Ostensibly, three months should be long enough for a place to survive its opening jitters, find a true tone and voice, and get a good set of legs under it. During that time, the kitchen should have winnowed down its original menu and ditched any dogs -- those plates that look great on paper but never really work -- and management should have let go of any losers who couldn't hack the daily grind of regular service.
1420 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Steak tartare: $11
Mashed potatoes: $5
Chilled asparagus: $6
Trout amandine: $17
Duck breast: $19
Rabbit blanquette: $17
Steak frites, all varieties: $19
All through my time in The Life -- during the dozen years I spent on one side of the swinging doors and the handful I've now had on the other -- I've seen every extreme of what can happen in those first ninety days. Whole staffs fired, chefs' menus scrapped and reworked by committee (certain death for any restaurant that doesn't take its orders through a giant clown head on a pole), owners who've suffered major nervous breakdowns and blown every dime of operating capital on a red MG convertible and enough Bolivian marching powder to send them straight into bankruptcy arbitration. I once opened and ran a kitchen that, in the course of its first three months, went from French to French-Asian to Asian-Southwestern to (no lie) Gourmet magazine's best recipes of 1987. By the time the first critic arrived, I was cooking a menu that looked like a psychotic lawn fete for foreign-service diplomats: melon balls and prosciutto in sugar-cane syrup, cucumber-bean sprout canapés, Balinese shrimp satay, cold rosemary chicken in bourbon mustard sauce and mustard ham custards -- all served in a cafe with posterized van Gogh lithographs on the walls and freaky Middle Eastern pop on the stereo. We never got a review, just a phone call from the critic saying there was no point. And she was right. The place was a hair salon before its six-month anniversary.
In the restaurant world, three months is both a blink and a lifetime. In Denver, there have been restaurants that never saw their ninetieth night of service (Bistro 250); ones that did but were so clearly doomed that you could almost hear the life-support machinery beeping in the background (Aquarela); still others that three months out bore almost no resemblance to how they'd started (Flow). And while three months is as acceptable a standard as any, it's also totally arbitrary. There are some houses that come right out of the gate doing the kind of excellent work for which they're known forever after, and some that limp along for months, going nowhere, until somehow -- for reasons known only to the food gods and their minions here on earth -- they begin to glow with that special kind of light that only spills from a restaurant that has suddenly, sometimes inexplicably, found its groove.
For Bistro Vendome, it took a year almost to the day from its opening last April.
Had I reviewed this restaurant at its three-month mark, I would have written something like this: "Chef Eric Roeder's little bistro-that-couldn't is a waste. Of space, of talent, of potential, but most of all, it's a waste of time. From the staff that barely manages to bumble its dopey way through service, to plate after plate of dull French cruise-ship fare only notable for the way that the kitchen manages to tragically mishandle at least one ingredient in every single presentation, dinner here isn't much more than an overpriced exercise in deliberate self-abuse. In the mood for a nice French lunch? You'd be better served by one of the new chicken baguette sandwiches at Burger King."
I know that's what I would have written because that's what I did write. I found that little nettle in my notes a while back, scribbled down on the back of a Bistro Vendome credit-card slip along with some cryptic reference to the steak frites. My meal there was awful, but chef/owner Eric Roeder was trying so hard that I decided to give him more time.
At around the seven-month mark, I dropped by again for a solo dinner. Although the place was half empty, I was seated at a table next to a busser's station; I was brought the wrong wine; my trout amandine was overcooked and bitter with a mismatched vinaigrette. And then -- because adding insult to injury is such a good business practice -- I had to wait for my check. There's just nothing like suffering through a mediocre dinner at a lousy table and then being made to wait for the privilege of paying for it. I figured my server was busy updating his resumé.
Still, I held my tongue. Or my pen, anyway. What stopped me -- what kept stopping me -- was a niggling, back-brain itch that said the place had promise, but its potential kept getting tripped up by rookie mistakes.
For starters, there was the beautiful, understated space, all warm mustard and candlelight, not overly Frenched-up but not Left Bank theme restaurant, either. Tucked into a quiet corner behind Larimer Square with a chalkboard pointing the way, a picturesque patio and views of a peaceful garden square and the display window of a Vespa dealership, Bistro Vendome boasted one of the greatest restaurant addresses in the city -- hidden enough to feel isolated from the Saturday-night scrum, welcoming enough to feel like a spot you've stumbled on accidentally, even if you've just spent twenty minutes fighting for parking and looking for the entrance. Although Roeder initially said his place was "designed to evoke the look and feel of a long-established, family-owned bistro plucked from a Parisian street corner," you didn't feel moved to Paris when you stepped through the doors, but rather like you'd walked into a drop-dead lovely American restaurant that had made good use of every physical advantage and happened to serve French food.
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