By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Roeder's resumé also indicated unfulfilled potential: a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, time at Gray Kunz's Lespinasse and Seattle's Painted Table, stints locally at Q's, the Flagstaff House and Micole, his restaurant that opened in 2000 and closed two years later. Roeder had serious street cred as a hard-core French classicist with enough Zagat and Mobil stars on his shoulders to look like a battlefield general. And while no chef is ever magically immune from making bad food, when bad food keeps coming out of the kitchen of a cook who should know better, I have to wonder what's going wrong. By the time a chef has put in ten years knocking around haute-French kitchens, by the time he's opened and shut the first place where his name is on the menu, he's probably cooked 10,000 plates of trout amandine and could cook trout amandine in his sleep. So when the trout amandine is anything less than perfect, that's a sign of something gone seriously awry.
In Roeder's case, there were clues. When Bistro Vendome first opened, it was serving breakfast, lunch and dinner all week, with Sunday brunches thrown in -- a fine-dining recipe for cataclysmic burnout. By then, Roeder had been without a galley of his own for over a year, and kitchen work is just not the kind of thing you jump back into like you'd never left. It requires heavy readjustment to get back into the swing of things, and if you don't have a killer crew already set and in place, it's even harder.
All of this flavored my decision to wait, my belief that something good would come from Vendome -- an instinct wholly different from merciful reviewing silence.
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
And in this case, my instinct was right. Over the months, Roeder made decisions that finally got Vendome moving in the right direction. He dumped breakfast, then lunch. He extended his brunches to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A new manager and partner was brought into the mix -- Scott Tallman, late of Flow -- who ably whipped the front of the house into shape, leaving Roeder free to turn his attention to the back. And with time, these changes pulled the restaurant from the brink of what was looking like a nosedive into mediocrity, if not pure suck. Like the sculptor says, "I just looked at the stone and chipped away everything that wasn't a statue." At Vendome, Roeder and Tallman did the same thing, taking a long look and removing everything that wasn't a good restaurant.
So now, on a Saturday night, Bistro Vendome has that glow, that quality of warmth and joy and light that seems to flow through the front windows in wavelengths only visible to the gut and the subconscious. Where once I felt a culinary-death-ship vibe, now I know in my bones that the place has righted its course. I know this before I even step inside, as I hear other diners saying their goodbyes.
"Tell him everything was great, will you?"
"It was good, sooooo good. Tell the chef we can't wait to come back."
I hear those and a half-dozen more exclamations before I reach my seat. Pretty girls are walking by in a swoon, talking to random waitresses and busboys, sending their love back to the galley. Men are pumping Tallman's hand and offering their appreciation in tones of sudden, surprised reverence. In the small dining room -- where this time we're given a good table, far from the crash and tinkle of the bus station -- couples are spearing bites off each other's plates, closing their eyes, pitching woo over big, white bowls of fat mussels in curry cream, in a classic garlic beurre blanc, or steaming in a broth of saffron and vermouth.
I avoid the trout amandine in favor of a rabbit blanquette that's so classically, historically French that I fully expect it to jump up off my plate and surrender to the first German it runs into. The creamy white stew of mild, wine-braised shredded rabbit has the texture of a tuna casserole, but it's filled with deep and solidly balanced flavors of meat, salty cream, onion and garlic. It comes with sweet, glazed baby carrots and baby artichokes with their vegetable taste rather than their nutty character highlighted, all over a flaky biscuit that lends some bulk and a distinct soul-food flavor. Unfortunately, there are also three stalks of white asparagus on the plate that are undercooked, hard and fibrous.
We fill the table with mussels, with petit plats of good, tender green asparagus served cold with a spoonful of spicy rouille, with mashed red potatoes left chunky, touched with vinegar and topped with shreds of bacon and a fall of perfect crème fraîche. I devour an entire plate of Roeder's steak tartare -- caper-heavy and bloody, sweet and sour and salty all at the same time -- without sharing with anyone, then move on to steal bites from everyone else's plates. The menu offers duck breast with "cassoulet," and the preparation earned those quote marks, because the white beans had been tossed into the hot pan just before service instead of cooking for hours in a stew of onions and meat and stock. Still, they serve as a nice counterpoint to the tender duck that shines in a caramelized orange sauce. There's pork belly over field greens, a paillard of veal, and sugared, herbed frites with steak done three ways: classique, with a tiny tin cup of lemon and tarragon béarnaise; au poivre, with a green peppercorn sauce; and the wonderful Roquefort, sprinkled with bleu cheese and paired with a sweet port-wine reduction.