By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
No matter how many bodies you pack inside, some restaurants are always going to be as cold and sterile as a surgical pre-op, where voices seem to evaporate into wisps of cold before they can travel across the length of a table, and even a surfeit of love won't stop the lucky couple on the third date in the back booth from pausing halfway through their entrees of sea bass and ahi and thinking to themselves that maybe this whole relationship isn't going as well as they'd thought it was.
But there are also restaurants that miraculously exude warmth and life and comfort no matter the condition of the floor. These are the rare ones, as extraordinary as real magic, where the house — despite a lack of trade, of buzz, of superficial action — subsists on a sort of rich inner life, a passion that flows outward from the kitchen, through the bar, to suffuse even just a few tables, even just one, with the sense that everything is going to be all right. Despite all evidence to the contrary.
Indulge French Bistro is one of these magical places.
4140 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Friday night before the Democratic National Convention hit town, bringing with it cops and roadblocks, protesters and the press, I decided to enjoy the calm before the storm at Indulge. But I certainly never expected this eight-month-old restaurant to be so very calm. I wasn't the only person in the dining room, but it was close — a couple in the back, some friends at the bar. Stephanie, wife of chef William Wahl, was working the front. When I noted how slow it was, her eyes went wide, "I know!" she said, lilting English, heavily accented with French. The house had done five tables, maybe seven, before I arrived, she told me. I asked how business was normally, and she shrugged — dismissing not just this one, odd night, but all of them. "Eh," she said. "Busier. Early, late. This is...unusual."
I sat down and ordered a glass of Vidal Fleury Côtes du Rhône, which came promptly — apparently I appeared to be a man badly in need of a drink. On the menu, the chilled tomato-lemongrass broth with blue-crab salad looked enticing, the potage vichyssoise with white truffle oil (a potato-and-leek soup, made best with scapes, served warm) too heavy for the end of a long, hot day. But a simple salad of mixed baby greens, reduced balsamic and oil seemed too basic, so I went with the prosciutto and melon. Besides, I figured that even a house possibly crippled by inactivity couldn't do too much damage with cured meat and fruit.
I needn't have worried, though. In fact, I should've been bolder. But even this straightforward plate — cantaloupe, trimmed and cut into wedges, topped with a fall of chives, chopped prosciutto and a port-wine reduction as sweet and smooth as spoons of liquid candy — was lovely, showing a command of flavor and talent that can only be demonstrated in the simplest ways, with ingredients that are the very best they can be.
Port is a digestive, normally sipped at the end of a meal. But for me it's a goad to the appetite, like balsamic vinegar or bitter greens. So now I was starving. My server, attentive to every shifting mood of a meal, cleared my plate, topped my water, gave me a moment to step outside for a cigarette, then brought a beautiful filet of salmon, perfectly crisped in butter, butter and more butter until the surface had turned brown as the burnt sugar of a crème brûlée and the flesh within meltingly soft. This was balanced against a ridge of leek fondue aux lardons (the green leek tips softened in more butter, punctuated by bits of soft bacon, flavors smoothed with the silky salt-and-blood tang of bacon fat) and footed by three perfectly turned potatoes speckled with chive. Who does a tournée on a night this slow? A kitchen that does not acknowledge the difference between a full book and an empty one.
Serving dinner for one is as important as doing the same for a multitude. Absent all considerations of circumstance, every single diner deserves the absolute best from everyone involved: This is the essence of professional service, of French service in particular, the core truth that makes being a servant a noble calling. "Servant" is a dirty word in this country. In this dining room, though, it is not.
I had crème brûlée for dessert — classically presented, fresh fruit on top. The tiny, local blueberries had been split in half to prevent them from rolling around the top of the brûlée — by hand, to order. By the time I was finished, I was the only customer remaining in the house.
"Bonsoir," Stephanie said as I made for the door. "Thank you."
"Bon chance," I replied, and she smiled — standing at the bar, amid the perfectly arranged emptiness of a floor with an hour left to go before closing.