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French restaurants are hot - just not haute

In an interview a while back, architect Daniel Libeskind really said all there is to say about French food. He was talking a little about the work he did on the expansion of the Denver Art Museum — defending himself from the usual snoots and lunkheads — and a lot about his career in general, about what he was trying to accomplish with his art, about his tendency to create buildings that occasionally make people barf.

"The old and the new in constant conversation," was how he described it — with a turn of phrase that could be the smartest, most astute thing said about the custom and practice of French cuisine in years, even if it was said by an architect who wasn't talking about French food at all. C'est la vie...

Old and new in constant conversation? That's exactly what I found at Brasserie Felix (reviewed this week). The food is French farmhouse gone just marginally classy, paired with la cuisine nouvelle served without the pomp and (metaphoric) cannon fire that attended the invention of the original, as well as a few serious American affectations (ice in the drinks, burgers listed on the menu without the slightest hint of Gallic derision). Gilles Fabre, whose family owns restaurants in France, planned the restaurant with his wife, Danielle Diller, and was on hand to open it this summer — but Fabre left the States in September to see to some family issues and is not expected back anytime soon. Now Diller is the sole owner, and chef Jeff Cruse is in charge of the kitchen.

Felix stands at the geographic crux of the old and the new, in a section of the city in the throes of gentrification and hipster reinvention. For a couple of blocks, Tennyson Street has a kind of "Olde Towne" vitality without any of the "Olde Towne" kitsch (year-round Christmas shops and grandma-centric tchotchke stores). There are good bars here, as well as bike shops, coffeehouses, barbecue joints and Italian restaurants.

And another French spot. Not far from Felix is Indulge (4140 West 38th Avenue), which I reviewed three months ago and love completely out of proportion to its small space and beautifully understated menu. Chef William Wahl just put up his winter menu on December 8, and I die a little every time I read it. He still has the classics (the steak frites with mignonette, coldwater salmon with leek fondue aux lardons, coq au vin and the best duck in the city) but has added cream of roasted butternut squash soup with crème fraîche, and sweetbreads "Normande," with granny apples, oyster mushrooms and potato gnocchi.

But no matter when I drop by Indulge — even if it's just to press my nose up against the window like some Dickensian urchin hoping for a glimpse of roast goose — it always seems dead empty. And I have no idea why. Yes, the town has other French restaurants. Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) is good, no doubt about it, and Z Cuisine and À Côté (2239 and 2245 West 30th Avenue, respectively) are both amazing — but you almost have to compromise your morality to get a table, like by knifing the guy ahead of you in line. At Indulge, there's always a table available, and the French food is as good as (if not, on occasion, better than) anywhere else in town. So what are you waiting for?

Leftovers: Speaking of Le Central, owner Robert Tournier has just put up a new happy-hour menu specifically targeting gastronauts seriously strapped for cash. There's Merguez lamb sausage with harissa for $1.50, a plate of frites for the same amount — which means that, if you're willing to eat lunch late, for three bucks you can assemble the same plate I had at Brasserie Felix (less a pointless field greens salad), where I paid $12.95. Though Le Central has gone through oscillations of good and bad over the years, it happens to be on a wicked upswing right now, so take advantage. The deals run Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m., and I honestly believe Tournier is giving away the house simply because he loves nothing more than seeing his dining rooms full, hearing the happy buzz of crowds under his roof. And if it takes buck-fifty dessert plates (macaroons, meringues and sable cookies) to get people through the door, so be it.

Thinking about French restaurants got me thinking about French 250, the doppelgänger of every place like Le Central and Felix still struggling along, where frog's legs and caviar and champagne and three-bill dinners were the norm. But French 250 went dark a couple of months ago, and since then, its space at 250 Steele Street has been like a black hole of information: nothing able to escape.

So I called Jesse Morreale, whose Tambien occupies the spot right next door. "I haven't seen anything," Morreale said.

But then, he's been busy. He has a new hotel/retail/restaurant project going in at First and Broadway. And though the liquor-license application calls the project's restaurant Sketch, even Morreale isn't crazy enough to resurrect the concept that lived — and quickly died — in the space at 250 Steele Street that's now Tambien.

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