Between its answering-machine message, its local advertising and the way staff members drop the news every chance they get, Sacre Bleu wants to make it clear that the place is under new ownership and new management. And -- mon Dieu! -- that seems to have made all the difference.
When Sacre Bleu opened two years ago, it touted itself as something exciting, even unique for Denver diners ("Good God!," July 13, 2000). But it turned out that some diners were getting a little too excited, sometimes in the eatery's large bar, with its plushly upholstered booths and mirrored tables, to the point where locals started referring to it as "Sacre Blow." By the time owner Julie Payne threw the thing back at her ex-husband, Michael Payne, Sacre Bleu seemed to be on its way down the toilet like a Baggie in a drug bust.
But Payne has slowly, patiently, built the staff and clientele back up, first by hiring Hamilton Cowie to run the kitchen and assemble a more reasonably priced menu of upscale New American cuisine, then by bringing in Jeff Chow, a diplomat's diplomat, to run the front of the house.
I watched that staff in action on a recent Friday evening, when the bar area nearly overflowed into the dining room, and the dining room, at 6:40 p.m., was completely empty. (By the time I left, the situation had reversed.) I chose my table, a two-top in the middle of the room, so I could do some people-watching of the bar crowd -- many of whom seemed to be taking advantage of Sacre Bleu's new, grazing-oriented bar menu -- but Chow quickly came over to ask if he could move me to a better table. He then spent the rest of the evening making sure every subsequent customer was happy, including an older gentleman who'd asked to be seated at a table instead of in the smoky bar to drink his martini.
I certainly was happy with everything, starting with a very generous portion of seared foie gras -- officially the largest in town, and believe me, I've had them all -- that arrived atop a pile of Port-poached pears, all floating in a satiny, sweet Poire William demi-glace made from the pear-enhanced liqueur. And it was a savvy move on the part of my server, Sara, to recommended a half glass of Sauternes with the duck liver. (Sara, by the way, had worked at Sacre Bleu during the old regime and has returned now that things have settled down.) I was just as delighted with a bowl of smooth, perfumey butternut-squash soup augmented by a purée of chestnuts and sage-flecked croutons: Chow told me the real secret was in the vanilla bean Cowie used in the stock. My entree, flawlessly grilled salmon sitting on a toasty cake of sushi rice, boasted a flavor combination worthy of superlatives. The liquid around the fish and rice was a lemon-tart nage (a court bouillon used to cook the fruit) whose tartness was made stronger and even sweeter by the addition of bursting-ripe cherry tomatoes.
But the finale was the topper, one of the best molten-centered chocolate cakes I've ever tested. Less cakey shell and more gooey center than most, it was like eating pudding crafted from fine chocolate.
My God, it was good.
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