t's a good thing I can get a decent croque monsieur at Devil's Food Bakery (see review). Not a fantastic croque monsieur, mind you (I'm not crazy about how the kitchen's bechamel turns the house challah all spongy), but certainly decent, and with a side of excellent pommes frites.
It's a good thing that I can get steak frites there, too, and can go to Le Central (where two new imports -- the Frenchy, Mathias Rouvray, and Swiss-German Tobias Burkhalter -- have joined the line, both working sous to chef Yoann Lardeux) for my snails and trotters and big bowls of moules Provençal, or Aix for little plates of duck-confit crepes and torchons of foie gras.
It's a good thing that I have these options, because I can no longer get this stuff at Brasserie Rouge, which -- despite doing good business, despite several Best of Denver awards (including Best New Restaurant 2004), despite a mention just last month in Gourmet's "Where to Eat Right Now" restaurant guide -- closed last week. The place was open for dinner on Monday, and come Tuesday, nothing -- just a sign on the door saying the restaurant wouldn't be open for Tuesday lunch. Or ever again.
The sudden closure came as a shock to everyone who wasn't intimately involved with the day-to-day operation of Brasserie, but several insiders say they'd seen the end coming from a long way off.
Chef John Broening, who was at the restaurant when it opened in August 2003, tells me that he knew there would be problems within the first few months of business. Stefan Gonda -- Brasserie Rouge's original general manager, as well as a close friend of owners Robert and Leigh Thompson (he was best man at their wedding) and regional manager for the couple when they were still an interstate pool-hall powerhouse, focusing on booze-and-billiards operations like their local B-52 Billiards -- saw trouble ahead, too. He believes the restaurant could have been saved with a little more cash and a few cooler heads, but he bailed out himself after six or seven months of struggle -- and after almost a decade of working with the Thompsons.
During Brasserie Rouge's last few months, there was a massive exodus of high-level staff, with replacement GMs quitting or getting fired, and AGMs, bar managers and office managers walking out. There were financial problems (not enough butts in the seats for the books to come out ahead), personal problems (of the standard Kitchen Confidential variety), and a host of troubles built into the Rouge space and business plan -- including, but certainly not limited to, a crippling rent, total dependence on bar profits to float kitchen costs, and a poorly negotiated payback scheme between the Thompsons and their majority partner. No single thing -- not simply a lack of customers, or an unwise arrangement of the dining room, or wild overspending in the startup, or failures in management, in planning, in responsible ownership -- spelled doom for Brasserie Rouge. In the end, it was a combination of everything, a final, fatal summing up of all of these, that did the place in.
Despite everything, Broening, who's on the lookout for a fresh start, says he derived a lot of satisfaction from his Brassiere Rouge experience. "I love my crew," he says. "I loved my kitchen. To me, the real joy of the experience was being able to do everything from scratch, was cultivating this great kitchen staff. Even if it had been run tighter, I think the place would still be in trouble now. But this was a very positive experience for me. I had a great time. And now, it's a relief in the way that getting out of a bad relationship is a relief."
No word yet on what will happen with the space. Three blocks away, at 1920 Market Street, B-52 is still packing in the crowds, as is the Atomic Cowboy, the bar the Thompsons opened at 3237 East Colfax Avenue this summer.
Return of the Junk Food Angel: "Here, have a doughnut."
"Have a doughnut. You look like you could use one."
"What's wrong with them?"
"There's nothing wrong with them. They're doughnuts. They're good."
"Are you selling them?"
"No. I'm trying to give you a doughnut. I have a dozen of them. Go ahead and pick one."
"Because I am the Junk Food Angel, and that's what I do."
Which means a lot coming from a guy who, before I approached him, was haranguing the pigeons on the sidewalk in front of the Denver Public Library for talking too loud.
It's not easy being the Junk Food Angel. People these days have no trust, no love in their hearts for a slightly scruffy restaurant critic wandering the streets with a box of warm doughnuts in his arms, trying to spread a little joy on a crappy, cold November morning.
I first took on the guise of Junk Food Angel a year ago, when a sudden and unexpected pang of conscience stopped me from carrying out a plan to taunt PETA protesters picketing outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise with buckets of hot, Extra Tasty Crispy chicken. Because there were so few of them -- and because they were being so damned polite -- I simply didn't have the heart to shower them with The Colonel's finest, tempting the weak-willed with hot chicken on another cold and miserable November day. So instead, I took my game to the streets and handed out fried chicken to all the homeless people I could find up and down 13th Avenue. Although I ran out of chicken long before I ran out of hungry street folk, they were happy, I was happy, and because I certainly wasn't going to eat any of it, this was an excellent way to unload a lot of greasy, awful crap without letting it go to waste.
This time, though, I had doughnuts. And I love doughnuts, so it was a wholly selfless act on my part to walk the streets (okay, just one street, Broadway, and only a couple blocks of it), passing out warm pastries to those I felt were in need. The doughnuts in question were from a new joint, Glazed and Confuzed Doughnuts, at the corner of 16th and Broadway, opened two months ago by Elliott Vigil, who makes the kind of doughnuts we'd all make if someone gave us the keys to the factory. "It's the stuff you'd always want to make when you were playing in the kitchen as a kid," Vigil says, with the voice of a man who knows he has the best job in the world. "The stuff your mom always told you you couldn't."
That translates into eggnog doughnuts and crushed-up candy-cane doughnuts for the holidays, caramel-injected Heath Bar doughnuts, banana fritters, cherry- and chocolate-filled glazed doughnuts, lemon-drop doughnut holes, and Glazed and Confuzed's own version of a Devil's Food doughnut, the dough made with espresso instead of water and the final product crusted with crushed espresso beans.
I'd been wanting to sample Vigil's wares for a few weeks -- to discover what a man who, by his own admission, knows absolutely nothing about doughnuts could make with a team of expert bakers and an industrial kitchen capable of pumping out more than 200 dozen doughnuts a day. Trouble was, a man -- even a man with my significant appetite and love of doughnuts -- can only eat so many crullers and fritters and long johns in a day, and my belly was nowhere near big enough to keep up with Glazed and Confuzed's output. The solution? I would take to the streets once more as the Junk Food Angel and collect the opinions of John and Jane Q. Public, while at the same time brightening the day of those on whom I chose to bestow my beneficence.
I bought a dozen and a half at the counter -- a good mix of standard glazed, hand-crafted fruit-filleds, and Vigil's so-called "Freak of Nature" doughnuts, along with two fresh cherry-filled glazed and a DazBog tallboy for myself -- and then began my mission. Right outside the shop, I found a youngish fellow carefully decanting a hipper of peppermint schnapps into a half-cup of Starbucks coffee. I asked him if he wanted a doughnut to go with his morning pick-me-up, and he told me to go fuck myself.
Rule number one: Abuse the Junk Food Angel and it's no doughnuts for you.
Next there was Eddie, whom I met at the bus stop when he stepped out in front of me and simply demanded a doughnut from my stash. I thought this a bit rude, but when I opened the box and watched him remove his old gloves and carefully lift his prize from within -- being oh so prudent so as not to touch any of the other doughnuts surrounding his choice -- I knew Eddie was okay.
"So what do you think?" I asked as he gobbled the thing down.
"Mustache," he said.
"No, it gets stuck in my mustache." Which was both true and disgusting: The doughnut's glaze frosted his whiskers like ice on a caterpillar.
"'S good, though. You selling these?"
"No, just giving them away," I said, my eye already on the next lucky mark.
I gave a sugar-dusted cherry-filled to a grumpy-looking goth kid slumping down the street, trying to look pissed off at the world. One bite, and he couldn't help smiling. And I couldn't stop laughing at the fall of white confectioner's sugar all over his squeaky black vinyl shirt and sixteen-eye black-leather stompers. Two businesswomen sneaking a shivering smoke beside the library enjoyed the iced orange and lemon doughnuts, then offered me five bucks for the remainder of my dozen. I turned them down, explaining that the Junk Food Angel is above such influences of base commerce.
"The Junk Food Angel. Me."
"You should wear a cape."
The pigeon man was next, and he refused my offer of free doughnuts, obviously suspecting the Junk Food Angel of trying to poison him. A bum screaming at the traffic passing on Colfax also refused, but only because I had no plain glazed left: Beggars apparently can be choosers. The bike courier waiting on the corner of 13th and Broadway took a sugared twist and sped off. I managed to unload all of my doughnuts before reaching 10th and Broadway, and most people seemed to like them. Actually, I think they liked the idea of a man walking the streets of Denver passing out free doughnuts more than they cared for the doughnuts themselves, and almost no one thanked the Junk Food Angel for his selfless commitment to the joy of his fellow man, but what can I say? My fellow men are mostly a bunch of jerks.
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As for the highly unofficial results of my on-the-street taste test, of the eleven doughnuts I managed to give away in the six blocks between Glazed and Confuzed and the Westword office, four (two flavored glazed and two plain glazed) were met with what I would consider overwhelming satisfaction: smiles, that blissful roll of the eyes and offers of cold, hard cash. Another four were sampled with little or no comment. One made a goth kid smile. One (a fruit-filled with the filling bursting out the top) was said to be too big to be eaten one-handed. And only one person said she preferred Krispy Kreme, and that person's vote should really be discounted, because she already had a McDonald's bag in her hands and so was obviously not possessed of the kind of discriminating palate I expect to find in Denverites wandering the streets of downtown with nothing better to do at nine o'clock in the morning than take free doughnuts from a stranger.
Leftovers: Brasserie Rouge isn't the only restaurant to surrender. Max Burgerworks, the restaurant at 15th and Lawrence streets that never really found its footing in a year-plus of business ("The Kid's Not All Right," January 1), closed this past weekend. Going into that spot will be a second Zaidy's Deli, which owner Gerard Rudofsky (who was involved with Max, too) is bringing back to downtown after removing the eatery to Cherry Creek a decade ago. (The Zaidy's at 121 Adams will stay put.) Also moving downtown is the excellent Cafe Berlin ("You're Darn Teuton," June 5, 2003). After dinner on Saturday, November 20, it will abandon its East 17th Avenue location, and at some unspecified later date (probably within a few weeks), will reopen in new digs at 323 14th Street, the former home of Sage Southwestern Grill -- which lasted less than a year there after moving downtown from Littleton -- and, long before that, the original Zaidy's! And still on the Teutonic beat, Helga's (728 Peoria Street) has a new menu and a new booze board featuring all German beers and wines.
After trying to get his hands on the place for years, Tom Marabito of Bruno's Italian Bistro finally picked up the old Holly Inn (2223 South Monaco), just two doors down from Bruno's. He completely remodeled the space to give it a lighter, more airy feel, and added a separate bar with a stained-glass bar top as well as a big fountain in the middle of the dining room. Two months ago it opened as La Fontana, a Southwestern-themed joint featuring burritos, rellenos, chipotle-spiked ribs and stuffed chicken in jalapeño cream sauce.
WaterCourse Foods has also made a lateral expansion, opening WaterCourse Foods Bakery in the former clothing store next door to the vegetarian eatery at 206 East 13th Avenue. The bakery services WaterCourse the restaurant while also doing its own retail business, providing both vegan desserts (no eggs, no cream, no butter, but plenty of tofu) and more traditional pastries. The Celtic Tavern, at 1801 Blake Street, also expanded sideways, opening a new spot named Delaney's one door down at 1805. While more or less just another Erin-Go-Brewski McDrinkery, Delaney's has more of a sports-bar vibe, according to the management. Up in Niwot, chef Dale Lamb and his crew at Le Chantecler are opening up the Bader House next door for catering, big parties and special events.