How was everything?"
The server was looking at me expectantly, eyes flicking to the half-eaten plate of spaghetti, thick noodles lying listless in a lumpy tomato sauce that was beginning to separate, orange grease coagulating on the surface.
I looked up. "Fine," I said, giving the restaurant code word for not bad enough to send back, but not worth a "Good" or "Great," either.
Lou's Food Bar
1851 West 38th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Lou's Food Bar
Rillettes du jour $6
Country pt $8
Provenal pt $7
Chasseur pt $8
Beef carpaccio $11
Sausages $13 each
Fried chicken $16
I was at Lou's Food Bar, the restaurant that Frank Bonanno opened late last December, throwing open the doors for fans who rushed in for housemade sausage, charcuterie and what the restaurateur was calling roadhouse fare informed by a seasonal French influence. He'd put this concept into the former home of Ron & Dan's Keg, an open, awkward room that was given a minimal makeover, in shades of gray with cement floors, dark wood and red cursive lettering on the walls. The bar dominates half of Lou's, sharing space with a couple of wall-hugging booths; tables fill in the rest of the blocky dining area, one corner of which is designated for the charcuterie station, where an aproned chef slices cured meat, cheese and pâté.
A group of friends and I had stopped by on a warm April night, eager to continue the jovial vibe of the happy hour where we'd all met up. When we piled into Lou's, the staff hadn't missed a beat, pulling together some tables and quickly setting us up with bottles of wine, chosen from the comprehensive list after our server delivered an efficient spiel and savvy recommendations. But then, over the four months I'd been visiting Lou's, service had never been a problem; the front-of-the-house staff is invariably savvy and smooth. The problems have been in the back. And as I watched that half-eaten plate of spaghetti head back through the swinging doors into the kitchen, I recognized that even Frank Bonanno could be bowled over by a boring meatball.
Ten years ago, after a long stint with Mel Master, Bonanno and his late partner, Doug Fleischman, had opened Mizuna, an inventive fine-dining spot with a focus on seasonality that's still one of this town's best restaurants. Bonanno scored again a couple of years later with Luca d'Italia, an Italian joint just around the corner. In late 2007, he debuted Osteria Marco in a dingy Larimer Square basement, immediately transforming a subterranean space that had held a series of disappointing restaurants into another bright spot. A year later, he gave Denver Bones, one of my favorite restaurants in the city, which marries the Japanese noodle house concept with French flavor combinations. This wasn't a new idea, but Bonanno did it well — and as David Chang recently noted, being a restaurateur is a lot like being a fashion designer: Most recycle and rework instead of actually creating something new. Along the way, Bonanno made a few missteps with Milagro Taco Bar and Harry's Chop House, but overall, as his empire grew, it just got better.
And then he opened Lou's.
The first time I stopped in to eat at Lou's was one of the coldest nights of the winter. I nabbed a bar booth and ordered a couple of sausages and the spaghetti and meatballs, which sounded like it might ward off the chill. But the dish left me cold. While I appreciated the fat, chewy, hollow strands of pasta, they'd been drowned under a gloppy red sauce that had an almost metallic taste. And not only were the spongy, mealy meatballs underseasoned, but I could find no evidence of the homemade mozzarella they were supposedly stuffed with.
The sausages were more disappointing, because they're supposed to be a house speciality. Based on my server's recommendation, I'd gone with the Thai pork and duck on green curried potatoes and the Merguez, made with lamb and mint and plated on a pile of couscous. Like the meatballs, though, these were limp, loose and surprisingly mild. I'd expected ground meat stuffed in taut casings that would drool juice when pierced; instead, the overcooked, dry sausages had already been cut in quarters. There was no juice, and little taste. I couldn't detect much mint in the Merguez, and the Thai pork and duck carried not even a hint of cumin. I was still hunting for flavor when I heard my name, and my stomach dropped.
"Thanks for coming in, Laura," the manager said. "How is everything?"
Soon after Lou's opened, I'd gone in for a cocktail and encountered a beverage manager for the entire group of Frank Bonanno restaurants, someone I'd met at cocktail contests before I got this job. He rarely works the bar, and had just stopped in to see how the bartenders at Lou's were doing before he headed over to Osteria Marco — but first, he pointed me out to the manager. Now that manager was greeting me by name, asking me how my meal was.
"Fine," I muttered. But since it clearly wasn't, he picked up a round — just as any good manager might do for any dissatisfied customer, even those who aren't busted restaurant reviewers.
After that, I stayed away for a month, in hopes that the manager would forget my face and the kitchen would work out the kinks. When I returned with a companion, we grabbed a table in the dining room and decided to try another sausage — this time the turkey with grilled summer vegetables. Although the meat was more tightly packed, the sausage was still overcooked and dry, and served over a bed of slimy sautéed zucchini strips — what passed for "summer" in mid-March. If I'd been recognized again, the kitchen wasn't doing me any favors with this dish. But our meal took a decided turn for the better with the escargot: supple snails, coated with Gruyère, in an escargot dish filled with a warm lake of garlicky butter. The fried chicken was another decadent delight: A delicate buttermilk crust, golden and crisp, had kept the leg and breast moist; a side of creamy, rich whipped potatoes played well against the coarse texture of the bird.
This time, when the amiable (and eagle-eyed) manager popped up again and asked about the meal, I could say "Fine" with cautious optimism.
A month later, I returned with that happy-hour group, one large enough for us to try much of the menu. From the charcuterie list, we ordered the Provençal pâté made with chicken liver, the pork country pâté, the chasseur pâté of rabbit and chicken, and a smoked trout rillette, a special that day. The smoky, salty fish, whipped smooth, was the only preparation that distinguished itself. The pâtés were dry and crumbly, with no hints of gaminess or iron or velvety fat, which I expect in the soft sausage; they all tasted suspiciously similar to one another, which meant like nothing at all. I could have just spread the mustards served on the side on the crunchy toast and been as happy.
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But the beef carpaccio was wonderful: translucent slices of cured beef dusted with a whisper of parmesan, a drizzle of olive oil and a handful of arugula, which added a fresh, green bite. We'd ordered fried chicken, and it was just as good as it had been before. I was also pleasantly surprised by the meatloaf: a dense, moist mass of pork and beef imbued with the flavor of pungent onions and topped with creamy gravy. Paired with the same buttery potatoes that came with the fried chicken, it was the very essence of comfort food.
Inspired, I decided to give my original order at Lou's another try. The spaghetti and meatballs had improved, but not enough. And the sausage — venison cheddar this time — was just as poorly constructed as all of the previous versions. Although the sausages are a house specialty at Lou's, there is nothing special about them. Yet.
And then, as I looked over the check — the food may not reflect Bonanno's reputation, but the pricing does — our server asked how the meal was.
For a Frank Bonanno restaurant, "fine" just isn't good enough.