French 250 is a fascinating place, unlike any French restaurant I've been to before. Yes, it's fancy, and terribly expensive (I dropped about $120 on my solo dinner with only two glasses of wine). And yet it's still comfortable, relaxing, almost homey. The service is informative and informal, the kitchen quick and accurately on point with almost every dish, and though I'm not crazy about the TVs hanging above the bar, there's a grown-up conviviality to the space that feels downright foreign when juxtaposed with the foie gras, the loup de mer and coquilles St. Jacques. I'm accustomed to feeling like the Jew at Catholic mass when I buckle up for the full three-hour ride at a fine French restaurant. My personal history with the cuisine aside, I still feel as though I've somehow snuck in, bluffed my way onto the floor and into the adult world.
But not at French 250. And after eating there and making some calls, I discovered that my fast fondness for the restaurant wasn't the only unusual thing about French 250.
For starters, the guy who's doing PR for French 250 is state senator Bob Hagedorn. Trying to get a little background, I'd called for the owner, Ted Reece, but was told by a manager that "Bob handles that," and he gave me Bob's number. I didn't know I'd been handed a lawmaker's cell-phone number. All I knew was that when I called Bob and he said he couldn't talk to me right then, I was pissed. I mean, why wouldn't a restaurant PR guy want to talk to the critic who was writing a review of his client?
Well, come to find out that Bob had much more important things to be worrying about — namely, senatorial business and the welfare of his peeps in the 29th District. And when I called him back the next day, Hagedorn was very amiable and forthcoming about how, exactly, he'd gotten mixed up in the grimy world of restaurant PR. "Ted and I are friends who go back," he explained. "We have the same cynical sense of humor." They've been buddies since their days at the University of Colorado journalism school, and when Reece's first PR person didn't work, he asked Hagedorn, who has experience in both public relations and public policy, to step in.
"Fifteen years, I've had to tolerate going out to lunch with Ted as he dissects every friggin' place we go to," Hagedorn told me, laughing. Even so, he was happy to do a favor for his friend.
Here's another weird thing: Reece is new to the restaurant business — except for that time when he was fifteen and worked at the Tiffin House, then about the fanciest restaurant Denver had. He spent the intervening years in the printing business and dabbling in real estate. But he always had a passion for food. "I always wanted to see if I could do a very fine French cuisine restaurant," he told me when I finally got him on the phone.
Normally, when I hear something like that from an owner, I immediately start looking around for someone to take my bet on how long the place is going to last. And I'm always betting low. Like weeks, not months or years. And yet here we are: Ted Reece has managed to not only make an excellent restaurant on his first attempt, but he's made an excellent haute French restaurant — which, on the scale of impossible things, ranks pretty near the top. It's like becoming a walk-on starter for the Yankees or winning the Dakar Rally in a $50 Fiat you bought from your cousin.
Seven months out from his opening, it was amazing that we were even having this conversation. "Look," he explained. "I wanted to find a way to do what I love to do: spend three or four hours at dinner. It's a passion, not something I'm going to retire on. I'm living my dream." He paused briefly, chuckled. "And throwing a lot of money away, too."
A third weird thing: Reece's executive chef is Jeremy Thomas, last seen as chef at the execrable Ship Tavern. I savaged that Brown Palace institution last July, taking it apart dish by dish and giving a pass only to some of the more traditional seafood preparations. And Thomas just happened to be the chef in charge when I ate my review meals there. He'd originally come on as chef tournant at the Palace Arms, but had been quote/unquote promoted to the top-dog position at the Ship shortly after. When Thomas told me this, I just about died.
"Are you kidding me?" I said. "I reviewed the Ship and hated it. How did you go from doing jalapeño poppers to doing this?"
With considerably more aplomb than I was showing, Thomas answered: "Hotels are different, man. There's so much politics with the menu."
And this, of course, is true. At a hotel, one must be all things to all people. One must cook the motherfucking jalapeño poppers with a smile on one's face no matter how much it kills one to do so. But Thomas was also a classically trained chef. In the years before he'd ended up at the ass-end of the industry doing cheeseburgers and fisherman's stew for day-trippers, he'd worked at the Tivoli Deer, at Sacre Bleu. He'd earned his stripes. And when the time came for him to interview for the top gig at French 250, he did it by cooking for Reece.
"His interview was a six-course French meal," Reece told me. "And I did what I always do: I sat down and ate. After that, I knew this was someone I could work with."
Not only that, but this was someone Reece could spend money on. At French 250, Thomas has a proper brigade — two chefs de cuisine (Jonathan Brown and Chuck James) and a full line beneath them. And Reece is looking at putting in a new kitchen to replace the one that's been there since the days when this space held Bistro Adde Brewster.
"Sixteen more burners," Reece said. "Three more ovens, one of those double burners for making demi. It takes them 48 hours to do a demi in there." He explained that Thomas had said there was no need for a grill in the kitchen, no need for anything, really, except more fire — because everything in the classical French canon can be cooked with nothing more than pots, pans, burners and ovens. And Thomas was right.
Reece was lucky to find the right chef at the start, but he's had to make other changes at the restaurant. The PR person, for example. And he brought in a new sommelier, who's improved the wine list, about a week before I visited. The menu will change soon, too — for the third time since the place opened last August, in a seasonal adjustment that hasn't exactly been seasonal.
But who cares? As the menu's evolved, it's become evenly divided between dishes Reece loves — the frogs' legs, the French onion soup, some of the more sturdy Provençal plates — and dishes that Thomas has always wanted to cook. Their partnership is a good one, the split between back-of-the-house and management just deep enough that both sides can do what they do best. And the result, weird as it is, works just beautifully.
Leftovers: Last week saw the opening of Second Home in the old Mirepoix space at 150 Clayton Lane, inside the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek. Second Home is another concept by the Sage Restaurant Group, the gang that gave Denver the Corner Office, which I raved about last November. This time around, rather than going for the sexy, Mad Men-style banging-your-secretary vibe, Sage stuck a little closer to home and came up with a comfort-food concept that should make a mint in this space where, toward the end, chef Bryan Moscatello couldn't give away his vegetable-centric, haute New American grub. In contrast, Second Home's menu features pizzas, hangar steak, battered baby artichokes, specials of buttermilk fried chicken and New England fry-ups of cod, clams and sweet corn fritters.
Fleeing Cherry Creek, a couple of former Brix bartenders have opened Dougherty's, a heavy-drinking Irish pub at 5 East Ellsworth Avenue, which is already infamous for its biweekly Big Lebowski-themed party, complete with cheap White Russians and a bus trip to a bowling alley. When I talked to Wes Ingram, one of the joint's owners, he explained that they've been offering the "Sunday Afternoon Lebowski League" under the code name Sally.
"So, what?" I asked. "You've got to know the code word to get in?"
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"No," Ingram said. "People just call it that. I don't really know why."
The way it works, the bar pours $3 white Russians while the first half of the movie plays. Then everyone piles into the Rasta Bus for the ride to Elitch Lanes, where they roll two games, and then everyone gets back into the bus and returns to Dougherty's, where they "continue to toss back a few libations," Ingram explained. "It's way too much fun."
The next Sally is March 23; give the bar a call at 303-777-5210 for details.
"We get enough people," Ingram promised, "maybe we'll have to rent a second bus!"