Although it's certainly not fair for a critic to review a restaurant after only two weeks of operation, there's no law against dropping in for a bite, then writing about the place. And I just couldn't help myself after reading an advertisement for The International, an intriguing venture that calls itself "a little bit of Paris in Denver" and offers round-trip limousine service (for $5 per person) from anywhere in the city to a historic old bungalow--on West 26th Avenue just east of Federal, of all places.
To top it off, the restaurant promises bouillabaise, couscous, chateaubriand, paella and a host of high-end dishes from, as the ad and menu both claim, seven countries (I hope Louisiana doesn't find out that Creole is now a country). And all this in a Bud-and-bowl-of-green neighborhood.
Still, we figured limo, bouillabaise--let's get dressed up. And so we waited expectantly one recent Friday when...up pulled a Cadillac Seville. One person had to sit in front with the fortunately friendly driver, who discussed the weather and impending Rockies opener. As we got out of the car, he said, "Make sure you get the chef to play the piano for you."
A host led us past a beautiful 1931 Starr piano into one of the bungalow's many small rooms, where we sat at a lovely, blue-linen-clad table surrounded by...plastic lawn chairs. As I looked around, I started to feel better about my own house. An endearing waiter tried to offer us a bottle of wine but could not say "Beaujolais villages" to save his life. We helped him. He then proceeded to tell us that the "moules mariniere" appetizer really meant "calamari," but that the kitchen was out of it, anyway. Instead, he brought us a complimentary order of fabulous, buttery, lemony escargots.
As we looked around, we tried to figure out what exactly was going on. Friends had told me that this building once housed the original La Loma, as well as later Mexican and Chinese joints; to say that this is an odd spot to find upscale dining is a gross understatement. The owner would provide little explanation for public consumption--not even her name, because she says she's going through a messy divorce; I can tell you who she is in thirty days. Until then, all you need to know is that she's an American-born woman raised in Paris who has owned a well-known restaurant in a very sunny state. She trained in classical music, has lived in North Africa, Vietnam, Germany, Austria and Switzerland (but not Creole) and is better known in Denver as an entertainer than a chef.
Is she afraid of trying such an ambitious venture in such an unlikely neighborhood? "No," she says. And how did she pick the location? "I liked the house," she says.
We ate a lot of food (which I'm not going to critique, since we're following the rules here) but skipped dessert ("We have plain cheesecake, Amaretto cheesecake, chocolate cheesecake, blueberry cheesecake, raspberry cheesecake...," the waiter told us; later the owner said she doesn't do desserts), and tried to digest all the information provided by staffers. Each guessed a different length of time for how long the place had been open (one said three weeks, one said one and a half, one said a few days); one waiter, who works two jobs and whose wife had a baby about four months ago, sleepily told us that this is going to be the greatest restaurant in Denver. He also revealed that you have to ask for the real limo, and that limo service is offered at lunch, too. And he told us that the restaurant would be serving all-you-can-eat Maine lobster and shrimp on Easter Sunday for $17.95. Whoa. Later I found out The International offers it every Sunday.
After some mysterious coat-shuffling in the otherwise empty dining room, a waitress appeared before us. "We got a problem," she said.
It seemed the limo driver had decided not to come back, so the restaurant was thinking about calling us a cab. Exactly two minutes later, the waitress announced that our cab had arrived. As a result, we never got to hear the chef play the piano, but we did get to meet Metro Taxi's Andrew Stankiewicz.
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"There's a restaurant in there?" was the first thing he asked. He proceeded to list the restaurants that have come--and gone--from the same address. We told him that this one serves bouillabaise.
"Nawwww," Andrew said. "I don't believe it. Really?"
We liked Andrew, even though he told us he reads Bill St. John. "I read you sometimes, too," he lied.
As we exited the cab, Andrew said he might check out The International. We told him we'll meet him at the Sunday brunch.
Free advertising: Share Our Strength is coming to a neighborhood near you. The Denver portion of Taste of the Nation runs from 4 to 8 p.m. April 17 at the Colorado Convention Center; 42 restaurants and 50 wineries are donating their time and resources to help the hungry; your $50 ticket guarantees you won't starve, either...Sam Arnold and The Fort are getting around quite a bit these days: Arnold will show up on a Today show sometime this spring and remove a champagne cork with his tomahawk (a half-dozen years ago he appeared on the same program and fed peanut-butter-filled jalapenos to then-Today host Jane Pauley); both ABC and CBS showcased Arnold's restaurant last month...Lickety Split, hoping to expand into the bumpy parts of this state, is now Liks because it couldn't get a federal trademark on the original name. Eventually the place hopes to go national, but not, as co-owner Vince Martinez says, "for a very long time"...The home of great hu tieu, Dakao, at 1002 South Federal, is no more; the new owners are calling it Hien Vuong and specializing in pho...The Breakfast Inn, at 6135 East Evans Avenue, now serves dinner, too...Peter Wolfgang Schlicht, whose name would be great for a really big dog, is part owner of Baci, a new Italian restaurant at the edge of Genesee Park. I have high hopes for it, since Schlicht did a nice job with Compari's, as well as Alpenglow Stube in Vail.