The Waiting Game
Three months. For most critics, that's the amount of time that must pass before a brand-new restaurant is considered fair game for a review. Ostensibly, three months should be long enough for a place to survive its opening jitters, find a true tone and voice, and get a good set of legs under it. During that time, the kitchen should have winnowed down its original menu and ditched any dogs -- those plates that look great on paper but never really work -- and management should have let go of any losers who couldn't hack the daily grind of regular service.
All through my time in The Life -- during the dozen years I spent on one side of the swinging doors and the handful I've now had on the other -- I've seen every extreme of what can happen in those first ninety days. Whole staffs fired, chefs' menus scrapped and reworked by committee (certain death for any restaurant that doesn't take its orders through a giant clown head on a pole), owners who've suffered major nervous breakdowns and blown every dime of operating capital on a red MG convertible and enough Bolivian marching powder to send them straight into bankruptcy arbitration. I once opened and ran a kitchen that, in the course of its first three months, went from French to French-Asian to Asian-Southwestern to (no lie) Gourmet magazine's best recipes of 1987. By the time the first critic arrived, I was cooking a menu that looked like a psychotic lawn fete for foreign-service diplomats: melon balls and prosciutto in sugar-cane syrup, cucumber-bean sprout canapés, Balinese shrimp satay, cold rosemary chicken in bourbon mustard sauce and mustard ham custards -- all served in a cafe with posterized van Gogh lithographs on the walls and freaky Middle Eastern pop on the stereo. We never got a review, just a phone call from the critic saying there was no point. And she was right. The place was a hair salon before its six-month anniversary.
In the restaurant world, three months is both a blink and a lifetime. In Denver, there have been restaurants that never saw their ninetieth night of service (Bistro 250); ones that did but were so clearly doomed that you could almost hear the life-support machinery beeping in the background (Aquarela); still others that three months out bore almost no resemblance to how they'd started (Flow). And while three months is as acceptable a standard as any, it's also totally arbitrary. There are some houses that come right out of the gate doing the kind of excellent work for which they're known forever after, and some that limp along for months, going nowhere, until somehow -- for reasons known only to the food gods and their minions here on earth -- they begin to glow with that special kind of light that only spills from a restaurant that has suddenly, sometimes inexplicably, found its groove.
1424 Larimer Street, 303-825-3232. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Closed Mondays
Steak tartare: $11
Mashed potatoes: $5
Chilled asparagus: $6
Trout amandine: $17
Duck breast: $19
Rabbit blanquette: $17
Steak frites, all varieties: $19
For Bistro Vendome, it took a year almost to the day from its opening last April.
Had I reviewed this restaurant at its three-month mark, I would have written something like this: "Chef Eric Roeder's little bistro-that-couldn't is a waste. Of space, of talent, of potential, but most of all, it's a waste of time. From the staff that barely manages to bumble its dopey way through service, to plate after plate of dull French cruise-ship fare only notable for the way that the kitchen manages to tragically mishandle at least one ingredient in every single presentation, dinner here isn't much more than an overpriced exercise in deliberate self-abuse. In the mood for a nice French lunch? You'd be better served by one of the new chicken baguette sandwiches at Burger King."
I know that's what I would have written because that's what I did write. I found that little nettle in my notes a while back, scribbled down on the back of a Bistro Vendome credit-card slip along with some cryptic reference to the steak frites. My meal there was awful, but chef/owner Eric Roeder was trying so hard that I decided to give him more time.
At around the seven-month mark, I dropped by again for a solo dinner. Although the place was half empty, I was seated at a table next to a busser's station; I was brought the wrong wine; my trout amandine was overcooked and bitter with a mismatched vinaigrette. And then -- because adding insult to injury is such a good business practice -- I had to wait for my check. There's just nothing like suffering through a mediocre dinner at a lousy table and then being made to wait for the privilege of paying for it. I figured my server was busy updating his resumé.
Still, I held my tongue. Or my pen, anyway. What stopped me -- what kept stopping me -- was a niggling, back-brain itch that said the place had promise, but its potential kept getting tripped up by rookie mistakes.
For starters, there was the beautiful, understated space, all warm mustard and candlelight, not overly Frenched-up but not Left Bank theme restaurant, either. Tucked into a quiet corner behind Larimer Square with a chalkboard pointing the way, a picturesque patio and views of a peaceful garden square and the display window of a Vespa dealership, Bistro Vendome boasted one of the greatest restaurant addresses in the city -- hidden enough to feel isolated from the Saturday-night scrum, welcoming enough to feel like a spot you've stumbled on accidentally, even if you've just spent twenty minutes fighting for parking and looking for the entrance. Although Roeder initially said his place was "designed to evoke the look and feel of a long-established, family-owned bistro plucked from a Parisian street corner," you didn't feel moved to Paris when you stepped through the doors, but rather like you'd walked into a drop-dead lovely American restaurant that had made good use of every physical advantage and happened to serve French food.
Roeder's resumé also indicated unfulfilled potential: a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, time at Gray Kunz's Lespinasse and Seattle's Painted Table, stints locally at Q's, the Flagstaff House and Micole, his restaurant that opened in 2000 and closed two years later. Roeder had serious street cred as a hard-core French classicist with enough Zagat and Mobil stars on his shoulders to look like a battlefield general. And while no chef is ever magically immune from making bad food, when bad food keeps coming out of the kitchen of a cook who should know better, I have to wonder what's going wrong. By the time a chef has put in ten years knocking around haute-French kitchens, by the time he's opened and shut the first place where his name is on the menu, he's probably cooked 10,000 plates of trout amandine and could cook trout amandine in his sleep. So when the trout amandine is anything less than perfect, that's a sign of something gone seriously awry.
In Roeder's case, there were clues. When Bistro Vendome first opened, it was serving breakfast, lunch and dinner all week, with Sunday brunches thrown in -- a fine-dining recipe for cataclysmic burnout. By then, Roeder had been without a galley of his own for over a year, and kitchen work is just not the kind of thing you jump back into like you'd never left. It requires heavy readjustment to get back into the swing of things, and if you don't have a killer crew already set and in place, it's even harder.
All of this flavored my decision to wait, my belief that something good would come from Vendome -- an instinct wholly different from merciful reviewing silence.
And in this case, my instinct was right. Over the months, Roeder made decisions that finally got Vendome moving in the right direction. He dumped breakfast, then lunch. He extended his brunches to Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A new manager and partner was brought into the mix -- Scott Tallman, late of Flow -- who ably whipped the front of the house into shape, leaving Roeder free to turn his attention to the back. And with time, these changes pulled the restaurant from the brink of what was looking like a nosedive into mediocrity, if not pure suck. Like the sculptor says, "I just looked at the stone and chipped away everything that wasn't a statue." At Vendome, Roeder and Tallman did the same thing, taking a long look and removing everything that wasn't a good restaurant.
So now, on a Saturday night, Bistro Vendome has that glow, that quality of warmth and joy and light that seems to flow through the front windows in wavelengths only visible to the gut and the subconscious. Where once I felt a culinary-death-ship vibe, now I know in my bones that the place has righted its course. I know this before I even step inside, as I hear other diners saying their goodbyes.
"Tell him everything was great, will you?"
"It was good, sooooo good. Tell the chef we can't wait to come back."
I hear those and a half-dozen more exclamations before I reach my seat. Pretty girls are walking by in a swoon, talking to random waitresses and busboys, sending their love back to the galley. Men are pumping Tallman's hand and offering their appreciation in tones of sudden, surprised reverence. In the small dining room -- where this time we're given a good table, far from the crash and tinkle of the bus station -- couples are spearing bites off each other's plates, closing their eyes, pitching woo over big, white bowls of fat mussels in curry cream, in a classic garlic beurre blanc, or steaming in a broth of saffron and vermouth.
I avoid the trout amandine in favor of a rabbit blanquette that's so classically, historically French that I fully expect it to jump up off my plate and surrender to the first German it runs into. The creamy white stew of mild, wine-braised shredded rabbit has the texture of a tuna casserole, but it's filled with deep and solidly balanced flavors of meat, salty cream, onion and garlic. It comes with sweet, glazed baby carrots and baby artichokes with their vegetable taste rather than their nutty character highlighted, all over a flaky biscuit that lends some bulk and a distinct soul-food flavor. Unfortunately, there are also three stalks of white asparagus on the plate that are undercooked, hard and fibrous.
We fill the table with mussels, with petit plats of good, tender green asparagus served cold with a spoonful of spicy rouille, with mashed red potatoes left chunky, touched with vinegar and topped with shreds of bacon and a fall of perfect crème fraîche. I devour an entire plate of Roeder's steak tartare -- caper-heavy and bloody, sweet and sour and salty all at the same time -- without sharing with anyone, then move on to steal bites from everyone else's plates. The menu offers duck breast with "cassoulet," and the preparation earned those quote marks, because the white beans had been tossed into the hot pan just before service instead of cooking for hours in a stew of onions and meat and stock. Still, they serve as a nice counterpoint to the tender duck that shines in a caramelized orange sauce. There's pork belly over field greens, a paillard of veal, and sugared, herbed frites with steak done three ways: classique, with a tiny tin cup of lemon and tarragon béarnaise; au poivre, with a green peppercorn sauce; and the wonderful Roquefort, sprinkled with bleu cheese and paired with a sweet port-wine reduction.
Finally, I have the dinner that I knew Vendome was capable of: a simple but beautiful spread of French classics, handled with care by a skilled kitchen, served by excellent staffers with a depth of knowledge and a command of dining-room French that runs so counter to the dreadlocks, the tattoos and the facial hair that I can't help but love the juxtaposition. It's taken a long time -- a lot more than three months -- but today Bistro Vendome is the restaurant I had always hoped it would become. Now Burger King doesn't have anything on Roeder.