Bite Me

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."

"You're crazy."

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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