Even if you're not familiar with the term "mille-feuille," you've probably eaten the French pastry. The phrase means "thousand-leaf," which accurately describes the paper-thin layers of puff pastry that go into Napoleons and other labor-intensive desserts. Now imagine standing over a prep counter all day cutting mushrooms into equally fine slices, stacking them in a terrine and baking the terrine until the mushrooms form an almost solid loaf that's sliced and served as an appetizer. Each layer comes apart to provide an intensely flavored bite of nothing but king trumpet mushroom, butter and salt.
That's the kind of effort that goes into nearly every dish at LeRoux, chef Lon Symensma's new French/European restaurant that opens tomorrow, December 28, next door to ChoLon, the chef's eight-year-old, Asian-inspired eatery on the 16th Street Mall.
The menu, planned with and executed by Symensma's longtime right-hand man, Jeff Stoneking (who also helped open ChoLon, Cho77 and Concourse), is the realization of Symensma's early years spent in France, Spain and Italy, where he worked in many Michelin-starred gastronomic destinations (his résumé includes a stint in the kitchen of chef Paul Bocuse) and competed for the U.S. team in the Culinary Olympics.
"It's a celebration of a young chef," Symensma explains of the early education that eventually led to LeRoux.
After learning his craft at Spice Market and Buddakan in New York City as well as in restaurants throughout Southeast Asia, the chef has become known in Denver for Asian cuisine (anyone who has yet to try the legendary French onion soup dumplings at ChoLon needs to drop everything and go now), but European cuisine was where he first excelled.
Symensma studied in France at the end of an era when young cooks kept their eyes down and their knives moving — all day and night and often without pay. And if they didn't, they got an earful or worse from the chef. In his first weeks staging as a nineteen-year-old, the most common French phrase Symensma heard turned out to be "Go back to the U.S. and work at McDonald's."
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Fortunately, he didn't — and the results are now on the plate at LeRoux. French classics are recognizable mostly in the names of the dishes, but not in their final execution. Just like that mille-feuille of mushrooms, the techniques serve more as inspiration than as boilerplate preparation. Duck breast served with tart tatin takes a familiar pairing of the waterfowl with apple and turns it into something new by subbing in a caramelized cushion of spaghetti squash for fruit. The Italian dessert called panna cotta goes savory with the addition of cauliflower, and steak tartare is touched with three forms of smoke — in the egg gribiche atop the minced wagyu steak, in a dusting of smoked salt, and in a cloud of smoke trapped under the glass dome in which the dish is served.
The whole restaurant has an Old World feel, from the crystal chandeliers assembled one piece at a time where they hang above the dining room, to the cool quartz bar top that glows softly from lights underneath. The wines are all European, too, as are many of the bar ingredients (those that aren't from Colorado, that is). And tableside flourishes capture the theatrical element of vintage restaurant service. (You won't want to miss the flambéed baked Alaska for dessert.)
LeRoux, named for one of Symensma's mentors at the Culinary Institute of America, will soon have a cheese cart that will roll from table to table, and will also add lunch and brunch service in January and February. For now, dinner in the sixty-seat space (including the bar and a separate room that can be reserved for groups of up to 24) will be served from 5 to 9 p.m. on Sunday and Monday, 5 to 10 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Call 720-845-1673 or visit LeRoux's website for details and reservations.