Exclusive first look: Mary Nguyen opens P17, a neighborhood bistro

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When you travel around the world and devote the majority of your time to eating in restaurants, you take note of what you love, which sometimes turns into a wistfulness of what you wish you had at home: a neighborhood bistro, for example. That's what happened with Mary Nguyen, chef-owner of Olive & Finch, Street Kitchen Asian Bistro and, until yesterday, Parallel Seventeen, a Vietnamese restaurant in Uptown that Nguyen originally opened in 2005. But her travels to Europe, specifically to the modest bistros that sprinkle every corner, gave her food for thought, and for more than a year, she's contemplated closing Parallel Seventeen and reopening it as a completely new restaurant, or, as she likes to call it, a "true neighborhood bistro," which is exactly what she did, closing the chapter on her Vietnamese spot and reopening it as P17, a charming bistro reminiscent of the ones she's so fond of in Europe.

See also: Parallel Seventeen will become P17, a "true neighborhood bistro"

"Every time I come back from Europe, I'm a bit dismayed by the absence of the modest dining experience in Denver," admits Nguyen. "It's not that I'm disenchanted with the Denver dining scene as a whole, but there aren't a lot of restaurants that are affordable, have great service and provide lots of options, and like a lot of people, I don't have a big pocketbook to spend on dinner on a casual night out during the week, so I wanted to open an entirely new restaurant that recreates the European bistro experience in Denver," explains Nguyen, stressing that the term "bistro" has been "watered down" to encompass plenty of restaurants that bear no resemblance to a bistro.

"When I think of a bistro, I think about informality, affordability and its small size, and when you look at Denver restaurants, there aren't a lot of places that fit into that definition," says Nguyen, and with Parallel Seventeen, she continues, "we'd evolved into something upscale, formal and fussy and, to be honest, it wasn't me anymore, plus it wasn't a neighborhood restaurant, which was a very important part of what I wanted to be, and it definitely had gotten to the point where it wasn't Vietnamese."

And P17, which Nguyen stresses is "not a rebranding of Parallel Seventeen nor a re-conceptualization, but a whole new restaurant," couldn't be more different from its predecessor. Gone are the flirty parasols that dangled from the ceiling, the clutter of Buddhas and the photos of Vietnam that graced the brick wall. In their place: vases flush with fresh flowers, copper-accented mirrors and sills that glide along the garage door, all new light fixtures, sienna-hued leather-upholstered bar stools; funky art installations created from clay, and a fresh coat of light-white paint. Even the outdoor landscaping has been revamped with raised beds, in which Nguyen will grow grasses and flowers.

And, of course, there's a new menu -- a menu that, in true European bistro fashion, is modestly priced, with nothing ringing in at more than $19. "It's affordable, chef-driven, inspired by the seasons, and, yes, you can come in and have dinner and a glass of wine for under $20," stresses Nguyen, who makes just about everything in house, including her ketchup, Dijon mustard, harissa, ricotta, chutneys and jams.

The menu, says Nguyen, is "vegetable-forward," which isn't to say that it doesn't honor meat, too. For the best of both worlds, order her lentil soup, a flavor-bombed intersection of lentils and vegetables studded with whips of tasso ham. I could -- and would -- eat a vat of it...if only Nguyen served it in vats. Her Parisian gnocchi, made not with potatoes, but with pâte à choux, an egg-based dough, are poached, and the result is a pillow-y gnocchi that's far superior to its potato counterpart. Nguyen pools the gnocchi, accompanied by sauteed vegetables, including pear tomatoes and wilted kale, in a beurre blanc scented with fresh sage. Her stand-out mussels, sidekicked with hand-cut, crisp-edged fries, are puddled in a Dijon-laced broth that you want to slurp, and the gougères, airy cheese puffs with a hint of Gruyere, make a fantastic starter. And there's a roasted chicken, too, because well, a "bistro should always have a great roasted chicken," declares Nguyen, adding that all of her menu items were inspired by European bistro dishes.

Her dishes are bolstered by a wine list that's refreshingly diverse, so while you can order a bottle from France, Italy or Spain, she also features wines from Colorado, Austria, Greece and Lebanon, the latter of which is a 2011 Château Musar. And wines by the glass are offered in three- and six-ounce pours. "They're affordable wines that are from boutique winemakers from around the world," says Nguyen, who tapped Ryan O'Connor, a former sommelier at Alinea, to curate the wine list. "We call him the cork-dork, and all of the wines were hand-picked by the two of us," she notes. The cocktail syllabus is new, too, and I love that Nguyen has incorporated several mocktails to the repertoire, all of which incorporate fresh juices and herbs and housemade purees.

In a nutshell, explains Nguyen, "We don't want to be a special-occasion restaurant; we want to be your Tuesday and Wednesday night restaurant, the kind of neighborhood restaurant that's inexpensive, serves high quality food from a diverse menu and provides friendly service."

I think she nailed it. P17 serves weekend brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and dinner seven nights a week, beginning at 3 p.m.

Here's a sneak peek at the new space and Nguyen's captivating dishes.

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