Le Central is coming to an end, Le Grand is long gone — Heck, even Le Chateau on 14th Street has passed on. Traditional French cuisine, the mother of meals, is becoming hard to find in the heart of the city. My heart beats thick Béarnaise to the rhythm of the waves on the Riviera, so the passing of these restaurants has been tragic for me. Where would I get my Francophilic fix after work? Then I saw that Bistro Vendôme has a relatively new happy hour. I went, as so many do, to find love with the French.
Bistro Vendôme (I swear, that circumflex over the o is going to kill me) has refocused its menu to traditional brasserie fare under the direction of chef Adam Brantz. I had hoped to sample the much-lauded offerings of his predecessor, Dana Rodriguez (now helming Work & Class), but his mostly straight-ahead fare was just what I had in mind for the evening. From 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, happy hour is served in the bar only, but I cajoled my way onto the Bistro's courtyard in the historic Kettle Arcade. Be advised that seats in the bar area are limited; they were mostly unoccupied on my visit. Everything on the menu, which comprises two wines and four small plates, is $5. In short order, I was served a grenache/syrah blend from Milou Rouge, an herby baguette and an amuse-bouche from the kitchen. Tonight's offering was a chilled asparagus soup with a single piece of fried Serrano ham, which whet the appetite quite nicely.
The bites on offer are small drinking snacks, stuff I imagine Parisians are snacking on while sipping Suze in the dwindling afternoon light. Bright-green picholine olives are piled in a demitasse cup and gently dusted with breadcrumbs; sink your teeth into them and you're hit with notes of lemon and fennel. These are fat, hot, drunk olives, marinated in Chartreuse liqueur. Watch yourself here, or you'll end up the same. Next was a sliver of blue cheese from northern Spain, paired with crostini and strawberry jam. The cheese selection changes often, but this fromage was denser, milder and more addictive than any I've ever tried. Sopping up every bit and smear of jam with the rest of my baguette was a fine pleasure.
And the frites are simply some of the best potatoes frying anywhere in town. You can order them on the side with any dish at dinner, but they're a special treat by themselves. Every single fry is perfect and crisp, dripping with a vinegar/sugar syrup sauce and studded with flecks of rosemary. I spent my whole meal coming back to these, deciding how to evaluate them before just demolishing the rest. By the end of this frenzy, I didn't have room for the mini beef tartare, a longtime feature of the main menu.
Bistro Vendôme is not as simple as it appears — except for the crème brûlée ($7) I finished with, which was a pure example of the form. What was to be a few snacks turned into a whole dinner that managed to impress. Hopefully, more chefs and entrepreneurs will help keep French cooking alive in central Denver, but as long as I have this courtyard, a glass of wine and a basket of frites, it will be.
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Perfect For: Wannabe LoDo clubbers. With some smartly dressed friends, you can stock up on dignity and class here that will surely be expended by the end of the night at one of the district's gaudy nightclubs. Dinner is served until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Don't Miss: Bistro Vendôme does its best to help keep Larimer Square unique, even in its secluded space off the street. Le Jardin Secret is the restaurant's weekly farmers' market, and you have a few more chances this month to check it out, shop for fresh vegetables and meats from local producers with a drink in your hand, and perhaps end with an afternoon brunch.