Years ago, in 2003, John Broening, Robert Thompson and Thompson's ex-wife, Leigh Jones, opened a downtown French brasserie called Brasserie Rouge. It was, for its short tenure, the best restaurant in Denver -- not just the best French restaurant, but the best restaurant. Period. During the time Brasserie Rouge was open, I was the restaurant critic at Colorado Avid Golfer magazine, and this, in part, is what I wrote about Broening in my review:
I am mesmerized by French cooking, and I am utterly enamored with Brasserie Rouge and its superb chef, John Broening, whose near-religious emotion and passion for French fare is unparalleled. This new LoDo brasserie is where I slum when I want to be quietly seduced by judiciously salted, crisp pommes frites or a soulfully rich beefy crock floating with soft, caramelized onions crowned with just a smattering of bubbling Gruyère cheese. This is where I want to eat when I'm just shy of my deathbed and can only stomach one more meal before surrendering my false teeth to heaven's gate.
When Brasserie Rouge abruptly closed in 2004 due to financial reasons, the city grieved and Thompson and Broening parted ways. Broening, who co-owns Spuntino with his wife, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, went on to open Duo and the recently shuttered Olivea (now Beast + Bottle), while Thompson, who was struggling with some personal issues, stepped away from the restaurant scene for several years to "pick my teeth up," he says.
And when he returned to the Denver food landscape, he was determined, he tells me, to be a "successful restaurateur." Success is relative, but suffice it to say that Thompson has since unleashed a mini empire of restaurants, including Argyll Pub in Cherry Creek (which has since closed but will reopen elsewhere as soon as Thompson lands a space), Punch Bowl Social, a national concept, and Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, a French restaurant in the theater district that opened in 2011.
And now Thompson and Broening, whose background is steeped in French cuisine, are together once again at Le Grand. "John is the best French cook I've ever met -- he's a French culture ambassador," says Thompson, who invited Broening out for coffee in June to reconnect and perhaps convince him that Le Grand would benefit from a chef of Broening's caliber. "I want to make Le Grand a regional gem -- and one of the most special restaurants in the state, and John was the most logical person to reach out to," explains Thompson. "I wanted to give him the opportunity to flex his culinary dexterity."
And Broening was an intent listener. "Robert has always empowered his chefs and he has a great knack for concepts that work, from the decor to the service to the logo -- the whole brand works, and I'm excited to be a part of that," says Broening, who also gives credit to Brasserie Rouge -- and Thompson -- for catapulting his career. "Brasserie Rouge was the restaurant that made my reputation in Denver, and we were one of the first places to do designer cocktails, one of the first places to make our own charcuterie and do a real cheese plate, and a lot of that has to do with Robert, who trusts and respects his chefs," notes Broening. And, he continues, "Robert has a real passion for big, shiny, beautiful French bistro/brasserie food."
Broening, who recently returned from a sojourn to New York, where he had the opportunity to eat at several French restaurants, says that there's a "proliferation of a new generation of French-style bistros," along with a seasonally-inspired shift and lighter flavors more reminiscent of the south of France. "We're classic French at our core, but it's what we're doing around the edges that will move us toward a 21st-century bistro," he stresses, pointing to the fact that much of the French cuisine in France is influenced by North Africa, Vietnam and the Mediterranean. Broening's menus, all of which have been completely reworked, "accommodates," he says, "the growth and changes in the modern food movement of the last ten years."
As a result, you'll see a classic country pork butt and liver pâté and steak tartare sharing space on the menu with buttermilk-dipped ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms; housemade ravioli hugging goat cheese, onions and greens; baby octopus pooled in olive oil and festooned with sea salt, lemon zest, flecks of chiles and fresh thyme, sided with a black olive tapenade; bay scallop ceviche; and a roasted tomato gazpacho. "I was fed like a horse yesterday, yet stood up from the table feeling light as a feather," says Thompson. "This is what we mean by a 21st-century bistro: low on saturated fats and starches and clean, elegant food with little fuss. It's truly fabulous."
And Thompson has hopes that Broening will continue the trend well into the future. When Thompson reopens Argyll (he's close to inking a deal), Broening will command that kitchen, too, as well as two more independent concepts that Thompson has planned. Sergio Romero, the original executive chef at Argyll -- and the current exec chef and culinary director of Punch Bowl Social -- will continue in that capacity, devoting his time to opening dozens more Punch Bowls across the country.
Spuntino's kitchen, where Broening is still the head chef (he likely won't be spending much time there), is now being run by chef de cuisine Nick Ames, who's been with Broening from day one at Spuntino and Michael Tusk, formerly of Quince, who's the executive chef.
And Thompson doesn't have any issues with the fact that Broening has another restaurant. "I know he can balance it," he says. "I'm a serious restaurateur with high expectations and ambitions, and I surround myself with consummate professionals -- and John personifies that."
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Broening debuted his new dinner menu last night (the lunch menu will roll out on July 16, and the brunch menu on July 19). Here's a taste of the ooh-la-la dishes.