Classic French restaurants in the U.S. are, at their best, unmemorable. We've all eaten so many mother sauces, steak frites and crème brûlées that they all blend together, and the bistro theme fits in everywhere from the Vegas strip to a suburban strip mall. So what does a French restaurant do to stand out, when nearly everything on the menu has been done many, many times before, even if perfectly?
If you're the owners of Le Bilboquet, you open in Cherry Creek North, and you make the experience more about the service and the setting. Le Bilboquet (named for a child's cup-and-ball toy) was founded in New York City more than thirty years ago and has recently expanded into Sag Harbor, Atlanta and Dallas. (There was one in São Paulo Brazil, too, but it's now closed.) The eatery has earned a reputation of catering to the moneyed set; longtime customer Eric Clapton even became an investor when Le Bilboquet moved from its original Upper East Side home to a new Manhattan address after losing its lease.
So what does exceptional service look like at 299 St. Paul Street, where the French restaurant opened on Friday, September 13? For starters, there are white tablecloths on every table, towering bouquets of fresh flowers and potted orchids at the host station, behind the bar and on nearly every other flat surface not dedicated to food and drink service. And the staff is dressed impeccably — probably better than you.
That staff includes a maître d', a real rarity in Denver, where titles lean more toward "FOH manager" or "chief fun officer." The maître d' position is filled by William Steck, who recalls going to dinner weekly with his dad at the original Le Bilboquet, where regulars were treated with more deference than occasional celebrities. Steck's career has taken him on an unusual tack, from hockey coach to hospitality professional, but he seems less likely to cross-check you with an oversized pepper grinder than to accommodate your request for your favorite table in the bright and lively dining room.
Once you're seated, someone will unfurl your napkin and place it on your lap, and if you should excuse yourself, you'll find the napkin neatly folded when you return. But it all feels breezy and relaxed, not formal. If insouciance and pampering can be combined in a single experience, it's at Le Bilboquet. General manager Erin Kamlet, most recently of True Food Kitchen, oversees the entire operation.
Co-owner Rick Wahlstedt may best epitomize his restaurant's ethos; his weathered jeans and tousled hair, offset by a bespoke sport coat, exude a studied nonchalance. His decision to open a restaurant in Cherry Creek, he explains, came several years ago while visiting Denver to play in a national squash tournament (in which he reached the semi-finals). "It's much more of a walking community — and the people are very nice," he says of the neighborhood, before pointing out some of the restaurant's signature design elements: the navy blue of the overstuffed couches in the lounge, the contemporary art that contrasts a graffiti aesthetic against the palatial furnishings, the tiny Grecian columns supporting the chrome bar shelves, the brushed zinc bar top (which, to be honest, is super-cool).
The menu, under company executive chef Cyrille Holota and executed by chef de cuisine Ben Ashworth (who comes over from Bistro Vendôme), doesn't offer much in the way of modernity or surprises, but instead aims for a kind of nostalgia borrowed as much from Hollywood depictions of Paris as from real French restaurants. Foie gras and steak tartare come plated like pictures from a culinary-school textbook, mashed potatoes are smooth and creamy as clouds, and salads have a rustic chunkiness that claims a kind of country-market provenance.
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For over three decades, the signature dish has been Cajun chicken, a simple breast paillard thoughtfully sliced (so you don't have to) and blanketed in a sauce whose ingredients are a company secret. An odd choice to hang your reputation on? Sure — but it's the yacht rock of French cooking, a mild preparation that won't offend picky eaters or an older clientele out more for socializing than adventurous dining.
Managing partner Ilona Knopfler is also the resident wine expert, who offers a tome of about 150 bottles, ranging mostly from the mid-double digits to $350, with about 65 percent originating in France and the remainder sourced from the U.S. But you can dive deep into the cellar and come up with a vintage that might run you $1,500, she points out, since this is a French restaurant, after all.
Le Bilboquet, just a couple of blocks from the homegrown La Merise, feels like an apt addition to Cherry Creek, alongside a long string of upper-range out-of-towners like Matsuhisa, Quality Italian, North Italian and True Food Kitchen. The restaurant is now open daily from 5 to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), and will be adding lunch and rosé brunch at the end of this month. Call 303-835-9999 or visit lebilboquetdenver.com for more details.