Review: The Bistro at Stapleton Changes Course for a Hungry Neighborhood

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The Bistro at Stapleton 2955 Ulster Street 303-388-9463

Over the past fifteen years, Stapleton has morphed from a land of tumbleweed and prairie dogs to a thriving community, with enough houses to constitute its own suburb. Though the development has been a success, the restaurant scene in this corner of northeast Denver still has room to grow. With eating options tilting heavily toward chains such as Smashburger and Panda Express, it was a relief when the Bistro at Stapleton opened last spring, far from the bright lights and big boxes of Quebec Street.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Bistro at Stapleton

Within walking distance of townhomes, houses and apartments, the Bistro strives to do what eateries such as the Plimoth and Bistro Barbès have done in North City Park and Park Hill, which is give people in the neighborhood a reason to dine in the neighborhood. But while the restaurant quickly became a spot where Stapletonians regularly unwind over nibbles and a glass of wine, the kitchen is still working to find its feet.

That the food program hasn't caught up with the bar business isn't surprising, considering that the Bistro is owned by a core group of investors whose first focus was beverages. A few years before they launched the restaurant, the partners bought the wine shop next door, which is now connected to the dining room via an open doorway, creating something of a Starbucks-in-Barnes-and-Noble effect. "When I was brought on, I was told, 'We love your food, but it's secondary to the wine-and-beer program,'" recalls executive chef Cristino Griego, who trained under the Plimoth's Peter Ryan at the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts.

They didn't skimp on decor in the 1,700-square-foot restaurant, though: The space is stylish, with gray-blue wainscoting and flickering candles on wood tables. The hours are generous, too: In the beginning, the Bistro operated as a cafe in the morning (it opens at 7 a.m.) and a wine bar at night, until it became apparent that the neighborhood was hungry for more. "We found out fairly quickly that people were eating their way through the menu rather fast," Griego says. So in October, a handful of entrees replaced the cheeses, charcuterie and panini that had counted as the main course. Around the same time, Steve Roth, a longtime friend of Griego's from their days in marketing in Washington, D.C., was brought on as general manager. Along with the menu upgrade, his hire signals a shift for the Bistro, since Roth brings with him an understanding of hospitality garnered from five years of tending bar at Maialino, one of Danny Meyer's restaurants in New York.

Together, the two -- who started sketching restaurant plans on napkins years ago -- are now positioning the Bistro as a true European bistro, with chalkboards that list wine and crepe specials. It's an ambitious effort, hampered by the fact that the tiny kitchen -- outfitted only with a convection oven, two induction burners and a panini press -- was never designed to pull off this kind of fare. "There are never more than two people in the kitchen at one time," says Griego. "That's all that fits."

Recent visits revealed a restaurant with promise, but a long way to go. Keep reading for more on the Bistro at Stapleton.

Some of the dishes have already arrived. A plump mound of housemade burrata reflected Griego's affinity for Italian food, not to mention his months of staging in Italy. Sprinkled with sea salt and plated with prosciutto and fat castelvetrano olives, the dish was a hit with both the bar and table crowds. Although there was no burrata on the meat-and-cheese plate, it still offered a pleasing diversity of cheeses ranging from mild to pungent. While the hummus lacked the mouthfeel that tahini normally provides, this lighter version -- really a chickpea purée -- made up for it with hints of Thai red-curry paste, Madras curry and coconut milk that paired well with drinks. And the salmon -- the dish most often recommended by servers -- one-upped itself with decadence, the fatty fish spread with mascarpone and blue crab and encased in golden pastry, with sweet-pea purée to add brightness. Many other dishes were marred by poor execution, however. French onion soup was as dark as chocolate, its heady broth sweetened with a touch of molasses -- but the onions floating in that broth were thickly sliced and tough. Roast chicken came out in a simple but satisfying sauce made of pan drippings, wine and mushrooms; on two occasions, though, the bird itself was colorless, skinless and boneless, with little flavor and no color from its stint in the pan. A filet -- cooked entirely on the panini press -- arrived well done instead of medium rare, while the sliced potatoes alongside were starchy and undercooked. Sliced eggplant, zucchini, squash and tomatoes in the vegetarian dish called tian provençale were artfully layered like flower petals in a crock, with a bed of goat cheese underneath. But the crock had been left in the oven too long, and without an oil or broth bath to protect the vegetables from the heat, they arrived parched and blackened on the edges. The bread pudding, the only dessert made in-house, seemed like it had also gotten lost in the shuffle; the almond-croissant dough was burned around the edges. The crostini with the charcuterie plate could have used some of that toastiness, as the sliced baguette was oiled but not toasted.

Such lapses are signs of a kitchen spread too thin. "We're trying to be as functional and creative and consistent as we can out of the kitchen," says Griego. "I know there are things that need to be tightened up." So far, the neighbors seem willing to give them time, flocking to the restaurant for its monthly wine dinners and treating the long wood community table as a culinary version of Stapleton's ubiquitous pocket parks, a choice spot to hang out. The Bistro at Stapleton is not at the level of destination-worthy restaurants tucked in other neighborhoods around town, but it's far better than a chain -- and for this part of Denver, that's a welcome start.

Select menu items at the Bistro at Stapleton: French onion soup $9 Burrata $12 Coconut red-curry hummus $8 Meat-and-cheese plate $17/22 Salmon en croute $22 Roast chicken $18 Petite filet $25 Tian provençale $14 Bistro bread pudding $9

The Bistro at Stapleton is open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at stapletonbistro.com.

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