Bistro Barbès 5021 East 28th Avenue 720-398-8085
It was early when we arrived at Bistro Barbès, a French-inspired 32-seater that opened this spring in the former home of Pary's on 28th (and, before that, Satchel's Market). Still, it would be another hour before guests outnumbered the good folks manning the stove and delivering our food. With so few voices to join our own and so little for servers to do other than watch and wait for us to need more bread, water or clean utensils, my friend and I felt a bit like we were on display. But our self-consciousness came to an end the moment we received our summer-pea agnolotti.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Bistro Barbés
Six pillows of fresh pasta came bathed in sauce the color of early-morning sunshine. I reached for my fork, ignoring the spoon and bowl that had been set before me, so eager was I to taste the flavors behind that sauce. Described on the menu as tarragon-carrot beurre blanc, it was far more subtle than it sounded, with tender rays of sweetness that in lesser hands might have been as overpowering as the noonday sun, and only the faintest rustle of tarragon's licorice-like breeze. The tender, housemade pasta was itself very good, stuffed with puréed peas whose sweetness had been accented, not overwhelmed, by crème fraîche and the thick Middle Eastern yogurt called labneh. But it was the sauce that we loved, and when the pasta was gone, we used pieces of baguette to wipe up every last bit, not caring in the least if the cooks, servers or the ghost of Emily Post herself were watching.
Later, when I learned the nickname of chef-owner Jon Robbins, I had a better understanding of what made that sauce so special. "People spread around restaurants that were concentrated on the Seventh Avenue corner for a while all know me as 'Beurre Blanc,'" says Robbins, who made his share of the rich emulsion at Mizuna, where he spent five years, most recently as chef de cuisine. "I'll answer to it without any hesitation, and if someone yells 'Beurre Blanc' from across the street, I'll look up."
Robbins's familiarity with classic technique predates Mizuna, however. In addition to stints in St. John and New York, the Park Hill native lived in Paris for three years, where he landed a gig at Ledoyen, a three-star Michelin restaurant. But if the techniques at play in his fledgling bistro are classic, the ever-changing menu is not. Like the immigrant-heavy 18th arrondissement, where Robbins lived and felt most at home in Paris, Bistro Barbès feels like an intersection of cultures, especially French and North African, with a little Denver thrown in for good measure.
In Paris, salade Niçoise is as common as a croque-monsieur. But instead of an anchovy-flecked plate of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives and green beans, I found a creative riff, as surprising in its mix of cold-smoked potatoes, cranberry beans, castelvetrano olives, tomatoes and lemon confit as the sprinkling of housemade potato chips on top. Underneath, a smear of "Maghreb crème fraîche" -- essentially crème fraîche blended with ras el hanout, a North African spice blend -- translated the disparate elements into a language any food lover could understand. Littlenecks with fresh linguine proved a more than satisfying replacement for the moules frites; instead of the more traditional chocolate, cappuccino pot de crème came in a white mug with layers of ganache and lemon whipped cream. Gazpacho fashioned from canary melons with fried cilantro and jalapeños was irresistible, as was a Caprese-like salad, with morsels of Spanish goat cheese, ribbons of marinated zucchini, and heirloom tomatoes so fruity and ripe they would have been just as pleasing sprinkled with salt and served alone. Keep reading for more on Bistro Barbes. Best of all were the veal sweetbreads, pan-seared and roasted until a great crust formed, giving each bite the meaty punch of untrimmed, flame-kissed steak. Fluffier than normal since Robbins didn't press it, as many chefs do, the thymus (sorry, squeamish readers) reminded me of monkey bread, easily pulled apart into separate bites to dab in the saffron cream. The dish could have been too earthy, too rich or too exotic, paired as it was with tabbouleh and batons of cinnamon-dusted eggplant -- but once again, the kitchen knew when to push and when to hold back, making this fusion the interesting kind, not the overwrought fare from decades past.
As with any creative endeavor, some efforts were bound to fall flat. In place of steak au poivre, a bistro standby, I found overly chewy bavette (flap steak), with couscous studded with squash, tomatoes and olives, and a dry chickpea medley referred to as chickpea tagine. The dish was well intentioned, with mild flavors so that nothing stood in the way of the cut's beefiness, but I found it too mild (not to mention under-sauced) and longed for something to liven it up -- not necessarily the richness of poivre, but a dash of acid or fat. Duck-leg confit had globe-trotting appeal, with almond streusel and North African spices in tomato chutney, but the plate suffered from a soggy spinach spaetzle. And once, the beurre blanc that I'd so loved under the pea agnolotti came out not emulsified, but broken, rivulets of melted butter swirling through the yellow-orange sauce. (Robbins wasn't in the kitchen at that point; he appeared twenty minutes later.)
If we had said something, I have a hunch that Megan Silvertooth, the service captain who keeps an eagle eye on the dining room, would have taken care of it. Indeed, if she had delivered the dish herself, there's a good chance she would have recognized the flaw and made a 180 back to the kitchen, so well does this front-of-the-house veteran know her stuff, having lived in Europe for three years and worked in restaurants for more than fifteen, in both the front and back of the house. Her attentiveness, plus touches such as amuse-bouche, white tablecloths and fresh flowers on every table, combine to give Bistro Barbès a somewhat high-end feel -- higher, in fact, than what Robbins was going for. "The tablecloths give the impression that it's higher dining than what it is," Robbins acknowledges, but he adds that he had no choice but to cover the rough plywood tables, hand-built to save money. "We opened this restaurant up for pennies."
If Denver were a different city, or if dining trends had gone in a different direction, Bistro Barbès might have been even higher-end. Indeed, Robbins's original vision was to create a brick-and-mortar, prix-fixe-only version of Gypsy Kitchen, a pop-up supper club that he'd hosted at Pary's and elsewhere. But "no one's eating Michelin-star food," he says. "It might be going out of fashion."
That may well be true, but good food never goes out of fashion. And on its best days, Bistro Barbès is putting out French-North African fusion that deserves every square inch of those white cloths.
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Select menu items at Bistro Barbès: Canary-melon gazpacho $8
Summer-pea agnolotti $10
Heirloom tomatoes $8
Smoked-vegetable Niçoise $7
Clams and linguine $18
Duck-leg confit $21
Veal sweetbreads $24
Cappuccino pot de crème $8
Bistro Barbès is open 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 6-8 p.m. Sunday. Find more about the restaurant at bistrobarbes.com.