Cafe Society

The Grill Next Door

After Carmen Jennings and Jean-Paul Beining sold Soren's, their successful Cherry Creek restaurant, a couple of months ago, they opened a new place: Carmen and Jean-Paul's Franktown Grill in Franktown.

The obvious question, of course, is: Why?
In case you're not familiar with the bustling metropolis of Franktown, it's a teeny, tiny town at the intersection of Highway 86 and Highway 83 (also known as Parker Road), halfway between Denver and Castle Rock. In Franktown proper, there's a gas station and a Mexican eatery and a place that sells firewood. And a bank. For a while, there was also a steakhouse called O'Neill's, in the space now occupied by the Franktown Grill.

"Two years ago we bought a house in Elizabeth," explains Jennings, referring to another small town about ten minutes from Franktown. "We got tired of driving an hour to Soren's every day, and we didn't like the way Cherry Creek was going as far as the tearing down of houses and putting up of condos, the trying to squeeze as much as possible in a very small area. We felt like it was going to lose its charm, so we decided to try to get something closer to home."

Franktown certainly qualifies. It also happens to be closer to the wealthy development known as The Pinery than any other town with an upscale, fine-dining-oriented restaurant, so Jennings and Beining may not be as crazy as some have suggested. "Oh, we get those questions all the time," Jennings says. "People think we're gonna lose it all. But at some point this area is going to need more dining choices."

Jennings and Beining are no strangers to culinary challenges. After working together for four years at the Denver Country Club, they bought Soren's in 1989 and then got married. He's the chef, born, bred and cooking-schooled in France; she runs the front of the house. "These CPAs we had working with us when we opened Soren's--they kept telling us, 'Look for a breakup in a year, your relationship will never last, you'll kill each other,'" Jennings recalls. "We said, 'But we're different.' Of course, that's what everyone says. But we're still together, and we're still going strong."

And while their new venture is not yet as solid as their marriage seems to be, it's starting off on a sound foundation. Not only is the Franktown Grill decorated with simple but elegant country charm, it serves simply wonderful food. Unfortunately, Jennings and Beining now have to deal with the sad fact that, in this neck of the woods, most people would rather put extra bales of hay in the barn than shell out $17 for an entree, no matter how wonderful it is. Still, as this corner of Douglas County continues to boom, more and more people are complaining about the lack of decent, non-chicken-fried-steak food offerings in the area. (I should know, since I'm one of the complainers.) I'm pretty darn sure, however, that the good folks of Franktown haven't encountered much trout almondine in these parts before.

Or appetizers as good as those that served as our introduction to the Franktown Grill's offerings. The compelling pate Parisienne ($6) was a nicely textured, country-style version with the usual trimmings of cornichons, fruit and baguette slices; an order of grilled shrimp ($6.50) brought six medium-sized specimens mellowed with Grand Marnier and wrapped in prosciutto. These were followed by ample bowls of soup included with our entrees: the hot soup of the day, a tomato-based vegetable chock-full of veggies that had been slow-cooked in a strong broth; and vichyssoise--a classically smooth, rich take on the chilled potato-leek concoction. (Like many of the items on the menu, the vichyssoise is a reprise of a popular Soren's dish.)

Most of Beining's creations are easygoing French, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of flavor. For example, the excellent salmon filet ($18), one of his specialties, had been coated with a mixture of minced smoked salmon, breadcrumbs and a hint of horseradish before being baked medium-rare and laid atop a mound of fettuccine slicked with a creamy beurre blanc. The three rounds of moist lamb loin noisette ($18.50) came wrapped in spinach and draped with a lusciously peppery-sweet ginger sauce--a preparation that was forthright, unpretentious and delicious.

The desserts were similarly straightforward and successful. The brownie sundae ($4) featured a thin, chewy brownie made from imported Belgian chocolate, topped with vanilla-bean ice cream and drizzled with a thick chocolate sauce; the chocolate mousse ($4) was classically fluffy, airy and rich.

Franktown never had it so good.
Farther up Highway 83, in the chain-riddled town of Parker, another restaurant refugee from the north has opened another French restaurant. Mohammad Bazyar, the former owner of Littleton's well-regarded, late Cafe de la Paix, moved his Cafe Monet into a space that has seen several incarnations, including a steakhouse and a mediocre Italian eatery.

The space isn't great; it's set too far back off the road. But that isn't the only problem here. When we stumbled onto Cafe Monet six months ago, shortly after Bazyar opened it, I asked why he'd picked Parker. "I've been asking myself the same question," he said. I doubt he's come up with a good answer: The town's population is food-fickle. It wants its Extreme Carvers from Boston Market one day and then gripes the next that there's no good place to eat. Given the uneven customer base, Cafe Monet apparently makes do with what food it can keep around--which means the kitchen is sometimes out of things or substitutes freely and foolishly.

We started a recent meal there with the pate maison ($4.25), three round blobs of chicken-livery stuff that tasted all right but had a consistency reminiscent of baby-food meats. The accompaniments, though, really gave us pause: a dill pickle, a slice of tomato, a slip of lettuce and a slice of red onion. Since hamburgers aren't on Cafe Monet's menu, we knew we hadn't gotten someone else's toppings by mistake; all we could assume was that they were out of cornichons and didn't have time to chop onions.

Actually, they didn't seem to have time for much of anything. We sat for twenty minutes waiting for the one waiter--who was handling eight tables--to take our order. Then he informed me that the kitchen was out of my chosen entree, and after looking through the menu again, I had to wait even longer to order a replacement. We didn't get our wine until we'd had the appetizers for fifteen minutes. Through all this, Bazyar kept dashing ineffectually to and fro, muttering under his breath.

We started muttering, too, after we caught sight of our entrees and their strange sides. The menu had claimed that each dish came with soup (a nebulous but tasty puree of either peas or beans or both), salad (a why-bother pile of iceberg and gooey dressing), a vegetable and a choice of rice or potato, but when we'd tried to tell the waiter which of these last items we would take, he'd waved his hand dismissively and said, "They all come with both." And they sure did. Each entree was surrounded by the following: a hill of vinegary, sickeningly sweet red cabbage that after several bites tasted like cough syrup; four chunks of super-soft potato soaked with curry seasonings; and a drift of excellent jasmine rice studded with scallions. Huh? The hodgepodge didn't help either dish--and the poulet fricassee ($12.95) could have used some help. It was more like chicken stroganoff than the well-melded stew a fricassee should be, with two overly soft bird breasts thickly coated with a wine-heavy white sauce choking with barely cooked button mushrooms.

The short ribs of beef a la Flamande ($12.95) in a flavorful demi-glace were much tastier, even if they weren't an accurate interpretation of "a la Flamande." Food "in the Flemish style" usually translates to carrots, turnips, potatoes, sausages or sometimes cabbage braised with the meat; perhaps that odd side of cabbage was a Flemish accent thrown in with the fricassee--who knows? After that, we should have known better than to try dessert; I've found better pies at the grocery store than the lemon meringue ($1.95) we tried here.

This section of Douglas County may be hurting for restaurants, but it certainly isn't hurting for more bad ones. Cafe Monet had better shape up, and fast. With Franktown Grill a mere ten minutes away, those of us who live here just aren't that desperate anymore.

Carmen and Jean-Paul's Franktown Grill, 7517 East Highway 86, Franktown, 814-8386. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-8 p.m. Sunday.

Cafe Monet, 10471 South Parker Road, Parker, 840-0004. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Friday; 5-9:30 p.m. Saturday.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner