Cafe Society

Tres Jolie is full of pretty things...and delicious food

"I hate you."

My brother whispered that sweet sentiment with utter sincerity as we stood in line at Tres Jolie. To our right, a chalkboard listed the available sandwiches and salads, tea-service options and champagne cocktails, all written in curlicued script in pastel colors. At the bar beyond the pastry case/counter, a couple of women sat on high-backed white chairs beneath sparkling pink-and-purple chandeliers. More women were sitting in a corner of the room, sharing pastries and pots of tea at the five tables that form a makeshift dining area. And filling out the space were racks of lacy cotton sleepwear and shelves of stationery, delicate candies and other knickknacks, which still more women were sniffing, fondling or otherwise examining. All of the women kept glancing at Adam, the lone male in the room, as though they were wondering if he'd missed the secret "No Boys Allowed" sign — and he was wishing he'd seen it himself and retreated to the pizzeria a storefront away.

My brother had come to town for a weekend of football and beer-drinking with friends, and in my few precious moments with him, what had I done? I'd dragged him to high tea in the grownup equivalent of a fairy princess castle.

He hated me.

When we reached the counter, we spent a fair amount of time — and more energy — haggling over which tea service to get. I wanted the luncheon tea, which would net us a shared sandwich, pastry and scone, plus a pot of tea each. But I didn't want to add insult to injury by forcing Adam to eat three bites of a pink frosted cookie before passing the rest over to me, so I relented and ordered the famished tea, which meant we'd each get our own sandwich, pastry and scone. And then, since my brother wasn't about to mix any skin lotion or buy bed linens, we skipped the displays in favor of taking seats in the sunny dining area, where estrogen and the tinkle of laughter swirled around us.

Photos: Tres Jolie in Littleton

"I didn't know what I wanted it to be, so this is what I ended up with," owner Holly Smith said of her boutique-meets-sandwicheria-and-teahouse when I returned to Tres Jolie with my mother — who, in contrast to my brother, was absolutely delighted by everything she saw. She'd wanted to cook, Smith explained, but she also had a thing for France, for pretty things, and for loose-leaf teas, so she'd combined everything into one spot and opened Tres Jolie in downtown Littleton in 2005. In a space that looks like an even girlier Anthropologie, she now sells soap, cookbooks and throw pillows — and also serves lunch and tea.

Smith's sandwiches are definitely fancied up from run-of-the-mill deli varieties: grilled cheese with tomato and arugula, goat cheese with roasted red peppers, turkey with white-truffle vinaigrette and tapenade. She also bakes all of her pastries in-house — including the croissants for those sandwiches. You can sip one of the 150 teas she stocks (some of which are very rare) as you linger at a table, or you can take them home in bulk. And while you wait for your meal, you can pick up that gift for your mother-in-law.

"People sometimes say they don't get it, but there's nothing to get," Smith told me. "Women love it. And men are usually won over in the end, too — that is, if they can get through the door in the first place."

"Think I'd get points with my girlfriend if I took her to a place like this?" my brother asked as we watched the aproned server who'd taken our order chit-chat with every table, as though we were at a brunch shower.

"Uhhhh..." I said.

I was saved from any further response by the arrival of a three-tiered serving platter. The sandwiches were on the bottom level, and I mowed through half of the grilled ham and cheese in record time. The flaky croissant was delightful, and the tangy tomato and peppery arugula provided a nice, crisp balance to the pork and cheddar. I was pleasantly surprised by the turkey and olive tapenade, too. This sandwich, which came on a crusty baguette, had been drizzled with a white-truffle vinaigrette that I'd expected not to like, since truffle oil usually makes me queasy. But the truffle flavor was muted by sharp parmesan and worked well with the salty olives.

Sandwiches gone, we moved to the middle plate, which held scones, clotted cream and jam. As in Britain, where they're considered a perfectly suitable breakfast bread, scones don't count as dessert at Tres Jolie.

"I've never had a scone before," Adam said as he held one out, examining its nooks and crannies. This became obvious as he used the clotted cream and jam like dipping sauces, letting his pastry crumble into bits in the tiny dishes. Otherwise, these scones were a good introduction: crisp and sugared on the outside and soft within, but still dense enough to hold up to the spreads — when they were actually spread. I liked the cream, which had a flavor reminiscent of a sugar cookie, and chocolate-chip versions better than the raspberry-studded scone, which had a sour note running through it.

By now far from famished, I moved on to the top tier of the famished tea: actual desserts. Tres Jolie makes different pastries every day, about half of which are chocolate and the rest combinations of fruit and cream. We'd opted for one of each, and now found ourselves facing a Snickers tart and a peach bombé decorated with an iced purple flower. I preferred the peach, with its moist center and chunks of fruit — if only because I couldn't eat more than a bite of the rich chocolate-caramel-peanut mix before succumbing to the heaviness of the meal. But my brother had no problem making the rest of the tart disappear in about three bites.

I poured myself more tea as a digestif.

When I returned with my mother, we sat at the bar, chatting with Smith, sipping coffee from French presses and splitting a Monte Cristo, which was my favorite sandwich so far. Two halves of a crisped croissant held a thin layer of sharp, melted Gruyère and ham that would have been delightful on its own but was even better slathered with sweet blackberry jam. We'd asked for a Sunny cookie for dessert — laying claim to the last one on hand, to the bitter disappointment of the people behind us in line, who'd trekked across town for that very pastry. The buttery cookie, loaded with sunflower seeds and chocolate chips, arrived warm; it was an extremely satisfying — if dense — combination. And then, to work off our lunch, we picked up and played with the cute things on the table, completely sold on Tres Jolie. But then, we're women: We like long lunches and pretty things.

As Smith predicted, though, my brother was pleasantly surprised by the place, too. As we walked out the door, he even smiled at me.

"It was pretty good, actually," he said. "And also, I left the toilet seat up in the bathroom."

Photos: Tres Jolie in Littleton

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk