Is a restaurant’s job to wow or simply to satisfy?
It’s a question that’s vexed me for awhile now, but the answer might lie in a new spot at Belleview Station, on the cusp of Greenwood Village.
With so many eateries opening in and around Denver, each has to find a way to set itself apart. Often, that means telling a unique story. Le French has a great story: Two talented sisters, born in Senegal but raised in France, reunite in Denver to open their first restaurant together — a French-bakery-meets-bistro. It’s an alluring tale that drew excitement from food writers across town when Le French opened last April. In December, this newspaper even declared it one of the best new Mile High City restaurants of the year.
Perhaps it is, but in my view, Le French is a place that leaves one content but not necessarily impressed. There isn’t anything on the menu that would persuade me, on a typical night-off-from-the-home-kitchen, to make the trek from my residence on the west side of town to its Belleview Station location.
But then: Does that matter? I would simultaneously argue that Le French is a good restaurant. The food is tasty. The menu is appealing and decently priced. Guests feel welcomed and comfortable. Drinks are well-made. Servers are pleasant and responsive.
These are all factors that can make or break one’s dining experience, and sisters, chefs and co-owners Aminata and Rougui Dia mostly succeed on all those fronts. It’s worth considering, too, that Le French is still a babe, not yet a year old and still figuring out the desires of its clientele. (An afternoon tea cart and after-dinner dessert bar have been shelved for the time being due to low demand.)
I’ve pondered on my opening question for a long time. Truth be told, if I’m going out and spending $20 or more on an entrée, I do expect to be wowed. But there is a place — even a need — for reliable eateries that may not excite but do leave your belly happy and full. Le French just needs to lean into one or the other. Waffling somewhere in the middle doesn’t make for nearly as good of a story.
Food: When you put “breakfast” and “French” in the same sentence, one expects to encounter pastries and crêpes, and their wishes are granted at Le French. The former are sourced from La Belle French Bakery in Thornton. Don’t miss the French cinnamon roll ($4.40), a warm, crusty morning treat that manages not to overdo it on the icing and isn’t shy with its cinnamon flavor. And those crêpes? There are eight, four savory, four sweet. The apple tatin version tops our must-try list (10 a.m. felt like too early to eat the side of vanilla ice cream on our last visit).
For savory options, look to the eggs. The ratatouille omelet ($13) is fluffy and stuffed with a trio of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes plus goat cheese; on the side are more veggies (not really needed with this dish) and thinly sliced, perfectly cooked Lyonnaise potatoes (definitely necessary). Meat-eaters will prefer the croque madame ($12), a sandwich of ham, Gruyère and creamy béchamel sauce crowned with a runny fried egg and accompanied by those aforementioned sides.
Brunch and lunch have enough crossover with the a.m. and p.m. menus that we’re skipping over them and heading right to dinner. In the evenings, diners will taste more of the Dias’ Senegalese heritage. A prime example: les pastels ($9), an appetizer of three crispy, empanada-like dough pockets stuffed with tuna. Drag each triangle through the traditional, chunky tomato and onion sauce (imagine a salsa texture) for a soulful bite. French onion soup ($9.50) is another must-order. Though we would have enjoyed double the amount of vegetable broth base in our bowl, the timeless combination of caramelized onion, baguette croutons (in place of one large hunk of bread), and Gruyère is winter comfort food at its best.
The entrée lineup is carnivore-heavy, and the Colorado lamb shoulder ($29) stars. Two massive slabs of tender meat are coated in Mediterranean spices and slow-cooked in a rich red wine sauce. Let it seep into the accompanying potato puree and scoop it all up with the surprising standout of the dish: al dente pickled lentils.
Le Boeuf Bourguignon ($29) was a little less exciting. The Angus beef short rib was well-cooked and fell apart upon cutting, but the dish — it’s plated with potato puree, cremini mushrooms, and carrots — felt flat on the palate after the spice punch of the lamb.
On a future visit, we’ll opt for the gniiri ($23), a vegan dish of creamed cornmeal, veggies, pine nuts, basil and truffle oil that was inspired by the Dias’ grandmother.
Sadly, dessert (all $10) was a letdown. Rougui specializes in baba au rhum, individual-size yeast cakes that are soaked in a syrup made from hard liquor (usually rum, but not always). She even had a dessert shop in Paris that solely made these sorts of cakes. Perhaps it was the choice of rum, but Rougui’s version tasted more like a moist shortcake; it was missing the toasted sweetness that came through in the rum cake I enjoy in Paris. However, the French vanilla whipped cream that topped the sweet was thick and flavorful and worth spooning up every last bite.
Drinks: For a wake-up call, look no further than the array of drinks made with Boulder’s Dragonfly Coffee Roasters (Roast magazine’s 2019 Micro Roaster of the Year). We suggest ordering the French press; it’s a steal at $4.30.
The beer and cider list runs just four long, so turn to wines — there’s an extensive array, with French varietals taking the lead — or cocktails. Surprisingly, the eight morning tipples also appear on the evening menu (with one addition). Those lineups include French classics such as the French 75 ($11) and Kir Royal ($10), as well as African-influenced sips, such as the ruby-red Le Bissap ($12). The latter, the national drink of Senegal, combines tequila, pineapple juice, hibiscus and spices without leaning into saccharine territory. (Non-boozers should try the cold hibiscus-mint tea, $3.75, instead.)
Vibe: It’s difficult to get an accurate read on Le French because it was never more than about one-third full on our visits (snowstorms may have been to blame), though the “Bonjour” greeting we received from the host at dinnertime made us smile. Still, the setting as a whole is stylish, with black walls and white brick accented with copper touches and an exposed ceiling. Some greenery would do a lot to warm up the space, as would removing the incongruous TV in the bar area. Another questionable design choice: Some of the dangling lights over the booth area hang so low that you need to duck your head in order to reach your seat.
Service: Spotty. Though they’re congenial and speedy, servers could use a refresh on some basic hospitality tenets. During dinner, the wrong dish was delivered (though, to be fair, the error was swiftly corrected), empty cocktail glasses were left on the table for the entire meal, and we were never asked if we wanted refills. (This always surprises me, especially considering how quickly bills — and thus, potentially, tips — jump when liquor is added to a tab.)
Bottom Line: Visit Le French often for breakfast, whether you’re sitting down or grabbing coffee and a treat to-go. You should certainly give it a chance at dinner, too; if the team can work out some kinks, the Senegalese influences and French technique may just come together to tell a story we’ll all want to hear — and taste.
Price: Appetizers ($9 to $21); Entrées ($13 to $31); Pastries and desserts ($3 to $10); Breakfast/brunch/lunch ($6 to $17) Cocktails ($8 to $15); Wines by the glass ($8 to $18); Beers ($6 to $7)
Fun Fact: In 2005, chef Rougui Dia — the “African Queen of Parisian Queen” — became the first black woman to lead a Michelin-starred restaurant when she was named executive chef at Paris’ Le Petrossian 144.
Restaurant Info: Le French, 4901 S. Newport St., 720-710-8963, lefrenchdenver.com. Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday. Reservations: Accepted. Parking: Free street parking.
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