Dining

Mix & Match

Frank Bonanno’s latest venture, Lou’s Food Bar, marries French favorites with American roadhouse fare. But does it work?

September 2011

Lou’s Food Bar

1851 W. 38th Ave.
303-458-0336
lousfoodbar.com

Food:
Service:
Ambience:

The Draw An impressive lineup of country French favorites, including escargot, pâté, house-made sausages, cheese, and charcuterie.

The Drawback The scrubbed roadhouse feel of the space is unwelcoming; the menu, which combines country French and American comfort food, seems oddly schizophrenic.

Don’t Miss Duck liver mousse, escargot with Gruyère gratinée, Lyonnaise salade, duck confit, fried chicken.

Price $$$ (Average Price: $17 per entrée)

I like to think I’m equally at home among the Burgundy-sniffing, escargot-and-pâté crowd as I am with the boot-stomping fans of bourbon and barbecued ribs. What I don’t want is to be immersed in both culinary camps at the same time. First, there’s the issue of what to wear—a sundress or a snap-front shirt? Second, there’s the problem of how to act: effete or effusive? Third, if dining is, at least in part, about anticipation, how can a gal possibly get her taste buds ready if both chicken liver mousse and fried chicken are on the menu?

This is the challenge presented by Lou’s Food Bar, Bonanno Concepts’ latest offering. At the top of the menu: house-made cheese and charcuterie. Farther down: meatloaf and spaghetti. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it—and I say this as someone who’s long been a fan of chef-owner Frank Bonanno.

Every restaurant in his Denver empire has earned a spot on my go-to list. Mizuna for special celebrations; Luca D’Italia to impress food-savvy friends from the coasts; Bones for a mid-winter bowl of steamy noodles; Osteria Marco for suckling pig on Sunday nights. But with Lou’s, I fear Bonanno may be showing signs of fatigue. The country-French-slash-American-comfort-food menu is difficult to decipher, and the roadhouse feel of the cinder-block space on 38th Avenue is less than welcoming. (Picture a single open room, black tables, a long bar, and...not much else.)

If Lou’s had been launched several years ago by some new, unknown chef, I might be inclined to overlook its split personality. But the dining scene has matured, the bar has been raised, and Bonanno himself is largely responsible for raising that bar. We’ve come to expect more from our restaurants and our chefs, particularly those at the vanguard.

But here’s the thing. When you’re a good chef—as Bonanno is—even if the vibe is off, even when the overall experience isn’t what you hoped for, the food can still be quite satisfying. With Lou’s, Bonanno (along with fellow chef and partner Mike Peshek), wanted to provide diners with the artisanal cuisine he’s known for at a lower price. One of the major attractions is the ability to nab a silky duck liver mousse with a sour cherry mostarda for just $7, or smooth salmon rillettes with crème fraîche and capers for six bucks. The plump escargot blanketed by melted Gruyère, one of the best appetizers I’ve had all year, was made even better thanks to its $13 price tag.

The low-cost strategy can backfire, however, as it did with the lump crab cakes, which were dry, spongy, and overwhelmed by brown bread filler. The mussels La Cagouille—a homage to the popular dish long offered by the late Mel’s in Cherry Creek—were similarly disappointing. The fresh lemon-butter sauce was not enough to compensate for the fading youth of many of the mussels.

A better choice, if you’re looking for something on the light side, would be a salad, all of which are generously portioned. Try the Lyonnaise, a mountain of frisée and other seasonal lettuces, topped with an oozy poached egg, succulent strips of duck confit, and smoky bacon squares. The white bean and haricot verts salad, dressed in a lively sherry vinaigrette, is equally impressive.

Perhaps by now you, too, can detect the French influence in Lou’s lineup, especially at the top of the menu. The deeper you get into your meal, however, the more schizophrenic Lou’s becomes. Move from salad to sandwich, from sandwich to sausage (a house specialty), from sausage to main dish, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a common theme except, maybe, comfort food. And, given that all food should be comforting, I’m not sure this is enough of a unifier.

The lack of solidarity among dishes does not indicate an absence of harmony in the kitchen, however. In fact, some of the most satisfying plates are found under the entrée section—not because they are terribly sophisticated, but precisely because they aren’t.

If you’re looking for hearty mid-week fare that registers low on the risk-meter, you can’t miss with Lou’s fried chicken. Fussy, it ain’t. Filling, it is, thanks to three juicy pieces of organic chicken packed inside a crunchy coating and served with a thick whip of mashed potatoes. The grilled hanger steak is also well executed, surprisingly simple, and totally satisfying due to a tumble of fries and heap of mixed vegetables. (Yes, the cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and peas may look like a Birds Eye bag special, but the cheeky mustard-and-vinegar dressing will surprise you.)

Among Lou’s list of mains, the dish most worthy of a Facebook status update is the duck confit a l’orange. Like the other entrées, it works because it’s exactly what you expect it to be: crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and deftly enhanced by a light orange sauce. This is the dish that focused my attention toward the food and away from the strangeness of the space. This happy focus continued with a meal-ending slice of surprisingly light caramel-apple pie from Wednesday’s Pie—another Bonanno venture.

Then the cartoon question mark appeared over my head again: apple pie? Duck confit? At the same time? Depending on your viewpoint, this culinary mash up is either funky-cool or just plain odd. I pull the lever on the latter. While Bonanno’s talent is widely appreciated by Francophiles, Lou’s pull-up-on-a-Harley space is better suited to the home-cooking crowd. I have to think that choosing one type of cuisine (and clientele) over the other would have been far more successful than straining to accommodate both.