With chef John Broening at the helm, Le Grand Bistro & Oyster bar should be the ultimate French brasserie.
It’s been nearly a decade since I first discovered the well-matched pairing of theater and brasserie. Given a shared love of music and food, a date invited me to see Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met, followed by dinner. After the opera, we stepped from the warm afterglow of New York City’s Lincoln Center into the blustery November wind, along with hundreds of other cab-seeking theatergoers. When, finally, my date declared “Broadway and Spring” to our driver, I knew instantly that his big surprise was Balthazar.
The iconic French brasserie was a curious choice to me. Keith McNally’s restaurant (one of New York’s most coveted reservations for at least two years after it opened in 1997) was still plenty good some seven years in, but it was all the way downtown. I spent the 20-minute ride to SoHo wondering which Upper West Side classic I would have selected instead—until we walked in. The warm yellow light streaming from mirrored columns kissed each of my cheeks. The informal but informed service was a calming reprieve from the emotional intensity of the opera. Steak frites and a basic Bordeaux were comforting choices after four hours of following supertitles.
To pair theater with French brasserie, Denverites have it easy: One must simply walk a single block from the Denver Performing Arts Complex to Robert Thompson’s
Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar. No subways. No cabs. No problem. On a night when Book of Mormon or another blockbuster is in town, Le Grand hums with that irresistible brasserie charm. An oversize globe sconce, a red awning, and 125-year-old tile floors greet customers. The clinking and clattering of flatware against china in a packed dining room is more alluring than any Pandora station. The menu of steak tartare, mussels Billy Bi, and a sampling of other classics is as comforting as it comes. And the food, now prepared under chef John Broening—the respected Denver chef who spent several formative years living in France—is, for the most part, exquisite.
It’s not the first time Broening and Thompson have worked together. The pair opened the highly acclaimed, if short-lived, Brasserie Rouge in 2003. Broening went on to cook at Duo, the late Olivéa, and Spuntino (the Highland restaurant he owns with his wife, pastry chef Yasmin Lozada-Hissom). In July, the chef reunited with Thompson, becoming the culinary director for Le Grand and two restaurants set to open this year. Broening’s immediate impact on the food at Le Grand, which opened in 2011, has been noteworthy.
In the months since Broening began, I’ve had a tangle of tender, gently charred octopus arms that he brushed with lemon and served with salty olive tapenade. A friend and I sparred over a salad of shaved fennel ribbons, blanched discs of celery root, fresh watercress, pine nuts, and dried figs. I couldn’t stop eating the silky creamed carrot purée that accompanied Broening’s braised short ribs, which he brilliantly brightened with fresh horseradish—a nod to his Jewish heritage. During another meal, house-made mustard spaetzle came bedecked with the heart-shaped shoot of an oca plant (a South American tuber) from Denver’s Hunt & Gather, a testament to the chef’s commitment to procuring interesting ingredients from tiny, local farms. Over lunch, I ignored every calorie present in a jambon and Brie sandwich that was rich with buttered sourdough, soft, rind-on cheese, and house-brined, house-smoked ham. As if that weren’t enough, the sandwich came with thinnish-cut frites that were too perfect to put down. And on a night when Broening made rounds in the dining room, I tasted the only duck leg—crispy, tender, salty—that’s ever rivaled the one cooked for me in a home kitchen in the French countryside.