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foie gras mousse with basil gel. Photo by Matt Nager.

Restaurant Review: LeRoux

From its striking space on the 16th Street Mall, does LeRoux realize it's fine-dining ambitions?

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LeRoux

1.5 Stars

The Draw:
Sophisticated bistro vibe, fine wines and cheeses, a few standout dishes.
The Drawback:
Underwhelming delivery of ambitious ideas.
Don’t Miss:
Cheese service, wagyu tartare, foie gras mousse, pistachio Paris-Brest dessert.

LeRoux claims to be a European restaurant serving nouvelle cuisine, which strikes me as a bit odd. “Nouvelle cuisine” is vintage terminology these days, as relevant to modern French chefs as “office casual” would be to staffers dressing for work at Google. “European,” meanwhile, reminds me of starchy restaurants serving a bit of this and a bit of that from over there.

In fact, to me, LeRoux’s menu is haute-ish French, with an American accent and a tendency toward reinvention. On the one hand, it offers a straightforward foie gras mousse; on the other, there’s a mille-feuille-esque appetizer featuring many thin sheets of succulent mushroom instead of laminated pastry. Onion-crusted short rib with panko topping seems pretty New American, and occasionally you’ll taste Mediterranean or Germanic touches, such as feta and mint in a salad, merguez sausage and caraway cabbage appearing on a plate with slow-cooked pork, and spaetzle accompanying a chicken roulade.

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LeRoux’s roving cart delivers lovely cheeses. Photo by Matt Nager.

This mix of old and new, near and far makes sense when you know chef and co-owner Lon Symensma’s background. He cooked for star chefs in several European countries, making his bones in Denver with Pan-Asian ChoLon, located beside LeRoux on the 16th Street Mall. In 2017, Symensma opened eclectic New American Concourse Restaurant Moderne in Stapleton, and in early 2019, with executive chef Jeff Stoneking at his side, Symensma debuted LeRoux, saying it was time to honor the European side of his ledger. (Stoneking left three months ago.)

Successes at LeRoux are notable, but they often appear as components on the plate rather than fully realized dishes. A sweet corn custard served with a veal chop this past summer was splendid, like an American corn pudding that matriculated at the Sorbonne. The uni-enriched aïoli on toast served with bouillabaisse-style mussels was a thoughtful twist on tradition, as was a Meyer-lemon-infused meunière sauce served with steamed lobster. Cauliflower crème brûlée, complete with an ultra-thin, shattering sugar crust, was faultlessly smooth. Saffron zing in pickled watermelon rind made a tomato and melon salad intriguing, while delicately candied walnuts and soft, semi-sweet strawberry preserves were perfect counterpoints on a cheese plate.

Indeed, as any French-inspired restaurant must, LeRoux gets its cheese and wine fundamentals right. There’s a cart whose selections (three, five, or seven cheeses for $18, $28, or $38) make a lovely meal-ender, perhaps with a glass of Champagne if you’re feeling well-financed. The cheeses I tasted there were in perfect bloom, which is no small feat.

Pistachio Paris-Brest with caramel. Photo by Matt Nager.

For those who like tableside ritual, don’t miss the wagyu beef tartare, which arrives under an enormous smoke-filled cloche. The server lifts the glass dome to reveal a Gehry-like tower of twisting waffle-cut potato chips over layers of caviar, chopped raw beef, and a sort of dense egg salad. Also, if it’s still on the menu, score an order of the Paris-Brest: a ring of impeccable, light choux pastry filled with rich pistachio cream and a brisk, salty caramel. That dish was as close to self-actualized as LeRoux’s food came.

The wine list takes a Pan-European tour that dips into Switzerland, Greece, and Portugal and then lingers in France and Italy. It’s not a bargain list, with many bottles over $60 and a hefty selection in the hundreds, but there’s variety in grape, style, and region. One night, our server was deeply informed (and not in a boring way) about the virtues of a semi-dry Lucien Albrecht (Pfingstberg) Grand Cru Pinot Gris ($80). Another night, a bottle of Weingut Carl Ehrhard Pinot Noir ($48) was served exactly as cool as it needed to be and was the sort of wine—modest, delicious, neither over-oaked nor over-fruited, nor too expensive—I always enjoy drinking.

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The restaurant’s design mostly works. LeRoux is a fairly small spot with a handsome bar, dark paneling, blue tufted leather banquettes, black-and-white tile, tall white tapers, and other elements of bistro typology. I would note, though, that the closer you sit to the bar (if not at it), the better: The tables near the sidewalk-facing windows are jolly, but a small, windowless interior dining room has a Siberian feel if it’s not full.

The trouble comes when you consider LeRoux’s dishes as a whole. Over two dinners (with drinks) costing more than $100 per person, the consistent through-line was inconsistency. The lovely corn pudding mentioned earlier was marred by a too-rare, gristly veal chop. The sautéed spinach under my wife’s lobster was over-salted. The sauce with the slow-cooked block of beef short rib was piercingly concentrated and over-reduced; eating it felt like sucking on a bouillon cube. Fried capers, pine nuts, golden raisins, and roasted cauliflower florets bullied the delicate flavor of the cauliflower crème brûlée, and mustard seeds, pickled corn, and a piquillo-pepper gastrique did the same to the wondrous mushroom terrine. I adored LeRoux’s silky foie gras mousse but found the blobs of tangy basil goo that came with it weirdly off-pitch. And the seared scallops with beurre blanc arrived under clouds of briny foam. (Concerning foam: Non, merci.)

The bar area at LeRoux. Photo by Matt Nager.

The above were mistakes of composition or judgment, but there were plenty of unforced culinary errors, too. All four of us who tasted the French onion soup agreed that the broth was oversweet and lacking beef-bone depth (although its cap of molten cheese and sopping bread was just right). A croque madame at lunch was more of an eggs Benedict deal, doused with a Mornay sauce that my French dining companion—a superb cook—pronounced too heavy on the mustard, while the Banyuls-laced aïoli alongside oddly seasoned french fries was, in fact, a saccharine mustard dip. Late-season heirloom tomatoes were mushy; a thinly sliced peach was underripe. Dark chocolate pot de crème wasn’t dark enough, and a baked Alaska refused to ignite, resulting in two dousings of bourbon and insufficient meringue char.

My service experience at LeRoux involved an attentive revolving cast; at least five servers visited our table one night, and each was in top form. But pacing is an issue: There was an overlong gap between courses during my first dinner, and on another night, our lead server delivered a snooty admonishment about the kitchen’s preference concerning orders. We bent to her will, ordering the mains at the same time as the appetizers. Ironic, really, because thereafter the kitchen rushed our first course, sending it out well ahead of the arrival of our too-sweet cocktails.

Lately, I’ve been puzzling over the ups and downs at Denver’s finer restaurants. For every rock-steady Mercantile Dining & Provision or Tavernetta, another spot begins strong, then fades. I ate all of my meals at LeRoux well after the dining that led this magazine to include it on 2019’s 25 Best Restaurants list. (I don’t put together that list, but I almost always agree with it.) The challenge for chefs who run multiple restaurants is maintaining quality in each as they focus on the next opening—or closing. As I was dining at LeRoux, Stoneking and general manager Dani Craig were departing, and Concourse was rebooting as a second ChoLon. I can’t imagine the complexities of such empire-building, but I can, however, report on the casualties.

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