Cafe Marmotte

1.5 Stars

The Draw:
A pleasantly eclectic room; classic bistro dishes
The Drawback:
Inconsistent kitchen and several menu misfires
Don’t Miss:
Anything braised, such as coq au vin or beef cheeks; onion tart; apps and wine at the small bar

As I was planning my first dinner at Cafe Marmotte, I realized how much I’ve missed eating in Paris: a ham and butter sandwich at a sidewalk table in the bleary early hours after a transatlantic flight; funky, gamey wild pheasant at the raucous Basque bistro L’Ami Jean during hunting season; a summer lunch of fried skate atop a briny tomato-anchovy sauce at Le Verre Volé, a hole-in-the-wall near the Canal Saint-Martin that hardly seems big enough to be a wine shop or cafe, let alone both. In food and manner, my favorite Paris places have a casual intensity, a blasé seriousness that is unmistakably Gallic.

What is a French restaurant in America, though? Does it serve classic bistro dishes like coq au vin, which Cafe Marmotte in Washington Park does quite well? Does it offer riffs on classic dishes, like Marmotte’s creamy French onion soup, puréed and served with cheese-puff things? Or does it flex its fusion muscles with yellowfin tuna carpaccio and avocado, radish, orange, soy, and crispy lotus root—the sort of dish that is de rigueur in American restaurants and not implausible in the so-called neo-bistros of Paris?

In fact, there is no formula to define a French restaurant here. Perhaps as a result, Cafe Marmotte, the bistro-themed Denver branch of the successful La Marmotte in Telluride (which I have not been to; both restaurants are owned by chef Mark Reggiannini and his wife, Mairen Reagan), is somewhat shambolic—not unlike the lovable alpine rodent after which it is named. Deftly executed dishes are followed by misfires, while others seem misconceived and details are either ignored or not grasped.

But let’s pull back to first impressions. One would not predict the magpie interior of this small restaurant from its utterly anonymous facade. Gray walls highlight a quirky mix of art, including an art nouveau–ish print; a luminous gilt-framed portrait in the Orientalist harem style; and a small drawing near the bar of…oddly, Christopher Walken.

The bar itself is cozy, with bottles of liquor sitting on an elaborate circular steel shelving unit that reminded me of a hundred small-city bars in France or Italy. The windows are curtained and blinded, obscuring the view of the staggeringly unromantic intersection of South Downing Street and East Alameda Avenue.

Start with the caramelized onion and goat-cheese tart if it’s still on the menu. It sat on a painterly swipe of brilliant orange ginger-carrot sauce that didn’t add much, but the tart was delicious otherwise, with a crispy short crust and lovely flavors evoking a classic pissaladière topped with bits of crisp bacon and dotted with chopped chives.

Next came the creamy French onion soup. Tasty enough, but why riff on perfection? Consider the original: slippery sweet onions against the salty, beefy notes of good stock and under gooey, stinky cheese and soaking bread that forms a thick cap, crusty at the edges from a blast by the kitchen salamander. Puréeing the soup yielded the same oniony sweetness, with a slightly grainy aspect, but the “tempura cave-aged Gruyère” nuggets that sat on top were too scant to match the decadence of the classic.

I also ordered a starter called Earth and Sea with bits of grilled octopus and crispy-edged sweetbreads forming a conga line on black and white quinoa and finished with tomato and meuniére. The quinoa was cooked to a nice couscous texture and the mild sauce let the seafood shine, but the octopus lacked char and the sweetbreads were chalkier than I like.

Same pattern with entrées: Advantage goes to the classics. The coq au vin was nearly perfect—infused with deep winey flavors, the chicken forkable and flavorful. Braised beef cheeks were similarly well made, all collagen-sticky. Clearly, wet cooking is a strong point in the Marmotte kitchen. With the four entrées I tried, sauces were properly reduced, not overly thickened. But there were problems in the details. The corn and green peas in a corn and tomato sauté were overcooked and starchy. Ditto the peas with my Atlantic cod, which itself was nicely roasted and flaky. The peas with my wife’s roast chicken, which was rather limp-skinned, suffered the same fate. Spreading one ingredient across many dishes creates a viral problem if you get it wrong. Also—nitpicking here, I admit—almost every savory dish, and that includes those at brunch, was scattered with chive bits, sometimes two or three, sometimes more than 100 (I counted them), as if there’s an apprentice with a chive shotgun just inside the kitchen door.

I hate to pile on, but a “martini” called the Lavender Seventy-Five managed to insult the good name of both martinis and French 75s by being oversweet and barely fizzy. Meanwhile, two desserts would have set mild, sweet Jacques Pépin into a boiling rage: The lemon tart was tainted by a crust of wet clay, and the crème brûlée was cooked to the grainy-egg stage. Perhaps I sound like less of a sourpuss if I say that service was consistently friendly and prompt and that a bottle of 2011 Les Trois Couronnes Vacqueyras ($53) was exactly right for the rich braised meats, tasting of earth and sun-roasted black fruit.

I returned another evening to sit at the bar for appetizers and a glass of red. It was a solid bistro-esque experience. The beet salad was beautifully arranged on the plate—tender sheets of beet under chunks of beet, nicely dressed—marred only by an attempt to fancy up the goat cheese accent by frying it in a wonton wrapper. It’s a nice idea if served crispy, tender, and hot; not so nice if leathery and lukewarm. I also enjoyed a dish called Steak, Bacon, Ham, and Eggs, a riff on the deviled egg with one egg topped with a spoonful of vinegary beef tartare, another with crispy pork belly, and a third by a twirl of prosciutto. The kitchen had beaten crème fraîche and mustard into the yolks to yield a lusciously creamy base, and the tartare was freshly cut.

That last dish proved the kitchen could master a clever twist, so I looked forward to the banh mi Benedict at brunch, one of four variations on the poached-eggs-with-hollandaise motif. One strategy would be to retain the bread—echoes of those Parisian sandwiches—and maybe cilantro-ize the hollandaise while pan-frying a coarse country pâté into a sort of scrapple before throwing in lots of pickled vegetables for crunch and the obligatory poached egg. But what I got was a soft egg and an English muffin topped with Sriracha hollandaise and accompanied by a slice of crisped pork belly and a spoonful of creamy chopped liver that combined with the egg into a sort of liver-and-yolk slurry that did the sandwich no favors.

Another Benedict was better: avocado, tomato, and a lurid purple hollandaise colored with beet. And an omelet was fine, though it in no way sported the delicate touch of an omelet artist (check out Pépin’s two brilliant YouTube videos about this art). It was marred, however, by a side of flabby whole-wheat toast.

The bottom line is that Cafe Marmotte falls well short of succeeding at what the French call bistronomy. With that said, on a Thursday night it is full of happy-looking diners, half young, half not young, suggesting a broad neighborhood appetite for the bistro experience. With a customer base like that, it needs to up its Franco-American game. Less marmot, more rat—as in, Ratatouille.

—Photography by Carmel Zucker