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(out of 4)
250 Steele St., 303-331-0250, www.french250.com
The Draw An elegant setting for chef Jeremy Thomas’ exquisitely prepared, classic French cuisine; an outstanding collection of Champagnes.
The Drawback Service is highly inconsistent, with wide variations in timing and attention to detail.
Don’t Miss The escargot in puff pastry, seared foie gras, frog legs in three sauces, filet of bison, coquilles St. Jacques À la 250, and the duck three ways.
Vegetarian Options Superb cheese list, salade du fermier, baby marinated artichokes, and a mélange of sautéed wild mushrooms.
For a city to be known as a dining destination, it’s essential that strong, classic French fare be part of the mix. When Tante Louise, Denver’s grande dame of French cooking, closed its doors in 2005, people all over the metro area felt the loss. Of course, Bistro Vendôme, Aix, and Le Central still catered to Francophiles, but something about the Old World charm of Tante Louise made its closure feel like we’d lost a good friend.
Then, in August 2007, French 250 opened in Cherry Creek North. Complete with vintage chandeliers, white tablecloths, and intimate decor (even a restored Cadillac Coupe Deville limousine for gratis transportation), there was hope that French 250 would fill the void left by Tante Louise. And that’s just what owner Ted Reece (a printing company mogul, real estate developer, sommelier, and connoisseur, who only recently added “restaurateur” to his resume) hopes to accomplish.
When a space opened in the Promenade in Cherry Creek North—one that years ago housed Bistro Adde Brewster—Reece jumped at the chance and began putting together his “dream team.” He wooed chef Jeremy Thomas from the Ship Tavern at the Brown Palace, general manager James Poplin from the Palm, bar manager Brett Zareck from Le Rouge, sommelier David Jackson from Opus, and later sous chef Julia Wolfe, also from the Brown Palace.
Thomas is a seasoned veteran who trained under renowned chef David Wiehler at the Tivoli Deer Restaurant in Kittredge and the Game Creek Club in Vail, but he’d always wanted a gig of his own. “I fell in love with Ted’s passion for great food and wine,” says Thomas, who spent three years at Ship Tavern. “It was also time for me to get back to really refined cooking, and Cherry Creek is the perfect location to offer upscale French food.”
And upscale it is, with walls and furnishings bathed in hues of cream, shimmering gold, and accents of espresso. Deep black booths and Champagne-colored chairs are nicely spaced, allowing plenty of elbow room for guests, as well as table space for the porcelain dishes and fine crystal stemware. Turn of the century-style chandeliers and a pounded tin ceiling add classic detail, while an original mural on the patio wall brightens the garden-level room and adds touches of French whimsy.
But the best part of French 250 is not the decor, it’s chef Thomas’ cooking. His food pays homage to the classic dishes of France—escargot, soufflés, duck, foie gras, frog legs—with small contemporary twists that make each dish his own. Thomas’ creative menu sparkles with fresh touches such as skate wing with pickled ramps, honey-dipped bison tenderloin, and pineapple soufflé served warm with Champagne vanilla honey.
Most importantly, every dish arrives exquisitely prepared. Vegetables display meticulous knife cuts, soufflés billow to puffy perfection, strained sauces envelop the spoon with velvety smoothness, proteins arrive with natural juices, and starches are cooked to the ideal bite. Flavors of the main ingredients stand out front and center, with accompaniments contributing depth and contrast without being over the top.
Take the Salade Alice Waters ($13). True to the simple philosophies (local, fresh, seasonal) of the legendary chef for which it is named, the salad combines local arugula with a balanced vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts, and shavings of a beautifully cured foie gras.
The foie gras appetizer ($27) is also sublime. Although pricey, the generous portion is worth every penny. Evenly caramelized on the outside, plump and creamy inside, and paired with small diced pineapple in St. Germain syrup with pickled ramps and toasted brioche, the dish is the ideal balance of sweet, tart, buttery, and savory. It would be criminal to pass over the escargot ($15). Tender Burgundy snails are bathed in a rich cream sauce and tucked into flaky puff pastry—this is the epitome of classic French cooking.
The filet of bison is the priciest entrée on the menu at $45, but it’s one of the best buffalo dishes in Denver. Tender and juicy, with just a hint of sweet, the crispy fried onion-topped steak arrives on a bed of caramelized onion mashed potatoes, along with vibrant carrots and haricots verts and a silky Madeira sauce.
Other stand-out dishes include the stuffed chicken breast ($27) with savory, crispy skin; the coquilles St. Jacques À la 250 ($33) with wild mushrooms, haricots verts, artichoke, bacon, and a luscious pea coulis with bacon lardons; and the duck three ways ($39), a trio of duck breast, confit, and foie gras paired with a soft mascarpone polenta and a sweet blackberry-Madeira glace.
An À la carte section of the menu allows diners to mix and match their own proteins, sides, and sauces, such as the noteworthy truffle béarnaise, soy hollandaise, and Cognac peppercorn. Pass on the natural Burgundy reduction, however, which is heavy on the demi-glace and tends to overwhelm the proteins.
Guests can also be interactive in their dining experience by choosing one of French 250’s various tastings. Complimentary wine tastings (Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.) offer pours chosen from an impressive roster of Champagnes, French wines, and lovely vintages from all over the world. Samples are chosen based on the diner’s preferences, and, on request, with small bites provided to match to each wine. Even salt is presented in a trilogy for guests to experiment with fleur du sel, sel gris, and Hawaiian Alaea sea salt. Cheeses ($5 per ounce) can be chosen from an extraordinary list that includes both well known and more obscure varieties, such as the Roaring Forties Tasmanian blue.
With so much to choose from it’s difficult to save room for dessert, but with classics made in-house, such as the tarte aux pommes apple tart ($13), the blood orange frozen soufflé ($13), and the warm pineapple soufflé with vanilla honey ($13), abstaining from the finales becomes an impossible task.
What shouldn’t be impossible at French 250 is finding quality service. A professional waitstaff with impeccable timing and attention to detail is the exception here rather than the rule. Servers are kind, thoughtful, and well meaning, but all too often dishes are forgotten, drinks take ages to appear, plates are cleared at a snail’s pace, wine specials are rarely disclosed, and sometimes entire entrée orders are overlooked. As a whole, the service needs considerable fine-tuning for it to match the caliber of the restaurant’s superb food and wine.
Perhaps some of this inattention comes from the fact that French 250 is Reece’s first restaurant. We chock it up to inexperience, but it’s a shame more attention isn’t paid to the front of the house. Food this fine deserves the greatest amount of professionalism, instead of just a well-intentioned but haphazard staff. French 250 is still young, and we hope its continued growth includes a service overhaul so that Denver, once again, has a grande dame to call her own.