Stellar flavors aside: Le Bistro is as much a product of the economy as it is of imagination.
Two months ago, the quaint converted house formerly named La Petite Maison sat vacant, having awaited a buyer who never came in the four months since Henri Chaperont placed it on the market and took a job with a soon-to-open downtown boutique hotel.
Local foodies who'd supported La Petite Maison since its inception in the late 1970s and sale to Chaperont in 2005 were stunned to hear that the longtime operation was ending with 2009's calendar. Former owners Holly and Jeff Mervis had cultivated one of the best upscale eateries in town, that since the late '90s and prior to Chaperont had hosted adept chefs like Chris Adrian (32 Bleu), Brent Beavers (Sencha) and Espiridion Moreno (MacKenzie's Chop House).
Those same foodies I can only guess were relieved to hear in April that Chaperont, no longer with the hotel, had decided to repurpose and reopen the space as Le Bistro. The fundamental difference, in response to the sagging business that was the major contributor to La Petite's closure, is a more affordable, bistro-style menu.
Adapt or die, no?
French-born and trained Chaperont, like any chef deserving of the title, fortunately handles change quite well, having cooked in various capacities all over the U.S. since the early '70s. Also fortunate: He says most of his regulars have returned since the closure and in the past, short two months, the lower prices appear to be sustaining traffic.
The sole signifier of pricier days past is the $32 Colorado rack of lamab on the dinner menu; other entrées range from $12 to $18, comparable to chain outfits. (No more excuses, people.) Lunch items span from $5 to $12.50 and are best consumed outside during summer.
La Petite/Le Bistro has long had one of the more comfortable and pleasant patios in town: sturdy tables and wide umbrellas over flagstone, lit by light strings at night. French groups meet regularly to play pétanque (the French version of Italy's bocce) in an adjacent gravel court, which backs up to Chaperont's herb garden.
When dining inside, you'll be seated in one of three small rooms adorned with fine art prints to match burgundy tablecloths and dark hardwood. Chaperont pulled up the carpet when he arrived to create a louder, more active environment where guests needn't whisper and blush when they accidentally scrape silverware with plate.
Think bistro, not Broadmoor.
That in mind, start with a classic French onion soup ($5) in veal stock with all the lovely cheese and soggy bread bites for which we all order the dish. If seeking punch without too much volume, look to the homemade country paté (tortured yummy goodness) served with toast points, mustard and tart baby pickles ($8), or the insanely delicious puff-pastry-wrapped goat cheese ($7.50) topped in a jalapeño confiture (jam).
Fine salads are exemplified by the simple roasted beet salad with red onions in a delicate honey goat cheese vinaigrette ($6.75), to which we added the offered combination of grilled salmon, shrimp and scallops (an additional $2.75). Apart from some dry salmon, it's a sure hit.
We lastly bypassed croissant sandwiches and the popular Quiche Lorraine and crab cakes dishes for the light and easy, tri-color farfalle primavera ($10) sautéed with assorted veggies in garlic and olive oil and dusted with Parmesan flecks. Nothing spectacular, but fine in its simplicity.
Save being amazed for dessert, where Chaperont's Tarte Tatin ($7) has thankfully reappeared in all of its upside-down, caramelized apple glory, amplified by a non-sweet and mildly sour crème fraîche. Where Americans reach for a rich, fatty ice cream, for once, the French show restraint with a tangy dairy dollop.
Few chocolate courses anywhere surpass Le Bistro's Warm Chocolate Fondant ($7.50), essentially a velvety chocolate lava cake in a large ramekin, served if you prefer with a lavender crème Anglaise — which also escorts fresh berries as another dessert offering ($7). The crème brûlée ($6.50) bears a perfectly torched sugar top and ideally textured creamy filling with an aromatic tinge of cardamom.
Back for dinner, we start with Chaperont's bestselling steamed Mussels Mariniere ($8), a generous serving of shellfish under one of the most heavenly broths in existence, stupefying for its simplicity: garlic, shallots, parsley, white wine, salt and pepper. If your server allows the bread to run out, you consider dipping the tablecloth and suckling it.
That elegant simplicity leads yet again with the Colorado Rainbow Trout Grenobloise ($15), a Southern France treatment of lemon juice, browned butter and capers that allows the natural fish flavor to peek through the citrus with tiny, salty bursts of flavor. Next to sautéed squash, carrot slivers and a small, creamy whip of mashed potatoes, it's a great, light summer plate.
By contrast, Le Bistro's well-prepared, grilled duck breast ($18) offered the only major departure from France, with a thick, sweet soy and plum dressing called only a coriander sauce on the menu. Served next to a ramekin of rice and the same vegetable set, it reminds that duck, even with an Asian accent, is best placed in a Frenchman's hands.
And so too, we hope, is the living legacy of La Petite Maison. Restaurants are seldom given second chances — let's make this one count.