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Stretching the Comfort Zone

American bistro food at 32 Bleu



When the new nightclub/ bar/"American comfort food bistro" 32 Bleu opened in downtown Colorado Springs in October, the town was abuzz. Here, finally, was a live entertainment venue in the heart of downtown, above ground, with real food.

Downtowners were even more excited to hear that former La Petite Maison chef Chris Adrian would head up the kitchen at 32 Bleu. Adrian, a stellar chef in the classic French tradition, enjoys a reputation for excellence and consistency.

The transformation of the building at the corner of Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue has been nothing short of miraculous. Formerly an art supply store, it is now attractively divided into a downstairs bar area with hand-tiled accents and lovely milk glass light fixtures streaked with blue, a large, open dining area with comfy upholstered booths, a midlevel stage area with a roomy dance floor, and an upper bar/lounge with ample seating space.

Adrian has taken an ambitious approach to feeding the wide variety of customers at 32 Bleu, offering a tapas menu (served only at the downstairs bar), a bar menu (served at the upstairs and downstairs bars from 4 p.m. on, and in the dining room on request), a full lunch menu, a full dinner menu and a Sunday brunch menu.

The results at this date, like the menus themselves, are a mixed bag. Adrian has opted for an "American comfort food" theme, infused with French influences as well as touches of other international influences. In general, the servings are ample, in keeping with the comfort food theme, but the preparations range in flavor from divinely rich to inexplicably bland.

Our first dinner at 32 Bleu was a lesson in inconsistency. One of us had the salmon ($18), pan roasted and floating in a sweet curry shrimp sauce atop a generous sweet potato confit. It was perfectly prepared, the sauce nicely balanced, the flavors distinct and fresh. Another of us opted for the Chicken Pot Pie ($9) which, while well-flavored, came to the table without a speck of chicken in the creamy herbed mix of potatoes, carrots and peas, topped with a flaky biscuit crust.

For what it's worth, if you're going to do comfort food, get your definitions right. A stew topped with a floating biscuit crust is not a pot pie. The name of the dish implies, indeed demands both a bottom and top crust. Adrian also serves a version of hushpuppies, which, while vaguely interesting, are not hushpuppies. Very light, prepared with more flour than cornmeal and devoid of onions, they would be more appropriately called fritters. Hushpuppies should be heavy, crunchy and gritty on the outside, creamy and rich on the inside, not light and delicate, and certainly not served with applesauce.

The third person on the night in question ordered from the bar menu, Chicken Fried Steak with mashed potatoes. This classic comfort food was far above standard fare -- not the frozen, breaded variety, but an actual pounded cube steak, still pink in the middle, with a delicious crust and hearty mashers with lumps and skins.

Follow-up trips to 32 Bleu produced similar results. On the lunch menu, the 32 French Dip ($8.50) is a standout, a mountain of thinly sliced, tender roast beef served hot atop a thick roll with caramelized onions, garlic jus and melted Gruyre or blue cheese. The Fish and Chips ($8), however, made with Turner New Zealand hoki fish and deep-fried in a light batter, were bland and flavorless without an excessive drenching of malt vinegar. And while the house 32 Bleu Salad ($5.50) -- endive, apple chunks, toasted pecans, bleu d'Auvergne cheese, baby greens and a pungent cider vinaigrette -- was superb; the Udon Noodle Bowl ($6) with mixed vegetables of the day was lukewarm and very thinly flavored, the noodles overdone.

One nighttime visit brought the welcome experience of a perfectly prepared Chicken Piccata ($12) -- scaloppine pounded not too thin, still moist and flavorful, slightly breaded and drenched in a creamy caper-lemon-butter sauce, served over linguini with a little lemon zest and a generous amount of fresh Parmesan cheese. And dessert that night, Pumpkin Mousse Tart ($4.75) with gingerbread crust was comfort food raised to the level of culinary art.

I've enjoyed the tapas at 32 Bleu, small plates priced from $2.50 to $5, ranging from a delicate Mushroom Onion Tartlet with manchego cheese to yummy Spicy Shrimp served in a sherry sauce. My favorite was the Chicken Liver Pate, fresh and creamy, served with a crunchy, sour cucumber pickle, a real bargain at $2.50, although on the day I tried the tapas bar, I had to ask the waiter for the promised fried bread.

I've had a terrific, huge hamburger ($7.50) at 32 Bleu, served on a bialy roll and topped with excellent blue cheese, but I've also had a warm spinach salad topped with a nice slab of salmon ($9) that was neither warm nor especially well dressed, the bacon in the vinaigrette close to nonexistent.

The kitchen at 32 Bleu is large and multipurpose, turning over a wide variety of dishes during overlapping time slots. What has resulted is striking inconsistency in the quality of the food. With Chris Adrian at the helm, I feel confident that, with time, those problems will be ironed out. In the meantime, perhaps a smaller menu featuring surefire signature items would better suffice.

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