Recently the Wash Park Parisian bistro Cafe Marmotte — a neighborhood staple since 2015 — has changed hands. The team responsible for the highly favored Bistro Georgette — Avanti’s answer to French casual dining — is now behind the wheel with plans to transition to an entirely new Italian menu by the start of 2020. Until then, the temporary menu is full of continental classics prepared with the kind of scrupulous attention and just enough creative indulgence to make the place a standout in a year when French cuisine appears to be in high demand. Owner and beverage director Austin Carson, hospitality director Heather Morrison and executive chef Ty Leon seem to be at home in the intimate space. Despite the fast handoff, the restaurant already feels like theirs. The lighting is low, the dishes decadent and the drinks strong.
Leon’s approach to French food reveals his sophisticated knowledge of the classics and a calculated willingness to be playful. Starters like the moules-frites ($12) — mussels drenched in a fragrant red curry broth and topped with house-cut fries — achieves the difficult task of being comfort food despite its complexity. Leon used the same curry recipe to win the Lamb Jam — shellfish surprisingly manage to provide an even better home for the intricate sauce. The seared foie gras ($18) is even more cavalier. A thick slab of seared foie is joined by a scoop of indulgent foie ice cream atop a huckleberry waffle. Sliced hazelnuts provide a proper crunch. The dish intentionally eschews meal conventions, being neither appetizer, breakfast or dessert but some glorious hybrid that can be enjoyed during any part of the meal.
Main courses include many of the expected classics. The coq au vin ($32) is either braised leg or pan-roasted chicken breast, creamy aligot potatoes, thick cubes of house-made bacon, pickled cabbage and roasted mushrooms. The steak frites au poivre ($34) features dry-aged New York strip, house-cut fries and lemon butter. It shines in its simplicity.
Carson’s cocktail menu — currently divided between inventive takes on Italian and French classics — is one of the major reasons to visit. Made exclusively with Family Jones spirits, the timeless recipes serve merely as a foundation for the experienced craftsman to explore techniques that include personal foraging, creative rinses and unexpected blends. All cocktails are $12 and are all equally worth checking out. The negroni #1 and negroni #2 are each gin and plum, with the first using fruit from Ela Farms and the second being concocted with produce Carson handpicked in Boulder. Carson says that even as winter sets in the foraging will continue, with juniper entering center stage.
One of the most exciting drinks on the menu is the Old Fashioned. Made with Nutella-rinsed Bourbon, banana and chocolate bitters the drink is a substantial departure from its booze-forward namesake. The Nutella flavor is powerful, and for anyone who grew up sneaking to the kitchen to dip spoons in the jar, the beverage is both nostalgic and addictive.
As the team gets comfortable in the new space they will continue to serve French fare until the end of the year. The decision to transition to an Italian spot is bold but considering the adept hands of everyone involved patrons have good reason to celebrate the change. The provisional setup also gives diners a limited window to try the French menu, giving Cafe Marmotte something of a pop-up feel despite its lasting presence in the neighborhood. The restaurant is currently open and will remain so throughout the transformation.
Cafe Marmotte is located at 290 South Downing St., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Friday 5 – 9 p.m., Saturday 5 – 10 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and again 5 – 9 p.m.
All photography courtesy of Stephanie Ross.