Dining Out: Le French and Lou’s Italian Specialties

Casual-chic bistro and New York-style deli

Photo by Joni Schrantz

Le French

Casual-chic bistro

The charming family story behind Le French may entice the curious for a breakfast pastry, weekend brunch, or lunch with Denver Tech Center colleagues. But it will be the dishes created by Senegalese French sisters Aminata and Rougui Dia that demand a dinner reservation.

Older sister Ami, as she is called, came to Denver from France with her husband, Hamidou, for his IT career. While raising five children, Ami attended culinary school and started a catering business in 2007 called AmiCuisine. The couple agreed that after the kids were gone, she would have a restaurant.

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Meanwhile, Ami’s younger sister, Rougui, began the traditional French culinary climb in middle school. A sous chef position at Petrossian in Paris led her to be named executive chef in 2005, making her the first black female executive chef at any Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. That led to another celebrated position, then her own Paris bakery, and many awards and travels. Sometimes Ami would join her, and the sisters found they loved cooking together.

Now the last kid is in college, and Rougui has a three-year visa. Studio Atlantis designed a modern, 77-seat space described as a “gourmet, casualchic French bakery and bistro,” with a bar so comfortable for dining that couples gravitate to it, and with tables spaced generously. Instead of squeezing in more seats, Le French makes room for more diners by offering all-day service. There are menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch, “Afternoon Delight,” dinner, and dessert, plus an inventive cocktail list and impressive wine selection curated by Hamidou.

Our dinner started with Les Perles ($11), Rougui’s favorite cocktail: sparkling wine, crème de violette, blueberry, and wildflower caviar, three bubbles left in the glass that popped on a delighted tongue. A white burgundy complemented a small plate of Tartare de Daurade ($17), red snapper tartare molded into a round with crispy puffed rice and pickled radish, flavored with white truffle oil and decorated with the house pesto. Saint-Jacques ($30) should be a menu staple, with three large, perfectly seared scallops atop a cauliflower purée and served with a coconut-orange curry, smoked trout roe, crispy dill, and radish. A neighboring table loved Le Boeuf Bourguignon ($27) and the vegan choice, Fenquil Surprise ($22). Other highlights: Les Pastels ($9), a Senegalese appetizer of tuna-filled puffs, and Courstillant de Lapin au Foie Gras ($19), a delicate, moan-invoking filo surprise.

Big eaters accustomed to doggie bags may be disappointed, but portions are designed, in the French tradition, for an easily digested three-course meal: petits plats and les plats principaux, which, here, must be followed by dessert. Bring friends so you won’t have to choose between Ami’s Ile Flottante ($9) of crème anglaise topped with poached egg white, caramel, and mango, or Rougui’s signature chocolate-and-rum-soaked bundt cake, Baba Fondant au Chocolat ($10). —Susan Fornoff

Le French
4901 S. Newport St.

Courtesy Lou’s Italian Specialties

Lou’s Italian Specialties

New York-style deli

It’s a gutsy move indeed (some might even say a doomed one) to open a “New York” restaurant outside the five boroughs. Is there any American prouder of her local grub—the bagel counter, pizzeria, corner deli—than a New Yorker? Skepticism will always be high.

Naysayers should meet Denver’s Joshua Pollack. The restaurateur has opened three successful New York-style eateries here in the last five years, all in Five Points: Rosenberg’s Bagels, Famous Original J’s Pizza, and Pollack’s newest project, Lou’s Italian Specialties, at Downing and 34th Street.

Lou’s is a traditional Italian-style deli specializing in hot and cold subs made with hand-sliced cheeses and meats like Genoa salami, capicola, Italian prosciutto, and hot soppressata. The sandwiches, while sticking mainly to traditional deli combos, range into experimental territory with options like breaded eggplant and porchetta broccoli rabe—but it’s in the orthodox offerings that Pollack’s obsession with authenticity shines through. (This is the man, recall, who chemically alters the water supply at Rosenberg’s to mimic the mineral content of pipes in New York.) At $12 to $16, the subs are large enough for two meals, with Italian appetizers, soups, and hot plates also available—including arancini balls ($8), fried ravioli ($7), gnocchi Bolognese ($15), and deli salads like eggplant caponata sold by the pound. You’ll also find shelves stocked with artisanal crackers, peppers, Italian cookies, and the like, as well as a deli case full of sausages and cheeses. Finish things off with one of the handmade cannolis or other desserts. No seating; take-out only. —Andrew Weaver

Lou’s Italian Specialties
3357 N. Downing St.