Denver diners with only a passing knowledge of Lon Symensma might reasonably assume that LeRoux represents a stark departure for the chef-restaurateur — who is, after all, best-known for the modern Southeast Asian cuisine he serves at neighboring outlets ChoLon and Cho77. But even a cursory dig into his biography quickly reveals that, if anything, this seven-month-old European venture in LoDo amounts to a culinary homecoming.
The name is the first clue: Xavier Le Roux was a mentor of Symensma’s at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “He’s about the same age as my dad, and he’s a very astute, well-respected gentleman who pushed me in the right direction,” Symensma explains — namely overseas for further training. Today, Le Roux’s namesake “is for me, at 42, about a young chef’s introduction into the old-school brigade system, when everyone was pushing for Michelin stars and throwing sauté pans. At 19, 20, I was getting the shit kicked out of me every day in the best restaurants all over Europe.” Both there and back in New York, “I trained with the Daniel Bouluds and I got to work with the Paul Bocuses, and I was one of the last guys to see them still performing at their best—seeing haute cuisine the way it was meant to be.”
What’s more, he adds, “I was having these very cool experiences that don’t exist anymore before I even knew what lemongrass and makrut lime were.” Though he tipped his hat to his background upon opening Stapleton’s Concourse Restaurant Moderne with executive chef–partner Luke Bergman in 2017, his latest concept really brings it all out into the open: “LeRoux is a celebration of the front of the house,” Symensma says. “Theatrics are our main focus. That’s why we have the beautiful cheese cart, why we’re doing flambé dishes. Tableside presentation is a big part of the classic European model.” Which isn’t to say the restaurant is a throwback. “We’re set on a solid foundation geographically,” he points out, “but we’re focusing on progressive cuisine—how can we make it a little more whimsical?” The following dishes serve as an answer to that question.
Wagyu Beef Tartare
“Back in the day, cloches were huge,” Symensma says, referring to the bell-shaped plate covers removed before diners with a dramatic flourish. “So I wanted to build that grandiose presentation into the opening menu.” Working with transparent rather than silver cloches ensured that he and his team, led by executive chef Jeff Stoneking, could play all the more daringly with the elements of traditional beef tartare to remagine it as a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. “I thought, cool, we can get a smoking gun,” he recalls—and the result of that decision is a dish that arrives at the table shrouded in a cloud, which clears to reveal a cylinder of diced beef seasoned with smoked fleur de sel, sandwiched between a layer of gribiche thick enough to resemble what Symensma calls a “smoked-egg salad” and another of crème fraîche topped with a dollop of sturgeon caviar. It’s all ringed round with slender gaufrettes (basically waffle chips). “When it comes out of the kitchen, people say, ‘That’s not what I expected,’” he adds, “and that’s a perfect indication of what we want to continue doing at LeRoux.”
Foie Gras–Chicken Liver Mousse
Another appetizer listed under the Gourmandise section of the menu is the two-liver mousse, which Symensma sees “as being a staple on the menu that evolves seasonally.” Spiced-apple compote graced the inaugural version, he explains, and “we’re talking about some sort of berry preserve next”—but at present the mousse is accompanied by fresh rhubarb, poached with balsamic vinegar and mixed with xantham gum to form glossy dots atop a curclicue of basil gel. Toasted brioche completes the picture.
But for Symensma, the dish’s success depends on something you can’t see: “super-fun technique.” It starts with equal parts foie gras and chicken liver, seared in a hot pan to which shallots and garlic are added and lightly caramelized, then deglazed with brandy. After the incorporation of butter and pink salt, the mixture goes through a food processor and a tamis, finally setting in tubes to form smooth-edged cylinders. “It’s a pretty laborious process,” he admits, “but the texture’s so amazing.”
Symensma got the idea for one of LeRoux’s biggest hits to date on a research trip. “I was going through the best bistro-style European restaurants in New York — Le Coucou, Frenchette, Jean-Georges, Dirty French — and saw a dish of shaved-thin mushrooms stacked into a mold,” he says. “When I got back, I bought a brioche loaf pan and drilled holes in the bottom of the pan to get the water out, because mushrooms are almost all water. But I didn’t know if they needed a binder.” As he experimented, he realized that “if you put a lot of weight on top of the mushrooms while they’re cooking, you can the squeeze the shit out of them.” Think 60 pounds’ worth of bricks wrapped in aluminum foil.
As the cooked mushrooms chill, he continues, “the butter recoagulates and keeps them stuck together. Then we’re able to slice them and sear them on both sides on the plancha, so we get almost a Maillard reaction — that umami you get from cooking meat.” In fact, “One of my favorite things is when vegetarians come in and go, ‘I feel like I’m eating a big freaking steak right now.’”
French-Onion Short Rib
“By almost double, this is our best-selling dish,” Symensma acknowledges. “It’s quickly turning into our version of ChoLon’s French onion soup dumplings.”
Indeed, both involve “all the components that would be in a French onion soup,” but in this case the onions serve as a crust for Wagyu short rib. Thin-shaved and cooked for 12-14 hours over low heat with salt and butter, “they become almost like a jam”; the leftover cooking liquid is then strained and mixed with veal stock, Sherry, thyme, and Gruyère rinds to serve as the braising medium for the meat. More Gruyère goes into the pommes puree, and finally — because “soggy bread isn’t my favorite part of French onion soup — we toast panko bread crumbs in butter and thyme,” Symensma explains.
“What can we do to make Dover sole meunière a little more exciting?” That was the question Symensma asked his team before coming up with this “lighter, more feminine” twist centered on steamed lobster tail. “We give a very quick saute to Swiss chard and spinach, add shallots, garlic, and chile for just a little bit of heat, and create a little nest for the lobster to sit in.”
Then, “for the meunière, we take Meyer lemons and gently simmer them in sugar to make almost a confiture,” to which brown butter and Marcona almonds lend “a nice toastiness.” A splash of fresh lemon juice brightens the sauce, which “drips over the lobster into the shell and greens” such that when you break into the petit herb salad on top, the leaves — parsley, celery, microbasil — “fall in and soak it up.” All in all, says Symensma, a hallmark of haute cuisine “just kind of turned into this beautifully composed lobster dish.”
In contrast to showstoppers like the above, LeRoux’s Paris-Brest “isn’t by any means our most amazing presentation,” Symensma claims. “It looks very simple. But a lot of technique goes into it.”
Whether or not diners agree with his assessment of its appearance (it’s actually quite striking), they’re certainly on board with him regarding its worth, as the dessert — a ring of cream-filled pâté à choux invented more than 100 years ago to commemorate a long-distance bicycle race still held in France today — is “flying out the door. It’s becoming our signature.”
The kitchen doesn’t take too many liberties with the original recipe beyond its use of pistachios, which Symensma loves but sees as “a very European nut, not very Asian, so I can’t use it much at ChoLon.” They’re both folded into and sprinkled onto the cream in candied form beneath a drizzle of caramel sauce that’s “super-salty and dark, almost savory.” Atop it all, an “airy, shatter-thin sugar crust” garnishes the pastry.