Exclusive first look: Mary Nguyen opens P17, a neighborhood bistro
When you travel around the world and devote the majority of your time to eating in restaurants, you take note of what you love, which sometimes turns into a wistfulness of what you wish you had at home: a neighborhood bistro, for example. That's what happened with Mary Nguyen, chef-owner of Olive & Finch, Street Kitchen Asian Bistro and, until yesterday, Parallel Seventeen, a Vietnamese restaurant in Uptown that Nguyen originally opened in 2005. But her travels to Europe, specifically to the modest bistros that sprinkle every corner, gave her food for thought, and for more than a year, she's contemplated closing Parallel Seventeen and reopening it as a completely new restaurant, or, as she likes to call it, a "true neighborhood bistro," which is exactly what she did, closing the chapter on her Vietnamese spot and reopening it as P17, a charming bistro reminiscent of the ones she's so fond of in Europe.
"Every time I come back from Europe, I'm a bit dismayed by the absence of the modest dining experience in Denver," admits Nguyen. "It's not that I'm disenchanted with the Denver dining scene as a whole, but there aren't a lot of restaurants that are affordable, have great service and provide lots of options, and like a lot of people, I don't have a big pocketbook to spend on dinner on a casual night out during the week, so I wanted to open an entirely new restaurant that recreates the European bistro experience in Denver," explains Nguyen, stressing that the term "bistro" has been "watered down" to encompass plenty of restaurants that bear no resemblance to a bistro.
"When I think of a bistro, I think about informality, affordability and its small size, and when you look at Denver restaurants, there aren't a lot of places that fit into that definition," says Nguyen, and with Parallel Seventeen, she continues, "we'd evolved into something upscale, formal and fussy and, to be honest, it wasn't me anymore, plus it wasn't a neighborhood restaurant, which was a very important part of what I wanted to be, and it definitely had gotten to the point where it wasn't Vietnamese."
And P17, which Nguyen stresses is "not a rebranding of Parallel Seventeen nor a re-conceptualization, but a whole new restaurant," couldn't be more different from its predecessor. Gone are the flirty parasols that dangled from the ceiling, the clutter of Buddhas and the photos of Vietnam that graced the brick wall. In their place: vases flush with fresh flowers, copper-accented mirrors and sills that glide along the garage door, all new light fixtures, sienna-hued leather-upholstered bar stools; funky art installations created from clay, and a fresh coat of light-white paint. Even the outdoor landscaping has been revamped with raised beds, in which Nguyen will grow grasses and flowers.
And, of course, there's a new menu -- a menu that, in true European bistro fashion, is modestly priced, with nothing ringing in at more than $19. "It's affordable, chef-driven, inspired by the seasons, and, yes, you can come in and have dinner and a glass of wine for under $20," stresses Nguyen, who makes just about everything in house, including her ketchup, Dijon mustard, harissa, ricotta, chutneys and jams.