Review: Tiny Bistro Barbes Cooks Up Big Flavors
Danielle Lirette The summer-pea agnolotti at Bistro Barbès captures the best of the season.
5021 East 28th Avenue
It was early when we arrived at Bistro Barbès, a French-inspired 32-seater that opened this spring in the former home of Pary's on 28th (and, before that, Satchel's Market). Still, it would be another hour before guests outnumbered the good folks manning the stove and delivering our food. With so few voices to join our own and so little for servers to do other than watch and wait for us to need more bread, water or clean utensils, my friend and I felt a bit like we were on display. But our self-consciousness came to an end the moment we received our summer-pea agnolotti.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Bistro Barbés
Six pillows of fresh pasta came bathed in sauce the color of early-morning sunshine. I reached for my fork, ignoring the spoon and bowl that had been set before me, so eager was I to taste the flavors behind that sauce. Described on the menu as tarragon-carrot beurre blanc, it was far more subtle than it sounded, with tender rays of sweetness that in lesser hands might have been as overpowering as the noonday sun, and only the faintest rustle of tarragon's licorice-like breeze. The tender, housemade pasta was itself very good, stuffed with puréed peas whose sweetness had been accented, not overwhelmed, by crème fraîche and the thick Middle Eastern yogurt called labneh. But it was the sauce that we loved, and when the pasta was gone, we used pieces of baguette to wipe up every last bit, not caring in the least if the cooks, servers or the ghost of Emily Post herself were watching.
Danielle Lirette Chef-Owner Jon Robbins scoops out a taste of the pot de crème.
Later, when I learned the nickname of chef-owner Jon Robbins, I had a better understanding of what made that sauce so special. "People spread around restaurants that were concentrated on the Seventh Avenue corner for a while all know me as 'Beurre Blanc,'" says Robbins, who made his share of the rich emulsion at Mizuna, where he spent five years, most recently as chef de cuisine. "I'll answer to it without any hesitation, and if someone yells 'Beurre Blanc' from across the street, I'll look up."
Robbins's familiarity with classic technique predates Mizuna, however. In addition to stints in St. John and New York, the Park Hill native lived in Paris for three years, where he landed a gig at Ledoyen, a three-star Michelin restaurant. But if the techniques at play in his fledgling bistro are classic, the ever-changing menu is not. Like the immigrant-heavy 18th arrondissement, where Robbins lived and felt most at home in Paris, Bistro Barbès feels like an intersection of cultures, especially French and North African, with a little Denver thrown in for good measure.
In Paris, salade Niçoise is as common as a croque-monsieur. But instead of an anchovy-flecked plate of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives and green beans, I found a creative riff, as surprising in its mix of cold-smoked potatoes, cranberry beans, castelvetrano olives, tomatoes and lemon confit as the sprinkling of housemade potato chips on top. Underneath, a smear of "Maghreb crème fraîche" -- essentially crème fraîche blended with ras el hanout, a North African spice blend -- translated the disparate elements into a language any food lover could understand. Littlenecks with fresh linguine proved a more than satisfying replacement for the moules frites; instead of the more traditional chocolate, cappuccino pot de crème came in a white mug with layers of ganache and lemon whipped cream. Gazpacho fashioned from canary melons with fried cilantro and jalapeños was irresistible, as was a Caprese-like salad, with morsels of Spanish goat cheese, ribbons of marinated zucchini, and heirloom tomatoes so fruity and ripe they would have been just as pleasing sprinkled with salt and served alone.
Danielle Lirette Heirloom tomato salad.
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