Food: Three stars
Service: Three stars
Ambience: Three stars
Address: 900 Walnut St., Boulder
Contact: 720-406-7399, stjulien.com
Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
The Ooh Là Là buffet lunch is available Monday through Friday from 11:30am to 1:30pm. The all vegan menu is available on Fridays.
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Moderate, as some of the crowd here seems to be discreetly power lunching, at least that's the impression I get whenever I see someone wearing jacket and tie.
Buffets are rare in Boulder, with one notable exception being the St. Julien Hotel & Spa's weekday lunch offering at Jill's Restaurant. Priced at a competitive $14.95, this meal, dubbed the Ooh Là Là buffet, also includes a glass of rosé.
The Ooh Là Là appellation made me hopeful that the lunch would be heavily populated by eyelash batting ingenues of the sort that populate French films. Alas, that was not the case, and I suspect the name is a reference to the South of France-accented fare on offer. On Fridays the menu is all vegan, with a selection of gluten-free dishes also on tap, and this is what my dining companion and I set out to sample.
Arriving at the opening time of 11:30 a.m., we found the restaurant was nearly full, and it's likely worthwhile to make reservations. Our observation was that Jill's is an elegantly modern and comfortable venue, with efficient, but low-key service.
After taking our table, we set out to size up the offerings. To better manage customer traffic, soups, salads and such spreads as hummus are clustered around a central island, while main course offerings claim a counter section of their own.
My friend and I started off with soup. The first soup selection was a pistou, the Provençal take on minestrone. Featuring a light and clear broth, this comforting warmer spotlighted generous quantities of zucchini, carrot and white bean. While many minestrone-style soups do themselves no favors by carrying overcooked, if not downright mushy, ingredients, the vegetables and beans possessed perfect texture, accentuating each ingredient's freshness. As a weightier counterbalance, a squash soup was a denser, creamier alternative, adroitly balancing curried tones with gentle sweetness.
Of the salads, I bypassed a simpler green option for a lively black bean, corn and cilantro mix, reminiscent of cowboy caviar, which satisfied without being too heavy. Pasta salad with cherry tomatoes, red onions, and spinach pleased the eye with vibrant color and a judicious hand with the dressing. Additional accolades were earned by the pasta itself, as it didn't suffer from the gummy consistency that plagues lesser interpretations.
Curried cauliflower, one of the hot options, could have benefited from dialing back the featured spice a notch. However, the accompanying foundation of garlic spinach was pleasingly robust, but not too pungent, and wasn't overly wilted, a good thing. A squash and peanut stew with wild rice carried warming seasonings and smooth flavors reminiscent of African cuisine, although the grain could have done with a touch more cooking.
There wasn't anything to criticize about the flavors of another hot course, the quinoa-stuffed peppers. The roasted peppers carried an appealingly subtle sweetness, and a tomato coulis contributed a hit of acid that complemented both the earthiness of vegetable and protein-rich grain. A simple ratatouille, similar to homemade interpretations, stayed true to its country French roots, letting bright tomato and mellow eggplant successfully speak for themselves with little additional adornment.
Pizza, or flatbreads, were available in several varieties, featuring a dairy-free cheese alternative as a topping. One flatbread garnished with olive and artichoke heart evoked the tangy and briny tones of a well-prepared tapenade, while another surprised with smoky sweet barbecue notes.
But perhaps my favorite was one that highlighted a blend of eggplant, roasted peppers and pesto, a preparation that wasn't too heavy, but unquestionably satisfying and another showcase for quality produce.
True to the St. Julien's spa pedigree, ginger apple cinnamon water was available as a refreshing alternative to sugary soft drinks. I was happy to skip soda for the spa water, as I figured it justified my sampling multiple desserts. Happily, many of the sweets are available in reasonably small portions, so one isn't locked into enjoying just a single sweet.
A nut-based blueberry cheesecake wasn't quite as dense or tightly held together as its inspiration, but the low-key fruit flavor was pleasant enough. More compelling was a chocolate custard topped with impeccably fresh berries, and the creamy cocoa flavor was all the more impressive given its dairy-free composition.
It's refreshing to see that the pricing of the St. Julien's midday buffet is on a par with other local sit down restaurant lunches. But perhaps the niftiest trick here is this eatery's ability to serve healthy, interesting and fresh tasting vegan fare that's several notches above the typical buffet at this price. That's saying something, even if the experience is somewhat lacking in the eyelash batting department.