Story: Jordan Simon
Skiers, hikers, outdoorsy types and locals know about Colorado's rich bounty: Paonia cherries, Rocky Ford melons, Delta peaches, Palisade apples, Olathe corn... and a slew of promising wineries, especially in the Grand Junction area. Many chefs are turning to nature for inspiration, utilizing fresh seasonal regional products. Sophisticated restaurants in Denver, Boulder and ski towns such as Vail, Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat, Keystone and Crested Butte are lending new meaning to the term, "haute" cuisine.
Denver's latest hip happening yuppie-teria, the extravagant Mao in Cherry Creek North, presents a dim sum of nocturnal experiences, from pan-Asian menu and tongue-in-Commie-chic décor to Grade-A meat market bar and Bad Mao après-dinner nightclub. Larimer Square's Bistro Vendôme is hardly revolutionary. But it's a faithful, romantic recreation of a Parisian sidewalk café, with evocative decor; great wine values on the intelligent list of 60+ offerings (several by the half-bottle); and fairly priced authentic fare, including classic near-definitive steak frites, pumpkin risotto with fried sage and mussels prepared several ways (try the saffron/vermouth).
Evergreen, long considered a culinary wasteland, blossomed with Kody's opening. The greeting of husband-wife team, chef Adam Mali and Mary Song-Mali is as warm as the pumpkin-hued walls of the intimate, historic former Hiwan Barn. Mali's "contemporary regional American" menu, changing daily and utilizing the freshest, highest-quality ingredients from leading national food purveyors, is worth the near-hour drive from downtown. Witness Grilled Gulf Shrimp with Ginger, Orange and Sauternes or New Zealand Rack of Lamb "Persillade" with Baked, Maple-Glazed Acorn Squash, Roasted Red Potatoes and Lamb Demi-Glace. Finish off with the fabulous artisanal cheese selection.
Traveling north of The Mile High City, kudos to Broomfield's Village Tavern, in the Flatiron Crossings Mall. Come here not just for fine surf and turf dishes, but its dazzling wine program. Nearly half the 120 wines are available by the glass---and all are offered in 1/3-size tasters. Longtime Colorado star, Radek Cerny (revered for Le Papillon and European Café), opened Boulder's L'Atelier in a great Pearl Street location. The fitting name celebrates Cerny's artistry with both presentation and preparation. The walls, in cream, potato, cheese, butter and egg yolk tones, mirror his classic, winkingly retro cuisine; the décor showcases the family's exquisite Meissen porcelain figurines and artfully designed geometric plates painted with colorful infused oils and garnishes. Dinner is more extravagant in price and preparation, but lunch is quieter and classic entrees (wild-mushroom coq au vin, trout with capers) are around $10.
Denver's "own" ski area, Winter Park goes U.S.D.A. Prime with The Untamed Steakhouse, opened by the team behind the wildly popular The Shed. Executive chef Alberto Sapien's Surf and Turf creatively substitutes crab enchiladas with roast red pepper and corn coulis, the signature slow-roasted prime rib is finished with pepper-Zinfandel demi-glace and unusual side dishes include bacon cheddar risotto cakes. Nearby Grand Lake (arguably Colorado's snowmobile capital---and a gateway in summer to Rocky Mountain National Park) boasts recent kitchen additions at two elegant "wilderness" retreats. The luxe Devil's Thumb Ranch is undergoing major improvements (additional posh yet cozy cabins, a 25,000-square-foot activities center and more groomed x-c ski trails). But the real improvement is in executive chef Trish Cyman's menu, stressing top-notch produce and meat (the Niman Ranch Lavender Lamb with chili jelly is aromatherapy for bored palates). Meanwhile, Terence Bradlly (Best New Chef, below) has upgraded the town's historic Rapids Lodge & Restaurant.
For many, Aspen remains the definitive foodie resort; the dining scene keeps cooking with gas. It's upscale downhome at the Range, Charles Dale's Nouvelle Western eatery (corralling our Best New Colorado Restaurant pick, below). Über-chef Nobu Matsuhisa has opened the more casual "Matsuhisa Upstairs" for those needing a quick fix of ultra-creative sushi. Swanky Mogador has added late-night Thursday salsa dance parties (sooooo cool in the marvy posh-pasha-on-peyote digs); chef/owner Barclay Dodge, whose wonderful dishes are inspired by his Spanish jaunts (including a stint at the great El Bullí), now conducts serious cooking classes. Old faves such as Gwen's and the Pine Creek Cookhouse (which sadly burnt down last year) have reopened. The Aspen Skiing Company jazzes up the on-mountain eats: Benedicts at the Sundeck is a new casual bistro offering Mediterranean-meets-the-Mountains fare and several wines by the glass, while the Greenhouse adds a dim sum menu to its boutique raw bar, fondue and sushi après-ski smorgasbord. And the swank St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton Club Aspen Highlands boast our award-winning new and least appreciated chefs (below).
Kobe Bryant may have stolen the spotlight from Kobe beef in equally glittering Vail/Beaver Creek. But new developments, including the soigné Ritz-Carlton and Ritz-Carlton Club ensure the Vail Valley remains more than just a media feeding frenzy. Opened just over a year ago, The Savory Inn & Cooking School of Vail occupies a homey log cabin overlooking Core Creek, optimally located in West Vail. Rooms (named for herbs and spices) feature lodgepole or brass beds, painted armoires and local pottery and basketry. But you needn't overnight to savor the informative classes and warm bonhomie. Classes and demos with top Vail Valley chefs are kept small, for true hands-in experience. Other events run from fundraisers to fashion trunk shows (last month included a benefit for non-profit environmental conservation organization, IDEA WILD, and Neely Mack's display of her latest Italian leather and jewelry designs), all paired with marvelous dinners and entertainment.
Meanwhile, the chic factor keeps tiptoeing west down Vail Valley. Wolcott's Red Sky Golf Club---including a Chuck Cook Golf School and Tom Fazio- and Greg Norman-designed courses---secured Thomas Salumunovich (owner of Vail's magnificent Larkspur) as executive chef for its Silver Sage restaurant. Open to non-members for lunch and several evenings, it's worth the drive for sunsets overlooking the Norman course and Castle Peak alone. Salumunovich pays tribute to his iconic California mentors (Puck, Tower, Waters) with themed tasting menus (Garden, Ocean, Range) emphasizing the purity of the mostly organic and/or regional ingredients. "So old school it's new again," laughs Salumunovich of items like Dungeness crab and shrimp cakes with Wynn's Farm tomato and fennel salad or Steak Diane with white truffle-parmesan French fries.
In neighboring Summit County, Keystone has always been acclaimed for its troika of Ski Tip Lodge, Keystone Ranch and the mountaintop Alpenglow Stube. The resort has committed more than $1 million in dining and nightlife upgrades, including the handsome new Champeaux, which overlooks Keystone Lake and the Snake River Valley beyond and classic Mediterranean-meets-the-mountains bistro fare, from a by-the-book bouillabaisse to steak au pôivre. Copper Mountain, always a skiers' favorite for its ideal layout, has been reinvented by Intrawest. The Village at Copper hosts several notable eateries, such as Alexander's On the Creek, and Frijoles (fab selection of tequilas and exotic margaritas). The eats are improving at lovely, historic Breckenridge. Latest hot spot: Mountain Flying Fish. Owner/chef Tatsuo prepares some of the freshest sushi this side of the Rockies, with marvelous wasabi grown and produced on an Oregon farm and an excellent sake selection.
With chefs sowing their wild "hautes," even when Colorado dining remains meat and potatoes, that meat's from Niman Ranch, the taters accented by chanterelles to chipotle.
WINE COUNTRY NETWORK'S BEST OF COLORADO 2003
Best New Restaurant:
The Range, Aspen.
Charles Dale is truly a "Renaissance" chef. After closing that fabled extravagant eatery, he simplified everything from design to menu with brilliant results. The title is a pun, says partner Robb Ittner: "It's a series of possibilities, it's the mountains, a cooking stove. We wanted to combine all that in an approachable restaurant with buzz and traffic year-round, providing our trademark quality at lower prices." Dale's "Food of the New West" incorporates regional ingredients from Colorado to California. Independent artisan purveyors, growers and ranchers provide predominantly organic vegetables; hormone- and antibiotic-free meat; and fresh fish from Western rivers, lakes and the Pacific. His simple reduced fruit/vegetable-based sauces allow the ingredients' full flavor and freshness to shine. We adore the Colorado Corn Soup garnished with Dungeness crab; the Trio of ceviches sampler (Corvina bass, smoked tomato/avocado, tequila shrimp); buffalo skewers in a picante date barbecue sauce with toasted walnuts and homemade vegetable slaw. The "California" lasagna (brimming with artichokes, mozzarella di bufala and portobellos) sings with Christmas colors from heirloom tomatoes to green basil oil. Ittner, an NECI wine educator for many years, has crafted a "Wines of the New West" list, stressing California and the Pac Northwest, with some Colorado and New Mexico selections. The contemporary rustic space, a complete re-imagination of Renaissance, reflects the earthy, back-to-Nature-and-basics food. The décor features warm tones and textures, with soft leather in mud colors and sensually displayed pottery contrasted with the natural wear and tear of found metal objects, recycled paper and woods ranging from mesquite to pine. No wonder diners feel home, home, homey at the Range.
Winning Wine Lists:
Adega Restaurant & Wine Bar, Denver.
Only Hotel Teatro's Kevin Taylor represents competition on the Denver fine dining scene. Indeed, Adega is cheek-by-jowl (make that braised veal cheeks) with the country's best restaurants. The name is Portuguese for an aboveground wine cellar. This is spectacularly evident, with the glassed-in cellar occupying center stage in the über-sexy space. It's a model of how to forge a contemporary look and ambiance within a historic building. The original brick walls are accented by granite columns, papered curved metal pillars, backlit stained glass, billowing white curtains, red cast resin fiber-optically lit bar-top and feverish Fauvist-hued murals of local scenes. Sommelier Chris Farnum's list of nearly 1,000 labels emphasizes artisan, handcrafted wines from around the globe, taking off in "flights" of fancy, including one of the finest Austrian wine selections outside Vienna. Executive chef/partner Bryan Moscatello's menu, always utilizing the freshest seasonal ingredients, is classically rooted yet equally inventive and surprising. The presentation is artful, the robust yet sensuous textures and flavors in perfect, layered harmony, triggering a series of gustatory explosions on the palate, from rabbit and artichoke with lemon sptzle and parmesan frico to corn and sable (fish) swimming in golden beet purée. Fortunately, Moscatello and Farnum have an almost psychic connection. The staff is superbly trained to explain the counterpoints and correspondences between wine and food. Even on the rare occasions a suggested pairing isn't successful, it stems from the desire to push the envelope. Though you can adopt a one from Column A approach to ordering, go with one of the several tasting menus, especially the decadent six-course chef's selection. Everything at Adega flows, from the soaring space to the unobtrusive service to, of course, the world-class wines.
Montagna/Little Nell, Aspen.
This longtime Relais & Ch&acire;teaux property is never content to rest on its laurels (as a recent room refurbishment testifies). Fittingly, Montagna's wine director, Richard Betts continues expanding diners' horizons. The cellar holds 11,000 bottles and 800 labels, but Betts added a new page, "Over 50, Under 50," which showcases exciting wines available for under $50. Betts notes that "The Old World is the new frontier as great wines from little-known appellations in France, Spain and Italy, among others, offer elegance, site-specificity and great refreshment value."
This is in keeping with his philosophy of approachability on many levels. Last year, Betts accomplished a virtually unheard-of task, receiving his Master Sommelier certification on the first try (one of only nine in the grueling examination's 25-year history). In so doing, he brought the total of U.S. Master Sommeliers (the highest distinction a fine wine/beverage service professional can attain) to a whopping 56. Yet he's as refreshing in person and presentation as a crisp Grüner. His enthusiasm is contagious and he's that rare expert who doesn't pontificate. The adventuresome selection of wines by the glass might include a Demi-Sec Furmint from Tokaj (Hungary), RBJ Theologicum Grenache/Mourvèdre (Australia) and a Muga Rioja Rosé (Spain). The list includes all the expected heavy hitters, matching the high-powered clientele---Palacios L'Ermita vertical, a whole page devoted to the vaunted DRC Burgundies, half-bottles of Haut-Brion---yet Betts sneaks in rarities (Ch. D'Arlay Vin Jaune!) for fun. Executive chef Paul Wade admits he isn't too wine-savvy, yet loves researching wines for tasting dinners. He and Betts make a dynamic duo. As a former saucier, Betts understands the importance of blending flavors. He calls Wade's cuisine "complex yet subtle and balanced Exactly what you look for in great wine." And his near-intuitive pairings reflect his appreciation of both wine and food.
Alpenglow Stübe, Keystone.
Skiing foodies intone the great on-mountain restaurants like a mantra: Hazie's (Steamboat), Lodge at Sunspot (Winter Park), Game Creek Club (Vail), Beano's Cabin and Allie's Cabin (Beaver Creek), Allred's (Telluride), Krabloonik (Snowmass), et al. Top of the heap, arguably, is North America's highest fine dining restaurant (11,444 feet above sea level), Alpenglow Stube, which claims the most extensive wine/spirits list within 100 miles, ranging from Monteviña's White Zin ($26) to a 1964 Late Disgorged Dom Pérignon ($900), as well as 17 wines by the glass and nearly 30 beers. Executive chef Christopher Rybeck's often-inspired menus make the 45-minute journey in two gondolas worth venturing out in the deepest freeze (lambskin slippers and blankets supplied along with a warm reception). Their signature appetizer is the Stube Pinecone: duck foie gras p&acire;té and roasted garlic hummus served with kirschwasser-soaked pumpernickel toast points. But we recommend the 7-course paired Degustation Menu, a great value at $95, running from creative renditions of Chilean sea bass to elk chop with oxtail to Riesling-poached pears. Only drawback: the altitude doesn't speed your metabolism as much as the friendly servers promise.
Harmon Brown co-owns two wineries, including Napa's spotless Spottswoode. He's also poker-playing buddies in the back room with several fellow vintners like Dan Duckhorn, whose more sought-after wines grace the list. Jim Ackard's cuisine beautifully counterpoints textures (decadently unctuous seared foie gras in huckleberry sauce on a coarse corn cake), a bearded hippie swellegantly plays Gershwin and Rachmaninoff and the gorgeous converted 1890s train depot's decor strikingly plays Tiffany-style panels off the hallucinogenically-hued artworks of Roger Mason (whom you'll often pass painting on Main Street). Ackard was formerly a roving consultant for Drew Niepoorent's Myriad Group (including Nobu, Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, Rubicon), so he knows his wine. Fortunately he's aided and abetted by wine director Kenny Koda, who works the slow season in Napa with such luminaries as Pam Crocker Starr, Randy Dunn, Daniel Ramey and Heidi Peterson Barrett and is the prime mover behind securing top names for Telluride's annual wine fest in June. We love the wines by the glass, all winners, the judicious selection of primarily California bottlings and the list's continual movement.
Kudos also to Chad Scothorn's wonderful Cosmopolitan (aka The Cosmo) and its reasonably priced wine dinners downstairs. And bustling Rustico takes the torta with over 9,000 bottles comprising 300+ labels. Co-owner Paolo Canclini (also partner in the Mountain Village's marvelous La Piazza) knows many vintners, humble to hallowed, in his native Italy. The list, including over 40 grappas by the glass, highlights such hard-to-find producers as Jermann, Aldo Conterno and Roberto Voerzio. Paolo will happily suggest something to complement the robustly flavored fare, from mozzarella di bufala with tomatoes slow-ripened three weeks over the brick oven to magnificent risotti (try the homemade Valtellina sausage and artichoke or quail, spinach and mascarpone) to rabbit roasted with chanterelles in Brunello sauce.
L'Apogee/Harwig's Grill (AKA 911 Lincoln), Steamboat Springs. Owner Jamie Jenny's list is always adventuresome, playful and fairly priced, supremely suited to both the haute French L'Apogee and its sibling, the casual New American Harwig's next door, whose bar offers 30 wines by the glass, including several lesser-known offerings (tastings are $2). The 750-label, 10,000-bottle list is available in both eateries.
Best New Chef:
Phil Evans, Olives at The St. Regis Aspen.
The St. Regis is undergoing a multi-million dollar overhaul, practically a reinvention, including a 15,000-square-foot spa, the latest high-tech room gadgetry and new fractional condos with Viking/SubZero kitchens to complete the luxe experience. But that Ralph-Lauren-wet-dream, sporty haute hunting lodge décor and ambiance (hunting prints to wildlife trophies and bronzes) should remain. Its biggest transformation may be at the incredibly handsome Olives, where new executive chef Phil Evans puts his own (Todd) English spin on the inventive pastas and salads for which the regional revolutionalary is celebrated. Witness Black Truffle-Foie Gras Flan; Nantucket Scallop Tart with cauliflower cream, oven-roasted root vegetables, ginger butter and osetra caviar; "Crispy Skin" Striped Bass with smoky tomato broth, braised swiss chard, chorizo aioli and tempura lobster; and Beef Short Ribs braised with sherry and brown sugar, served over Roquefort dumplings and pistachio pesto. Evans turns all of 27 this year; his resume includes a stint as one of a select few Americans to apprentice at the great Marc Meneau's L'Esperance in Vezelay, Burgundy. This is one to look out for!
Least-Known Top Toques:
Matthew Zubrod (Willow Creek at the Ritz-Carlton Club Aspen Highlands);
The Ritz-Carlton Club Aspen Highlands is part of the hot new second home trend: private residences. No, not a timeshare, but fractional, second-home ownership. The difference? The little extras (aside from the usual ski valets, nannies, spas, etc). The club stores your personal effects, from clothes to photos, until your arrival. Personalized concierge service (perhaps arranging for a private jet to meet you at the local airport). And you can trade, space permitting, with other Ritz-Carlton Clubs. Like its sister property in Bachelor Creek (Vail Valley), the Club sports a lovely "park-itechtural grand lodge of the West" look. And while purists may decry Aspen SkiCo's developments (including a tasteful Euro-chic base village), Highlands still features the best views, best skiing and fewest crowds of all four mountains. But the Club's restaurant, Willow Creek (opened in December 2002), really sends us soaring. Coffered wood ceilings, fieldstone walls, picture windows onto the slopes, exhibition kitchen---all Aspen deluxe standard. Chef Matthew Zubrod has caught Highlands' old maverick spirit. We love his painterly, imaginative presentations. And oh, his penchant for pairings: butternut squash and truffle cappuccino, Maine lobster and caramelized pineapple tart and the truly astonishing foie gras ice cream cones.
Aspen Meadows is best known as home of the Aspen Institute, an influential think tank that shapes many international affairs. Executive chef Terry Allen is accustomed to preparing power-dinners for movers-and-shakers. Yet the resorts restaurant is virtually unknown. The setting amid 40 unspoiled acres is unparalleled. And Allen, who came here from the Nell, boasts an eclectic, peripatetic career, including stints at an Alaskan wilderness resort and a Michelin-starred hotel in Garmisch, Bavaria. He's goosed and gussied up the formerly staid menu, mating local seasonal ingredients with classic European preparations. His "High Alpine Cuisine" merrily borrows from various mountain traditions, including the Himalayas and Andes; the occasional exotic spice or herb adds flair to his preparations. Allen's evergreen dishes include orange-baked salmon, chocolate fondue and delightfully zesty fruit (peach to raspberry) crème brulées---lending new meaning to the term food-for-thought, whether for a world leader or you.
Grand Lake's Rapids Lodge & Restaurant, overlooking the Tonahatu River, dates back to 1915---and so (un)seemingly did its former menu, which Terence Bradlly and sous chef Spencer Lomax have completely overhauled. Standouts include Pan Seared Elk Medallions with Grand Marnier and Pine Nut Demi-Glaze, Basil-Seared Alaskan Halibut with Raspberry Vodka Coulis and Curry-Seared Ahi Tuna with Mango-Cilantro Sauce. Wine pairings are suggested for each dish. We love the fact that you get a memorable four-course meal (not to mention homemade breads, p&acire;tés and intermezzo sorbets) for the price of an entrée at many ritzy glitzy establishments. In the high remote Grand County country, Bradlly's running the culinary equivalent of Class 5 rapids in style.