Monday, August 17, 2009

There's Gold (Wine) in them thar hills!

Rocky Mountain Dining and an incredible mile-and-a-half-high wine find

OK, so John Denver got it right. Rocky Mountain High Colorado is spectacular! The eagles fly, you touch the sky, and you get so high with or without assistance from controlled substances (just try exercising at 8000 feet, or playing golf like I did). On a recent jaunt through South Central Colorado (between Colorado Springs, Buena Vista/Salida, and Crested Butte), we found another reason besides hiking, fishing, and skiing to visit: wining and dining. Most small towns are lucky if they have a grits and gravy cafe. Really upscale hamlets have the requisite Starbucks. Neither elicits visions of particularly interesting wine or cuisine. But in this part of the world, there are so many well-healed expatriates (lots of Texans and Californians), that the number of good restaurants per capita soars almost as high as Mount Princeton. And, this particular point in the rarefied air of the Collegiate Range is where our tale of flavor profiles and palate pleasers begins.

Our hosts for the week-long R&R are long-time residents of the area and were primed to take us to several of their favorite foodie hot spots during our all too short respite from the Texas heat. These world travelers with intrepid constitutions were taking us for hearty mountain breakfasts (Jan's Restaurant in Buena Vista), crusty pizzas from wood-burning ovens from local favorite Amica's (Salida), and belt buster sandwiches from hippy friendly High Country Hoagies (Salida). All very tasty we thought, good ingredients, ample portions, nice surroundings, and friendly service, but the Taste-O-Meter was only slightly moving. An excursion over Monarch Pass to visit a friend in Crested Butte produced a fine lunch at the Paradise Cafe, which features a very pleasant outdoor dining area, like most of the serene settings we visited. Great salads, burgers, soups, and sweet potato fries made this stop at the foot of Mount Crested Butte really worthwhile. If you haven't been to CB, think Aspen before Tiffany's: beautiful little shops, restaurants, nice people, and manageable crowds (not as expensive either). If I had a spare million, I'd grab one of those spiffy mountainside vacation homes at a steal. Listings are plentiful in a down market.

Meanwhile, back at the headwaters of the Arkansas River in home-base Salida, while strolling and shopping we ventured past the most interesting looking dining establishment we had seen, with a picture of a chef (you can always tell the good guys in their white jackets), smiling next to Bobby Flay. Hmm. Might be on to something here. At least he hangs out with the right people. We took a look at the menu posted in the window: "Specializing in Colorado inspired cuisine; organic and sustainable ingredients; Chef/owner Kurt Boucher--The Butcher's Table." Well, at least it came by its name honestly. A chef with the French name for Butcher. A picturesque setting. A very palatable sounding menu. We got the phone number from the menu (719-530-9909) and decided to call for a reservation for an all-important birthday dinner the next evening for my darling, discriminating wife Vicki.

We arrived exactly on time for our 7 p.m. reservation. The place was nearly empty save for two tables near the back. Still early, we thought. People still out enjoying the beautiful weather. The dining room was set for a large table of 12, so we knew we'd have company eventually in the quaint room that seats about 60 to 70 altogether. The restaurant is fairly new. It has a very contemporary look. Open just a few months, but gaining a following, we're told. Perusing the menu we note a fine looking chef's three-course prix fixe menu: a baby wedge salad with Cambozola dressing, tomatoes, banana peppers, cucumbers, caramelized onions and smoked bacon bits offered for course one; a choice of locally caught black bass on a seafood nage, with grilled asparagus, ramps and foraged mushrooms; Chef Kurt's take on classic Coq Au Vin; and a Pasta du jour for the second course; and, pecan pie for dessert; all for $24.95. Looks like a great option. Let's check out the wine list and see if these selections will pair well. I remember several impressive names jumping off the list, but to tell you the truth, the only one I remember caused my eyes to jump out on cartoon stems. Everything else went out of my head when I saw the 2006 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay listed, way down at the bottom of the whites, for $24!!! Wait, this must be a split. Maybe it's the price by the glass? No. They are shown as a two price option with a slash (7/35 for example). The server informed us that it was neither, but was, indeed, the price for a full 750 ML bottle of the bottled gold. He said he thought the wine list was under-priced and that he tried to get the chef to raise the rates, but he insisted on wine values to compliment his cuisine. Wine value? This was the investment of the century. We ordered a bottle and told him to have additionals at the ready while we sipped the first. I said I thought this bottle would be on most restaurant wine lists for at least $125 to $150 and we giggled with anticipation. We Googled Chateau Montelena while we waited and discovered the suggested retail price for the bottle is $50. With the usual triple mark-up from retail to table (and sometimes more), this bottle could easily sell for $150 to $175 in most upscale establishments. Having just watched "Bottle Shock" in our mountain retreat the night before--the movie about Chateau Montelena's storied win in the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976--we laughed that maybe this was some of the "brown Chardonnay" that Jim Barrett thought he had produced. But, as it turned out it was golden and captivating and, unfortunately, only one of two bottles the restaurant had left in stock. I'd have rented a truck to haul off more if it were available.

Turns out that Kurt Boucher is a classically trained chef from Denver who happens to love cooking. The fact that his is the highest-end restaurant in an area with a clientele that appreciates good food is a plus. He likes to "put little wine surprises on the wine list for people who will recognize the treasure and enjoy it", he says. He plans to acquire some more Chateau Montelena, but the price this time will likely be around $36--still well below retail! I know there are other great finds on his list. But my head is still spinning from this epiphany. This place would be worth putting on your radar and if your travels take you to Salida, Colorado, stop by for a great glass of wine at a remarkable price, and a delicious menu prepared by a chef who cares. Bonus: his beautiful 10 year old daughter may greet you and seat you if it's not a school night. Check it out:

Other worthwhile finds in the area:

The Twisted Cork-Salida-719-539-7384
Laughing Ladies-Salida-719-539-4248
Benson's Tavern-Salida-719-539-9391 (also Wi-Fi hot spot)
Quincy's Steak & Spirits-Salida 719-539-3059 and Buena Vista-719-395-3160
The Golden Bee at the storied Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, with great Pub Food and Brews-719-634-7711

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