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A newly transitioned Cliff House kitchen needs to tighten its playful tinkering 

Appetite

When I last visited Manitou's four-diamond retreat ("Peaks and valleys," Appetite, Sept. 24, 2009), it had just unveiled the Red Mountain Bar & Grill expansion, and chef Scott Savage's phyllo-wrapped lamb stunned me. Some courses scored, others didn't, the veranda offered awesome ambiance as always, and I recall enough menu playfulness to break up any haute stuffiness.

In all those regards, not much has changed since, even though Savage this April took off after 12 years for California, leaving the line to his sous chef, Justin Boudouin. Originally from New Orleans, Boudouin has already put some Cajun/Creole touches in dishes like the blackened orange roughy ($23). It's a well-cooked and spice-forward stack of protein garnished in colorful yellow and red pepper ribbons over some fairly lackluster black beans and rice with tomato and baby corn chunks.

Manager Anthony Kaiser says to look for a full new menu around mid-November, tentatively, that should show even more of Boudouin's personality, including interesting treatment of game meats and limited molecular gastronomy. Some is already on display with plates like the elk and venison quesadilla ($11), plated with a frothy salsa foam that's immediately humbled by a cucumber carved into a saguaro cactus. (Did this come off the kids' menu?) An avocado mousse dollop's fun, too, but ultimately the game meat doesn't stand out from basic beef.

A grilled Caesar salad ($8) of tight wedges of lettuce cores could use more char and more dressing, but that dressing is wonderful at least, and anchovies are a welcome sight. The overpriced but largely successful Scallops & Oats app ($15 for only three touch-overcooked mollusks) delivers the most surprising and alluring flavors, with a fun steel-cut oat risotto base and orange-fennel "slaw" under a mildly caramelly-apple gastrique.

Cliff House's trout ($25) sports appreciatively crispy skin and a smoked tomato confit for a hint of the campfire that would be stream-side, plus soft shrimp-arugula cannelloni that aren't very shrimpy at all but still quite good. My problem with a trio of lamb chops ($32) as a special is that it's $10 more than Savage's aforementioned, superior version. And though the pistachio-flecked meat is nicely medium rare, grassy, tangy and flavorful with a lightly sweet jus, the rest of the plate falls apart with an ugly tangle of shaved asparagus over mushy cubed potatoes.

Lunch ushers in a completely pleasant boar bacon, Gruyère and caramelized onion quiche ($9) and a pleasing frisée and radicchio spring salad ($7) colored by red and golden beets, but lacking the advertised "goat cheese frozen air." (Our server said the kitchen stopped doing it, subbing in goat cheese crumbles instead. Menu reprint, anyone?)

Lastly, duck confit, strawberries, arugula, (imperceptible) crumbled pistachios and more goat cheese come together on toasted marble rye for the most unique grilled cheese ($10) I've likely eaten. But ours tasted disjointed, each bite overwhelmed by one flavor or another and not really jelling into something I'd order again.

The crème brulée trio at dessert ($7) also overreaches in spots: The classic vanilla tastes synthetic and the buttery, and almost-great pistachio-thyme needs more of the herb. We had to look up "Gianduja" — a hazelnut chocolate, it turns out — but it was well worth it, given how well it danced with lemon in the third ramekin.

But play isn't always enough when one's paying premium price. I'd happily kill the foam for overall better form.

matthew@csindy.com

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