There's something about eating dinner in front of a grand, roaring stone fireplace on a cold night, with the dancing firelight reflecting off the windowpanes and the head of an enormous buffalo looking down upon your repast from high upon the wall. Much speculation can be made about whether said buffalo is looking down in approbation or disapproval. His facial expression, half-hidden and mysterious, hints at a yearning for the good old days of grazing on the prairie, as opposed to watching diners consume his brethren.
Perhaps you're starting to think that I shouldn't drink so much at dinner. I assure you my musings began before my first sip of wine. The diners at the table next to mine, on the other hand, ordered shots of tequila along with their salad course, and I felt sure that, by the end of the meal, they would have come up with some pretty interesting theories about Basil the Buffalo. Or would they have named him Bob? Fortunately for us, they were happy tequila drinkers as opposed to the pick-a-fight or swing-from-the-chandelier variety.
It was a chilly Saturday evening and we were all happily ensconced at the Stagecoach Inn in Manitou Springs. The restaurant has a lovely ambiance, with the fireplace and warm wood tones throughout, although I fear some people may be put off by the various animal heads mounted on the walls. Keep your eyes at table-level, though, and you are bound to enjoy most of your meal.
Most dinners begin with soup or salad. The salads are nice, but nothing extraordinary. The vegetable beef soup, however, was particularly scrumptious with its rich, hearty broth, meltingly tender chunks of flavorful beef and slow-cooked vegetables.
The slow-cooked buffalo entre is a treat for anyone who enjoys this flavorful meat. The flavor is full without being gamey, and slow roasting keeps the meat juicy and tender. It was served perfectly rare, as we had ordered it. The Sizzling Sirloin, made of regular beef instead of buffalo, lives up to its name. Served on a sizzling hot platter, with clouds of fragrant steam rising up to perfume the dining room, the tender, flavorful sirloin is covered with (and resting on) quickly seared onions and bell peppers. I don't know how the chef pulls this off, but it is absolutely wonderful. With every bite, I kept thinking the vegetables would surely taste burnt this time, but they didn't. The onions and peppers were seared with skill, with no bitter overcooked or burnt taste. I would order this dish again in a trice.
The prime rib is also something to savor, richly flavorful and not at all fatty. And the pan-fried trout is delightful with just the loveliest little whisper of crispy coating, not greasy in the least. The flesh of the trout was moist, tender and sweet, as it should be.
Along with dinner, diners have a choice of side dishes, and it was my experience that the rice pilaf is something you can pass by. It was just sort of there, taking up space, tasting no better than something I could prepare from a box off the grocery store shelf. The mashed potatoes are quite a bit better, fluffy and lightly flavored with garlic. And the pureed winter squash that accompanied our dinners was sublime -- smooth, earthy, ever so slightly sweet and just plain wonderful. All this, considering that generally I don't even like squash! The other vegetable, which I never quite identified, was shredded and didn't really have any discernible flavor.
Service at the Stagecoach was spotty. The first evening, when we had reservations, we were left standing at the host station for almost 10 minutes before anyone even wandered by and said, "He'll be here in a minute," which we were told twice. I'm not sure who "he" was, or what was delaying him, but after standing there for so long I didn't really care.
Fortunately our waiter more than made up the service that the front desk lacked. He was attentive, funny, knowledgeable and solicitous. In fact, on our second visit, our waiter from the first evening was warmer and friendlier to us than the waitress serving us that night. Of course, my frame of mind was a little less forgiving, since we were seated in Siberia, a sort of hallway between the bar and the main dining room. I realize we didn't have a reservation, but it was a slow Tuesday evening and there were plenty of tables available in the main dining room. I don't know if it could have been the lack of reservation or the presence of our children that resulted in our less-than-desirable table assignment.
All in all, The Stagecoach Inn is sure to be one of those restaurants that I go back to on a regular basis. The things they do well are superb, and there are several dishes I'm anxious to try, including Colorado versions of bouillabaisse and paella. One feature I especially like at the Stagecoach is the Tuesday night special, where you can select two dinners from a nicely comprehensive list for $19.95. The high quality makes that price a real bargain, and it's one I intend to take advantage of again, even if I do have to sit under the gaze of a forlorn buffalo.
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