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Inventive flavor variations distinguish eclectic menu at Blue Star

The wordless neon sign beckons over South Tejon Street: an irregular blue star marking the spot of one of Colorado Springs' most exciting restaurants. Follow that beacon; you'll be in for a treat.

Joe Coleman opened The Blue Star on West Colorado Avenue in the summer of 1995. It featured an urban, spare dcor, a small bar and what was, for Colorado Springs at that time, a pretty daring menu. Three years later he moved the restaurant to the southernmost end of Tejon Street where the larger space echoes the greater sophistication and confidence of the menu. From modest West Side beginnings, The Blue Star is now a hip bar for drinks, a raucous booth-strewn bistro for tapas and nibbles, and an art-filled dining room for more elaborate culinary experiences.

The open kitchen lends itself to dining as theatre, though whether the chefs are performing for us or we diners are being watched by the cooks is tough to say.

The cadre of chefs, led by Samuel Stern, meets each Monday to plan the week's menu. Opening night for the new preparations is Thursday. All of this suggests that one could happily visit The Blue Star weekly and seldom eat the same dish. You might eat filet each time, or pasta with shellfish, but the particular preparation will differ week to week. Bad news for creatures of habit. Great news for diners who enjoy fresh and exciting treatments.

There is often a Pan-Asian touch to the menu. This week, for example, one of the tapas was a tropical fruit and shrimp egg roll with a cilantro dipping sauce, and one entree was lobster tail finished with a Thai chile dipping sauce and served with a roasted peanut honey rice stick salad.

There is often a haute Mediterranean flair to the menu. Fried eggplant with hummus and portabella mushroom stuffed with ratatouille were other tapas options while the bar-side menu offered a tortilla wrap with Grecian flair, finished with tzaziki sauce and cucumber salad.

The bar menu -- significantly less expensive than the main dining room menu -- displays a distinctly Southwestern influence: pepper jack green chili burgers, and southwestern beef tips with pesto jazzed up with ancho chili and served with smoked tomato black bean ragout.

And Blue Star boasts an adventurousness in dishes as ordinary as salads. A spinach salad, for example, is enlivened by a luscious dressing with ricotta cheese, brown sugar and pistachio. A mixed green salad gets all dressed up with creamy beets and leeks and shallots sauted in cabernet. Yum.

It all comes down to something that transcends labeling: fine, innovative pairings of sweet and savory, fruit and meat, textures and colors that please the eye as much as the mouthful pleases the palate. The finest examples of this on our recent visit were the citrus-rubbed rack of lamb accompanied by a white bean turnip puree and a blueberry demi-glace, and a pork chop marinated in honey and pineapple and served with rice pilaf and a kiwi-strawberry chutney.

We also tried two more "traditional chophouse" dishes: a filet mignon wrapped in bacon and stuffed with smoked cheddar and scallions, and the venison chop. Both were meltingly tender and flavorful, as were the small bites of accompanying potatoes my food team left for me to taste. (The food team shares and tastes everything, rotating plates around the table, and a good judgement tool is how much is left on a plate when the rotation is complete. Nothing but sweet memories remained on these dishes.)

The sole entree was the most interesting but least successful of all we tried (mind you, this is like bringing home bronze instead of Olympic gold). Although the lentil ragout was complex and delicious, the semolina encrusting the fish overpowered the sole's delicacy. Presentation was very pretty: filets draped over the ragout, but our other entrees were so good, this paled in comparison.

We had a similar experience with our first course choices. The cream of broccoli soup was so thick and smooth and rich with its smoky bits of Canadian bacon; the seared salmon medallion with its pineapple-ginger buerre blanc was so close to salmon nirvana that the slight dryness of the country pat, redolent with rosemary and sage, was all the more surprising. Excellence is so seductive that the slightest flaw seems glaring, and only a bore would dwell on it.

In fact very little at the Blue Star needs improvement. Service was superb -- sophisticated without a hint of pretension, friendly without intrusion. The wine list, though pricey, rivals Primitivo's and offers some bottles you'll see nowhere else in Colorado Springs. And the menu advises that the restaurant is cellular phone-free -- an elegant, simple caveat that more establishments might consider.

Another caveat for the diner: Parking is at a premium in the vicinity. Please be sensitive to the neighbors, both residential and commercial (the latter of which will tow your car, ending your evening on an unpleasant and expensive note).

You will have already spent a fair amount of money: appetizers and salads run from $4.95 to $9.95. Entrees range from $14.95 to $26.95. Include drinks, dessert, espresso, and the bill starts adding up. Trust me, though; whatever you spend will be worth it.

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