You could say the chef is renewed, or you could say the restaurant has found its way after some missteps, or you could say both about either.
James Davis, long renowned for his years of service at the Blue Star, has fully recovered from a shoulder injury that affected him during short-lived stints at the now-closed Crêpes Française and Whole Foods Market.
Meanwhile, the space next to the under-construction The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel has decided it's not a health-focused Mediterranean outfit called Il Postino. Instead, it's Springs Orleans, serving Cajun food with French influences.
Technically, this isn't Davis' menu — it was designed by another chef, Seles Bowser, who departed earlier this year. But Davis grew up on the Florida panhandle, eating and cooking the cuisine that had made its way over from New Orleans. He gets it. And his execution of Bowser's dishes is a beautiful thing to experience.
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A full assortment of hot sauce offerings betrays Springs Orleans' Southern intentions, and the chicken, duck and sausage gumbo ($11.99) confirms them: Smoky, gritty and thick, it's delicious enough to hang with anything I recently judged at Manitou Springs' Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo competition.
Then there's the gumbo-like shrimp étouffée ($13.99) — a reddish-brown moat flecked with fat shrimp, onions and celery surrounding a bed of thick, fluffy white rice. It starts with a lobster stock and ends in a lightly spiced, velvety texture.
Equally impressive is the lobster trotolle pasta ($12.99 half/$24.00 whole). Like a pimped-out macaroni and cheese, it's rich in a tarragon cream and plump with thick claw and knuckle meat, sun-dried tomatoes, and more tarragon bunched on top.
These indulgent dishes are huge departures from the "cuisine focused on health and wellness" that Jeff Gebott cooked last fall at Il Postino. But it's hardly a surprise; warm tones and dark woods aside, there's a sense the restaurant's a wholly different place as soon as you walk in. A wall blocking the front double doors from view has been removed, opening the room up, and a front corner that used to hold coat racks has been converted to a stage. There, pianist Thomas Dawson, who's played with and produced The Commodores, bangs out jazz standards in the evenings.
So bring on the upscale bar food. The calamari ($7.99) could use some citrus, but the seasoned batter crunches and carries delicious herbaceous flavors — I scraped my plate at the end — complemented nicely by a pile of sliced banana peppers and fried parsley. The pepper-gravy-covered Disco Fries ($6.99), for their part, are nearly identical to poutine though, in a seemingly random New Jersey touch, the typical cheese curds get swapped for good melted cheddar.
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If the salty frites act as the perfect food for the restaurant's happy hours, then the fresh apple and Gorgonzola salad ($8.99) is perfect for most everything else. Artfully composed and presented in a raised white porcelain bowl cut at an angle, the sweet-and-bitter combination of spring mix, thin Granny Smith apple straws, chunky walnuts, addictively unctuous lardon — cured, cubed pork fat — and blue cheese is a lakeside picnic lunch unto itself.
From the menu's platters section — choose a meat, cooking style and sides for between $19.99 and $21.99 — a nice portion of crusty blackened bluefin tuna is too salty, but otherwise spicy with a citrus kick; while sides of Creole coleslaw, creamy, crunchy and sweet with awesome heat, and blissfully buttery, chunky whipped potatoes could almost be entrées.
Lighter diners can grab the soup of the day ($4.50), a wonderful plantain and sweet potato in our case, or a burger or po' boy ($9.99). One afternoon's offering comes on a soft roll with tender fried oysters and more Creole coleslaw, next to crispy and chewy fries and a thinly sliced cucumber salad.
And the beat goes on with the house desserts, where a two-slice bread pudding ($4.99) with vanilla ice cream, powdered sugar and fresh blackberries and raspberries is delightfully more bread than pudding; hot beignets ($2.49), topped with mountains of powdered sugar, sit messy and sweet; and the Miner's Nuggets ($4.99) — ice cream rolled in cinnamon and chocolate graham crackers, as well as white and dark chocolate — eat like Mexican fried ice cream with a honey drizzle.
To be fair, we did encounter some hiccups: a double-charge on a wonderful café au lait ($2.49, includes one refill); our original order of bluefin arriving grilled — and very tamely, at that — instead of blackened; and our server bringing a full portion of the lobster pasta instead of the requested half, an $11 difference.
But without a doubt, Davis and his team have already elevated Springs Orleans into the top tier of Colorado Springs restaurants. And we can all be thankful that both seem to have finally found their way home.