We aren't in Las Vegas. So when I disclaim, "for casino food," don't take it the wrong way.
It's just that Colorado casinos usually don't qualify as dining destinations. In fact, I nearly resorted to eating my bike socks last time I was in Black Hawk (though a drive to neighboring Central City spared me).
People around here go to casinos to gamble, not eat. In Cripple Creek's Wildwood Casino, with its casual clientele and buzzing atmosphere, you'd figure bleary-eyed fortune hunters would amble up to the Fireside Kitchen for a quick pizza rather than down the hall to Mavericks, a fine dining joint.
So I was surprised to see Mavericks with a line out its door at 8 p.m. on a Saturday until I learned of the prime rib and seafood buffet ($21.95; $13.99-$16.79 for Miner's Club members), affordable gourmet for those on a winning streak.
Like a Sharper Image version of a yurt, Mavericks' circular layout, with posh booths and floor-to-ceiling windows, screams $35, 20-ounce ribeye. Or almost-class, like a fake Gucci handbag.
But for casino food, Mavericks shows good taste. Mostly. The first thing in my mouth was actually the worst: the most boring, nature-spurned iceberg lettuce salad, which failed to be enlivened by fun strawberry and raspberry vinaigrettes. (First rule of true gourmet: Ditch the abomination of bagged iceberg and go with a fresh, preferably organic, spring mix.)
Our starters consisted of clever lobster corn dogs with mango salsa ($10.95) and the unique buffalo tenderloin carpaccio ($9.95). I've never seen raw buffalo on a menu, and with truffle cream and tender, paper-thin Tatanka slices, Mavericks executed the dish beautifully. But the corn dogs failed to jell, with too-chewy meat, not-so-yummy breading and a salsa in need of more marinating time to marry hot jalapeo slivers to the sweet fruit.
With the arrival of our entres, we realized Mavericks' strong suit is certainly presentation, and its weakness living up to the shining image.
The 8-ounce filet Oscar ($29.95) arrived next to grilled asparagus as a regal tower, stacking a potato pancake, filet, crab cake and crab claw, all topped in Hollandaise with an orchid garnish. Prettiest dish of the year so far and tasty overall, but the potato cake was lukewarm, the meat cooked a little past my request, and the sauce lacking full lemon flavor. With the macadamia-crusted halibut ($21.95), a hazelnut beurre blanc sauce and mascarpone mashed potatoes paired for a semi-sweet, deliciously unique flavor, but the ample crust couldn't disguise either slightly overcooked or just not-fresh fish again, rubbery.
Our friendly server treated us to a free chocolate mousse pyramid and vanilla flan both really good from the buffet, but we couldn't resist the menu's orange sorbet ($4.95) come dessert time. Inside a glazed chocolate waffle cone sat a cored, frozen orange filled with a superb, bursting-with-citrus sorbet. It was our favorite part of the meal, a dish that finally tasted as fine as it looked.
Gambling towns will always be illusory, and around here, so will their eats. But again, for casino food, Mavericks is at least worth the ante.
Mavericks, An American Classic, in Wildwood Casino at Cripple Creek
119 Carbonate St., Cripple Creek, 877/945-3963, playwildwood.com
Hours: Thursday through Saturday, 5-11 p.m. (prime rib-seafood buffet Friday and Saturday only, 5-10 p.m.); brunch buffet, 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday through Wednesday.