Thirty years ago a little book changed the way many of us thought about food -- where the food we ate came from, and what the consequences of our eating habits were for the environment. Diet for a Small Planet suggested ways for meat-centric Americans to shift their source of protein from burgers to barley, and became, if not the Bible, then the training manual for a healthier lifestyle.
Some things have changed since 1971 but many things haven't. Organic foods are commonplace. A vegetarian or near vegetarian lifestyle is effortless. But small farms are harder to find, fisheries are being depleted, and agri-businesses are getting bigger. We may know there's a relationship between our gastronomy and ecology, but are our eating habits consistent with our environmental responsibilities? How wide is the gap between awareness and action?
For Chef Chris Adrian at La Petite Maison, there is no gap at all. A founding member of the Colorado chapter of Chefs Collaborative, a national organization that promotes local agriculture and sustainable food sources, Chef Adrian is committed to buying produce directly from local farmers and growers, and fish and meat from sustainable sources. And we diners are the happy beneficiaries of her vision, energy and culinary brilliance.
She calls it New American Cuisine; we call it amazing. Her menus are designed around available ingredients with the expected challenges of Colorado's shortened growing season. A recent visit to La Petite Maison showed us how creative Chef Adrian can be.
We started with Wild Mushroom Spring Rolls with a spicy cider dipping sauce and a Curried Shrimp Crepe with Banana Chutney. Both dishes had delicate and complex sauces, perfect blends of piquant and sweet. Another appetizer selection this week is Camembert with grilled pear and lavender honey. The honey is from Provence; the cheese from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, a small upstate New York farm specializing in artisanal cheese. The menu often features cheeses from Haystack Farms (regulars at our Farmers' Market) -- sometimes a goat cheese or, as was the case this week, a feta cheese garnishing the endive salad we tried. The mixed greens in two salad choices and the spinach salad we enjoyed are from organic farms in California and Oregon. In the summer months these greens will be Colorado-grown.
There are few restaurants where all entrees are equally enticing; La Petite Maison is one of them. We could have closed our eyes, pointed, and been pleased with the results. We finally settled on chicken, beef tenderloin, tuna and halibut, which is not to say that the Bacon-wrapped Quail, the Pistachio Beef with Curry Butter or the Bouillabaise a la Martigues wouldn't have been as good.
The free-range chicken breast was stuffed with black Quinoa (from White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley) and dabbled with a blue cheese sauce. Who knew a chicken could be so tasty? The Manitou Beef Tenderloin with a brandy, garlic, tomato and mushroom sauce proved with every bite how grass-fed beef and the tenderizing process done at G&C Meat Packing here in Colorado Springs -- a USDA-sponsored project on less-invasive processing techniques -- results in fork-tender beef with a flavor beyond description.
The beef and the pan-roasted halibut came with small wedges of purple Peruvian potatoes, a specialty potato also grown at White Mountain Farm. The halibut was sweet, moist, cooked perfectly, and nicely set off by the fresh fava beans on which it was served. Plate presentations were stunning in their artistry, no less masterful a blend of colors and shapes than the blend of flavors and textures in each dish.
The tuna was lightly seared and given a Pan-Asian spin with rice noodles, dark soy sauce and a Wasabi Coulis. We had four vastly different dishes, each one better than the next, and each one comprising ingredients that were local, organic, artisanal, or from sustainable sources.
All the mushrooms used in the different dishes -- the starter spring rolls, the mushroom sauce on the beef tenderloin, the wild mushrooms tossed with handmade pasta and chicken scaloppini -- came from Rocky Mountain Shiitake and Specialty Mushrooms in Boulder. The bacon in our spinach salad's vinaigrette and the pork loin chops are from Torpedo Farms in Pueblo. The polenta hush puppies that accompany the pork chops and the smoked corn pudding that comes with the duck breast are made from corn grown in New Mexico and dried in adobe ovens at the Tres Rios farm co-op. The sour cherry sauce on the duck is made from pie cherries grown at Austin Farms in Paonia and kept frozen to get us through the long months until the next harvest. Other special ingredients come from The Truffle, a specialty cheese shop in Denver (2906 East 6th St. between Fillmore and Milwaukee, 303/322-7363)
The best ingredients make the best dishes. In Chef Adrian's hands, they make possibly the best food in town. And they make a little more likely the viability of local growers and food artisans, the promotion of Earth-friendly growing, and the proliferation of that most fundamental of notions that we are all connected.