I spent my first night out in Colorado Springs at the Ritz Grill. It was a Sunday, and it was slammed. Couples ground against each other as a DJ dropped mad hip-hop beats. Two women danced on the bar.
Someone in my party hurled crumpled napkins at them. Caught and confronted, she forestalled girl-on-girl fisticuffs by claiming to have fired the paper missiles at the "cute boy" standing beneath the bar-dancers. Her drunken would-be attacker bought it. They hugged. I wasn't sure I'd actually left Santa Barbara.
I didn't realize the Ritz even served food until I ate lunch there months later. Then, on a crisp March afternoon, I judged the 2004 Iron Chef competition, where I saw Ritz chef Jason Gust's genius. He mounted a beurre blanc sauce with blue Mr. Freezie syrup, which he scavenged from one of the vendors on hand for the hospitality show. None other than the Black Bear's Victor Matthews shook his head in amazement. Gust finished third that day, then took home the champion's hardware three years in a row.
While insiders pine for an arena dedicated exclusively to his boundless creativity, Gust continues to steer the Ritz's kitchen. He first punched the clock there 12 years ago as a dishwasher. Regulars love his Cajun pasta and pastrami-crusted ahi tuna, but their loyalties are being challenged.
For the Ritz's 20th birthday, Gust has revamped the dinner menu. Restaurant dishes are built around techniques as much as ingredients, concepts as much as flavors. Developing and perfecting new ones involves time and tinkering. Two starters bruschetta ($9, salty) and lobster agnolotti ($13, inconsistent) would benefit from fine-tuning, but the other newcomers delight.
Evoking a beachside barbecue, a divine appetizer of scallops grilled on half shells ($12) soars with tahini, south Asian spice and little bits of crushed peanut. Moving from open flame to smoldering pan, their plumper siblings encore as an entre, out of the shell, wrapped in pancetta, seared and served over spinach. A restrained red wine demi-glace cuts through the fat and ties the dish together.
Buffalo meatloaf ($16), sliced into thick slabs revealing its grilled mushroom and red-pepper stuffing, floats on the earthy fumes rising from a mound of truffle oil-infused mashed potatoes. Rich and rustic, it's an ingenious update on an American classic.
Pepper-crusted Colorado lamb chops ($26) and a chile-rubbed Southwestern filet mignon ($24) sizzle on the grill, capturing different shades of local color. Bolstered by a showy morel sauce, the juicy chops play city slicker to the filet's cowboy, wearing a black hat of dark chipotle-spiked sauce and slinging a deadly good side of chorizo-potato hash.
Adding another wrinkle, Gust and company make fresh mozzarella daily. What to do with homemade mozzarella? Bread it and fry it, of course! The Ritz's mozzarella sticks ($7) are the gooiest and tastiest sticks around.
Sure, the Ritz is the Ritz: a buzzing crowd, big booths, happy-hour specials, live music and service that ranges from professional to ragged. But I disagree with Gust's claim that it's just "a bar with a really good food business." Instead it's a bar where people can learn about, and eat, really good food.
15 S. Tejon St., 635-8484, ritzgrill.com
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday, 2:30-4:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday-Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.