What do Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud have in common? Why did the foodies of New York City mourn more when Lutece changed hands than when it closed some years later? And what does any of this have to do with eating out in our little town?
The first answer: Each of the three is a chef/owner of an unbeatable restaurant, upon which they have stamped their unique identity and talent. No one could re-create Berkeley's Chez Panisse, Napa's French Laundry or New York's Daniel. So too did Andre Soltner define Lutece, the hautest of the haute in New York. When not in the kitchen, Chef Andre greeted his guests with a word, a smile or a secret for newcomer and regular alike. When he sold Lutece, the light went out. It became another fine, expensive restaurant, as commonplace as cockroaches on Manhattan's East Side.
And the relevance to Colorado Springs? We have some similarly chef-driven restaurants, each offering menus unique to the talents, tastes and personalities of their chefs and/or owners. Eight such restaurants have joined together in what they're calling the Independent Restaurant Cooperative.
Initially formed as a means to gain leverage in purchasing and advertising, the Cooperative's fundamental goal is to encourage local and visiting diners to visit new places and try something a bit more imaginative than what we may be used to or what's strung along North Academy Boulevard. To this end, they've scheduled a series of "Distinct Culinary Gatherings" with a price of $50 per person plus tax and gratuity, to be held on the second Tuesday of each month. Each meal includes five courses and five accompanying wines. The first dinner was Tuesday, March 9 at La Petite Maison.
It was called a "Five Course Celebration of Spring." It was really a celebration of Chef Espiridion "Pete" Moreno's culinary skill, owner Jeff Mervis' uncanny talent for selecting wines, and the camaraderie one feels at such a wonderful meal.
Tables were arranged to handle 40 diners (the maximum number for each of these introductory dinners). Hence, two unsuspecting strangers sat down at our table and left at evening's end promising six new friends they'd see us at next month's dinner. In between were a glass of champagne, five luscious courses and five well-matched wines.
The tasting menu began with a light salad of crab, avocado and mango on paper-thin slices of cucumber. The wine was a Prum Riesling Kabinett which, odd as it sounds, picked up a little of the cucumber flavor. (This, we all agreed, was a good thing). Next came the course that Chef Moreno admitted later caused the most concern: lightly sauted Calamari Provencal. It takes about a nanosecond for calamari to go from tender to tough, and despite the quantity he was preparing, Chef Moreno had impeccable timing. The juicy texture of the calamari was well balanced by the piquillo pepper, a zippy relative of red bell peppers or a milder friend of ancho chilies, depending on your perspective, stuffed with creamy goat cheese. A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc fit right in.
After giving us a palate-cleansing grapefruit granita, the excellent wait staff served thin slices of duck and walnut terrine with frisee and dried cherries. Now we were moving into the fuller reds. The richness of the terrine, the tartness of the cherries and the gorgeous fruitiness of the Pinot Noir (a 2002 Avila from San Luis Obispo, a humbling lesson for this Oregon Pinot snob), were perfect together.
As we waited for our glasses of Sangiovese (Opolo Vineyards, 2000) to breathe a little, the staff served lovely plates of medium-rare lamb, al dente vegetables and a pure of Yukon Gold potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.
Need I add there was a sinful dessert of Roasted Banana Crme Caramel accompanied by a Hungarian Tokaji? I didn't think so.
Our two new tablemates had never been to La Petite Maison before, but they surely will again. The tasting menu gave a broad hint of what the ever-changing menu offers. The friendliness of staff and the attentiveness paid to all by Jeff and his assistant for the night, Patty Davidson of the Margarita at Pine Creek, made us all feel we had enjoyed a special evening. We'll all be at the next special Tuesday, and the one after that. Here's the schedule:
April 13: Sencha (632-8287)
May 11: The Warehouse (475-8880)
June 8: The Margarita at Pine Creek (598-8667)
July 13: The Black Bear, Green Mountain Falls (684-9648)
August 10: Briarhurst Manor (685-1864)
September 14: Marigold's (599-4776)
October 12: Jun (531-9368)
The Grand Finale is scheduled for Nov. 9 at the Briarhurst. Details are still being worked out (getting consensus from a group of creative people is like trying to herd cats), but there's a possibility this dinner will feature dishes contributed from all the chefs. I think there should be an awards presentation with categories, nominees and winners decided by all participants. That could include you.
Independent Restaurant Cooperative Series of Culinary Gatherings
$50 per person plus tax and gratuity
All dinners begin at 6:30 p.m. and include five courses with five accompanying wines
Call individual restaurants to make reservations.