When the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center entered the restaurant business last year with Café 36, I gave it a hearty thumping.
The lackluster dishes and extremely choppy service simply didn't measure up to the exquisite mountain views and lovely building expansion.
After a few months, the operation entered a prolonged hibernation. It awakened recently, renewed with fresh cooks in the kitchen, staff on the floor and edible art on the plate. Coming to its aid: Old Colorado City's Garden of the Gods Gourmet.
The first striking change: The seven-year-old, upscale catering outfit has brought in a staff that knows the menu and how to interact with customers.
But the most important transformation, obviously, has taken place with the food. With Café 36 being an art gallery eatery, I all along expected to see culinary creations worth talking about. At lunch this time around starting with a "chef's gift" of small, tasty cubes of sweet potatoes with a hit of jalapeo perched atop a crunchy endive leaf I wasn't disappointed.
Further delight arrived in the form of an apple, potato and Brie timbale watercress salad ($6) dressed in tri-pepper vinaigrette, a soft shell crab verrine ($14.50) and the roasted red pepper polenta Napoleon ($12.50).
The timbale (meaning baked in a round mold) of finely sliced potatoes shone. A crunchy, golden brown top gave way to a multitude of soft layers with a hint of creaminess from the Brie and sweetness from the apple base. The watercress salad added brightness and crunch.
The crab arrived loaded in a martini glass. Almost two dishes in one, it featured a layer of avocado topped with a salad of creamy lump crab and crunchy, diced red apple, crowned with a large, fried soft-shell crab.
My friend's polenta Napoleon (a stacked-food item) proved to be a third delicious pairing of crunchy and soft, with Manchego-cheese-layered crispy discs of polenta. Red pepper vinaigrette, arugula pesto and walnuts blended the flavors nicely.
Lastly, whimsically presented desserts a vanilla crme brle with fruit compote and chocolate mousse with a pistachio meringue disc and passionfruit coulis (both $6.50) proved seamless.
A Sunday visit found two brunch-like additions to the regular menu. We passed on the crab eggs Benedict in favor of an avocado citrus salad with sweet pickled radish ($4.50). Beyond being delicious and beautiful, it demonstrated a ridiculous attention to detail, with julienned radishes minced into perfect cubes adorning the avocado.
We opted for the banana nut bread French toast ($9), which consisted of three thick slices lightly coated, fried and topped with a caramel sauce, salty pecans and whipped cream. In its outrageous decadence, it basically equated to dessert.
Though Café 36 serves up "verrine" and "timbale," it's not just for the ladies-who-lunch demographic; as evidence, it offers a three-course "business lunch" for $20 per person. But regardless of who you are, you'll get the feeling that the people in the kitchen are sweating their hounds-tooth pants off for you.
The passion comes through, as it should in a house of art.