For a place with 98 years of history, Manitou Springs' Craftwood Inn simmers with a surprisingly youthful energy. The gorgeous, artisan-crafted estate that welcomed Hollywood stars in the 1940s today handles tourist hordes and local epicures, and the atmosphere pairs nicely with the food: classic French-inspired sauces atop house-butchered cuts of game meats and creatively assembled accoutrements.
Those dishes have long been the work of Jeff Knight. He arrived in 1994 as a sous chef and in 2000 rose to executive chef, a post he held until this past November, when he opted to take the departing general manager's position in the front of the house.
The startling move — talented chefs rarely depart kitchens for floor duty — left an opening that Ben Hoffer thought would never come. He'd worked under Knight for six years, before taking a job as the lead man at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's Café 36 in early 2008. A year and a half later, the 31-year-old took a pay cut to serve as executive chef in the space he says he has a "personal relationship with."
He started on a Monday and was told to design a new menu by Friday.
Though Knight is still featured on the "Chef's bio" portion of Craftwood's Web site, and his name sits above the dessert section of the menu, Hoffer's moniker does top the entrées. He says 95 percent of current offerings are of his design — ostrich, quail, pheasant and all.
One classic dish that survived Hoffer's update is the Colorado elk steak dressed in a stately red wine hunter's sauce (demiglace, mushrooms, pearl onions, bacon and olives). It's served next to mashed potatoes and the delectable, semi-sweet house harvest roast hash, a ruby-colored blend of beets, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, leeks and asparagus spears endowed with a touch of maple syrup and sweet chili.
It's a damn impressive plate, and a testament to the talent backing Hoffer. Firstly, there's Knight's remote oversight. Then you get chef No. 3 in longtime Springs gourmand Francis Schott, who pulls two to three shifts a week. Chef No. 4 is Rachel Brown, formerly of the Briarhurst Manor, who subs for Hoffer on Tuesdays. Behind them are line cooks with between two and five years' Craftwood experience, including Paragon Culinary School graduate Bobby Couch (see "Kitchen consequential," cover story, July 9, 2009).
The best way to sample the talent is by printing a $50, four-course, dinner-for-two coupon off craftwood.com and taking it in before 6, Sunday through Friday. A $60 one is good from 6 to close on those days. (Regular price is $80.)
For round one, you choose between a daily soup bowl — ours was a competent potato leek with a swirl of chive — and a fancy side salad topped with ghostly Enoki mushrooms, fried yucca root tendrils and pear-looking New Mexican chayote squash slivers. (Get the vibrant Parmesan peppercorn dressing.)
After a palate-cleansing sorbet scoop, you select two of five rotating entrée selections and two of another handful of dessert options. Along with the elk, we tackled an outstanding, crispy-skinned portion of duck with sweet potato mash, the hash and a highly complementary Riesling butter. Dessert brought satisfying, if unremarkable, offerings of berry-topped panna cotta and a raspberry coulis-and-crème-anglaise-dressed "Chocolate Paradise" ganache brownie cake.
Our waiter ended up being a former restaurant co-worker, so our treatment on both visits may have been abnormally attentive. It did not, however, bring fair warning of split charges to our salad and entrée ($1 on the first, and a hefty $5 on the latter).
I know split charges reflect a little extra side portioning and garnish, but I think customers should always be made aware and offered an empty second plate instead. Between that, and a silly-expensive $3.50 charge for a bag of standard hot tea, I did have a couple gripes.
But back to the food itself. The Haystack Mountain goat cheese-topped spinach salad ($9) soared, with its smoked bacon- and paprika-spiked red wine vinaigrette. The small teaser plates (three for $20) — miniature versions of the entrées, sides included — made me wish every gourmet restaurant would offer them as an option for sampling widely. Make sure yours includes the honey-rosemary grilled wild boar tenderloin over house-made venison sausage cassoulet, which is dynamic and simply brilliant.
Accented with bacon, the scallop Normandy and fruit-glazed New Zealand red deer both pleased, as did our pecan-crusted Colorado striped bass ($27) with garlicky spinach and a whiskey butter sauce. Next to the entreés, a slightly too-thick crème brulee and unique but not entirely lovable white chocolate jalapeño mousse in raspberry coulis (each $7) fell a bit short.
Hoffer says to expect a new seasonal menu sometime around May or June. In the interim, try to get used to Knight escorting you to your table. He still wears chef's clothes, a sign that transition never comes easy.