It's Harvest Week at The Margarita, and the butternut squash gratin is killing it at lunch. Goat cheese fuses earthy Pueblo green chili strands and caramelized onions to the vibrant yellow starch layers, topped in a jagged mohawk of spinach-apple-fried-shallot-slaw, kissed with lemon vinaigrette. Garnishing cilantro crema gifts an herbal accent and creamy roundness to balance the sugars.
Call it nonsensical, but I taste the desert.
This is the quintessential Southwestern dish, and actually Margarita chef Cathy Werle's more elaborate and superb spinoff of the "world famous" butternut squash casserole from Santa Fe's Cowgirl BBQ. Werle is behind the Margarita's pastry operations and lunch menu, which this day also includes a stupid-fresh BLT rendition moistened by potent, mesquite-smoke-infused Olathe corn aioli. Its essence playfully meanders through chewy bacon, tangy pickled onions and peppery arugula, all of which serve to showcase four varieties of brilliant heirloom tomatoes from Larga Vista Ranch.
That Boone-based business, plus Milberger, Frost, Venetucci and Wheeler farms, help fill out the five-day menu for Harvest Week. Every item highlights at least one Colorado-grown ingredient, some from urban growers that Werle and fellow chef/co-owner Eric Viedt found using the LocalFood CS app.
Such is the 41-year-old culinary stronghold's longstanding commitment to small producers in the region. While others have greenwashed or made token gestures with an item or two, the Margarita has hosted the Colorado Farm & Art Market and invested as much facetime with growers as with guests.
No matter if you missed this peak-season celebratory week, because the Margarita crew carries items like local squash into late winter, and stocks freezers with bushels of green chili, a house staple. If you act quickly, though, you may still catch items like fresh salads or locally loaded gazpacho, which accompanied our lunch entrées with bread and a wedge of fluffy, lovely lemon pound cake for only $13.
At dinner, similarly bountiful three- or five-course meals run the regular $36 or $42, before add-ons like a $12 cheese plate or $15 two-wine-glass pairing. That pretty cheese plate fills a giant woodblock with grill-seared toast points, a giant smear of preserves, a beet purée, nuts, fruit and a cheese trio ranging from hard to bleu to inner-goo. Our fully functional red table wines hail from Palisade's Canyon Wind Cellars and Black Forest's organic Sette Dolori Winery.
Inside the five courses, flavors once again guide us through the Southwest, but also South America, the deep South, the Middle East, France, Italy and India. Appetizers include lightly battered okra with a heavy harissa-carrot purée and cucumber-mint-pickled fennel yogurt raita, plus another heirloom tomato medley treated Caprese-style with balsamic reduction and a not-too-leaky mozzarella burrata ball. Salads showcase veggies and excellent green goddess and sesame dressings. Crab bisque sports veggie chunks, thin meat strands and expected richness.
For entrées, a plate-sized, bright red, bull's horn pepper stuffed into a relleno with sweet potato polenta comes cloaked in a yellow-and-green-makes-mean roasted corn and Peruvian aji amarillo chili sauce and scallion oil. A topping of grilled halved tomatillos and zucchini flats join pickled mushrooms to lend char and acidity to the incredible medley of sweet heat. The Margarita has always excelled at folding disparate flavors into one another, creating layered, highly textured experiences that achieve balance in the finish, often leaving a lingering hint of earth or spice — some postcard from a fading place, like the back-note barrel essence of a fine bourbon. It's soul-stirring comfort food, but not in the fried and fatty sense.
It's exactly the opposite, in fact, with our Alamosa striped bass over Basmati rice. A colorful assemblage of zucchini and heirloom tomatoes pops with foamy lemon aioli citrus zest and Corsican basil, which is slightly sharper than common Genovese. In this case there's not a lot to it, but it's easily the best dish I've had recently.
Dessert finishes with a crusty, ginger-snap-like apple cake presented in a mini cast-iron pan, topped with more biting ginger ice cream. Peach cobbler with a whipped cream dollop acts as it should to highlight Palisade's star export, and an espresso cream mound sets off chocolate panna cotta, partly scooped with a shortbread triangle.
The panna cotta arrives as an extra to our two included desserts, and a gift from the kitchen, typically extended for birthdays and anniversaries. In our case, it came because we'd been recognized and visited by Viedt, whom I've interviewed many times about subjects like sustainable food, spices and ingredients, and the Margarita's approach to non-hoity-toity fine dining inside this intriguing adobe in the woods.
This night, we roll through the who's who of farms that informed each dish, and I learn Viedt orchestrated this Harvest Week last-minute since nobody organized a coherent citywide Local Food Week. Denver and many other cities' wildly popular Restaurant Weeks say everything about what our town is missing, and could achieve should area leadership, media, restaurateurs and tourism boards unite properly. Of course, that we have to call out localness at all points to the dining industry's wider ailment when it comes to repairing small-food systems.
The Margarita illuminates the stunning potential for local ingredients, cared for by the right hands. We know Colorado's bountiful and that it's proud, but can it ever become more self-sustaining?
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