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Flavors, flowers blend brilliantly at Hillside Gardens eatery

click to enlarge Smoke and spice master Ken Bullard offers chicken - quesadillas from his Hillside Gardens caf. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Smoke and spice master Ken Bullard offers chicken quesadillas from his Hillside Gardens caf.

Ken Bullard is the full-time smoking and seasoning wizard at the Much More Than Coffee Caf. Located on the grounds of Hillside Gardens nursery, a four-acre horticultural haven perched high on a hill overlooking downtown Colorado Springs, the caf is surrounded by blooming roses, peonies, iris and Japanese locusts. This shady shed is the perfect spot for a Saturday afternoon getaway with a good book, a weekday lunch away from the downtown traffic and heat, an early evening respite or a leisurely anytime snack.

And Bullard? Well, let's just say that he's a foodie's foodie -- a man who dreams, sleeps, speaks, walks and talks recipes.

On a recent Wednesday morning, he invented Apple and White Grape Slaw, a cool side dish he plans to serve alongside his menu of warm sandwiches. Granny Smith apples sliced into matchsticks, mixed with halved white grapes, marinated in fresh lemon juice and white grape juice.

Bullard specializes in smoking chicken, pork and beef and creating seasoning combos that largely forgo salt, relying instead on complex herb and spice mixes for flavor. He's got an assortment of grills outside the kitchen, tucked behind the caf, but he plans to build a custom smoker soon to meet all his needs.

"I learned to weld when I was 8," he said, "around the same time I learned to make a cake from scratch."

What a cake that must have been. Nothing at Bullard's caf falls remotely within the realm of ordinary.

Consider the simple quesadilla, for example. A grilled eight-inch tortilla, folded and filled with Jack, cheddar or whatever other cheese is on hand, plus scallions and/or red onions. Add one of Bullard's unique handmade salsas, and you're going somewhere. Your choices might include black bean salsa, with black beans, onions and roasted red peppers marinated in a balsamic vinaigrette seasoned with cumin and one of Bullard's custom-crafted spice mixes. Or you might try the corn salsa, with fresh grilled sweet corn, cut from the cob, mixed with green chilies and chopped onion and marinated in a sweet vinaigrette.

Now the quesadilla sings, but wait. Try it with chicken and you'll reach a new flavor level altogether. The shredded, smoked chicken has been marinated in three citrus juices and a variety of herbs. The flavor, as with all of Bullard's recipes, is absolutely unique.

Another delicious chicken dish is the herbed lemon chicken panini. Bullard bathes chicken scallopini slices with herbed butter before grilling them, then dresses them generously with fresh lemon juice. The sandwich is built on a crusty bun with scallions and smoked mozzarella, then pressed so that the flavors and textures melt together.

The side dish of the day might be a black-eyed pea salad with extra virgin olive oil and lemon, scallions and Italian parsley. Or it could be a broccoli pasta salad, composed of tri-color rotini, fresh barely steamed broccoli and cauliflower, olives, cubed mozzarella and julienned carrots. All ingredients are marinated carefully -- the carrots and cheese longer than the rest to add flavor, and the broccoli added at the last minute so that it doesn't lose its bright green color.

The caf serves an outstanding pulled pork barbecue sandwich. The slow-smoked pork butt is rubbed with Bullard's "1983 spice rub," pulled or chopped, then smothered in his specialty barbecue sauce -- a spicy mix of ketchup, beef stock, cider vinegar, black pepper and another dose of the rub.

What's most impressive is the enthusiasm and care that goes into all the preparations at the Much More Than Coffee Caf (a cumbersome name: what about Ken's Grill?). On a recent Saturday, Bullard served two types of green iced tea. One was made from organic green tea mixed with cherry blossoms, which took on a lovely gold color in the glass; the other from a gunpowder green tea which, he explained, got its extra flavor from being hand-rolled and bruised to release the oils. Both were immaculately prepared, a real treat in the hinterlands of Colorado, where iced tea usually is dispensed, often two days old, from one of those stainless steel urns.

This is not fast food, nor should it be. Sit and linger. Enjoy the scenery. Watch the fat bumblebees grazing on the rose bush next to your table, filling up on pollen. Place your order and wander the gardens and plant nursery. Better yet, sit and talk to Bullard and let him fill your ears while he crashes around the kitchen.

The caf serves wine and beer, and is open later on nights when Hillside Gardens brings in live music. (Live from the Boneyard blues go on every Wednesday night from 6 to 8 p.m., for free; there also will be a Bluegrass Festival on July 31, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.). Bullard caters weddings and special events as well, offering customized menus. And you can bet the food will be anything but ordinary.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

capsule

Much More Than Coffee Caf

Hillside Gardens, 1006 S. Institute St. (one block south of Fountain Boulevard)

Open daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Call 520-9463, Ext. 5.

hillsidegardens.net

  • Flavors, flowers blend brilliantly at Hillside Gardens eatery

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