Looking for a change of scenery and a year-round opportunity, sisters and chefs Rebecca and Elizabeth Christensen, along with most of their crew, have moved their successful Blue Vervain from the Black Hills of South Dakota to our mountain hamlet, Manitou Springs. Both Christensens graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (Elizabeth in pastry, Rebecca in cuisine), and the South Dakotan incarnation of the restaurant achieved critical acclaim.
Without a doubt, South Dakota's loss is Manitou's gain. The Christensens have dramatically transformed the location formerly known as Manitou Natural Foods, bathing the walls in rich reds and blues with celestial gold accents that ascend to the ceiling. Restrained columns add definition, and beautiful floors finish the inviting, romantic dining room. During lunch and on warm summer evenings, Blue Vervain also offers streamside seating on their secluded patio.
The predominantly French/Italian fare reflects influences from Asia and the Americas. Despite this diversity, the menu itself remains sensibly compact, allowing Rebecca, the executive chef, to focus on perfecting each dish.
One fine example is her elegant ellipses of flawlessly roasted red and golden beets, which sit like colorful stones on a viscous pond of honey-thyme cider. Two canelles of creamy goat cheese perch atop the largest beets, rounding out a trio that mixes sweet, tangy and earthy flavors, heightened by the fresh French thyme garnish.
A piquant gazpacho, bright with fresh tomatoes, raw garlic and a generous dose of cayenne pepper, manifests Blue Vervain's commitment to farm freshness. Another starter, sushi of the day, was a spicy crab and roasted bell pepper roll. (This idea is sure to catch on elsewhere. )
Entrees prove equally creative and compelling. A generous plate of fresh sweet potato-filled ravioli with sage browned butter and rosemary cream sauces is a triumph of flavor and texture.
Whole grilled rainbow trout with almonds, which evokes classic continental cuisine, takes on a new dimension when served with jasmine rice and a sesame ginger dipping sauce. Thoughtfully de-boned, the mild fish and nuts get a spark from both the sauce and some just-blanched shallots that keep the palate lively.
Meat eaters will revel in an Argentinean-inspired steak topped with a Chimichurri sauce of tomatoes, garlic, parsley and vinegar. Blue Vervain's Chimichurri is true to form and goes well with their hefty cuts of meat. The flatiron steak, a tricky cut to work with, is flavorful, tender and properly prepared.
Elizabeth's desserts -- running the gamut from home-style to classical to downright daring -- threatened to steal the show. It's hard to resist the temptation of a hot caramel sundae made purely of homemade ingredients and served in a tall goblet -- a one-way ticket to childhood.
Taking a walk on the lighter side, the fresh lemon mousse in a pastry crust just about floats off the plate, its creamy texture an excellent backdrop for the controlled citrus zing.
Making a case for herself as Iron Chef Dessert, Elizabeth offers beet cake and homemade beet ice cream (no, that's not a typo). Beets, which are particularly high in sugar, blend effortlessly into the cake, where their sweetness plays remarkably well with a sinfully dark chocolate ganache that dwells between each moist layer. Brilliantly red, the ice cream expresses the beet's full flavor so purely it's disorienting at first, but more enjoyable with each spoonful.
Blue Vervain also scores high marks for knowledgeable and professional service. Servers are attentive without being fussy or intrusive.
The wine list, which lacks the kitchen's innovative spirit, is the restaurant's one weak link. Some choices, such as the fascinating Domaine Dupueble Beaujolais, which offers an ethereal combination of forest floor, earth and citrus, are inspired, but the others are fairly standard. Focusing on an expanded selection of a few varietals or regions especially suited to the food would make a big difference.
The opposite is true of Blue Vervain's liquor cabinet, possibly one of the finest small bars in the area, especially for those fond of whisky, bourbon, cognac, brandy or vodka. The spread of unusual selections, from which manager Jesse Mann generously offered samples, is truly impressive.
Prices, which range from $5 to $14 for starters and $18 to $27 for entrees, reflect not only quality ingredients but the consideration given to preparation and presentation as well.
Blue Vervain offers a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience -- like taking a vacation without going anywhere.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
-- David Torres-Rouff
56 Park Ave., Manitou Springs
Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m.
Friday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
Espresso Bar: Open continuously