Caf 36, the Fine Arts Center's new restaurant, has everything going for it: historic architecture, central location and picture-perfect views. Built in 1936 and situated along Monument Valley Park, with a lovely sightline to Pikes Peak, the former theater lounge with covered patio begs to be enjoyed.
With a two-story, 48,000-square-foot expansion set to open in August, the FAC has chosen the right time to introduce in-house dining. I only wish its early returns were more successful.
Dressed with unique dishware and fresh flowers on each table, the room screams fine dining. But once seated, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was all on wheels. It lacked a sense of permanence, as if at any moment the entire space could be transformed into something else.
Thankfully, the service already has undergone something of a transformation. On my first visit, I shooed three different servers from taking my salad plate, before finally surrendering it. On the second, the server asked the cost of my friend's Jimmy Choo shoes. Candid Camera, anyone?
By the third, the wait staff had nicely calmed; they seemed to just want something to do.
The menu is comprised of an ordinary mix of appetizers, salads and light entres. A bright spot came with the Far East Salad ($9), a gorgeous mix of greens, bell peppers, sprouts, almonds and rice noodles, with a spicy sweet chili dressing perfectly composed, crisp and with a surprising bite of heat. You can add grilled chicken or salmon ($3) to that, or any salad, to create an entre.
Dietitians say your daily protein intake should be about the size of a deck of cards. Executive chef Bruce Calder must subscribe to this philosophy, because when my salmon filet ($12) arrived, I could have easily hidden it behind a Jack of Spades. Though beautiful in color (aided by the signature tropical salsa) and exciting in flair, with a large plantain slice jetting from the plate, the dish lacked seasoning.
The tilapia filet sandwich ($9) appeared dry on arrival, but with added herb-citrus mayonnaise (which I recommend getting on the side), it proved a decent choice.
Brunch was even less rewarding. With much fresh fruit in season, the palette of fruit and cheese ($9) arrived only with what most restaurants consider garnish: slices of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. My friend, a self-professed cheese snob, longed for a bleu, but aside from the cubes of Swiss and slices of edam, only the horseradish havarti piqued our interest.
Both of our brunch selections, corned beef hash and eggs ($9) and the Italian omelet ($10), fell flat. The three-egg omelet of provolone cheese, peppers and onions topped with marinara sauce lacked flavor, and the excessive cheese proved stringy. My hash was tasty, but looked no different than anything you could get at a local diner. My third visit proved just as lackluster.
With two months until the big reopening, Caf 36 has time to tweak things. Dishes can be pretty and interesting and flavorful. Service can be both professional and friendly.
Perhaps over time, Caf 36 will attain must-try status. But for now, it feels like a temporary exhibit. email@example.com
30 W. Dale St., 477-4377, csfineartscenter.org/cafe36.asp
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
10 percent discount for FAC members.