It's been 50 years since Nicolas and Margaret Quint opened Woodland Park's Swiss Chalet with, according to Neil Levy, a simple menu of trout, sauerbraten, fried chicken and fondue.
Levy and his wife Paula took over in 1999, Neil having managed under the Chalet's second owners, Hanspeter and Birgitta Haas, since '91. It was the Haas family who expanded the mostly German menu into more of a "European continental" concept that remains the mainstay today.
Almost two years ago, Levy named former Marigold culinarian Mark Gagnier his executive chef, allowing him some flexibility with weekly changing chalkboard menus, specials, and the saucing and style of staple steak cuts and seafood.
I say some flexibility because items like the shrimp Dijonnaise appetizer ($13.50) haven't changed in more than 20 years, and Levy says his regulars would run him out of town if he pulled it from the menu. Served on a beautifully folded napkin nesting a clamshell, rather than a plate, four jumbo Gulf shrimp are drowned in a bubbly yellow curry-butter broth flecked with white onions. Easily likeable, but pricey for the portion.
To further illustrate what European continental looks like at the Chalet, the words "traditional" and "simple" come to mind. Levy confirms that we aren't talking about nouvelle cuisine — it's classique all the way.
Both our entrées one evening are as uncomplicated as high-level plating comes. Colorado lamb chops ($36.50) are delightfully charred and a masterful medium rare, bones directed skyward over mashed potatoes with baby asparagus resting wrinkled from the grill nearby, salt crystals glinting from their skin. A side of store-bought mint jelly (not needed) epitomizes safety in pairing, a disinclination to venture even toward, say, a mint pesto or gremolata or some spin for signature. Again, familiar territory.
But the lamb plate isn't bulletproof. The stalky ends of the asparagus haven't been nipped, forcing us to saw them off at the table, and the under-seasoned potatoes benefit greatly from a salt dusting and extra butter from our bread basket.
The extra-long asparagus also accompanies our Red Trout Amandine ($19.50), a thankfully flourless rendition (for my gluten-sensitive guest) with butter and almond slivers allowing the fish to do the majority of the sweet-talking over saffron rice.
Each entrée includes a soup or salad; the latter is perfectly tossed so no leaves are soggy, the house mustard-celery dressing showing up mainly as an elegantly faint, herbal aftertaste. The former this night is a hearty, winter-ready vegetable broth with duck and white beans.
Dinner concludes for us with an excellently prepared crème brûlée ($7.50), the caramelized sugar cap cracking on cue to reveal the vanilla-y custard.
At lunch, Swiss Chalet trends toward the more eclectic, with everything from fish tacos and a green chile burger to an Oriental chicken salad and Jager Schnitzel. Picked up to-go, our veal bratwurst ($10.75) and Reuben ($12.75) both justify their prices with ample portioning and side accoutrements.
Two brats splitting with hot juices command a tangled mess of tangy house sauerkraut made somewhat saltier and smokier by incorporated bacon slivers. Past a pickle spear and lettuce bed garnish, fantastically crispy potato wedges pick up more salt and meet a Dijon dip with as much gusto as the plump meat.
The Reuben ranks among the finest of its kind, led by an expertly thick-cut marble rye made locally by Colorado Bread Company. (Swiss Chalet also buys locally from Wimberger's Old World Bakery and Delicatessen, Barista Espresso and local markets in season.) Levy describes himself as a 60-year-old Jewish guy who grew up around true New York delis, thanks to family in the area, so he takes pride in dishing a fatty 8-ounce portion of thin-sliced corned beef over gooey Swiss cheese and more of that magic kraut, with a house Thousand Island rendition.
All the food's very fitting for the mountain cottage theme, with the building's decorative exterior embellishments, angular wood everywhere, ornate iron supports for the hefty overhead beams, a large stone fireplace and minimal kitsch. It's a more relaxed atmosphere than Levy's more upscale Pepper Tree restaurant off Eighth Street, where details such as silverware that's unpolished, spotty and not reset between courses (leaving our otherwise attentive server robbing from the neighboring table's setup) would surely cause more fuss.
But still, the Swiss Chalet remains undoubtedly Woodland Park's finest dining. Yes, it comes at a price, but when old reliable is what you want, you'll get it with the surety of foundational French aesthetics here.