Walter's Bistro is a product of its environment. Three country clubs and The Broadmoor sit nearby, and a mountain of wealth looms overhead. As with Carlos' Bistro and Joseph's Fine Dining — other pricey spots run by men who rose through the ranks over decades to realize their own dreams — most of Walter's regulars need not shift the Beamer out of neutral when coasting downhill to dinner. Those folks don't flinch at a $42 sea bass entrée, nor would they bemoan that a mint sauce hawks tonight's Colorado lamb rack special.
Why would they? It's familiar, comfortable and predictable after 16 years.
Why do I? Because lamb with mint is a peanut-butter-and-jelly-safe pairing that says almost everything you need to know about the restaurant's ponderous fine-dining atmosphere and formal service. Classical French formulas clearly buttress the foundations, and the truly delicious quad-berry beurre blanc (misspelled on the menu) underlying the new $28 cedar-plank-baked salmon acts as about the flashiest of treatments.
But chef Jonathan Dolecki, who replaced Sean Gibbons a few months ago, says he's infusing contemporary touches. Walter Iser has tasked him to do just that, and to draw the younger food enthusiasts of our area. So the Le Cordon Bleu Chicago grad, who since worked for Bon Appétit, McCormick & Schmick's, and Old Chicago, says he enjoys creative freedom on the menu.
Dolecki has already moved to buying all his non-seafood meats from in-state; the seafood comes quickly via Seattle Fish Co. Also commendable: By next month, he believes, he'll be within 90 miles on his produce procurement too, even in winter, via a farm-to-market handler called FreshPoint produce. All this, and he says prices have actually dropped on many menu items.
Wine-braised short ribs command a fair $22, exuding fine natural flavors though they're a little tough and chewy. For a couple $10 cocktails, that salmon and those ribs, plus an $8 crème brulée — lacking the advertised thyme-infusion flavors, bearing a sad scrambled-egg texture, and with what we're sure is Hershey's garnish despite chocolate ganache made in-house for other desserts — we're out the door for $100, post-tip. Not too bad for fine dining, and certainly better than our splurge-less $75 lunch.
On both visits, we sit on the four-table front patio, cheerlessly carpeted in brown and lacking any inviting décor beyond a couple of heavy, goblet-style cast-stone planters. I don't recommend sitting out there at night, as a dim, gross green party light overhead turns on, transporting you to the cold palette of a Michael Mann movie set and confusing all the colors of your food.
By day, though, a braised beet salad pops with ruby root hues and mandarin orange segments. It again steers conventional with an obvious goat cheese pairing, but is crisp and delicious with balsamic bite. Bangs Island blue mussels receive a traditional white-wine-butter broth flecked with rough-minced garlic and shallots that cling to dips of delightful house-baked bread rolls. Even if nothing new, they're well executed and as fresh as we get.
Fish tacos tread the most modern territory, their clever, crisp wonton shells tucked within place-holding dollops of avocado mousse and hosting baked cod coated in a piquant Sriracha remoulade. Napa slaw with nice tang and bite complements the spice, and only a tough, rubbery texture on the fish diminishes the experience. Well, that and the inexplicable $16 price tag.
Which leaves us with those cocktails, uniformly unbalanced and unimpressive. A pineapple margarita offends at first taste, boozy up front, viscous in the middle and finishing like a can of pineapple juice that belongs back in a hotel-room mini bar. In the Smokey [sic] Martini, the described scotch "swirl" must mean a rinse — it fails to appear, leaving the drinker with a tall glass of Tito's vodka and a lemon twist.
The sweet vermouth out-guns the bourbon in our Manhattan. A citrus vodka thankfully tones down the peach schnapps in the peach-rosemary martini, but the rosemary simple syrup lacks potency, and a fresh sprig needs a fire kiss to open the aromatics.
It's these types of refinements across the menu that'll be critical. To keep adventurous foodies from making Denver drives, Dolecki needs to think beyond typical meat-starch-veg plates and go for more of the unexpected ingredient marriages. Though he pins some classics, and hints at boundary-pushing with, say, maple cream on a pork chop and Tandoori cream on a halibut — neither of which our server highlighted when asked about new dishes — I could eat for the same cost at the Summit at The Broadmoor, and get much more culinary pizazz.
If other elite "third places" can do it, so can Walter's. At least Walter says so. And for his restaurant to be relevant, he needs it to be so.