We could've bought a plane ticket, a PlayStation 3 or five weeks of groceries. Instead, we ate at the Penrose Room.
And it was worth every dollar. How many places can serve a perfect caramel-and-cocoa-nib-crusted venison loin mounted above hazelnut spaetzle, roasted salsify and yellow foot chanterelles?
I ask that rhetorically, but one answer may be: 15. Out of close to 950,000 food outfits currently operating in the United States, only 15 currently hold both AAA's Five Diamond rating and Forbes (formerly Mobil) Travel Guide's Five Star rating.
The Penrose Room at The Broadmoor, added to the Forbes list for the first time late last year, is the only such place in Colorado. In fact, if you want another dining experience equal in caliber, your nearest stop will be Las Vegas.
As Forbes puts it, five stars go to restaurants that meet "the industry's highest standard for excellence in hospitality." It's not just hype. When a place delivers, it's truth. And beauty, and intoxication.
"What's in one more little star?" you might ask.
Neither I nor Monika, my Independent co-critic, had ever eaten at a Five Star or Five Diamond restaurant. We awaited our meal as we might await a vacation. We counted the days off our calendars, sent one another excited e-mails about our sure-to-be-orgiastic culinary affair, and dropped mentions of it to trusted friends and coworkers, shamelessly mining for jealousy.
Once we and the Indy committed to dropping a bundle of loot on one meal, we had to savor it. Otherwise, why bother?
We're well aware that the Penrose Room is prohibitively expensive for many. Because of that, we wrestled with the question of whether we should even do this story. To be honest, even when we made our reservation, we felt a little guilty, and a little like poseurs — dinghy captains renting a yacht for a day.
But put simply, we couldn't neglect reporting on a place this rare and special in our own backyard. Plus, we considered that everyone has a birthday, that most people honor anniversaries, and that special occasions such as military homecomings warrant beyond-the-norm celebrations. The Penrose Room — like any other restaurant — need not be apologetic for offering a high-end option, assuming it provides fair value.
Also, for what it's worth, you can dine à la carte and spend significantly less than you would in seeking the full Penrose experience. The same $100 that you'd drop at other local gourmet spots could still fill you up here.
Ambience to burn
Our evening began at The Broadmoor's main entrance, where a friendly valet, after being told our destination, encouraged us to have the hostess call down after our meal so that someone could bring our vehicle around, saving us a second walk in the cold.
After receiving wide smiles at the hostess stand, we were escorted to a comfortable back-wall booth that provided spectacular views of both the city skyline and the mountains through panoramic windows, framed at seated eye-level so as to provide an expansive and transportive feel.
A swarm of servers calmly sprung into action the moment we sat, placing our fine linens in our laps and offering cocktails and water options to accompany menu selection. The wine list ranges from $30 to a $4,500 bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2006.
Forty-five hundred dollars! I could buy a decent used car, or travel India for year ...
We paused to appreciate the table setting itself. Plate-silencing pads under a thick gold tablecloth ("more sedate and calming than shocking white," says maître d' Duane Thompson) lent the whole surface a softness. Coarse-grain Hawaiian red Alaea sea salt accompanied a pepper grinder, a small, electric table candle and fresh flowers. A decorative "charger plate" sat before each of us, topped with a silencing napkin and small round plate that awaited its sole function of receiving the amuse bouche, a tiny, pre-meal gift from the chef.
Tables stretched out from our section toward a small dance floor that several older couples would occupy throughout our meal. The Penrose Room Trio with Lila Mori maintained a perfect volume, capable of being whispered over from our distance.After 16 years, Mori has her role down cold.
"I made up my mind a long time ago — this gig's not about me," Mori later tells me by phone. "It's about the guests and making sure they have a wonderful dining experience, that all the way around it's a magical night for them. ... I don't want to intrude on their evening. I want to enhance it if I can."
Our primary server, Jeffry Morgan, a middle-aged yet baby-cheeked man who seemed born for the part, appeared and guided us expertly as we selected two appetizers, a single entrée and dessert. (Four-course meals cost $78 each, plus $45 each for wine pairings.) Hands clasped behind him, he wore a relaxed smile that conveyed a genuine warmth. Even at the highest level of dining, it seems people can be more personable than the stiff butlers from television stereotypes.
Moments after our menus disappeared, our sommelier, a glowing young wealth of wine knowledge named Wendi Walk, stopped by to gauge our tastes and to begin strategizing our meal pairings.
Being a sommelier at a five-star demands knowledge far beyond rule-of-thumb wine shop advice. Walk started as a back server in the Penrose Room five years ago, then climbed the ladder at The Broadmoor's trendy Summit restaurant while the Penrose underwent renovations (aimed at earning the fifth star). After passing the prestigious Court of Masters' introductory sommelier course three years ago, she began wine service. In 2008, she completed the second level of four, and is currently studying for the third.
"The exciting thing about our list," she says, "is being at The Broadmoor, we're able to get wines that other restaurants aren't able to, not just super-expensive ones. When people come in and want to spend about $65, I can point them to at least four different wines that will blow them away."
Though Morgan and Walk would be our main companions through the evening, they'd have help. Waiters here synchronize plate drops so that entire tables, even 10-tops, receive their food at the same moment. A black jacket-clad crew will file out of the kitchen doors behind the dance floor, aiming like an ant line toward a table. After encircling it, each server will delicately drop the plate, then stand at attention, with one hand still on the old-fashioned, silver-domed plate cover. When all eyes have met and a silent count expires, they all whisk the lids skyward with a dramatic, "Voilà!"
To some extent, the scene is campy. But like having "Happy Birthday" sung to you, the exaggerated scene makes you feel special. Or, if you're Monika, it inspires you to clap your appendages wildly in front of your chest, like a seal at Sea World, and to squeal in delight.
Back of the house
The epicurean assault started with three dominant flavors: fennel, pumpkin spice and slightly salty fat. A tiny, rectangular, three-compartment plate brought a cold pumpkin soup thimble, a thin spread of duck confit inside a quarter-sized tomato puff pastry, and a diminutive rectangle of fennel panna cotta. Or, as Monika did, you could just call them "flashes of genius."
Just as the aromatic fennel burst through the scantly sweet, gelatinous cream (typically, panna cotta is a dessert item) the confit felt as if it brought three times its mass in richness, and the pumpkin spice remained suspended in perfect balance with the puréed texture.
If we'd stopped there, we'd have already had a feel for what chef de cuisine Bertrand Bouquin brings to The Broadmoor. The French-born 39-year-old, who passed his four-year mark here in October, is a master of utility, economy and simplicity. (Not to mention juggling, as he's also responsible for running the Summit kitchen.)
Four years' experience leading Cincinnati's Maisonette restaurant — which, until its closure in 2005, enjoyed the longest ongoing Five-Star status at 41 years — has clearly served him well. As has cooking since age 16 across fine restaurants in Europe, under celebrated chefs like Alain Ducasse.
Speaking to Bouquin by phone a week after our meal, he touches on his core philosophy through a thick French accent: "Seventy-five percent of time, it's not so much what we do to [the food] that makes it taste so good, it's what those ingredients can bring to us," he says. "Like the fennel for the panna cotta, or the pumpkin, it's just, they are treated in a simple way. ... I believe a lot in 'less is more' as far as cooking goes."
Bouquin slowly seduces the senses, sometimes with a single, stark essence, other times with a careful, harmonious fusion of flavors.
Consider the kalamata olive mashed potato purée that accompanied Monika's spinach-and-smoked-bacon-stuffed Colorado lamb entrée. Not content with the olive purée he purchases, Bouquin will dehydrate it, then grind it to a powder. Then he'll reconstitute it with extra virgin olive oil to create a black oil to add to the starch. Think about it: When he's done, not even the natural water remains in the olives. It's nothing but the pure essence of olive.
"It's a way to reinforce the flavor," he explains. "Just like you would reduce some wine to get it stronger."
So it's not really just food you get at the Penrose Room. It's superfood.
Considering that expounding upon each of our courses at length would send you into a food coma (minus the fabulous meal), I'll instead touch upon some highlights.
Firstly, Monika's pan-seared foie gras (an $8 upcharge) with rhubarb compote in hazelnut milk was simply an unctuous luxury, melt-on-the-tongue delicate with a tiny crunch of ground hazelnut for very deliberate texture. Walk poured us both a German Riesling for that course, and its sweet effervescence cut through the foie gras' fat beautifully.
I had ordered a six-part tasting of appetizers (also an $8 upcharge) — a challenge, Walk admits, for a sommelier to pair with so many flavors. But Riesling, she says, is big enough to go with almost anything while not being so complex that it overwhelms any one taste.
"That's the big thing," she says. "You always want the food to be the feature."
On my spread: a goat cheese salad, Maine lobster salad Niçoise, rabbit salad confit, a cut of squab (young pigeon), seared rare Ahi tuna, and a cauliflower and roasted apple soup. Each soared in its own way, with subtle surprises elevating the flavors. For example, a tiny wedge of lemon gelée found with the tuna added a sudden burst of pleasant acidity. Bouquin, seeking a more intense floral citrus character than he can get from domestic lemons, sources yuzu juice from Japan for it.
After the first round of apps came the bisque.
Oh. My. God.
Generous, sinewy crab hunks in a perfectly smooth, divine sherry-fortified cream swirled with black trumpet (mushroom) coulis. It's a recipe Bouquin debuted at Maisonette, and he anchors it with blue crab sourced from a small, family-owned business out of Chesapeake Bay.
I would have stolen more than the final few spoonfuls, but I was occupied by an amazing and delicate truffle gnocchi mixed with Louisiana crawfish and a lovely French Rosé.
After Monika's lamb and my venison, both unique and wonderful, we worked into an interesting frozen gingerbread parfait with orange port marmalade, meringue crumble and a chestnut whipped cream. Monika gushed over a 1979 Spanish PX Sherry that was matched to her stunning Chocolate Symphony: a trio of Venezuelan chocolate mint ice cream, Caribbean chocolate lime parfait and Ivory Coast chocolate rum pot de crème.
When it was over, we could do nothing but inhale deeply and flash smiles of pure ecstasy.
We took the last of our dessert wine into the bar and lounge area and disappeared into fancy high-back seats.
Our conversation turned to capturing the orgiastic feast without sounding like I'd been indoctrinated by a Broadmoor PR person. Could I actually employ words like "sublime" and "transcendent"?
I've decided to say just this: You can truly feel the fifth star. Not just in the food, but also the service and minute details.
For instance, when we asked Walk to write down the wines we drank, she returned moments later with his and hers menus slipped into a souvenir folder. On its cover, a man in a tux and a woman in a red dress slow-dance on a stone bridge, moonlight glistening off the river below. Simple elegance, and a keepsake I will return to, if only to shamelessly gloat to fellow foodies.
When I ask Bouquin how it feels to have the fifth star now that he's had time to digest the honor, he says, "It feels good, of course, but at the same time, we've raised guests' expectations. ... We must work even harder than before."
Indeed, they must earn their diamonds and stars annually, in the eyes of both customers and judges; they'll be secret-shopped with exhausting checklists by AAA and Forbes again sometime this year. But Bouquin says they don't let the pressure stress them out too much.
"In the end of the day, it's only food," he says. "I'm not a brain surgeon, I don't save lives or anything like that. I'm just cooking. I do it because I love doing it and I have fun doing it. That's it."
And it shows.
The meal that wasHis
A Tasting of Penrose Room Appetizers:
Cauliflower Soup with Roasted Apple
Warm Goat Cheese Salad
Terrine of Squab
Seared Rare Ahi Tuna
Maine Lobster Salad Niçoise
Rabbit Salad Confit
Paired with: Monchof, Riesling, Mosef, Germany 2007
Louisiana Crawfish with Truffle Gnocchi
Fava Bean and Proscuitto Fricassée
Paired with: Jean Luc Columbo, Cape Blue Rosé, Syrah/Mouvedre, Provence, France 2007
Loin of Venison with Cocoa Bean Crust
Hazelnut Spaetzle, Roasted Salsify and Yellow Foot Chanterelles
Paired with: Marramiero, "Dama," Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Italy 2006
Frozen Gingerbread Parfait
Orange Port Marmalade, Meringue Crumble with Chestnut Whipped Cream
Paired with: Kracher, Beerenauslese, Cuvée, Burgenland, Austria
Pan Seared Foie Gras with Rhubarb Compote and Asian Pepper
Hazelnut Milk, Young Celery Leaves
Paired with: Monchof, Riesling, Mosef, Germany 2007
Dungeness Crabmeat Bisque
Black Trumpet Coulis
Paired with: Comtes Lafon, "Les Heritiers," Chardonnay, Maconnais, Burgundy, France 2006
Tenderloin of Colorado Lamb Stuffed with Spinach and Smoked Bacon
Kalamata Olive Purée, Thumbelina Carrots, Baby Artichoke, Piquillo Pepper
Paired with: Telmo Rodriguez, "Dehesa Gago," Tempranillo, Toro, Spain 2007
A Chocolate Symphony:
Ivory Coast Chocolate Rum Pot de Crème, Pure Caraibe Chocolate Lime Parfait
Venezuelan Chocolate Mint Ice Cream
Paired with: Don Toro Albala, PX Sherry, 1979 Reserva, Cordova, Spain