It is difficult to call something a hidden treasure when it sits in relatively plain sight. Yet Mona's Wine Cellar, a recent addition to the Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant, is a gem of a spot that has somehow managed to remain just below the radar of common knowledge.
It's not that this place is such a well-kept secret that only a select and privileged few know of its existence. After all, it sits right along the main drag in Manitou Springs, and diners who arrive early at the Mona Lisa upstairs are encouraged to enjoy a glass of wine in the Cellar. But for the general, non-fondue dining masses, Mona's remains untapped as a weekend social option.
Mona's entrance is just one door east of the main restaurant's entrance, on Manitou Avenue. A small flight of steps leads you down below street level to the door.
The space is cozy and has an air of old-world Europe. It has been nicely rehabbed, making wonderful use of the cellar's bare bones. Water pipes along the ceiling, which run the length of the room, have been painted a soothing plum color and are intricately lined with small white lights and faux grape vines. The exposed walls are textured, painted in warm but subtle dark tones of red. One of the main walls has been converted for wine storage, displaying bottles and casks of wine from floor to ceiling.
The atmosphere is welcoming and romantic. There is a dark wooden bar at the far end of the Cellar with three seats. About 10 small round tables for two, adorned with white linen tablecloths and white candles, make up the rest of the seating. Add to that the sounds of old jazz, Nat King Cole or Billie Holiday as you enter the candlelit room, and you have an atmosphere ripe for relaxing,
The wine list is extensive, with 22 different bottles of white and 48 red, from vineyards worldwide. Whether a novice or connoisseur, you will be absorbed in the seven pages of wine offerings and descriptions. Of the 70 wines, approximately 20 are available by the glass (9 white and 11 red). Prices per glass range from $7 to $11 for the whites, and $6 to $14 for the reds. Bottles begin at $26 and run the spectrum, all the way up to $350 for the legendary Penfolds Grange, the first Australian wine ever to be named the best red wine in the world by Wine Spectator magazine.
For the average wine drinker, however, Mona's Wine Cellar is quite user friendly, not to mention educational. Those who want to take full advantage of the wine bar's selections or venture away from their usual merlot can try Mona's different Flights (wine groupings). This is a great way to sample the wines and figure out which ones please the palate.
There are three Flights, each of which includes four or five different wines by the glass (either red or white) and depending on the grouping you choose, are priced at $7, $9 or $13 per glass. Any three wines within a particular Flight can be poured into one-third glasses. Charged as just one glass, it is an effective way to create your own affordable wine sampler.
A perfect compliment to any wine is, of course, a good cheese plate. Mona's has two: Dill havarti, Gorgonzola, sharp cheddar and Emmenthal Swiss ($7) and Roquefort, Port du Salut, Gruyre Swiss and brie ($10). Served with French bread, crackers and fruit, these plates easily accommodate two diners.
There are also four different types of cheese fondue from which to choose, including a seasonal specialty cheese. The Old World Cheese Fondue ($15), a blend of Emmenthal and Gruyre Swiss cheeses in a white wine base, has been my longtime favorite. It is not quite as rich as the New World Cheese, a blend of sharp cheddar and Emmenthal with a beer base ($14). All of the cheese fondues are accompanied by assorted European breads, pieces of sun-dried tomato bagels, vegetables and fruit, and are healthy in portion.
For a dessert option, the chocolate fondues are melted chocolate perfection. Served with macaroons, small chunks of cake, brownies, cookies, marshmallows and fruits for your dipping pleasure, choose from milk, dark or white chocolate fondue ($9/person). Raise the indulgence level a notch or three by blending your choice of chocolates and adding Kahlua, Irish Cream, Grand Marnier or other after dinner liquors ($10/person).
While there are plenty of wines on the menu that make a nice companion to chocolate, be sure to read through to the last page of the menu book where you will find a list of sparkling and dessert wines, including a few ports.
The wine selection and the fondue alone are compelling enough reasons to check out this place. Add to that the friendly and knowledgeable staff and an unpretentious atmosphere. Mona's Wine Cellar is a wonderfully ambient place to simply relax and indulge, whether by yourself or with a date or a few close friends.