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Virtual Virtuosity 

In search of wild game at the Black Bear Restaurant

We dined in a parallel universe last week. It started with a drive to Green Mountain Falls and ended with a tumble through cyberspace.

The Black Bear Restaurant is the back half of a rustic log building; Pike's Pub fills the front. It's in a comfortable room with rough hewn log walls, wagon wheel chandeliers, and a massive stone fireplace. And since 1999, it has been under new ownership, touting its wild game menu. Why any sensible carnivore craving wild game would drive past the Craftwood Inn is beyond me, but it was an assignment so we headed up the Pass.

As the only diners there, we were given the best fireside spot in the house on this snowy evening, and serenaded by two talented musicians playing Celtic tunes. Eventually more diners arrived, and a drunk tottered in from the bar to request "Danny Boy," but all told, it was a slow night.

The menu had two parts, the Winter Menu, available in both the bar and the dining room, and the Wild Game Menu; there were a few additional specials written on a chalkboard. Appetizers, called Starters on the Winter Menu were standard pub fare with pub prices of $4.50 to $6.50: chicken wings, fried mushrooms, buffalo chili. Entrees, priced from $6.95 to $15.95, were fairly standard: buffalo burger, ribs, chicken fried steak, a couple of pasta dishes, prime rib and, hey, this sounds interesting, Honey and Herb Roasted Quail. Alas, they were out of quail. No problem, I thought, the Wild Game Menu sounded better anyway.

A stew of Red Deer (which we are told on the chatty menu "was the Royal Deer of England that Robin Hood was arrested for hunting"), Nilgai Antelope (which we are told "is native to the sparse brush of India" and hence prepared in a curry cream sauce), tournedos of Colorado Elk ("a large and majestic beast"), Wild Boar ("straight from the rustling underbrush of the Texas panhandle") and Buffalo round out this portion of the night's offering. I ordered the Wild Boar. They were out of that, too.

This was a troubling trend. The meager wine selection, also written on a chalkboard, was dwindling too. We got the last bottle of Cottonwood Cellars Merlot, possibly the only drinkable wine made in Colorado.

My dining pals fared better, all their choices were available, and we settled in to a round robin of prime rib, buffalo burger, ribs, a mixed grill sampler, a lamb special, and a bowl of corned beef and potato stew, nominally flavored with stout. The lamb, delicate chops redolent with a coriander reduction, and the meltingly tender ribs were standouts. The stew was rich and hearty, the mixed sampler had generous portions of four different meats, and the prime rib was juicy. The table held a few flaws: the burger was overdone, the vegetables with the lamb were mushy, and the wild rice pilaf that accompanied the prime rib seemed to have been seasoned with Liquid Smoke.

What then impelled me to check out the web site for the Black Bear Restaurant a day or so later? On this photo-heavy (and Capital Letter-heavy) site we are told that "Often the Chef offers an Amenity: a simple complimentary starter just to welcome his guests. In this case we have Red Caviar Crostini with Fresh Thyme and Honey Mascarpone." It looked terrific. But hold on; we had started with dinner rolls, puffy and soft.

The pictures kept loading. An artfully arranged Asparagus and Artichoke Salad. A colorful Smoked Lobster and Truffle Bisque, "Accented by Fire-Roasted Roma Tomatoes and Fresh Cream." Next was a gorgeous triumph of culinary architecture called a Blue Marlin Martini, morsels of fish in a martini glass "served ceviche style with Fresh Citrus Cilantro, Vodka and Peppers." Wow. Yummy. On and on I wandered, farther down the path of We Wuz Robbed. Wild Mushroom Risotto made with crimini, portobello and chanterelle mushrooms, a far cry from our sad little pilaf. Filet Mignon Margherita with Grilled Beefsteak Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Caramelized Mozzarella and Roasted Garlic Bordelaise sounded a bit more inventive than our prime rib. And for dessert, forget the standard apple pie we were served. How does Bananas Mozambique with Homemade Cardamom Yogurt sound?

They're not even in the same league. Could the chef who created these virtual dishes have been the journeyman who put a ribeye steak on the real menu? It was a moment of complete sensory dissonance, followed immediately by regret. Why weren't these dishes and others listed as from "the Chef's Continually Changing Menus" coming out of that kitchen? That would get me back up Ute Pass.

And so, I encourage a visit to the Web site. But as with so many aspects of our Brave New Wired World, be forewarned. What you see is not necessarily what you'll get. Call ahead and see what's on the menu the night you go.

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