Although the population of Colorado Springs has moved steadily east over the past decade, its culinary center of gravity has moved decidedly west. Old buildings and young blood have combined in Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City to produce a slew of the best dining experiences in the region.
Among the forces pulling your stomach toward the foothills of Pikes Peak is The Cliff House, lovingly restored in 1997 after a fire and 16 years of abandonment. Behind balanced flavors, meticulous execution and impeccable service, executive chef Scott Savage has brought the dining room's updated continental cuisine to a level of excellence that matches the building's exterior beauty.
The dining room's "modern Victorian" dcor, with muted white walls, lightly upholstered chairs and an inviting fireplace, seems a bit dated, but it doesn't diminish the experience. On first perusal, the menu matches the interior: Classic continental preparations, including Wellington and Oscar, dominate the menu. A closer look at the descriptions, however, reveals modern sensibilities and a creative touch.
The carpaccio features lean buffalo meat kissed with truffle oil, tiny potato crisps, herb crostini and a ball of fried goat cheese. Each bite packs big flavor, yet remains light.
Crab cakes and honey-smoked trout salad are equally good openers. Four silver-dollar nuggets of crusty crab are complemented by a delightful red pepper fondue. A very light vinaigrette allows the trout to shine in front of sweet greens, with tiny apple chips adding a perfect crunch. Only the blandly dressed Caesar salad, with an airplane-esque hard roll, fail to impress.
The main courses, most of which range from $20 to $30, kept me smiling. Sweet and dense meat from the hefty cold-water lobster tail revels in warm drawn butter. Cioppino, although severely misnamed, delivers a bounty of shellfish suspended in a creamy, fennel-spiked bisque. An island timbale of bamboo rice unites the components, with its perfume acting as a liaison between fennel and fish.
The kitchen earned my utmost respect in bringing a crown of pork to a bare medium. The cut, really a nice double chop, comes surrounded in a light dijon cream sauce and wild mushrooms. Again, flavors sing as the sauce brings the sweet pork into harmony with the brooding mushrooms.
My friends know I almost never order steak at a restaurant, but I couldn't resist the chateaubriand. Topping out at more than 3 inches high, this signature cut arrives dead perfect, mid-rare from top to bottom. The beef sits on a sinfully rich gastrique, with black truffle butter slowly melting down the sides. Roasted asparagus, carrots and three kinds of potatoes complete the classic presentation.
Though portions are large, and some a bit heavy, make sure to save room for dessert. The house cheesecake souffl is remarkably light, while delicious pumpkin panna cotta features a homemade Madeleine cookie and a bright red cranberry coulis. The dessert risotto is a masterpiece, with baked apple compote in a tuile cup, a cylinder of dense rice pudding, caramel sauce and cardamom ice cream.
The Cliff House's staff matches the food's grace. Without intruding at all, our server magnified the enjoyment of both visits with friendly descriptions of the food and excellent suggestions. The sommeliers know every inch of the extensive wine list, which has deep roots in France (try the '96 Chambolle-Musigny), California and Portugal.
From front to back, The Cliff House clearly is at the top of its game.
-- David Torres-Rouff
The Cliff House
306 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs, 785-2415
Hours: Breakfast, 6:30-10:30 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner, 5:30-9 p.m. daily.