Act Two 

So good they just had to grow

Last year was a good one for anyone who loves good food in Colorado Springs. At the far south end of downtown, in the old Jack In the Box building, an elegant tea room called Sencha popped up, serving delectable tapas in a lovely jewel-toned room. And at the intersection of Hwy. 115 and S. Academy, hidden behind the new Safeway, Piemonte, a gourmet Italian pasta shop and deli opened its doors.

Many of us quickly became regulars at one or both -- so many, it seems, that both shops have now blossomed into full-blown restaurants serving lunch and dinner six days a week.

At Sencha, the transformation was inevitable. From the beginning, owner Dorelle Raab-Peters held a trump card in her excellent chef, Brent Beavers. Beavers, who came to Sencha from La Petite Maison, has flourished in an environment that allows him to experiment with fresh ingredients and an adventurous clientele.

This summer, lunch at Sencha became one of downtown's favorite indulgences. Hot weather and traffic headaches were immediately cured by the cool entrees being dished up at Sencha. My favorite was the Summer Sencha Salad ($8.50), a generous plate heaped with a colorful melange of greens, pea shoots, strawberries, walnuts and Brie, drizzled with a honeydew melon vinaigrette. Even crab cakes ($9.95), which had been standard at Sencha since their opening, were summerized, served atop a cucumber and strawberry salad with a light sesame dressing. And lunch was made complete by the excellent citrus green iced tea -- as refreshing as it sounds.

Dinner at Sencha has proven to be equally as delightful. The menu includes some old favorites that used to appear on the tapas menu and are now served in larger portions. I was relieved to see that my personal favorite, Seared Sea Scallops ($17.50) served on potato pancakes with a sweet, yellow curry sauce is now officially a dinner entre.

The Colorado Lamb du jour ($18) on a recent visit was a plate of lean, rare loin chops perfectly prepared and served with potatoes and lightly grilled summer vegetables. But the best dinner I've had was the chef's special a couple weeks back -- a fat slab of sockeye salmon, grilled and slathered with a delicious peach/green chile salsa. The fish was fresh and moist, not grilled to death and the salsa was a dance on the old tastebuds. The side dishes -- a nutty rice and quinoa pilaf, and grilled summer vegetables -- were equally as good and perfectly complemented the sweet-hot salsa.

The regular dinner menu also offers a buffalo flank steak ($18), organic Colorado pork chop with marsala mushroom butter ($16.95), roasted duck with a cranberry red curry glaze ($21), jumbo shrimp over caramelized plantains with mango salsa ($18), Sencha's excellent crab cakes ($9.95), a daily fish special and a vegetable stirfry in a sesame orange sauce ($9.95). The house salad is one of the best I've ever had anywhere -- organic greens tossed with apples, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, and dressed with a delicate green tea dressing ($8.95).

Sencha has a very nice, carefully chosen wine menu with ten or so good by-the-glass choices, and this summer they've hosted two wine tastings featuring the wines of Italy and Australia. On Sept. 19, they'll serve eight French wines alongside Chef Beavers' very ambitious menu -- house smoked trout, stuffed true cod, mushroom stuffed grilled quail, tournedos of Colorado beef tenderloin with a chasseur sauce and crme brle. The cost is $60 per person and you are advised to reserve early as seating is limited.

Just south of the booming Tinseltown/World Arena section of town, Piemonte has blossomed in its little corner of the brick and asphalt shopping center that houses a new Safeway. Rossano Bossi, native of Torino, is a warm, knowledgeable and affable host who makes all of his guests feel at home. The shop is small and warmly packed with imported sauces and pastas, Rossano's fragrant homemade rosemary and olive breads, a deli case with specialty meats, cheeses and antipasti, and a tall refrigerator case of pre-prepared tortellinis, raviolis and homemade sauces to take home.

The dining area, first opened just for lunch, then opened on Fridays and Saturdays for a fixed price multicourse dinner, is now open for lunch and dinner most days of the week. Eight pasta dishes are served daily, and at lunch Rossano's excellent Italian sandwiches on fresh focaccia are featured. My favorite is the Torino ($7.95) -- slices of roasted red pepper and smoked mozzarella are topped with pesto and aged balsamic vinegar.

The dinner menu features eight pasta dishes (most at $10.95) and three meat dishes ($12.95-$16.95), as well as the multicourse dinner ($21.95 per person).

I tried Manzo Piemonte, tender medallions of roast beef, smothered in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce served with a long slice of grilled polenta and salad, and was completely satisfied. Rossano's sauces are the real thing, rich and beautifully composed. This one was enhanced with crushed walnuts and abundant with mushrooms.

Piemonte will be closed for most of the month of September when Rossano will take a holiday in Italy. The good news is that when he returns, he will finally have a liquor license and will be able to demonstrate his vast knowledge of Italian wines alongside dinner.


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