Fine dining still thriving at Walter's Bistro

It's been a tough six months for high-end restaurants in Colorado Springs. Primitivo closed last summer, citing parking challenges. Joe Coleman has closed his Cerulean Grill, promising a return in another guise. Even the mastery of Chef Paul Jensen couldn't keep the under-advertised Old City going; given Chef Paul's talent and energy, that's the biggest shame of all.

How nice, then, to report that at least one old friend is thriving. Walter's Bistro, opened in May 1999, is more popular than ever despite changes in the kitchen. The original chef, Marcus Giuliano, has left and the Colorado Springs restaurant scene is the poorer for his departure. Ryan Blanchard, the current chef, may not be as involved as was Marcus in the local Chef's Collaborative but he is as talented, having worked at the Cliff House previously. The menu at Walter's Bistro is as ambitious and the food as exquisite as always.

Entree choices are weighted toward meat dishes; appetizers swing the balance toward seafood. A vegetarian would probably go home hungry (or gorge on desserts, a happy alternative). Starters include mussels, crab cakes, tuna spring roll and mushroom crepes, all prepared delicately. The mussels are enveloped in a saffron broth; crab cakes are accompanied by a corn salsa and a homemade aioli with a little chipotle kick. The mushroom crepes were a yin-yang balance of light wrapper and a rich earthy mushroom filling, counterbalanced by the mild Madeira cream sauce on which the crepes were arranged.

The not-to-be-missed appetizer (other than the seared yellow fin tuna roll) is Walter's signature Lobster Bisque. It's not just flavored with lobster; it's full of lobster. And it's impossible for me to go to Walter's without someone at the table getting the bisque. The good news: It's available at lunchtime as well. Lobster works its subtle way into several entrees, a happy result, perhaps, of Chef Ryan's New England training.

Salads are often afterthoughts; not so at Walter's. I especially recommend the Arugula and Prosciutto Salad with a citrusy vinaigrette, and the Spinach Salad -- baby leaves so perfect one would think they were picked individually, lightly dressed with a warm bacon vinaigrette. A side dollop of goat cheese lightly crusted in crushed walnuts works brilliantly as a taste and texture counterpoint in ways that the slice of Brie that came with the mushroom crepes didn't.

I love an entree list that presents tough decisions; I gauge the inventiveness of a chef by how long it takes to choose. It took us a very long time. Sure, rack of lamb, sea bass, scallops and filet are available all over town, but nowhere are these "standard" dishes prepared with as much grace and attention to accompaniments.

Arctic char is grilled and served over a lobster risotto. The complexity of the fish -- its color and flavor suggestive of salmon, its texture more like trout -- is wonderfully balanced by the creamy risotto. Small bits of lobster also appear in a lobster and Portobello ravioli upon which the Chilean sea bass was served. The bass, sadly, was the only sour note to our meal. The wilted greens were delicious; the ravioli was wonderful; the texture of the fish, however, was a little mushy. By all accounts (and a conversation with owner Walter Iser), this was an anomaly.

Despite the elegance of many dishes, Walter's Bistro has stayed true to its traditional bistro offerings. The roasted chicken with garlic cream sauce is a dish to write home about, the perfect meal for a cold Colorado evening. The rack of lamb, cut into chops artfully arranged, comes with braised red cabbage and a zingy horseradish mustard jus. By far our table's favorite, however, was the pork tenderloin. Tender beyond belief, it came with a bread pudding redolent with blue cheese, and small roasted beets. The textures and flavors on the plate blended brilliantly.

Walter's Bistro has also stayed true to the Chef's Collaborative commitment to local produce, Colorado meats and sustainable fish from specialty purveyors. Major menu changes occur about every four months; smaller changes are constant, depending on availability of fresh ingredients.

Prices are quite reasonable: appetizers and salads range from $5 to $12; entrees from $19 to $29. The wine list, despite being only two pages, offers a great variety in terms of vineyard and price. Even the by-the-glass selection is pretty good.

Throughout our dinner we kept catching glances of the white-shirted wait staff whisking about with a pastry tray. We almost swooned when our time came to see it close up. Our waiter's veneer of Gallic reserve finally cracked when he saw our mouths agape. He smiled, and applauded our decision to try the crme brle and the Chocolate Lava Cake.

The brle was fabulous but paled into insignificance next to the Lava Cake. Imagine a souffl without its dish. With the first puncture of the fork, molten chocolate oozed like Kilauea. Although all our dishes had been beautifully presented, this dessert was the prizewinner: a square white plate; a deep chocolate cake in one quadrant; dollops of crme anglaise with swirls of orange in three corners. Simply gorgeous.

Lunch items are less expensive and less expansive. Dinner items like the lemon sole, rib-eye steak and pork tenderloin appear at lunchtime but in simpler preparations. There are lots of salads (I recommend the Salmon Nicoise) and a small variety of sandwiches.

So all is well at Walter's Bistro, as close to a neighborhood restaurant as 8th Street can get. The space is still a bit sterile, the acoustics still a little troubling. Once the food arrives, however, nobody notices or cares.

Speaking of Walter's Bistro


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